Unique culture

Madagascar's cultural particularity basically lies on the fact that the country is a place where the Bantu people from Eastern Africa and South-East-Asia once met. The different physiognomies of the various tribes in Madagascar cannot be overlooked. Regarding the Betsileo and Merina tribes, the Indonesian impact is clearly visible in their almond shaped eyes, bright skin and straight hair. As for the other tribes, such as the Tsimihety, Sakalava and Bara, their Bantu origin is recognizable in their curly hair and black skin. The mix of African and Indonesian elements in the Malagasy culture is fascinating.

The pastoral or nomad culture, a distinct characteristic of the Bara, indicates their African origin. The cult of possession, or Tromba of the Sakalava also has an African origin. What’s more, a lot of agricultural products, such as sorghum, watermelons and onions originated in Africa. On the other hand, many elements such as the rectangular building structure, the rice terraces of the Merina and Betsileo, the forging technology with its air supply by two cylinders, the outriggers of the Vezo tribe, the excessive ancestor worship of almost every tribe and the grave sculptures of the Sakalava, Antandroy and Mahafaly originated in Indonesia. Despite the different ethnic groups in Madagascar, there is one single language on the island. The Malagasy language belongs to the Ma´anyan language family of Western Indonesia.

The taboo

Fady is the Malagasy word for taboo. In the local language, the word Fady is both an adjective and a noun. The Fady is based on anecdotes and stories, and their roots are hidden in traditional legends and myths. For example, for the Mahafaly tribe living in the South of the island, it is Fady to eat the radiated tortoise. The history behind this Fady is that once, some people from that tribe cooked a tortoise. After a little while, someone looked into the pot, but found out that the heart of the animal was still beating. This made them horrified. This is an example of how a Fady starts. Fady goes hand in hand with the local religion. Pork is often Fady in sacred places. In several sacred sites of Antananarivo, onions and salt are Fady. In the village of Ambohimanga, the summer residence of the former Queens of Antananarivo, pork and chicken are Fady. In the cave of Antakarana, in the Ankarana National Park, it is Fady to speak the Merina language of the Highlands. 

It is   believed that Vazimba graves have magical powers, and therefore it is forbidden to go inside them. Should someone still do it? They will pay with their life. These places are not to be desecrated and the spirits of the ancestors are not to be disturbed. Some plant and animal species still exist thanks to the Fady. In this way, the Fady can also contribute to environmental protection. In the vicinity of the Masoala National Park, it is Fady to touch the Parsoni Chameleon – it brings bad luck. In the Northern tip of Madagascar, one should neither kill nor touch the Oustaleti Chameleon. For this reason, this species is still common in this part of the island. At the sacred Lakes of the North and North-Western parts of Madagascar, it is Fady to catch the crocodiles living there. During the reign of King Andrianampoinimerina, it was Fady to pluck leaves in the forest of Ambohimanga. The entire forest is considered to be sacred, and therefore, access was allowed only to selected people. In Masoala, it is prohibited to pick insectivorous plants in the surrounding villages, as this would cause a flood. One of the strangest Fady of the country is found in the Antambahoaka tribe, in Mananjary in the Southeastern part of Madagascar. There, an old local Fady forbids mothers to keep twins. The babies must be abandoned immediately after birth. Doing otherwise would bring harm to the village. Because the rate of twin births in the region is higher than anywhere else, there is an increasing number of children’s homes in Mananjary. A violation of a FADY is paid off with a sacrifice. What must be sacrificed varies from region to region. The sacrifices range anywhere from rum to poultry to zebus, a valuable domesticated form of cattle. Grave desecration, for example, is compensated with a zebu, as tombs are holy sites for the Malagasy. Fady continues to be a symbol of tribal affiliation. The Antemoros of the South-Eastern coast of Madagascar, for example, do not eat pork. This probably comes from their Arab roots. The Merinas, from the high country of Antananarivo, on the other hand, don’t eat goat meat. Fady here is a kind of cultural differentiation from the other tribal groups. Also inter-tribal marriages can fail because of differences in the tribe-specific Fady. Fady also has educational benefits. In many tribes, it is Fady to “kick the wall, or else the grandmother would die ». No one wants the grandmother to die, or the house to collapse. From the Malagasy perspective, people without Fady are a vanishing people. Fady plays a regulatory function in the Malagasy society. Therefore, a trip to Madagascar is also a cultural journey through the Fady of the various tribal groups.


