Around the World in Religious Traditions


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Packing for the hereafter just got easier. According to a Chinese tradition, when a person dies, mourners should burn replicas of household items so the deceased can enjoy these in the afterlife. The hope is that if the dead are appeased with burnt offerings, their ghosts will refrain from haunting the living. But like many traditions, this one has evolved to reflect the times. Today, it's not uncommon to see mourners burning paper replicas of cars, laptops, credit cards, iPods, Louis Vuitton handbags, or even bottles of Viagra!


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For members of the Sufi Mawlawi order, pondering the nature of life can literally make your head spin. As part of the Sema ceremony, these "Whirling" Dervishes meditate by twirling in circles, an act that's meant to bring them closer to Allah. But don't mistake the spinning for carefree fun. In order to perform the centuries-old ritual, each dancer must undergo 1,001 days of training in seclusion during which they study music, poetry, and Sufi prayers. The clothing is also distinct; participants wear white gowns that flare out like poodle skirts, and they can twirl in ecstasy for hours.


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Every year during the Feast of St. Joseph, the Gothic town of Valencia, Spain lights up with bonfires and fills with billows of smoke. It's all part of Las Fallas, a five-day festival in March that ends with revelers setting fire to hundreds of enormous papier-mâché sculptures. The elaborate falla figures can be more than 50 feet tall and can cost as much as $75,000 to build. But the people don't mind charring all the fruits of that labor. Many of the sculptures depict unpopular politicians and celebrities, and burning them is a sort of public catharsis.


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The people of Solapur, India drop babies like they're hot. Every year for the past 500 years, a priest has stood on top of the shrine and dropped infants -hundreds of them- onto a white sheet 50 feet below. Friends and family members hold onto the blanket with the hope that the ritual will bring good luck and good health. The babies are all under age 2, and according to event organizers, not one has ever been hurt. Perhaps more amazing is that fact that the tradition crosses religious lines; Muslims and Hindus alike participate in the ceremony.


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On the Greek island of Chios, two rival Orthodox churches in the small town of Vrontados celebrate Easter Sunday by lighting up the sky with fireworks and bombarding each other's church bells with colorful rockets.

The islanders, who find beauty in the vibrant warfare, prepare for the event by boarding up church windows and covering the cathedrals in protective wire mesh. Then, on Easter night, congregants pack into their respective churches to attend Mass -which is usually rendered inaudible by the sound of fireworks. But when the church bells strike at midnight, the friendly fire halts. Keeping the tradition alive means that the people of Vrontados occasionally risk injury to wayward firecrackers. Still, local are proud of the tourist-attracting tradition and are hesitant to curb the festivities.


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Being hardheaded isn't often a compliment, but might but a prerequisite for religious devotion in southern India. Once a year, priests at the Veerapathiran Samy temple, located in the state of Tamil Nadu, break open thousands of coconuts by smashing them on devotee's heads. Participants (who are required to be 18 or older) willingly offer their skulls as a way to thank the Hindu goddess Lakshmi for their good fortunes. The ceremony isn't always successful, though. Those who get injured by the hard-shelled fruit are often told they are being punished by the gods for not being devout enough. Still, priests claim that t and far between, and the ceremony draws thousands of headstrong participants each year.


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Anyone whose ever strapped a rope to their ankle and jumped off a bridge owes a debt to the people of Pentecost Island, the birthplace of bungee jumping. Between April and June, young men tie vines to their ankles and dive headfirst off a 75-foot tower, as crowds dance and sing below. And while the strength of the tether is vital to this South Pacific coming-of-age ceremony, it's the length that's more important. The vines are carefully measured so that the young man's heads graze the ground -0an act that supposedly blesses the soil for the upcoming yam season. But the system isn't perfect, and casualties abound. In fact, it's traditional for divers to relay their affections to loved ones the day before jumping.


The article by Chellis Ying is reprinted from Scatterbrained section of the May- June 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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