National Geographic Visits Spiritual Sources

Posted March 16, 2010 at 4:09pm

To celebrate the Boun Pi Mai Lao New Year’s festival, Laotians build sand stupas (mounds containing Buddhist relics) with entrances that face the Mekong River so river spirits can enter.

Spirits also reside in the icy waters of Saut d’Eau falls, or so believe the Haitians who bathe there for rejuvenation during the festival of the Virgin of Miracles.

Ailing pilgrims flock to touch water that cascades down the cavernous walls of the Lourdes Grotto in southern France because it’s thought to have healing properties.

Cultures the world over celebrate, worship and identify with water, and photographer John Stanmeyer, it seems, has seen them all, documenting their watery customs for National Geographic magazine. Forty-five of his pristine aquatic images, including the above-mentioned scenes, are now on display in the exhibit “Sacred Waters” at the National Geographic Museum (1145 17th St. NW).

Stanmeyer is a former fashion photographer who became disillusioned with the materialistic style scene and changed his career path to photojournalism. His skilled shots have since graced the covers of Time, Fortune and, of course, National Geographic.

For this exhibit, he traveled to nearly every inhabited continent in search of the ways different cultures relate to water.

One particularly stunning photo shows a lone man bathing in the vast stalactite-strewn natural well of the Xkeken cenote in Mexico’s Yucatan. Mayans believed such wells led to the underworld.

Another image shows spectacular light trails, the result of a slow-shutter-speed shot, along India’s Ganges River, where Hindus near death bathe and some, later cremated, have their ashes scattered.

Back in Laos, partyers take to the streets on New Year’s for the customary water throwing, using water balloons and Super Soakers to douse one another. Stanmeyer impeccably captures the merriment of the celebration.

All fun aside, though, the photos show us something very profound about the human condition. Despite stark differences in religious beliefs, it’s amazing to see how similarly the world’s religions relate to water. It is both the bringer of life and a purifying agent.

Muslims, Jews and Christians, alike, for instance, incorporate cleansing rituals into their dogmas.

Stanmeyer captured a pastor at Hillvue Heights Baptist Church in Kentucky dunking a parishioner into the Barren River Lake as part of a Baptism.

Ukrainian Hasidic Jews are photographed bathing in a quarry pool that serves as a mikvah, or a body of water used for spiritual cleansing.

In Istanbul’s Beyazit Mosque, Muslims perform wudu, or the ritual washing of the hands and feet before prayer.

Even believers of Japanese Shinto wash away impurities under waterfalls as part of a ritual known as misogi shuho.

The exhibit is free and open to the public through July 25.