“It was 6:30 in the morning when I arrived on the banks of the Nepean River in Penrith. The grass was still wet with the morning dew, and the smell of incense wafted from the river bank. I was there to witness an event called Benja– the Creation of Life – that few Sydneysiders ever get to see, unless you are a member of the local Mandaean community…
Every year, Benja is celebrated over five days,with up to 1000 members of the community coming to the river to be baptised.
I was there on the first of the five days, and watched a small group of Mandaean holy men preparing themselves for the relentless schedule of baptisms that was to follow. But that morning all was calm – the men moved about the river bank reciting their own separate prayers, purifying pots and containers in the river water, and generally readying themselves for the days ahead.
Each was dressed in the traditional flowing white robe known as the Rasta, the same garment that has been worn by Mandaeans for over a thousand years. A powerful sense of peace and calm rested gently over the entire scene and, apart from the occasional sound of a speedboat zipping past, nothing disturbed the feeling that what I saw before me could have been taking place more than a thousand years ago.”
You can also download the latest edition of Refugee Transitions magazine.
Photographs by David Maurice Smith/Oculi