A ritual group circumcision festival

For “Antambahoaka tribe members”, manhood goes hand-in-hand with circumcision. The “Sambatra” festival takes place every seven years in Mananjary, in the south-east coast of Madagascar. It could last up to three months. As the tradition dictates, it must take place on Friday, a day that the community considers as a celebration day, and which follows a traditional farming calendar: the Friday year. The renovation of the royal hut marks the beginning of the ritual. Then the village’s fathers would decorate the ridge of a carved dove hut, symbolizing the ark of Noah. The mothers, for their part, would prepare the red outfits of the little boys and weave special mats for this occasion.​ Then young men would fetch water (in a sacred river) that would be used later to wash the wounds of the circumcised boys. After that, the festival heads towards the mouth of the ‘Pangalanes Canal’, where the core rite takes place and the circumcised boys receive the king’s blessing, marking the ritual passage of Antambahoaka boys to real men. May we remind you that the “Sambatra” festival, as its name suggests, is also an opportunity for the entire community to indulge themselves in feasting.
The next “Sambatra” festival will take place in 2021.

Spirit possession

A spirit possession ritual

Alongside the material beauty of the Big Island, Madagascar is also home to a plethora of ancestral practices among which the “Tromba” is worth a closer look. Typical of Sakalava tribe members, this spirit possession ritual usually takes place at rising full moon, during which the diviner, essentially a woman, invokes the spirits or “Tromba” of royal ancestors who once reigned in the southwestern part of the island. The ritual begins with a traditional polyharmonic song accompanied by hands clapping with accordionist providing it some rhythms. Venerated and honored, the invoked spirit manifests its presence by speaking through the mouth of its host, the possessed diviner. Family problem, theft, marriage, illness … the invoked ancestors would advise the living in whatever they are asked for. After all, the ultimate essence of Tromba is not just ritual but also curative. Some researchers take it as a movement of resistance to colonial religious practices. Others see it as an ancestral rite whose aim is to maintain traditions. But this ritual still reigns among its practitioners today, though we must admit that it no longer has such social and political credibility, just like the service of ‘Mpanazary’ among Sihanaka tribe members.

Raising flag

The most popular Antakarana festival

“Tsanga-tsaina” or “Tsanga-tsaigny” is a traditional festival held every five years in Ambatoharanana, the capital city of the ancient Antakarana kingdom (in the northern part of Madagascar). Actually, the Tsanga-tsaina festival is an occasion for the descendants of King Tsimiharo and the Zafimbolafotsy dynasty (all parts of the Antakarana tribe) to show up their unity and attachment to their customs. The ceremony is held as follows: Pilgrimage and royal baths in Nosy Mitsio: the present Antakarana king and his family head to Nosy Mitsio, in the sacred cave of Ankarana where King Tsimiharo hid during the Merina invasion. The making of the royal mast: a group of men is assigned to find two large straight trees in the forest, cut and bring them to the village. Then another group of men would craft the royal mast using the timbers. Once finished, it would be erected in front of the King’s premise. The flag: a young man is designated to fix a royal flag (saina) atop the erected mast, with the latter coated with grease, making the climbing a hassle. His feat would be acclaimed by the crowd and the festival continues. In recent years, the celebration of “Tsanga-tsaigny” has increasingly been folkloric, making the Northern part of Madagascar an even more attractive destination.

Music of Madagascar

One music, multiples forms, distinctive genres

Like any other country where ritual ceremony once defined local manners, Madagascar’s traditional music heritage still remains intact despite the test of modernization. Currently, there are about twenty traditional and authentic music genres here in Madagascar. In the Northern part of the island, people dance to the rhythm of “Salegy”. It is even the most preferred music genre here-in, especially when it comes to celebratory events. In the great South, you will get embarked on a melancholic music universe worthy of a great Greek opera, but with an African twist, the “Beko”. Typical of the western part of the island, “Malesa” is characterized by soft and rhythmic tempo. ‘Grand Maître Tianjama’ was the first ambassador and promoter of this music genre. If the eastern part of the island is included in your travel itinerary, you will surely be listening to “Basesa” music. Like all the other types of music cited above, ‘Basesa’ originated from folk music. Fortunately enough, it has recently synced with modern instruments. In Antananarivo (center), unlike the coastal regions, music with poetic cover is prevailing. It seems as if the Highlanders enjoy lyrical and message-spreading music more than those with body-entertaining rhythms.

Malagasy cuisine

A closer look on Malagasy cooking tradition

Alongside the opportunity to discover breathtaking landscapes, a stay in Madagascar is also synonymous of a culinary journey with diverse yet special dishes to delight one’s taste buds. As bizarre as it seems (for an island situated a few miles away from the continental Africa), rice is a major part of Malagasy cuisine. It is generally served with an accompaniment called “Laoka”. One of the most loved variations of ‘laoka’ is the “Ravitoto”, a traditional Malagasy dish consisting of mortar-pounded cassava leaves with greasy pork. The “Romazava”, for its part, is a broth made up of ginger, Anamalao’s flowers and Anatsonga. Served essentially in festive meals, Romazava is a side delicacy that is worth a taste.

