Religions, beliefs and religious celebrations in Reunion Island

Tamil Temple in Réunion Island

The population of Reunion Island hails from different cultures. Since the first settlement of the island, people from different continents came, or were forced to come to Reunion Island and start a new life. Some of them came from Europe, others came from Africa, and yet others came from India and China.

During a visit in Reunion Island one will have several opportunities to see that in the same village or town church towers, the minarets of the mosques, Chinese temples and Hindu temples competing with each other either by the elaborate sculptures with which they are decorated or with their sobriety and discretion. The inhabitants are free to practice every religion and they peacefully coexist whether they are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or more rarely, Jewish.

The Main Religions of Reunion Island and their festivals:

Christians

The greater part of the population is Christian and the inhabitants of Reunion Island are very devout. There are several churches in every commune of Reunion Island and more grottos built everywhere to honour the saints. Pilgrimages are the highlights of religious life in Reunion Island.

Christian celebrations:

Epiphany: The Epiphany means manifestation in Greek. This celebration of oriental origin is held the first Sunday of January and honours the first three manifestations of the Christ: his birth, his baptism by John the Baptist and his first miracle at the Marriage at Cana. It also celebrates the visit of the Three Kings who visited Jesus after his birth.

Lent

Carnivals typically occur around Mardi Gras, which itself occurs before Lent, a period of 40 days of fasting during which Christians, either catholic or orthodox, prepare the coming of Easter. Lent starts with a special day of fasting: Ash Wednesday

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday comes after the five Sundays of Lent and comes before Easter Sunday. It’s the beginning of the holy week which announces the resurrection of the Christ. Palm Sunday celebrates two distinct events: the time when Jesus entered Jerusalem and his death on the cross. During the procession which precedes mass, the faithful hold palm branches in their hands just like the people who were holding branches when Jesus entered Jerusalem. In Reunion Island, young palm branches or wild olive tree branches are used.

Easter

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ. Since the First Council of Nicaea in 325, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon on spring. The celebration starts with the Easter Vigil on Saturday Night. A Paschal Candle is lit as a symbol of the victory of the Christ over his death and his passing from the darkness to the light. Easter Sunday celebrates the day on which Mary Magdalena on her way to the tomb of the Christ discovered that the rock which closed it has been pushed aside and that his body wasn’t inside. Traditionally, the beginning and the end of the Easter Triduum (the three days which conclude Lent) are marked by the ringing of bells. The church enters the season of Easter which lasts until the day of Pentecost, seven weeks later. Good Friday if the day of the celebration of the Christ’s crucifixion: several Stations of the Cross are organised across the island. One of the most well-known is the one which goes from Saint-Paul up to Plateau Caillou.

The Black Madonna of Sainte-Marie

Celebrated on the 1st of May, the Black Madonna of Rivière-des-Pluies in Sainte-Marie honours a legend which carries a message of hope for the people of Reunion Island. This legend is that of Mario, a fugitive slave who miraculously escaped from his pursuers thanks to his prayers to the Madonna. Having gone up the Rivière des Pluies and reached the bank of the river, Mario hid in a crevice of the cliff nearby. He then prayed to the Virgin Mary for protection and finding a piece of wood started to sculpt it in the shape of a Madonna. The hunters looking for him were getting closer and closer when suddenly the bush of bougainvillea overlooking the entrance of the crevice fell down, hiding Mario, and the smell of the flowers confusing the dogs chasing him. A similar statue was installed behind the Church of Rivière-des-Pluies after the abolition of slavery. It is a major pilgrimage site for thousands of people who bring lots of flowers and pray year after year.

The ascent of the Piton des Neiges

The ascent celebrates the last apparition of the Christ to his disciples, 40 days after his resurrection? Up to 2001, this celebration was the main reason for a peculiar gathering: the mass on the Piton des Neiges, the highest peak of Reunion Island at 3070 metres. Between 2000 and 3000 people used to climb the mountain to attend this mass near the heavens. For security and environmental reasons, the church has decided to hold this mass at the Colorado Park in Saint-Denis since 2001.

