Bolivian exhibit sheds light on ancient hallucinogenic rituals

boliviaboardA new Bolivian exhibit showcasing a collection of ritual artifacts provides insight into ancient indigenous ceremonies during which shamans took psychedelic substances.

The objects exhibited in a gallery in downtown La Paz belong to the ancient Tiwanaku culture, which spread over the Andean highlands between 2000 BC and 1500 AD.

The spear tips, polished stones with llama wool wrapped around them and colorful hand-woven fabrics were kept in bags made with puma or jaguar skin and used in rituals to invoke indigenous deities.

But the star of the show is a carved wooden board studded with colorful stones from which indigenous shamans inhaled a hallucinogenic preparation – a powder made with seeds from the cohoba tree, which can be found in several South American countries.

Archaeologist Pablo Rendon describes the board, which has a human figure carved into it, as “really spectacular.” Although plenty of similar stone boards have been discovered in the Andean region, only a handful of wooden ones have been uncovered.

Bolivian blessings

I went to Carnival in the Bolivian city of Oruro expecting to be blown away by tens of thousands of dancers and musicians, towering devil masks and llama sacrifices in the mines. I was. But even more striking was the pervasive small-scale ritual of “ch’alla,” the offering of libations to the earth goddess Pachamama taking place in the streets and fields during Carnival.

After viewing the massive Carnival processions in Oruro, I traveled to Bolivia’s main city, La Paz, last week. There, I saw small groups of Bolivians from all walks of life gathered on street corners. Each group defined a ritual space on the sidewalk with colorful paper streamers and flower petals. The people set off firecrackers in the center of the improvised altar, and then stood around or sat on chairs drinking beer from cases they brought with them. Before each quaff, they poured a little beer onto the ground, or onto the wheels of a car that was decorated with ribbons, balloons and flowers. By making the offerings to Pachamama, they hoped to be blessed with luck, safety and abundance. 

Driving through the Andes, I saw Bolivians on streets, in the fields, and in the patios of their houses, getting together for ch’alla rituals, making offerings to the Pachamama and blessing their cars. Apparently Bolivians do ch’alla often when they drink — spilling or flicking alcohol onto the ground — but the practice becomes a full-blown ceremony on special days, such as at the end of Carnival, just before Lent begins.

Llama sacrifices in a Bolivian mine at carnival

Oruro, Bolivia – I’m walking through a mining tunnel in Bolivia, dark but not too narrow, with a deafening brass band marching behind me. A stumbling drunk miner stops to urinate on the wall near me. The choking smoke of a bonfire inside the mine mixes with the sharp tea-like smell of the coca leaves the miners are chewing. Just ahead of me other miners are carrying four trussed-up llamas, drenched with beer and festooned with ribbons and confetti. The miners forced firewater down the llamas’ throats in a ceremony at the mouth of the mine and now they are bringing them into the mine to sacrifice them and ask for safety and abundance in the dangerous shafts.

The llama sacrifice is a ritual at the heart of Bolivia’s carnival, which also includes more familiar trappings such as parades, masks and carnival queens. The Quechua Indians who run the tired old Itos mine above the city of Oruro make offerings to two different protectors during carnival. As Catholics, they have a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the mine. As Quechuas who observe pre-Columbian religious beliefs they make sacrifices to “uncle,” the spirit who owns the zinc and tin and silver they blast out of shafts 300 meters deep. It’s dangerous work because they run aging equipment on a shoestring budget – each miner gives 10 percent of his earnings back to the cooperative. Commercial miners abandoned Oruro long ago, having sucked the biggest riches out of the mountain. The Quechua cooperative miners make a hard living off of the leftovers but if things go well at the sacrifice it could mean better days ahead.

For the sacrifice, dozens of miners and several journalists walk into the mine and stop in a cavern about 25 meters in. The atmosphere is serious, as befits a religious ceremony, but also joyous and a little unhinged as the miners drink heavily and their children run around squirting everyone with gigantic pump-action water guns (which is something children in Oruro do during carnival week). Some of the miners are in Andean ponchos, others in coveralls and helmets and headlamps. Most of their wives are in traditional Bolivian Indian wide skirts and bowler hats and shawls.

Egypt to press ahead with adhan unification – but quietly

A muezzin calls Muslims to prayer, 20 August 2007/stringerIs Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments planning to blindside people by quietly implementing an unpopular project to unify the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer?

That’s certainly the impression I got when I recently spoke to one of the ministry officials in charge of the project to enquire about its status. There has been talk for years about how chaotic and noisy it is to have each mosque in a city call out “Allahu akbar” at slightly different times, in quite different voices, sometimes in different musical keys and different tempos. A project unveiled two years ago to have one centralised call to prayer seemed to officials to be the answer.

The official was cagey at first, refusing to be drawn on whether the plan was going ahead or had been suspended, and refusing to give an ETA for the mythical unified adhan.

Is incense a mind-altering substance?

A Kashmiri Hindu woman buring inceFayaz Kablinse at Lord Shiva’s wedding anniversary in Srinagar, 6 March 2008/Ask any altar server or visit any busy Chinese temple and you can smell for yourself that incense can be overpowering. But is it a mind-altering substance? A kind of drug that puts the faithful at ease and fosters feeling of peace and togetherness? And if it is, why aren’t more people flocking to services where clouds of incense billow up out of swaying golden thuribles, rise from joss sticks lit by the faithful or fill the air at other religious rituals?

The incense-as-a-drug thesis comes from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Their FASEB Journal has published a paper arguing there could be a biological basis for the use of incense because it seems to have the effect of a psychotropic drug that helps relax people.

As the scientists put it after testing this on mice,“incensole acetate (IA), a resin constituent, is a potent TRPV3 agonist that causes anxiolytic-like and antidepressive-like behavioral effects in wild-type (WT) mice with concomitant changes in c-Fos activation in the brain.”