Venezuelan cult draws tens of thousands of followers

Mon Oct 31, 2011 11:12am EDT
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By Girish Gupta

SORTE MOUNTAIN, Venezuela (Reuters) - The jungle air is thick with cigar smoke and pierced by an occasional scream as drums beat, people chant and candles flicker illuminating bodies squirming.

Empty whisky bottles strewn across the ground are also a part of the ritual which is hundreds of years old.

"I still feel very cold thanks to the presence of the dead," said Ana Maria Caraya, who remembers her 15-minute trance as a dream. "I fell asleep. I feel nothing more."

The 25-year-old is one of thousands of believers in the cult of Maria Lionza, who is thought to have been born in the 16th century and was the daughter of an Indian chief.

Her followers travel to the jungles of the Sorte mountain in Venezuela's Yaracuy state for one week each October looking for healing and protection.

No one is certain about the origins of the cult, which includes aspects of Catholicism and African worship, or the number of followers. Estimates range from 10 percent to 30 percent of Venezuela's population.

Official believe about 20,000 followers, from Venezuela, the Americas and even Europe, descend on the mountain in October.


<p>A man lies on the ground, surrounded by candles, during a spiritual ceremony believed to promote good health as part of the religious festival revering Maria Lionza in the mountains of Sorte in Yaracuy October 12, 2010. REUTERS/Jorge Silva</p>