Cults Draw Tourists, Aid Poor

Brazil 2000

At the end of a dirt road, a sign arches over a gated entrance welcoming visitors to the Valley of the Dawn. A few feet away, a billboard-sized image of Jesus looms over a huge painted wooden star. The sound of chanting wafts from a squat stone temple nearby.

With about 5,000 members, the Valley of the Dawn is one of some 150 mystical religious groups that have sprung up around Braslia in the past few years.

Now the government hopes to cash in on the city's image as "the capital of the third millennium" by promoting events around 2000, which coincides with Brazil's 500th anniversary.

About half of the 1 million visitors to Braslia last year came for mystical tourism, officials say.

"We believe we can double the number of New Age tourists as the millennium approaches," says Marcelo Dourado, the city's tourism secretary. "Braslia has a mystical aura that no other city in Brazil has. This is an excellent tourist product."

Tourists can choose ecumenical tours of churches and religious communities, or follow the "Millennium Trail" from Braslia to Porto Seguro in the state of Bahia, where the Portuguese first landed in 1500.

Brazil's new movements may give off a mystical air. But a number are also serving as what many consider a positive social force here.

Braslia's tourism office has just launched a guide to the mystical groups in Portuguese and English. Among the most popular attractions is the ecumenical Legion of Goodwill Temple, a seven-sided, seven-story pyramid topped by what adherents call the world's largest crystal.

Other tourist hits are the University of Peace and isolated religious communities such as the Eclectic City and Valley of the Dawn, where visitors can participate in ceremonies and snap pictures of devotees in ritual dress.

In the Valley of the Dawn are women wearing medieval-style purple and black dresses, with silver tiaras, glittering veils, and cone hats. They are taking part in a ceremony on the bank of an artificial lake hemmed by a pyramid and wooden cutouts of goddesses.

Men in satin capes and white vests bearing various religious symbols are preaching what sounds like Christian liturgy, with appeals to galactic princesses and Afro-Brazilian gods.

You check your guidebook to see if you've stumbled onto a set for a science-fiction movie.

"This is Interlandia, the highlands of Brazil, the center of the South American continent," says Luiz Jose da Cunha Lima, a researcher of New Age groups who gives tours of Alto Paraso (High Paradise), a mystical community three hours' drive from Braslia. "This region has been esoterically prepared to be the crib of a new movement."

From its founding in 1960, Braslia has billed itself as the city of the future. Its modernist architecture, framed by an expansive blue sky, and isolated location in Brazil's dry backlands lend the city an otherworldly aura.

Built in the shape of a bird or airplane, Braslia was the brainchild of former President Juscelino Kubitschek. Historians say he was inspired by the prediction of a 19th-century Italian priest, Dom Bosco, that a new civilization would rise between the 15th and 20th parallels, where Braslia is located, and be the seat of the new millennium.

"Braslia was born under two creation myths," explains Deis Siqueira, a sociologist at the University of Braslia. "One was modernization. This side of the dream has not been realized yet; that is, equal income distribution. But the other side of the dream, of mystical unity, this has happened. In this sense Braslia is a city of the future."

Sociologist Siqueira says the growth of new religious movements "is happening very fast" in the Braslia region because land there is cheap and the vast, empty territory allows these groups to cut themselves off from society. Brazil's tradition of syncretic, or mixed, religions has also helped New Age groups feel at home.

The new religions may have an otherworldly veneer, but they are firmly Brazilian in their incorporation of other traditions and their social role.

Most devotees are poor and often illiterate. For this reason, doctrines are transmitted orally instead of by means of studying texts. Homeless people, alcoholics, and outcasts, left starving by Brazil's inadequate social services, end up knocking on the doors of these groups.

"A lot of the people who come to live here - let's just say it's a place where they will eat whether or not they do any work," explains a tour guide at the Eclectic City. High on a plateau in the outskirts of Braslia, the community adopts children and schools them free, treats the sick with herbal remedies, and builds houses for whoever wants to live there, he says. Residents are required to abstain from alcohol, and women must wear long skirts and long hair.

Utopia-building is a common theme among the new religions. Most eschew hierarchies in favor of an egalitarian structure. They advocate individual self-discovery, a communal vision, and an alternative way of life.

Most don't last longer than three years, experts point out. Esoteric groups that have reportedly disbanded include the Mystical White Order, the Golden Portal, and the Cupolas of Saint Germain, which believed that sleeping in pastel-painted domes topped by a crystal gave devotees spiritual powers.

Today visitors can sleep in the abandoned domes in Alto Paraso for $6 a night.

The new religions may have an otherworldly veneer, but they are firmly Brazilian in their incorporation of other traditions and their social role.

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