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Day 34: Salvador

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The 240-year-old Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, endowed by a thankful, and rich, Portuguese sea captain for surviving a fierce Atlantic storm.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe African-ness of Bahia is nowhere more evident than in the influence and beliefs of Candomblé, which permeates so many areas of life in Salvador and beyond. Its roots are in Africa, amongst the Yorubá, and yet it has become quintessentially Brazilian. When the slaves were brought over to work on the plantations they were deliberately discouraged from practising their own religion, in case it became a rallying point for resistance to the landowners. So instead of one all-pervasive belief system, different elements of African tradition became interwoven, both with each other and then with the prevailing Catholicism of the Portuguese. Candomblé is a syncretic religion, faith-based and animist at the same time, a melding of Europe and Africa, of gods and saints.

To try and understand what all this means I'm taken by Sophia O'Sullivan, daughter of Irish-Brazilian parents, currently studying architecture here, to a remarkable church, the Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim – literally 'the Church of Our Lord of a Good End' – a reference to its foundation as thanks for safe delivery from the sea. It's a large white, twin-towered church built in the rococo style in 1772, standing in a prominent position on a hill in a north-west suburb of the city. At one time slaves were required to scrub the steps of the church and even after they were granted freedom they not only continued to do so but brought hundreds of other volunteers with them. Now the annual washing of the steps, the Lavagem do Bonfim, has become a major fixture on Salvador's calendar.

Every third Sunday in January as many as a million pilgrims make the nearly ten-kilometre (six-mile) walk from the downtown port area through the streets to the church. When they arrive they ritually wash the steps with lavender water. This annual celebration, which honours the Creator god of Candomblé as well as Christ, is a fascinating example of the fusion of African animism and faith-based Catholicism. And there are other areas where faith and superstition merge. Sophia shows me strips of ribbon entwined round the railings of the church. They're called fitas. Their function is entirely superstitious yet their origin is Catholic. Sophia explains that above the altar in the church is an image of Christ on the cross, a replica of one in Setubal in Portugal, endowed by a Portuguese sea captain as thanks for safe passage through Atlantic storms. What makes it so special is that Our Lord is seen to be dead. It is the only image of a dead Christ on the cross anywhere in Brazil. This, together with its donor being saved from drowning, is believed to have given it miraculous powers. The length of the fita is equivalent to the distance from the stigmata on Christ's hand to his heart. The ribbon is tied around the wrist and three knots in it indicate three wishes made, which will only be granted when the ribbon falls apart. Which, in some cases, can take months, even years. They are immensely popular and there is a specially appointed team of young men in blue polo shirts giving them out on the church steps.

Inside the church is another remarkable demonstration of the power of Our Lord of Bonfim. A small side room off the exuberantly ornate interior is full of quite extraordinary votive tributes to his healing powers. From the ceiling hang wax and plaster models of arms, legs, heads, hearts, breasts, penises, lungs and tiny babies. An artificial limb hangs next to a tennis racket. On the walls are photographs of those who have been cured by Our Lord's intervention. There are portraits of women with babies, proud students with degree scrolls, patients in hospital beds with heart-rate monitors, a man displaying the before and after of a hernia operation, and one or two body-scan images. I ask Sophia if the young generation still believe in all this. She nods very firmly. In Brazil almost everyone believes in some kind of religion or some kind of superstition. Atheism is considered profoundly weird.
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Fita ribbons, representing a mix of superstition and faith, are bought and hung on the church railings.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 34: Salvador
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Salvador
  • Book page no: 146

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