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When taboo is not taboo: World’s oddest practices
Including cross-dressing herdsmen, deer-suckling eco warriors and luckless banana marriages
Italian men in Speedos doing yoga stretches on the beach. Old people thinking its OK to French kiss the dog. Peculiar behavior comes in many forms.
But some are more peculiar than others. Where everyone else sees bizarre, these people see convention.
From breast-feeding orphaned deer to mass teen orgies, here are some of the world’s unique cultural customs.
1. Deer-suckling Bishnoi of Rajasthan
In India, there’s no doubting the Bishnoi’s belief in the sacredness of animals. The women of the tribe would rather breast-feed an orphaned gazelle than let it die.
Eking out a living in western Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, these farmers have been followers of an eco-friendly Hindu guru, Sri Jumbheshwar Bhagwan, since the 15th century.
So passionate are the Bishnoi in their desire to protect flora and fauna that they refuse to cut trees, and in the scorching summer months they dig water tanks to quench the thirst of the black buck and deer who also live on their lands.
Far from meek, they’ve been known to beat up poachers. You don’t want to mess with these tree huggers.
2. Venom-injecting Satere-Mawe tribe of the Amazon
In a shudder-inducing rite of manhood, the younger male members of the Satere-Mawe, who live along a tributary of the Brazilian Amazon, test their mettle by thrusting their hands into gloves woven from hundreds of highly venomous bullet ants.
The sting of the ants (who are sedated with chloroform while the weaving operation goes on) is said to leave the willing bite victims writhing in agony for days.
It’s a pain that the Satere-Mawe accept with alacrity. In fact the whole ceremony, rooted in tribal mythology, is accompanied by enthusiastic dancing and singing, and anointment with the ant sting is believed to confer hunting prowess, and immunity from disease.
3. Free-loving Deer Horn Muria of Chhattisgarh
The Deer Horn Muria, an animist tribe who dwell in the forests of Central India’s Chhattisgarh state, are decidedly relaxed when it comes to matters of the heart, and loins.
Central to their culture is a centuries-old social institution, known as the Ghotul, a sort of coed dorm within which teens learn tribal dances, songs and lore and engage in carefree nocturnal romps.
Every night a girl will choose a different sex partner. To avoid pregnancy, she drinks a home-brewed liquor as a herbal contraceptive.
Just in case the herbs don't work, as nobody knows for sure who the father is, the entire village will adopt the baby as their own. And we think we’re liberated …
4. Tooth-blackening Lu of Vietnam
Girls, if you think that gash of red across your lips is bold, consider the women of the Lu, a Vietnamese hill tribe who beautify themselves by applying a dramatic black dye to their teeth.
A combination of tree resins and the residue from burnt, sticky coconut husks, together with iron nail filings create the inky finish.
Traditionally, only savages, wild animals and demons were believed to have pearly whites -- and no one wanted to be mistaken for one of those.
These days the practice is thought to prevent tooth decay -- so here’s to a healthy, jet-black smile.
5. Man-eating Kombai of Indonesia
You don’t want to get on the wrong side of the deceptively mild-looking, tree-house dwelling Kombai. Not unless you fancy being the plat du jour, that is.
Male members of this hunter-gatherer tribe, who inhabit remote stretches of rainforest in the Indonesian province of Papua, still practice cannibalism.
Bone-headed arrows are used to kill anyone suspected of being a witch, before they are ritually eaten.
The Kombai fear that witches -- who are always male -- are soul-snatchers. So they have to be eaten as a preventative measure.
6. Decay-worshipping Aghoris of India
If you’re the faint-hearted type, look away now. There is no sect more likely to induce distaste than India’s Aghoris, who worship Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction.
So all-consuming is the Aghoris' devotion to death and decay that they have been known to consume feces, drink out of human skulls and eat the flesh and smear themselves with the ashes of corpses they retrieve in the graveyards and ghats they call home.
Condemned by Hindus for their extreme practices, the Aghoris believe that there is no distinction between purity and impurity, and that their macabre practices will in fact hasten enlightenment.
7. Cow-leaping Hamer tribe of Ethiopia
You’ve heard of leapfrog. But how about leapcow?
The Hamer, one of the many tribes who inhabit Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, don’t just treasure their livestock, they line them up and hurtle over them too. Not once, but four times.
Complete the athletic endeavor successfully, following a ritual head-shaving and dung-smearing, and you’ll be showing your fellow Hamer that you’re ready to wed and take responsibility for your own herd.
As for the young women, they’re more than mere observers, eagerly inviting initiates to whip them, in a symbol of solidarity and devotion. Love hurts.
8. Cross-dressing Wodaabe Men of Niger
Flirting is a ritual the world over. Women bat their eyelashes, men grow hot under the collar.
Among the Wodaabe tribe of northern Niger, roles are refreshingly reversed. During the Gerewol festival at the end of the rainy season, the men, who are traditionally herdsmen, will compete in a beauty and face-contorting contest.
Once they’ve put on their finest clothes and applied jewelry, face paint and feathers, they’ll form a straight line to preen and smile, cross their eyes, raise their brows, cast seductive glances and grin furiously in front of a group of highly discerning young women.
The winner’s prize? A night of passion with one of the judges.
9. Banana-tree marrying Mangliks of India
A Manglik is a Hindu with a poorly positioned Mars in their astrological chart.
If you’re the superstitious sort, this aspect is thought to bring catastrophic bad luck, the harbinger of all kinds of marital strife -- misery, divorce, separation and the premature death of a spouse.
The time-honored way of removing the bad karma lies in a ceremony where the astrologically afflicted symbolically marries a banana or pipal tree before she or he ties the knot for real.
All the bad luck is believed to be transferred to the bark. Better to be safe -- and married to a banana tree -- than sorry.
10. Bridge-building Khasi of Meghalaya
The gentle, predominantly Christian Khasis, a tribe of Mon-Khmer origin who live deep in the valleys of the green state of Meghalaya in India’s north-east, build bridges, just as their forefathers have done.
These are Tolkienesque tapestries, woven from the roots of the Ficus Elastica tree across riverbanks -- entirely organic and living.
They look as though they’ve sprung from Middle Earth, exist nowhere else in the world, and can bear the weight of 50 villagers.
You need the patience of a Zen master to create a living-root bridge -- it takes 25 years before it’s usable.
The pièce de résistance? The Khasi’s fabulous double-decker bridge. Rumor has it, a triple-layer one is in the works.