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09 Mar 2015

Cleaning Rituals Around the World

Cleaning is an inescapable part of everyday life, no matter where you live.  From the jungles of Indonesia to the high rise apartments of Manhattan, different cultures around the world have developed their own rituals to clean away the daily grime. Whether it's a simple sweep of the floor every morning or an extended spring clean that goes on for days, cleaning rituals give us a chance to press the reset button and start fresh, time and time again.

In South India, female Hindu family members engage in a cleaning ritual that is both practical and spiritual.  Every morning, often before sunrise at the very start of day, women clean the ground directly outside their homes with water.  After the floor has been cleansed of dirt and mud from the day before, they draw beautiful mandalas called Kolam with white rice powder.  These intricate patterns get walked on and slowly ruined throughout the day, only to be drawn again the next morning in an inspiring example of daily rhythm and renewal.

India is also home to another cleansing ritual, one that is both highly personal and communal at the same time.  The Kumbh Mela festival takes place over 55 days in the northern city of Allahabad, with millions of devout Hindus smearing ash on their bodies and  immersing themselves in the waters of the holy Ganges River.  With six auspicious bathing days decided by the alignment of the stars, over 110 million Hindus use this ritual to wash away their sins in an effort to free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Chinese New Year is also an important time for renewal, with Chinese people cleaning their homes and finishing renovation projects in time for the new year.  There's even a saying in Cantonese that means "wash away the dirt on Ninyabaat", the name given to the 28th day of the 12th month on the Chinese calendar.  With all cleaning taken care of before the new year begins, cleaning tools such as brooms are put away and not used for the first few days of the new year so they don't sweep away good fortune.

Western cleaning rituals also have links to new year celebrations in the east, with the process of spring cleaning dated back to the Iranian Norouz.  The Persian new year falls on the first day of spring, with the process of "khooneh tekouni" or "shaking the house" taking place just before the new year kicks in.  Modern spring cleaning rituals may also be based on Scottish and Jewish rituals, with the Scottish practice of Hogmanay spreading to Ireland, New Zealand and North America, and the Jewish practice of pre-Passover cleansing also spreading to the west.

Perhaps the most novel cleaning ritual of them all, however, comes from the Central American nation of Guatemala.  Quema del Diablo takes place on December 7 each year, a celebration that literally means "burning of the devil."  Dressed in a red suit and looking very much like Santa Claus, the devil is believed to lurk under beds, in corners, and in piles of rubbish.  In order to rid their homes of the devil in time for the holiday season, Guatemalan people clean and burn their rubbish, often in huge communal bonfires that end with fireworks, music, and celebration.