One of the specificities of the Malagasy culture is the firm belief that there is a God (Andriamanitra) and Creator (Zanahary) of the universe who reigns over everyone. The ancestors and the dead are close to the Zanahary and therefore play the role of an intermediary between the living and God. This is the reason why the respect for the dead is an important aspect of the Malagasy’s life. Paying tribute to the dead may appear under various forms based on the social status of the dead or the living, the tribe, the community, the family, or even the individuals. For example, the highlanders (Betsileo and Merina tribes) practice the “famadihana”, a ritual also seen in Indonesia, which consists of taking the dead out the tomb and covering them with new shrouds as a sign of respect and an opportunity to ask for blessings.
For the Sakalava, one of the 18 tribes of Madagascar that originated from and live in the western and the northwestern of Madagascar, the “fitampoha”, sometimes called “fitampohadady”, is a ritual similar to the famadihana. The difference between the fitampoha and the famadihana is that the latter may concern anyone who passed away, the fitampoha consists of the bathing of the remains and the relics of the successive kings who reigned in the Menabe region for the past 600 years. According to the Prince Magloir Kamamy, “the fitampoha is not opposed to religion, Christianity or Muslim, it consists of the bathing of the remains of the kings and asking for the blessing for not only the Sakalava people but for the Malagasy population as whole.”
The fitampoha takes place every five years and the ceremony lasts for 7 days. The last one was performed from August 11 to August 20, 2016. The relics are taken out of the tomb, called the “zomba” (nothing to do with the zumba dance workout) located in the town of Belo-sur-Tsiribihina and bathed in the Tsiribihina river. The relics are called “dady”, the origin of the other name “fitampoha dady” (bathing of the relics).
First, the dady are taken to the riverside. The “mpibaby” alone, after receiving a “tsodrano” from the “sazoky”, are allowed to carry them because they are the descendants of the kings. The sazoky are the persons believed to be temporarily inhabited by the kings’ spirits. In 2016, a woman who usually is strong and healthy became weak and could not walk temporarily, she was believed to be inhabited by the king Andriandrainarivo (1718-1727) who was handicapped and could not walk. A clear-headed zebu is killed as a sacrifice on the riverside.
Then, after the “liavaly” (a rhythmic and arranged walk by the mpibaby), the dady are bathed in the Tsiribihina river. There are 10 mpibaby and 9 other men carry the guns which were used by the kingdom.
The royaly family only will perform the bathing and they alone know and see how it is done. The rest will watch and wait from a distance.
After the bathing, the dady are hung on the to the top of red bamboos previously posted on the riverside. Then, they will be ointed with an oil taken from a special zebu.
Finally, the dady will be taken back to the zomba, in front of which, another liavaly will be performed. The person who is in the charge of the zomba’s keys is covered with a bedsheet when they lock and unlock the tomb because their identity must be kept secret.
During the whole Fitampoha, the attendance is treated as a guest and is offered food. As such, 3 zebus per day are killed during the whole ceremony. Although, the Fitampoha is a Sakalava’s tradition, other royal family descents from other tribes are invited to honor the Sakalava kings.