Pentecost and the mass of the Holy Spirit at Le Chaudron

Pentecost is the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the disciples of the Christ. This celebration which is one of the most important of the Christian calendar, gives rise to one of the most impressive Christian gatherings of Reunion Island at the Church of the Holy Spirit at Le Chaudron in Saint-Denis. The number of people attending this celebration is estimated to be between 10000 and 15000 people.

The baptism of the knives

It is an old cane cutter’s tradition: knives, as well as cane-cutting knives, wagons pulled by oxen and used to carry sugar canes and other tools are baptised so that the workers may get a good harvest and are protected from harm.

Saint Expeditus

This saint has the particularity of granting wishes fast. It’s the main reason for his popularity in Reunion Island. The church has long hesitated before giving him the status of an official saint. But the devotion to this saint in Reunion Island is not always catholic: sometimes it happens that the favors the people ask of this saint border on sorcery. Saint Expeditus is also worshipped by the local Hindu who consider him to belong to the group of benevolent divinities who also happen to have tremendous powers.

Our Lady with the Umbrella

This statue of the Virgin Mary which is protected from the rain by an umbrella is one of the most famous of all Reunion Island. Lots of people visit it regularly and a celebration is organised each year on Assumption day which commemorates the taking up of Mary into heaven.
Legend says that it was places at the foot of the Brulé, the region of the Piton de la Fournaise where the crater crumbled down, by a land owner who wanted to protect his fields from the lava flow. This statue was nevertheless covered by lava in 1961. Its replacement was placed closer to the edge of the volcano. In 2001, during the eruptions of the volcano it was moved as a precaution, which actually prevented it from getting caught in the lava flow. It was then replaced at the other side of the Brulé.

The pilgrimage of the Holy Cross

Two pilgrimages commemorate the celebration of the Holy Cross on the 14th of September in Reunion Island: the one of the Piton du Calvaire at Petite-Île and the one of the Glorious Cross at Plaine des Palmistes which attracts more than ten thousand people. The latter is one of the most important Christian gatherings in Reunion Island.

Notre Dame de la Salette (Our Lady of La Salette)

The pilgrimage of Notre Dame de la Salette takes place each year at Saint-Leu from the 9th to the 19th of September. During this celebration a crowd of faithful Christians climb up the elevation on which a church which houses this statue of the Virgin Mary has been built. In fact this tradition is deeply rooted in the history of Reunion Island. In 1859, Reunion Island was struck by a cholera epidemic. Nothing seemed to stop the plague, so the priest of Saint-Leu, Father Sayssac, asked his congregation to pray the Virgin Mary, making the promise to build a church to her glory if Saint-Leu was spared. And miraculously, it was.

The cholera claimed 2700 lives in Reunion Island and none in Saint-Leu. News about this miracle spread rapidly. The church was built as the priest had promised. It was dedicated to the Lady of La Salette, after the French village in the Alps where the Virgin Mary appeared to two small children in September of 1846.

All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead

All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead are popular celebrations in Reunion Island, so much that there are always traffic jams around the cemeteries on the 2nd of November. An enormous quantity of flowers is left on the tombs of the departed. Those flowers come not only from the sellers who’ve set up shop near the entrances of the cemeteries, but also from the gardens of the family members themselves. Apart from flowers other items such as candles, glasses of rum, fruits, etc are left to appease the dead.

celebrating Dipavali in Réunion Island

Hindu Celebrations

Reunionese people of Indian origin have kept the religious traditions of their ancestors and practice their religion freely. The great Hindu celebrations are very popular in Reunion Island.

The walk on Fire

This purification ritual, based on the walk on charcoal embers, never fails to attract crowds. In Hindu mythology, the walk on fire is a proof of purity and truth. Through this challenge, the faithful proves his devotion and honours the gods.

Pongol

Pongol is one of the highlights of Hindu religious life in Reunion Island. The name of this celebration is derived from pongal which is a Tamil word for boiling. People still talk about the Pongal vacation which refers to the two or three days of freedom that owners of sugar estates gave their indentured labourers at the end of the sugar campaign.

