Religious Beliefs. Religious practices and beliefs are closely linked to royal affairs. Today the term "tromba" is used throughout Madagascar to describe a host of forms of spirit possession; strictly speaking, however, it is a Sakalava term. At the heart of Sakalava religion are the royal ancestors, or tromba, who are the spirits of dead royalty. Tromba spirits are arranged hierarchically into generations that correspond to dynastic lineages of the northern and southern Sakalava. They are then further differentiated by the two broad categories, the Zafin'i'mena and Zafin'i'fotsy. When mediums are possessed by tromba spirits, they don clothing that is indicative of their rank, lineage, and the time period in which they reigned or lived. The oldest and most powerful of these spirits possess select mediums (called saha ), commoners who are usually single women living full-time in villages located next to royal tombs ( mahabo ). These spirits are the dady, and they guide living rulers in all major decisions that affect the kingdom as a whole. Other less powerful and younger spirits are a pervasive force in the everyday lives of commoners living in villages and towns. A given spirit may have many mediums, but can only be present in one medium at any one time. Women constitute the majority of mediums for these lesser tromba spirits, although men can be possessed as well. Other possessing spirits include tsiny (nature spirits that are associated with sacred trees) and kalanoro (small, impish forest spirits). There are also numerous kinds of malevolent spirits that cause misery and suffering. These go by a host of names, including jiny, Njarinintsy, troma hely (or "little tromba"), bib, and kokolampo.
Expressive culture takes form in drumming, song, and dance, all of which are essential components of royal celebrations. Specialized drums, called hazolahy, are played when royalty are present, particularly at such ritual events as circumcisions, during the instatement of a new ruler, or at the village of the royal tombs on days when royal work is performed. Men are the exclusive players of these drums. Dances reserved for royal festivities are performed to the accompaniment of the hazolahy, the most frequent being the graceful and slow-paced rebiky (which depicts battles among rival dynastic branches) and, far less often, the animated maganja, which is said to be of more recent African origin.
Many Sakalava are simultaneously followers of other faiths. Catholicism has made significant inroads into Sakalava communities. It is not uncommon to find women who are spirit mediums during the week attending Mass on Sunday. Royalty, especially in the north, are more likely to be Muslim, their forebears having been converted to Islam in the nineteenth century as they sought to win allies against the French. Sakalava royal tombs also bear evidence of Islamic influence: they are often decorated with stars and crescent moons.
Religious Practitioners. Religious practitioners fall into several categories. Among the most common are those whose religious duties overlap with (and are often indistinguishable from) those of practitioners of the healing arts. Important healers include mediums for tromba, tsiny, and kalanoro spirits, the first category being the most widespread today. Other healers include moasy, who are particularly skilled in the use of local pharmacopoeias, and mpisikidy, or diviners. An individual who uses magic ( fanafody ) to harm others is considered dangerous and is labeled a "witch" or "sorcerer" ( mpamosavy ). Other religious practitioners include those individuals who serve royalty throughout the course of their lifetimes. These include the Sambarivo, as well as male and female tomb guardians ( antimahabo ), who oversee the care of royal tombs.
Ceremonies. Sakalava ceremonies are guided by auspicious and inauspicious or taboo (fady) days of the week, months of the year, and phases of the moon. For example, Friday (Zoma) is the most auspicious time to perform a royal ceremony; restrictions on other days and on certain months depend on the regular flow of activities that occur at various locations where royal tombs are found. Possession ceremonies, as well as all other royal events, can only take place during the phases of an ascension to full moon. For example, if a ruler dies during the phase of no moon, his or her body can not be moved to the tombs until the moon enters the new phase. In general, Sakalava describe royal practices as "difficult" ( sarotra ny fomba ny ampanjaka ) because of the complex set of taboos associated with royal events. Thus, the observance of royal ritual rules is a sign of love for and devotion to the ruler. Spirit mediums, diviners (mpisikidy), and healers such as moasy also often play an active part in determining the appropriate time and location for a ceremony.
Much of Sakalava ritual life is complementary along gender lines; many ceremonies can not be performed unless both men and women participate. Circumcisions, for example, require the participation of the zanakan'lahy and zanakan'vavy (represented by the boy's mother and mother's brother) and both matri- and patrikin, represented by the boy's mother and father.
