How to lose one’s finger and other tall tales

Warning. This post is a hotbed of micro-aggression. It contains ridiculously long words which may cause distress to anyone who struggled to read as a child. Also, it may be particularly traumatic for people who have lost fingers, been snubbed while begging, been emotionally-afflicted by the study of history, failed to master a foreign language, find the colour red depressing, or who have experienced an act of arson (whether personally or on television). By continuing to read you take full responsibility for the emotional crises that may result.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom called Merina. Between the 1500s and the end of the 19th century it dominated most of Madagascar, having spread out from Imerina, the central highlands of the island.

Antananarivo was founded in these highlands in the 1600s and has served as the country’s capital for much of that time, including during French colonial rule. This was a people of serpentine, unpronounceable names and a supreme love of rice.

Here’s where things get interesting. Sometime in the 17th century King Andrianjaka designated 12 holy hills in and around the capital, due to their historical or spiritual significance to the Merina people. In the late 18th-century King Andrianampoinimerina came up with his own 12 sacred sites, some of which were the same as Andrianjaka’s.

According to Wikipedia, “twelve is a sacred number in Merina cosmology and it is commonly said that Andrianampoinimerina had twelve wives and installed one on each of the twelve sacred hills throughout his kingdom. In reality, he had more than twelve wives, and there are more than twelve hills surrounding Antananarivo that claim sacred status … Precisely which hills should constitute the list of twelve sacred sites named by Andrianampoinimerina remains a point of some contention …”

Most experts agree that one of the sacred hills both kings had in common is Ambohidratrimo, west of the city, and a stone’s throw from where I live. It boasts panoramic views across rice paddies and towards the Queen’s Palace in the city centre. It is said that after several unsuccessful attempts to capture the hill by force, Andrianampoinimerina finally managed to incorporate the territory into his kingdom by marrying Rambolamasoandro, princess of Ambohidratrimo.

Ambohidratrimo hill
A lookout from just below the tombs.

At one point there was a royal palace (Rova) at the top of the hill, as well as royal tombs, but the palace has long since disappeared. When I visited in March I immediately pulled out my camera to photograph the well-maintained tombs. And as I did, a woman appeared from the shadows wagging her finger in my direction.

“Sorry, you can’t take photos of the tombs, it’s fady,” she told me. “… except if you pay me a small fee, then it’s fine.”

Obviously she was just trying to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists and fady had nothing to do with it, but it’s worth looking at the concept for a minute:

“The most comprehensive translation of fady is ‘prohibition’ or ‘prohibited’, referring to what one is not allowed to do, objects with which one must not come into contact, words which must not be uttered, places which must be avoided.” Jorgen Rudd (1901 – 1968), missionary.

Fady, which regulate much of Malagasy life to this day, can also be described as taboos. For example, to deny hospitality to a stranger is fady, and it is most definitely fady to whistle or sing while eating (because you would spit your food across the table, and your teeth would grow ridiculously long.) One isn’t allowed to sit at the front door while rice is sprouting, to touch people on the head, to hand an egg directly to a person, to call a child beautiful, to have a funeral on a Tuesday or to point at a tomb (for fear of your finger falling off).

I chuckled at her and snapped a couple of photos anyway. Last time I checked I still have all my fingers and my right eye – the one that I use to frame the photo through the camera viewfinder – is no more bloodshot or blind than before I took the photos.

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I’m really pleased I did too, because a few weeks back I heard that the tombs had burnt down at the end of August. Apparently an act of arson by people who had no regard for their ancestors or the fady that were meant to protect their resting places. A gang had been prevented from setting fire to a Rova on one of the other sacred hills two weeks before. Here, at Ambohidratrimo, they succeeded.

When I went up to take photos a few days ago the woman was still there. She didn’t mention the fady this time around; just shrugged towards the shell of one of the tombs and wandered off towards some youngsters lounging under a tree.

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  1. I you can’t win them, join (marry) them! On a official Malagasy form that needs to be filled in: Andrianampoinimerina and Rambolamasoandro for example – will need like half a page just for their first names…then you still have to do surnames…

    I think a little more explanation is needed here. Not hand an egg directly to a person? How should one do it then?

    Love the first 2 photos.

    • How to pass an egg to someone? You have to put it in from of them for them to pick up themselves… On the ground, on a table, whatever… It’s to prevent any conflict if an egg breaks while being passed from one person to another.

  2. How interesting. The look-out looks more like a tomb than the actual tombs do in their unpretentious simplicity. I would have said what a peaceful and beautiful place to be laid to rest – but clearly it wasn’t! Is there nowhere in the world free of senseless violence?

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