In suburb marketplaces and on the roadside leading to Mahajanga and Antsiranana, you would surely encounter merchants selling smoked dried fish, exotic fruits, mango-lemon pickles, and peddlers with their “Koba”, and so forth. And if you feel like tasting them, just don’t hesitate to buy. You will be satisfied. For foodies, especially those craving for European dishes, a special chef-cooked delicacy consisting of zebu meat is what we recommend you, the “green pepper-spiced steak”. Just try and delight your taste buds!

Malagasy Population

The origin of the Malagasy population

Madagascar is where Africa and Southeast Asia meet culturally. Although archaeological findings made in the Ampasindava Bay, in northwest of Madagascar, clearly indicated an African Bantu culture of the tenth century, Asian cultural influences in southeast Malagasy society cannot be denied. The almond-shaped eyes of the Merina people, of the tribe of Antananarivo, and the gable roofs of the traditional houses reveal their Southeast Asian or Nusantara origin. Rice terraces, outrigger canoes and the Monolith culture are other Southeast Asian cultural elements that were introduced in Madagascar by immigrants. Language is an important element of a culture. Malagasy is related with Ma´anjan, the dialect of southwest Borneo. Malagasy also includes Malay, Bantu and Swahili words. The basic vocabulary of the Malagasy, however, can fall into the Malay family.

The obvious question is how and why Austronesians came to Madagascar. The trade route between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean has been known since the third century. One could assume that the Austronesians of this time were trying to expand their trade routes. Among other things, they were looking for spices. Since these areas were known for their spices, they dropped their anchor in South India and later on the coast of Madagascar. However, some historians believe the arrival of the Austronesians may have been just a coincidence. Historical Arab sources tell of an attack by Indonesian outrigger canoes on the Southeast African coast in the 10th century.

This is how the Arabic historian al Idrisi (1154) describes the people of Wak-Wak. The word Wak-Wak could be an ancient form of the Malagasy word « Vahoaka », meaning « People ». As the Wak Wak were defeated by the locals during their attack, they were forced to flee to the Comoros Islands that were part of the region of Madagascar. Thanks to their solid navigation skills, it was possible for the Wak Wak to sail between the Mainland and the Islands. They were supported by the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean. As far back as 2000 years ago, it was known that, depending on the time of year, the monsoon wind in the Indian Ocean could be used to sail between India and the Red Sea.

A further thesis describes the arrival of the Austronesians with two stopovers. The first stopover was made in South India. Since the fourth century, there have been relations between South India and Western Indonesia. The Indonesian rulers of this period were inspired by the Hindu religion and Hindu teachers acted as consultants to Indonesian Kings. After reaching South India, half of the distance from Western Indonesia to Madagascar was already accomplished. The second stopover occurred on the East coast of Africa. The Indonesian immigrants first intermingled with the local Bantus and then continued on to Madagascar. Thanks to their long seafaring tradition, crossing posed no obstacle and exploration could be performed.

In the Bay of Atongil, the Dutch historian Van der Stel was looking for traces of Malay immigrants. According to his reports, a direct seafaring connection between Southeast Asia and Madagascar was possible in the 10th and 11th centuries, without the stopover in East Africa. The South-East coast of Madagascar, in the Bay of Atongil, specifically the town of Maroantsetra, has Malay elements, originating from the landing of immigrants from Southeast Asia. At this time, the locals felt the prevalence of new arrivals was a threat. The Malay immigrants were driven away by the local tribes of Maroantsetra and were forced to flee further inland.

In his famous book « Histoire de la Grande Isle Madagascar » (1656), Etienne de Flacourt describes smaller communities, which likely populated Madagascar during the pre-Christian era. Jewish communities were mentioned, among others, as having arrived in Madagascar as early as the 8th century BC. They were Idumaean parishes coming from areas along the Red Sea. Sainte-Marie and Fénérive Est are said to belong to these old Jewish settlements in Madagascar. Interestingly, Sainte-Marie is “Boraha” in the local language of the island and the word Boraha is likely to come from the biblical word for Abraham. The recently founded religious movement, the Jewish Hebrew Messianic Parish of Antananarivo attests to the authenticity of this thesis. A thousand years later, during the Third Reich, according to official documents, it was the wish of the Leader to deport Jews to Madagascar.​

Arab traders as well as the Kings of the Merina monarchy practiced slave trade. The Bantu men from the East coast of Africa were caught and shipped to Madagascar. The Malagasy monarchy abolished slave trade in the 19th century. Some of the prisoners remained on the West coast of Madagascar and started families with local women. During the reign of the Chinese emperor Tcheng Tsou, an expedition was organised to Madagascar between 1405 and 1433. Under the leadership of Tchen Ho, some of the ships from the expedition landed at the southern tip of Madagascar. The entire east coast of Madagascar is still influenced by these Chinese settlements, whose inhabitants continue to play an important role in the economy of this region.

