Salybia, Dominica (TDN) -- It is the day after two days of frenetic street jump up in Dominica and the end of carnival as I make my way to the Carib Territory. Still exhausted from the previous days’ activities, I was determined to get to the Territory to witness the burial of Carnival.
Enterrer Vaval (bury carnival) as it’s called is an age old custom carried out in a few villages in Dominica. But it is in the Carib Territory where it has grown in significance and become one of the leading traditions in Dominica.
Hard to believe that I had spent most of my years in Dominica but had not heard about this ritual until early that morning in March 2011. I decided to go see for myself. I had not the slightest hint as to what to expect.
Someone had simply mentioned to me that carnival was being buried in the Carib Territory and that it was something to behold. And so I quickly grabbed my camera and made the 15 mile drive to the Carib Territory.
It quickly became evident that I was in for something special. As I entered one of the villages, I noticed several makeshift tombstones of varying proportions along the roadside.
These varied from a simple cross over a tombstone to a more elaborate setup complete with a full sized stuffed figure of a man.
As I worked my way deeper into where the burial was to take place, I could not help but notice that everyone in the village was dressed in white. The young men with hair combed straight wore neatly starched white shirts. The women were equally well decked out in their sparkling white clothing.
The villages in the Carib Territory were coming alive. In the distance I could hear a consistent drum beat punctuated from time to time with the echo of a conch shell. People young and old by the twos and threes were making their way along the road in the direction from which I had just come.
Some looked somber, others less so as they walked by. I would learn later that they were simply collecting fellow mourners before descending on the burial spot. In some cases it was hard to tell if they were really in mourning or simply suffering from the hangover of two days of constant jump up.
I eventually arrived at the designated burial spot and took up what I hoped would be a prime viewing position. Darkness was beginning to set in. Minutes earlier the huge orange glow of the sun had dipped quietly over the horizon giving way to a creeping darkness.
Then I heard it. At first faint as it was carried gently over the night breezes. Then there was the discernable sound of the drums and the chants of the funeral procession. Within minutes I could see the first group of mourners dancing and singing their way to the burial ground.
In their hands they held flaming torches thrust into the air. In the middle of the frenzied dancing, singing and shouting I could see a coffin held aloft by six men. The tell tale lapeau cabrits (drums made from goat skin) was accompanied by the mourners singing and dancing in step to “more fire, more fire.”
As they sang and moved in the direction of the burial site, the crowd swelled and the flaming torches multiplied. Suddenly a voice rang out “cry, cry, cry,” and the huge crowd burst into open mourning.
By that time my attention was drawn to the person leading the funeral procession. He appeared to be some kind of a priest dressed in a flowing white gown and a huge wooden cross held high in his right hand.
Just a few feet from where I stood, the procession had arrived. As the mourners alternated between mournful crying and shouts of “more fire, more fire,” a group of mourners broke away and began preparing a huge bon fire.
Vaval goes up in flames.
The men holding the coffin were moving around in circles, the crowd followed. The huge pile of wood, paper and tree branches burst into bright orange flames whipping the already frenzied crowd into even louder chants…more fire, more fire….
Carefully, the men laid the coffin to one side. The ‘priest’ then gave his final blessing imploring the great spirit of Vaval to “depart in peace” and to “stay away until his resurrection next year.”
Within minutes the coffin was thrown onto the flames. Hot orange flames soared upward as more wood and branches were added to the pile. All the time the singing and chanting continued.
Suddenly one by one the young men began jumping over the flames. In a frenzied climax of dance, song and chants they began to dance on the flames. I looked on in stunned disbelief as a few brave souls stepped on the burning embers.
Some simply ran through, others hesitated on the burning pile. None appeared to be getting burnt. Vaval must be kind to them I thought. How could they? Then the batteries on my camera died, how could it?
No one is quite sure how the Enterrer Vaval ritual started. At least my initial inquiries in that regard proved futile. It does however hold a special place in the Kalinago/Carib culture.
Later that night I spoke to some of the young men involved in the burial of Vaval. I examined their feet. In some cases, their shoes were badly burnt, yet their feet remained intact.
One thing was certain. Vaval was well and truly dead and buried, condemned to roam the unseen realm until his spirit is reignited exactly one year later and he enjoys a brief sojourn throughout the land.