The date of Pongol was set on the 14th of January since 1973, just like in India. This celebration is nowadays a very important cultural and religious event. It takes place mainly in the temples where ceremonies are held and interpretations of mythological stories are performed.

Durga Puja

The Durga Puja is celebrated at the temple and is also a family celebration. Women play the leading role. Durga is one of the most powerful forms of the mother goddess Maha Dévi, the golden goddess and first Shakti (empowerment) of Shiva. The sacred texts which are related to her worship tell the stories of her battles against the most fearsome demons.

The goddess Durga is displayed with a necklace of snakes around her neck and she is shown riding a tiger. She can have up to 10 arms, each holding one of the mythic weapons of the gods. In India, the celebration of Durga Puja attracts big crowds. Women usually pray for fertility on this occasion.

The Cavadee

The Cavadee is held on different days of the year. It is held on the day of the last full moon of April and of May at Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul and Saint-Benoit and on the day of the last full moon of January at Saint-André and Saint-Louis. It is the culmination point of a purification ritual which started with a 48 day fast and which ends by carrying the kavadi along a pilgrimage. Some devotees choose to pierce their skin with needles and hools to repent for their sins.

The Tamil New Year – Tamil Varousha Pirappou

The first day of the Tamil New Year corresponds to the 14th of April of the Christian calendar. This day marks a period of renewal for nature. Each one celebrates the near year with his or her family before going to the temple to pray and to listen to the annual forecasts of the priests, which they get from the Pandjagom (the Tamil Calendar). The Tamil New Year gives rise to numerous public festivities in which all people from Reunion Island are invited to participate.

Nargoulan

This local god is one of the instances where people of Reunion island take part of one religion and assimilate it in another. The origin of this celebration goes back to a group of indentured labourers whose ship was caught in a storm. They said their ship was saved thanks to the prayers of a Muslim man who was travelling with them. The symbol of this divinity is thus a hand which points to the sky on top of a mast. Ceremonies honouring this local divinity usually take place after those honouring Lord Ganesh.

Petiay Kartéli, the ritual of the black hen

The purpose of the ritual devoted to goddess Petiay is mainly to protect children from illnesses and bad luck. It borders between religion and magic. Mothers play a significant role in its practice which takes place once a year, usually on mother’s day. On that day they offer a black hen and a sweet rice cake to the goddess.

This ritual comes from the South of India and is based on a mythological tale involving the goddess Parvati. One day when she was walking in the forest, she was insulted by local peasants. To punish them, she threw a curse on them and their descendants. So an offering is necessary each year to appease her anger. Failure to respect this tradition is thought to have serious consequences for children. Petiay also receives an odd number of chicken eggs on that day, as well as a cake. Depictions of the goddess Petiay show a woman clad in black and holding a child.

Mariamen

Mariamen is one of the central figures of the Hindu celebrations of Réunon Island. This divinity is one of the Shakti, the spiritual energy or empowerment, of Shiva. Several Kovils are devoted to this divinity. Being simultaneously a goddess of illnesses and good health, she represents an ambivalent principle, mostly positive but which can become negative if she is neglected. In Reunion Island, she is worshipped only as a positive divinity and some consider her to be comparable to the Virgin Mary. The celebration which is devoted to her, the Mariamen Pousseye, takes place in the month of Mary, in August. On that day, prayers are said, holy songs are sung and mantras are recited. People pray for good health. Mariamen does not drink blood and no offerings are made to her. Her celebration is marked by the sharing of a vegetarian dish at the temple, accompanied by a ritual dance called Karagam. This dance is performed carrying a vessel containing water mixed with turmeric and saffron, covered with bamboo and decorated with branches and flowers of Indian lilac, the plant associated with Mariamen.

Kali Festival

Kali the dark is a goddess who is also the destroyer of demons in Hindu mythology. Her skin is all dark, her fingers have claws and she has a frightening aspect. Goats and poultry are usually offered to her as sacrifices.