In the 16th century, European immigrants started to arrive in Madagascar. Over time, Portuguese, French and English mixed with the indigenous population. The majority of Europeans landed on the East Coast and the southern tip of Madagascar. As such, the present Malagasy population evolved from a mixture of various people and from this, a unique culture emerged. Despite the existence of the 18 indigenous tribes on the big island, there is an irrefutable unity in the Malagasy culture. Malagasy is their only language and ancestor worship is still practiced, with regional variations across the country. The cultural distinctiveness of the Malagasy people lies in this unity despite the diversity. This cultural aspect makes a trip to Madagascar a thrilling experience.

Source: Pierre Vérin: Madagascar; translated and edited by Bernd Schmidt; Leipzig University publishing, 2004 (ISBN 3-86583-022-6). Edouard Ralaimihoatra: Histoire de Madagascar, third edition, Antananarivo, 1969

The return of the ancestors

For the Malagasy, the notion of home is connected to the family grave or Fasandrazana. Home is where the family tomb lies. This home is often in the countryside, away from the big city. To be buried in the family tomb has great significance. There is no worse evil than to be banished from the family grave for Malagasy people. This can happen if a family member has violated the family rules. Exiled family members must forego the privilege of the ancestors – the privilege of being wrapped regularly with new silk shroud. Exhumation is a central point of the Malagasy « worldview ». The entire existence is based on the relationship with the ancestors. In every house there is the « Zorofirarazana » or the corner of the ancestors. The question of where one comes from always elicits the proud mention of the ancestral village, where the ancestral tomb is. At the same time, a more existential question is clarified: « Where do we go? ». Malagasy people see eternity in the ancestral grave and the ancestors, past and future both meet in the family tomb. Dealing with the ancestors and the ancestral tomb is considered the primary enterprise of existence.

The Malagasy people celebrate exhumation in an effort to praise their ancestors. How many times this festival takes place is up to each family. If the deceased parents appear to a family member in a dream and tell him/her « we are cold », it means that an exhumation is required. The family astrologer is consulted to determine the best days for an exhumation. Often, it takes place in the dry season for practical reasons. The amount of money to spend and the number of guests are decided by the entire family. When all the guests are gathered, everybody, along with musicians from the family village, goes to the family tomb with the new shrouds and mats. On the road, the group sing and dance. The family tomb is located not far from the village. At the grave, everyone must walk around the grave seven times first. Then, the family elder speaks. He announces to the ancestors the arrival of the whole family. It’s only then that the tomb is opened. The bones are brought out, placed on the mats and wrapped in new shrouds. At this moment, all the descendants of the ancestors are invited to do the ‘dance with the ancestors’. The deceased wives or mothers are taken in the hands and the deceased husbands or fathers are carried on the shoulder. The ancestors, wrapped in new shrouds, are taken back to the family village with music. The ancestors must occasionally see their old village. Depending on the time and money available, the ancestors stay in the village from one to three days. They are then returned to the grave. The mats, on which the ancestors were carried, are coveted by childless women. Setting a piece of these mats under the bed is said to promote fertility. After the exhumation, the entire family goes home with the good feeling that the most important duty to the ancestors has been fulfilled. The Festival also offers the opportunity for the large family to come together. They then see the future with confidence, because they know that they got the blessing of the ancestors.

Ambohimanga, a world heritage site

Located 15 km from the capital of Antananarivo, Ambohimanga or « Blue Hill », is the most sacred hill in Antananarivo. In 2001, the Palace of Ambohimanga was listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The Palace of Andrianampoinimerina meets three of the six criteria for appointment as a UNESCO world cultural heritage site. First, the entire palace complex is preserved in its original state and secondly the Palace represents a pivotal period in the history of the country. Andrianampoinimerina had a vision for Madagascar as a united kingdom which thus ushered in a crucial change in the political history of the country. The third criterion concerns the current role of the Palace in the cultural life of Madagascar. On certain days of astrological importance, such as Alakaosibe and Alahamadibe, ancestral worship rites are held in different places within the Palace.

The Merina, the people of Antananarivo, call their deceased Kings « Ny Masina » or “the Holy ones”. Among them, Andrianampoinimerina was the most significant one during the prosperous period of the Merina history, and today he is still regarded as the great and wise one. The “Ariary “, the current currency is a tribute to his reign and the ancient law of pre-colonial Malagasy is also credited to his works. Even at that time, Andrianampoinimerina was aware of the importance of protecting nature. For example, during his reign it was not allowed to cut down the forest. It was not allowed to pick a single leaf in the forest, as he viewed the forest as a sanctuary filled with countless medicinal herbs, which ensured the health of his people. In the 18th century, his way of protecting the environment was unique. The colonial power tried to demystify the Holy ruler by any means.