Tell me about partying during a procession of 8 km, in the heat of 40 degrees celsius, in a semi anthropological study of religion, and photographing the pushy crowds for four hours. That was me working during the Lavagem do Bonfim, in Salvador, Brazil.
Lavagem is the Portuguese word for washing, and Bonfim is one of the major churches in the city. The festivity is a yearly gathering of one million people in a procession towards the church, and upon arriving there, people wash the steps and deliver prayers for the new year. It is a type of syncretism in Salvador. For those who stopped to think about what does syncretism mean, it is the fusion between two religions and people celebrate by both praising deities. In this case, it is Catholicism, brought to Brazil by the Portuguese during colonization, and Candomble, brought with the African slaves which praises the god Oxalá (based on the Yoruba religion).
The second largest festivity in Salvador after Carnaval, the Lavagem gathers around one million people. It started as a preparation for the closing day of Three Kings festivities. The Portuguese would put together the church by cleaning and decorating it, with flowers and perfumes made at the terreiros (squares) from plants like orange leaves, basil, and lavender. And the African slaves were, well, involuntarily called to help. Already forced into adopting Catholicism, the slaves had their way around and could use it to celebrate their own deity as well, Oxalá. I believe the Portuguese colonizers compared to the Spanish had quite a tolerance for other religions, and Salvador today would not have such an African presence otherwise, and Afro-Brazilian culture would not be so widespread.
This event happens every second Thursday in January. The procession consists of women dressed as baianas with turbans, bracelets and wide white dresses. They carry pots of flowers and jars with perfume to pour on the steps of the church, and give it away to the devout as blessed water. Men are dressed in filhos de Gandhi costumes – another adoption of a non-Catholic religion, inspired by the principles of non-violence and peace of Mahatma Gandhi. As I believe, they are the male sacred presence balancing with the baianas. They wear blue and white beaded necklaces, and white turbans to symbolize the Indian vests.
The crowds walk the 8 km. The street vendors supply some fuel, and the band musicians, give a fun an attraction to follow (reminded me of the bands of the US). The electric cars play Carnaval music typical of the 90s (think of the band Chiclete com Banana), and beautiful black dancers entertain with choreographies.
And when I arrived with the procession at the church, I see that the steps to be washed are only ten!
Because the union of Catholicism and Candomble have its friction, today this celebration is often perceived as profane and driven mainly by touristic appeal, according to the government of Salvador. I am sure many locals find street parties a source of noise and chaos, most of my family members who live there travel elsewhere during Carnaval because it is such a bother. That is how traditions often evolve – they become often subjected to banality. Bothered I was myself when I saw politicians using this celebration to advance their campaigns with loud music cars, pamphlets and shallow displays of popularity – cheap, and distracting. What was curious was that I got to know of, and see closely the only transexual councilman in Salvador (see the photo I snapped of him/her). His name is Leo Kret. How curious.
As I reached the stairs of the church, baianas were blessing the devout and giving away the famous Bonfim ribbons, which people tie to the gates of the church terrace, with careful knots making promises for the new year. Processors carried a large poster with Jesus, and people chanted, praising both the Lord and their African deities.
After witnessing a more hearted aspect of the procession, I saw the two of the main things soteropolitanos are known for side by side – religiosity and axe music. In one minute people are praying fervently, in another, dancing to hmm, how do I say, suggestive lyrics. I asked Luis, my security guy for that day, what was that all about. He said, “That is what people love in Salvador – any reason to go out and dance on the streets”.
Overall, I found it fun and electrifying. Maybe since it is so close to Carnaval, I enjoyed working under these circumstances – the crowds, the heat, the music and the air of festivity. I wish to come back for more, hopefully photograph Carnaval.
See below a broader selection in a slideshow, and on my Flickr page, all of my favorite ones.