For New Age action, it's hard to beat Brasilia

The Dallas Morning News/May 22, 1999
By Andrea McDaniels

BRASILIA, Brazil - 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-size image of Jesus looms over a huge painted wooden star. The sound of chanting wafts from a squat stone temple, where a purification ritual is under way.

With about 5,000 members, the Valley of the Dawn is one of more than 150 mystical religious groups that have sprung up around Brasilia in the past few years. And the number grows every day, researchers say.

Now the government in Brasilia is hoping to cash in on the city's mystical 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 Brasilia 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. "Brasilia has a mystical aura that no other city in Brazil has. This is an excellent tourist product."

Brasilia's tourism office has just published a guide to the mystical groups in Portuguese and English. Tourists can choose tours of churches and religious communities, or follow the "Millennium Trail" from Brasilia to Porto Seguro in Bahia State, where the Portuguese first landed in 1500.

Among the most popular attractions is the utopian Legion of Goodwill Temple, a seven-sided, seven-story pyramid topped by what the literature calls 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, women wear medieval-style purple and black dresses, silver tiaras, glittering veils, and cone hats. They are taking part in a ceremony on the bank of an artificial lake hemmed by pyramids and wooden cutouts of goddesses.

Men in satin capes and white vests decorated with religious symbols preach what sounds like Christian liturgy, interspersed with appeals to galactic princesses and Afro-Brazilian gods.

"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 Paraiso (High Paradise), a mystical community a three hours' drive from Brasilia. "This region has been esoterically prepared to be the crib of a new movement."

From its founding in 1960, Brasilia 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. Many New Age devotees believe the region lies on a bedrock of crystal that is supposed to give it unusual spiritual power. Built in the shape of a bird or airplane, Brasilia 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 up between the 15th and 20th parallels, where Brasilia is located, and become the seat of the new millennium.

"Brasilia was born under two creation myths," explains Deis Siqueira, a sociologist at the University of Brasilia. "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 Brasilia is a city of the future."

Posters everywhere warn of the imminent apocalypse and exhort sinners to "Repent today!" Every block seems to have a house with a banner hanging over the door inviting visitors for an interview with a psychic. Reports of UFO sightings are as common as shooting stars, especially near Alto Paraiso.

Egon and his wife, Inti-Ra, founded the Arcadia organization based on insights from extraterrestrial beings. They said their spiritual guides led them to the central plain to promote "sustainable societies" and space-age healings. Like many New Age group members, Arcadians believe the world as we know it will end soon.

"We attend to people's search for the meaning of life and prepare them for the new era. We are moving toward the fourth dimension," Egon says. "There will be a very profound change on all levels. The world will continue, but things will be different. This earth will be a real paradise. We are building what will remain."

Fearing the apocalypse, Osho - a Hindu meditation group formed by the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh - moved onto a spectacular patch of land near Alto Paraiso where it runs an eco-spiritual resort.

"Frankly, we came here because we believe it's the safest place on the planet," says Shivana da Lua, a spokesperson for Osho in Brazil.

"When everything starts falling apart - and it will this year, believe me - this spot will be spared from all that turmoil and destruction because of its high spiritual energy."

Dr. Siqueira, the sociologist, says the growth of new religious movements "is happening very fast" in the Brasilia 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.

"Brazil is above all a country of exoticism, where the mysterious is tolerated," she says.

Controversial groups such as Saint Daime - which uses a hallucinogenic plant borrowed from Indians of the Peruvian Amazon to give members visions - are as welcome in Alto Paraiso as fringe Protestant groups or Hindus.

"All these groups coexist really well together," Dr. Siqueira says. "It's their belief in the importance of building the new era, preparing for a new time of peace and unity. Alto Paraiso is a living laboratory." 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, Dr. Siqueira says, so doctrines are passed along by word of mouth instead of through writings. 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 Brasilia, the community adopts children and educates them for 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 and a communal vision. 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 Paraiso for $6 a night.

Andrea McDaniels is a free-lance writer based in southern New Hampshire.

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