Dipavali, the celebration of light

Dipavali, the celebration of the victory of light over darkness, became popular in Reunion Island after 1990 thanks to cultural associations who wanted to promote Tamil identity in Reunionese society. First celebrated in Saint-Paul, it then spread to all the main settlements of Reunion Island like Saint-André, Saint-Leu, Saint-Pierre, etc. Dipavali is also the occasion for candle-lit processions of families clad in traditional Indian costumes along the streets of Reunion Island. A lot of cultural events are organized around this celebration to promote the cultures and traditions of India.

Muslim celebrations of Reunion Island

Most of the big towns of Reunion Island have a Mosque. The first wave of Sunni immigrants came in Reunion Island in 1850. The 28th of November 1905, the first French mosque was inaugurated in Saint-Denis by local Muslims, the Noor-e-Islam.

The Hajj

The pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is an obligation for every Muslim and everyone dreams of going there once in his or her life. Before the start of civil aviation in Reunion Island, the Muslim people of Reunion Island were rare to accomplish this dream. Nowadays, on the day of this pilgrimage, people and religious organizations charter airplanes specifically for this event. The Hajj period is traditionally determined by the government of Saudi Arabia, the wardens of the holy grounds. The pilgrimage takes place from the 8th to the 12th day of the month of zil-hijah, the 12th month of the Muslim calendar. The Hajj consists of several rituals. The two most important rituals are the circumambulation and the pilgrimage to the Arafat plains.

The Circumambulation takes place around the Kaaba, the house of Allah, erected at the centre of the great mosque, the Al Masjid al Haram. Inside the south-eastern wall of the Kaaba, a black stone believed to be given to the prophet Abraham by the arch angel Gabriel is sealed. The faithful must go around the Kaaba seven times and according to principle, everyone should be able to touch the dark stone, but the crowds present at this event prevent this.
The other important event of the Hajj is the pilgrimage to the Arafat plains where it is believed that Adam and Eve found themselves when they were expelled from Heaven.

Eid-al-Adha, the day of Abraham’s sacrifice

This celebration occurs on the end of Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Mecca. It commemorates the strength of Abraham’s faith as he was ready to kill his son to prove his devotion. Allah stopped him from doing so at the last moment and accepted a ram in the place of the child. In Muslim countries, families sacrifice sheep on this day. Reunion Island lacking sheep, cattle are often sacrificed. This celebration is also the main source of revenue for some farmers of the Plaine des Cafres as they sell their cattle mainly on this day. Muslim families choose their animal well in advance of the sacrifice. The meat from the sacrificed animal is divided in three parts: one for the needy, one for the family dinner, one for the animal’s owner. Several needy families are given meat on this day. For the Muslim community, the day of Abraham’s sacrifice is a special day of sharing, solidarity and participation in the community of Reunion Island.

The Ramadan

The Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. It’s on the month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. It’s a month of fasting for all muslims. During twenty-nine or thirty days according to the visibility of the moon, Muslims avoid eating from morning to night. They continue their professional activities, however.

Eid-Ul-fitr

Eid-Ul-fitr marks the end of Ramadan, when the new moon appears on the last day of fasting. This day and the day following it are very important to the Muslims. The faithful gather in the mosques to pray and ask to be forgiven of their sins. In 1978, Sunni Muslims of Reunion Island revived an old tradition of the Muslim world: open air prayers.

Shiite Muslims

A few hundred families strong, the Shiite Muslims of Reunion Island originate mainly from Madagascar, from where they were chased. The Shiite Muslims of Reunion Island have erected a mosque in Saint-Denis.

