Tanim-bary Rituals among the Betsimisaraka in Andasibe

Douglas William Hume, Anthropologue, Université du Connecticut, USA,

Date de mise en ligne : 2 novembre 2006


The Betsimisaraka farmers of Andasibe differentiate two forms of rice agriculture, tavy (swidden) and tanimbary (irrigated).  The rituals that protect a farmer and his family are different for tavy and tanimbary agriculture.  The necessity for different ritual activities is due to tavy having “dry” and tanimbary having “wet” ecosystems, both of which contain different plants with different spiritual properties.  The farmer must focus his rituals toward the specific spirits that inhabit each ecosystem.  In sum, this article summarizes farming ritual requirements of the Betsimisaraka in Andasibe, their causes, significance and repercussion of the loss of spiritual knowledge that must be understood in the process of agricultural development and forest conservation in Madagascar.

Texte intégral

In June and July 2004, ethnographic interviews conducted in and around Andasibe with members of the Betsimisaraka on the rituals associated with tavy (swidden rice agriculture) discovered that there are similar rituals done when the farmers are pursuing tanim-bary (irrigated rice agriculture).  The purposes of rituals with tavy and tanim-bary are the same, to ensure a successful rice crop and protect the farmer and his family from harm.  There is variation in what farmers reported as the correct rituals for tanim-bary.  Much of this variation correlates to the landscape’s properties (e.g., “dry” land and “wet” land).  Since the collection of tanim-bary rituals was secondary to the collection of quantifiable data on the variation of tavy rituals, it is unknown what consensus may exist with the farmers of this region.  What follows is a discussion of the most common responses from the farmers regarding rituals performed during tanim-bary and concludes with a short discussion of the relevance of these findings for agricultural development in the Andasibe region of Madagascar.

When farmers discuss the rituals that they perform during tanim-bary, they begin by describing the differences with rituals performed during tavy and tanim-bary.  The first distinction that was made by the farmers was the difference between why the rituals were different between tavy and tanim-bary.  As one farmer explained, “tavy is done in the forest and tanim-bary is only done where there is grass and no trees.”  In areas where there are no trees and only grass, there are no plants that contain spiritual powers that can harm the farmer and/or his family.  In forests, two plants [ranalahy (deer antler fern) and vahimifehy (knotted vine)] have specific spiritual properties that can result in illness or death of the farmer or one of his family members.  It is believed that ranalahy houses deceased animal spirits.  None of my informants, including the mpanandro (shamanic healer), knew how the animal spirits came to inhabit the ranalahy, but all knew that if this plant is cut down in preparation for agriculture, the result can be illness of the farmer or his family.  Vahimifehy can be any vine that is knotted and is believed to contain the spiritual power of Andriamanitra (God).  According to a mpanandro in the Andasibe region, if this vine is cut or not respected (e.g., shaking or hitting the vine), the farmer can become violently ill and may die within minutes.  In either case, if one of these plants is disturbed the farmer must pray and offer the following items on ravinala (traveler’s palm - Ravinala madagascariensis) or another broad leafed plant [e.g., akondro (banana) or longoza (wild ginger)] to appease the spirit: tantely (honey) and vary fotsy (cooked white rice).  Since tanim-bary locations do not contain either of these species of spirit housing plants, rituals do not need to be preformed that appease the spirits contained within them.  The main difference between the two types of agriculture appears to be that tavy contains more varied and complicated rituals than tanim-bary since there are more spiritual plants that are found in forests than grasslands.

Tanim-bary is further categorized by farmer’s delineation of the land into two separate ecotypes of “dry” (e.g., valleys and flat fields) and “wet” (e.g., marshes) land.  The farmers believe that both “dry” and “wet” land areas to share similar spiritual properties.  In both “dry” and “wet” land, the farmers reported that they pray to Andriamanitra for a good harvest and enough rain.  In addition, the zanahary (spirits from Andriamanitra) may inhabit both area types.  Prayers and offerings are made to the zanahary by the farmers to ensure that the farmer does not become ill or injured while farming that location.  The offerings that were commonly reported included the following: tantely or siramamy (sugar), vary fotsy and some type of alcohol [e.g., toaka-gasy (sugar cane alcohol), betsabetsa (rice/honey alcohol) or another alcohol that happens to be on hand].