Various ritual items figure prominently in Sakalava ceremonies. As noted, the hazolahy drums appear at royal festivities; other sacred items that symbolize sacred power and that are employed for purification and healing purposes include gold ( vola mena ) and silver ( vola fotsy ) and, most often, the tsanganob (an archaic French coin), precious metals that symbolize the two major dynastic categories of "Gold" and "Silver." Other items include honey mead ( tô mainty ) and rum ( toaka ).
Medicine. Madagascar has a rich pharmacopoeia of plant and animal products acquired from the land and sea. These medicines are applied to the skin, boiled to make medicinal teas, mixed into bath water, or added to amulets. Both men and women—particularly elders—are well versed in the use of many plants that can be used to treat such common ailments as headaches, fatigue, and malaria. More difficult or persistent ailments are handled by a variety of healers whose knowledge is rooted in Sakalava religious practice (see "Religious Practitioners"). They draw from the power of ancestors and other spirits to diagnose and heal as they simultaneously apply plant remedies. Sakalava turn as well to cosmopolitan clinical medicine at state and privately run hospitals and/or to healers associated with Islam or Christianity. These sorts of decisions are dependent on the forms of health care available, the perceived etiology of the illness, and personal choice. Dream interpretation is also a specialization of numerous categories of healers.
Death and Afterlife. Sakalava do not practice the famadihandy or reburial ceremony, which characterizes Betsileo and Merina cultures of the central highlands. Another factor that separates Sakalava from other Malagasy speakers is that personal ancestors do not figure prominently in the lives of commoners; rather, royal ancestors are the focus for collective identity. Tales of cultural origin likewise focus on royal events. The Zanahary created the world and human society, but they are remote deities who rarely participate in daily human affairs (although they must be honored at the opening of any ceremony). Tromba spirits are far more prominent in thoughts of the afterlife. Descriptions of death focus on the discomfort of tombs, which troma spirits describe as cold and lonely. It is for this reason that these spirits appear regularly in mediums—they wish to continue to participate in the daily affairs of the living.
As with all Malagasy, it is essential that the bodies of Sakalava be entombed properly and in their rightful place. Commoners are entombed with the kin (havana) with whom they had the strongest sentimental ties. Thus, an adult is as likely to be entombed with one or both parents as with a spouse. Commoners' tombs are simple structures generally void of decoration, and they can be found in the forest, in rock grottos by the sea, or in Catholic or Muslim cemeteries. A body that is lost and thus unable to be placed in the tomb is a terrifying image; it means that the person's ties to kin have been severed. These individuals become lolo , troubled spirits that haunt the locations where they died, causing sickness, accidents, and deaths among those who cross their paths. The dead may also appear in the dreams of close relatives in order to let them know that they are troubled and are in need of care. In the past, some individuals, including those who had committed serious crimes (such as murder) or who suffered from leprosy or serious physical disfigurement, were not entombed but left in taboo areas.
Royal funerals are elaborate and may extend over a period of several months or even years before being completed. A specialized vocabulary and body of taboos (fady) surround all royal rituals, and this is especially pronounced in the context of royal funerals. For example, rulers do not die, as do commoners; rather, the verb mihilana ("to turn around," or do an about face) is used. It is forbidden for a ruler's body to enter the royal residence: if a ruler dies in the palace it is forever polluted and cannot be inhabited by future rulers. Throughout the funerary period, Sakalava (royal and commoner alike) may not bathe, comb their hair, or wear shoes, and they must wear Sakalava body wraps. The ruler's body is taken to a special location and placed in a temporary structure, where it is attended by different categories of Sambarivo, each with particular duties to perform. The body is allowed to rot away, the effluvia collected with care in special earthenware pots and discarded at night in a sacred location. Relics—including occiput bone and patellae, teeth, hair, and nails—are retained for future ceremonial occasions, and the remains are placed in a temporary stone structure within the wall that surrounds the royal tombs. Eventually, a permanent structure is built to house the remains of this particular ruler. Once the remains have been placed within the tomb walls, the formal public discussion and debate may begin regarding the instatement of a successor.