The Martyrdom of Hussein

The Shiite Muslims celebrate fervently one of the founding events of their interpretation of Islam, the Martyrdom of Hussein. According He was the son of Caliph Ali, assassinated in 680 at Karbala in Iraq. The absence of a successor to Muhammad who died in 632, deeply divided the community. Shiites wanted the caliph to be chosen among the descendants of Muhammad whereas the Sunni wanted to elect a temporary spiritual leader. The cousin and stepson of Muhammad, Ali was only the fourth Caliph and his leadership was challenged by the Sunni and Ali was assassinated in 661. His son Hussein, while attempting to make peace between the two factions was assassinated too in 680 in Karbala. Since then, the martyrdom of Hussein is celebrated by processions and mortification of the flesh on the day of Ashura, the tenth day of the Muharram, on the first month of the Muslim calendar.

Buddhist celebrations in Reunion Island

Buddhism is practiced by the Chinese community, and belief in this religion has gradually become a tradition. In Reunion Island, several people of Chinese origin have become Christians. Tourists will find lots of beautiful Chinese temples in Reunion Island.

Qingming jie, the festival of Pure Light

On the fifth month of the lunar calendar, the festival of Pure Light Qingming is dedicated to the ancestors. The ancestors of people receive food offerings on family shrines and on their tombs. Candles are lit as well as incense sticks.
Closely followed in Reunion Island, this tradition is one of the foundations of Chinese culture. It can be found in all the religious and spiritual practices of ancient China: Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Qingming Jie is intended to honor the spirits of the departed family members so that they continue to rest in peace and watch upon their descendants.

Chinese New Year, the Spring Festival

The Chinese New Year is the most well-known Chinese festival among the people of Reunion Island. It is perhaps because of the noise of the firecrackers which children light during the day and way into the night to fend off bad spirits. On this day, several cultural events, parades and dance shows take place. It is celebrated with family or in a restaurant as part of an event organised by Chinese cultural associations. The Chinese New Year is one of the rare moments during the year when Chinese shops remain closed.

Guan Di festival

Sporting a stern face with a long beard and mustachio, this divinity is often clad in red and is very popular in the South of China where most of the ancestors of the Chinese community living in Reunion Island come from. The two Chan temples In Saint-Denis and the Hakka temple of Saint-Pierre have Guan Di as the main character of their worship.

The Double Yang or Double Nine

In Chinese culture, even numbers are Yin and odd numbers are yang. Nine is thus the highest Yang number and so the ninth day of the ninth month of the year is a special day: the Chong Yang or Double Yang. It is believed that on this day the Yang principle is at its most potent. It is a source of power, of success, of happiness, of intelligence… In China, this festival is dedicated to the chrysanthemum, the golden flower, in which the wise people saw a symbol of simplicity and humility because it is the last one to open in the year.

Summary:

Geography

Area: 2,544 sq.km; rugged, mountainous volcanic Indian Ocean island 700 km east of Madagascar. The largest of the Mascarene Islands which include Mauritius.
Population: 699,406 in 2000; 777,722 in 2010; 879,761 in 2025
Capital: Saint-Denis (140,000)

Peoples

Creole: 59.4% South-Asian: 28.2% European: 4.4%
Other: 8%
Literacy: 91%
Official language: French, common language is French Creole, which is replacing minority languages.

Economy

Dependent on production of sugar and tourism. Rum, vanilla and light industry provide some export earnings. Heavily dependent on French and EU subsidies and aid and also income from the military bases. Exports are 8% of imports.

Politics

Uninhabited until French settlement in 1642. Overseas department of France since 1946. The level of dependency on France means there is little incentive to seek greater autonomy.

Religions

Christian:  593,796 adherents (84.90% of the population)
Hindu:  46,860 adherents (6.70% of the population)
Non-religious/other: 43,223 adherents (6.18% of the population)
Muslim: 15,037 adherents (2.15% of the population)
Baha’i: 490 adherents (0.07% of the population)
Churches: Catholic (329,609 members)
Assemblies of God (20,000 members)
Jehovah’s Witnesses (2,701 members)
Seventh-day Adventist (1,238 members)
Evangelical (830 members)

Image credits

Top: Carsten aus Bonn http://www.flickr.com/photos/zickzangel/

Middle: Josélito TIRADOS http://www.flickr.com/photos/joselitotirados/

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