While “dry” and “wet” land share some common spiritual characteristics, they also have distinctive spiritual features that necessitate specific rituals.  “Dry” land is the location in which the razana (ancestors) are believed to be the occupants and owners of the land.  To pursue any form of agriculture on dry land, the farmer must pray and make offerings to the razana.  The offerings that were commonly reported included the same as those used for the zanahary.  Before any digging of irrigation canals is begun, the farmer will place some or all of the aforementioned offerings on a broad leaf and pray to the razana.  The “dry” land is also the potential home of vazimba (spirits from god, but less powerful than the zanahary).  The vazimba naturally occur in the water, but those who have moved to inhabit “dry” land are more powerful and can cause much harm to the farmer and his family.  The vazimba on “dry” land have mirrors and knowledge of fanafody (Malagasy medicine).  These items are used by the vazimba on “dry” land to communicate with and affect humans.  If a farmer does something that is fady on their land, such as defecating, they can kill him in seconds.  If “dry” land vazimba are thought to inhabit a parcel of land that the farmer wishes to use, he will consult with the mpanandro to receive instructions and fanafody to remove the spirit from that location.

In direct contrast to “dry” areas, “wet” areas are the natural habitat of the vazimba.  The usual offerings that are given to the zanahary and razana suffice to ensure that the farmer does not become ill.  None of the farmers claimed to pray and make offerings to the “wet” land vazimba when farming “wet” areas, but another spiritual force does require special care.  Several female informants explained that if a child dies before it is one year old or by miscarriage, the infant’s linen wrapped body is buried in a marsh.  If the child dies on Tuesday morning, it is fady to bury it immediately, but one must wait until Tuesday afternoon.  The informants and mpanandro explained that if an infant dies before its first birthday, it must be buried in a marsh so that the mother remains “wet” (fertile).  If the infant is buried in a coffin on “dry” land, as custom dictates for adults and children over one year old, the woman will become “dry” (infertile) and not able to bear any more children.  The degree of moisture of the infant’s burial place correlates to the ability for women to bear children.  The importance of this burial rite for agriculture is that no farmer in the Andasibe area will knowingly pursue tanim-bary in one of the four marshes used to bury infants because they may become ill and their crops likely fail due to the malicious infant spirits.  For example, one informant told me of an immigrant farmer who attempted to grow rice on one of the burial marshes.  The farmer and his wife became ill and only twenty percent of their crop succeeded.  Both the man and his wife sought the help of the mpanandro who gave them fanafody that restored their health, but their crop was almost entirely lost.

All of the abovementioned rituals must be performed before the irrigation canals are dug for the tanim-bary.  In addition, about one-half of the farmers reported that the rituals only needed to be done the first time the area was prepared for tanim-bary.  The other farmers stated that the rituals must be completed each time the land was prepared for tanim-bary.  Two informants related that special offerings might need to be made if they pleased the ancestor’s spirit.  Neither of the informants was able to tell me how they came to know what the individual ancestor spirits liked, but did report offering coffee and/or tobacco on several occasions.

The importance for the description of these rituals above at length is twofold.  First, the ethnographic documentation of agricultural rituals among the Betsimisaraka is generally lacking in anthropological literature (for one exception, see Razafiarivony 1995).  Second, several institutions and agencies are currently exploring possible methods of instituting a change of agricultural practices in the eastern regions of Madagascar, but have not studied the socio-cultural consequences of such a change (for full review of the stakeholders and their positions, see Hume in press).  Their goal is to end the practice of tavy and introduce irrigated agricultural techniques to the area.  Without an understanding of the tanim-bary rituals described above, the transition will be difficult, as marshes plowed for agriculture will not be considered by the local farmers as sanctified and safe to farm.  One can imagine that an area prepared by heavy machinery for tanim-bary without the benefit of adhering to the appropriate rituals required by the land given to local farmers would be refused because of the believed presence of zanahary, razana, vazimba or infant spirits.  Because these spirits have not had offerings and prayers made to them and will cause injury or death to the farmer and/or his family, few farmers would willingly work the land.  Only by a study of the ecology, economy, agriculture and ritual beliefs of the area may a development program address the issues, from the technical to the spiritual, which can enhance the probability of the success of the planned change.


Hume, Douglas. 2006 Agriculture and Conservation in Eastern Madagascar: Stakeholder Perspectives and Cultural Belief Systems. Conservation and Society 4(2):287-303.

Razafiarivony , Michel. 1995  Le Riz, un Aspect de l'Identité Culturelle Malgache en Question. in Ebb and Flow of Influences. S. Evers & M. Spindler Eds. IIAS - Leiden : 237-247.

Pour citer cet article

Douglas William Hume. «Tanim-bary Rituals among the Betsimisaraka in Andasibe». TALOHA, numéro 16-17, 2 novembre 2006,