Lavagem do Bonfim: A Recollection

by kangcuzzi

The Lavagem do Bonfim is a religious festival that is observed every January in Salvador, Bahia. Tens of thousands of people walk from the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia to the Igreja do Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, traversing a total of 8 kilometres to witness the eponymous washing of the steps of Bonfim’s church. Agua de cheiro, or blessed water, is used by traditional baianas to wash the steps in a symbolic preparation for the Festa do Bonfim. 

What they don’t tell you is that the Lavagem is a type of religious Carnaval: the streets are packed with people drinking beer from chilled cans and dancing beside music-blaring trucks. Every once in a while you’ll encounter a marching band, performing percussion remixes of MPB — música popular brasileira — that elicit a samba contagion that rages through the crowd.

Walking beside Filhos de Gandhy, an afro-bloco (an African group that performs during Carnaval) is a must; amidst the blue and white crowd of turbans and beaded necklaces there is nothing you can do but follow the crowd, dance to the songs being sung high above on a passing truck, and attempt to move your hips and arms and legs in the way baianos do.

Truth be told, I was surprised by how nice the crowd smelt (or maybe not, considering Brazilians take their personal hygiene very, very seriously). Instead of the terrible body odor that generally reeks through large, sweating crowds, there was a faint smell of cologne that permeated the streets, not least because several Filhos de Gandhy had bottles of lavender perfume that they sprayed, very liberally, on women they found attractive.

Or so the story goes.

The Lavagem do Bonfim is a religious festival, but it’s hard — and somewhat controversial — to pinpoint exactly which religion it falls part of. Bonfim’s church is Catholic, and yet the washing of the steps involves a Candomblé practice in honour of the orixá (a Candomblé deity) Oxalá; in fact, the reason why it occurs outside the church rather than inside is because the Catholic church originally forbid it from entering the space. This is why, to this day, the doors of the church remain closed as the baianas wash the steps with water blessed with herbs and plants often used in Candomblé.

At one point, we were walking past a housing block when we heard loud cries and cheers from above. Upon looking up, we were faced with a most flamboyant and expressive samba performance by a drag queen, who at one point did a splits in the air and landed, legs stretched apart, on the dance floor, a move that elicited wild applause from the surrounding crowd.

Perhaps my favourite moment was the most traumatic. When we arrived at the church — after four hours’ worth of snail-paced walking — we were given a special fita, or ribbon, to tie onto the gate at the periphery Bonfim’s church. It is a tradition to make three wishes that correspond to each of the three knots made during the process. By the time I’d climbed the steps to reach the gate, however, I was legitimately considering dedicating all three wishes to my survival: caught in the jam-packed swarm of people anxiously waiting and pushing to tie their fitas onto the gate, sweaty, irritated, and very nervous, there were times in which I thought I would trip and fall into the writhing abyss of humanhood and never again see the light of day.

Thankfully, a kindly man with nice eyes helped me down when it was my turn to descend the steps, to which I could only offer a quick obrigada before he, too, disappeared into the mob.

The rest of the day was filled with leisurely bouts of eating, chatting and simply meandering around the church. We filled our post-walk stomachs with typical Bahian fare — acarajé and bolinhos de estudante, otherwise known as thick, carby goodness coated with sugar and cinnamon — and watched a little samba de roda performance happening in the vicinity. In our physical state, however, we didn’t dance, but rather people-watched and wondered when our taxi would arrive…

…and when it did, all collapsed within it and proceeded to spend two hours inching our way home. The exhaustion was justified, and well-deserved.


A part of the group rocking Canteiros gear at the Lavagem. Everyone wears white on the day.