Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

La Paz celebrates Day of the Skulls

Three decorated human skulls
The Day of the Skulls has its roots in ancient, pre-Inca rituals for death

In Bolivia, the Day of the Skulls is a colourful collision of ancient ritual with Catholic belief. The BBC's Andres Schipani went to a central La Paz cemetery to find out more.

Oscar Morales kneels down facing two crystal boxes, each containing two beret-wearing human skulls.

"I pray to Saddam [Hussein] and Che [Guevara]," he says. "I have them with me, at my place in a shrine. I give them offerings and they give me their protection. They've never failed me, never, I am their most faithful devotee."

Oscar Morales
Oscar Morales says he makes offerings to his skulls, seeking "protection"

Surrounding him, thousands of people are walking around the huge graveyard, singing and playing popular music to their decorated skulls, praying to them, and making all kinds of offerings, from flower bouquets to sweets and bread.

Monica, an Andean indigenous woman, is wearing a bowler hat and flouncy skirt. She sits by a grave next to Justo, her great-grandfather's skull.

"He is so good and he takes such good care of my mother and me that he is an integral part of my family. I have a lot of faith in him," she says.

This is Dia de los Natitas - a local religious rite that reaches its high point each year in early November - just a week after the Catholic All Saints Day.

'Ancient death rituals'

The "natitas" - or "flat noses" in the local Aymara indigenous language - are human skulls that are revered by thousands of Catholic indigenous Bolivians who believe they protect them from evil, help them attain goals and even work miracles.

Skull known as "Victor"
Captain Victor is one of La Paz's most popular skulls

The skulls - which are not necessarily from relatives or loved-ones - are sometimes exhumed and sometimes passed from hand to hand. They spend most of their time indoors but are paraded in the city's main public cemetery every year at this time.

"The rite is now a blend of Catholic and indigenous beliefs, but has its roots in ancient rituals for the death practised by the country's Indian groups such as the pre-Inca Aymara and Quechua," says Dr Josef Estermann, an Andean theology expert.

"These practices remain very much embedded in the everyday life of Bolivia's indigenous majority."

All of the "natitas" have names - but they do not necessarily correspond to those of the people they originally belonged to.

Captain Victor is one of La Paz's most popular objects of devotion. This cigarette-stained skull, supposedly of a former policeman, is revered as a deity by a faithful group of followers who believe he is an "integral part of their faith".

Tradesmen, poor indigenous women, students, police officers and even members of parliament visit him year round to ask favours and shower him with flower petals, coca leaves and cigarettes.

"Somebody gave me Victor 22 years ago with the condition not to let him go. How could I let him go if he is one the most precious parts of my life?" says Victor's owner, Virginia Laura, a diabetic mother of three, with tears in her eyes.

"He helped me overcome the most difficult times of my disease, he protects my home, my family, everything that I value. I don't think I can live without him by my side," she says while kneeling down before a human skull sporting sunglasses and wearing an olive-green police officer's hat.

'Confused religious ideas'

In order to honour the bones of their ancestors, some people like to throw parties after the celebrations at the cemetery. Such is the case of Victor's most loyal followers.

Sofia Fernandez
Sofia Fernandez says she prays to God at the same time as she prays to Victor

At a restaurant near the cemetery, packed with candles and banners, devotee Sofia Fernandez says: "I pray to the Lord at the same time I pray to Victor."

Sofia has been an absolute fan of Victor for the past 20 years, and she says he has helped her with debt problems and even physically punished an "unfaithful" who "threatened" her.

But the Roman Catholic Church does not feel comfortable with such a collision of beliefs. And they have been trying to convince devotees to let go.

Earlier this month the Church called on the faithful to stop using human skulls at special mass celebrations. The Archbishop of La Paz, Edmundo Abastoflor, urged followers of the Andean rite to "let them rest in peace".

Some inside the Church even link the practice to the occult.

However, some priests believe they have no other choice than to let people pray Catholic prayers to their skulls, and even allow them to go to church with them.

"I receive them and not as enemies of the Catholic faith," the cemetery's Roman Catholic priest, Father Jaime Fernandez, told the BBC after giving an informal blessing to thousands of skull-carrying devotees at the cemetery's chapel.

"They don't have bad spirits or bad consciousnesses; they are not anti-religious; they are not enemies of the Catholic faith. Somehow I understand them, but I also understand they have very confused religious ideas."

"Officially the Catholic Church does not recognise such a thing," Father Fernandez adds.

"I've been here for 15 years. I know my brethren and I've tried to explain to them that what we have to celebrate is not death but resurrection and that they cannot use human skulls as intermediaries between them and God.

"But, let's be honest, in the end, who am I to stop their uncontrollable faith?"

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