Kingdoms of Madagascar: Malagasy Funerary Arts

See works of art
  • Figure: Female
  • Couple
  • Figure: Tomb Sculpture (Aloalo)

Works of Art (4)


Among the Sakalava, Mahafaly, and Merina peoples, funerary monuments were erected for deceased members of important families. Many of these burial practices still exist today, although it is likely that they have changed over time. In western Madagascar, the Sakalava place their dead in rectilinear enclosures of wooden fencing, the corners of which are embellished with figural sculptures, typically bird figures complemented by representations of men and women (1978.412.577). Taken as a whole, the sculptural program evokes the balance, harmony, and symmetry of the physical and metaphysical worlds. The birds, which may appear singly or in pairs, are called mijoa, and are believed to represent the interconnection of life and death, while the opposition of male and female human figures suggests fertility and the complementarity of the sexes. Humans are frequently depicted undressed, and in a region of rich textile traditions this nakedness is striking. It is likely that these images of exposed genitalia reinforce concepts of reproduction and regeneration rather than relate to the specific individual commemorated. Another form of wooden sculpture, called voly-hety, is placed at the burial sites of important clans. Measuring approximately two meters in height, these tall, narrow stelae consist of stacked geometric shapes such as circles and semi-circles, as well as horizontal and diagonal lines. Finally, great poles with figurative finials, known as hazomanga, were erected in places of honor within the village (2001.408). These monuments also relate to ideas of ancestral presence and the interconnection of life and death.

Formation of the Maroserana and Merina Kingdoms
Madagascar’s disparate populations were traditionally organized into small, ethnically based communities that subsisted on trade, agriculture, and cattle herding. Sometime in the early seventeenth century, however, a dynastic class of rulers emerged that created a series of large-scale kingdoms in the southern and western regions of the island. Known as the Maroserana, these monarchs subdued local peoples and reorganized social structures to take greater advantage of the region’s fertile plains and marshlands. The sudden appearance of the Maroserana in Malagasy history remains largely unexplained. Linguistic and ethnographic evidence suggests that they may have been immigrants from the mainland kingdom of Mwene Mutapa, a regional power that controlled trading routes in southeast Africa. Regardless of their origins, this elite group introduced structures of statecraft that significantly altered the ethnic and political face of western and southern Madagascar.

The Maroserana kings adopted the cultural traditions of their subjects and then spread them through territorial expansion. It was through this process that the practices and beliefs of two ethnic groups, the Sakalava and the Mahafaly, became dominant throughout western and southern Madagascar, respectively. This was especially apparent in the growth of the Menabé and Boina kingdoms, which disseminated Sakalava practices of royal ancestral worship that were central to the ruler’s power. The fragmentary remains of deceased Sakalava monarchs were preserved in reliquaries and venerated through the royal dady cult, while the ancestors themselves spoke through royally appointed spirit mediums in a tradition known as tromba. The explicit connections to his forbears legitimated and strengthened the king’s rule. In the smaller Mahafaly kingdom, local artisanal practices such as metal smithing and honey production were institutionalized as the Maroserana rulers formed official relations with indigenous clans who specialized in these practices.

In the central highlands, several small chiefdoms were united to form the Merina kingdom in the early seventeenth century. This polity had no connection to the Maroserana ruling class. The founder of the Merina kingdom, Ralambo, introduced numerous social and political institutions to shape and reinforce centralized rule. Primary among these was a council of twelve sampy, guardians of the state amulets that served to strengthen and protect the power of the court (1999.443). Divine status was bestowed upon ancestral monarchs, and royal circumcision, among other ceremonies, was implemented. Finally, new noble and artisanal classes were created. Merina rulers developed the marshy lands of the central highlands for rice cultivation, which provided an important dietary staple as well as a trade product that was exchanged for European firearms. Although riven by civil war in the late eighteenth century, the kingdom was reunited under the ruler Andrianampoinimerina around 1780, and in the nineteenth century became a dominant political force in Madagascar.

The Mahafaly peoples of southern Madagascar mark their tombs with sculptures known as aloalo. Like the Sakalava voly-hety, these are wooden stelae of monumental size, carved with elaborate geometric designs such as crescents and open circles. These motifs are typically surmounted by figural carvings representing humans, birds, or zebu, the distinctively humped and crescent-horned cattle that are central to the wealth and well-being of the peoples of the Malagasy plains. As illustrated by a twentieth-century aloalo from the Museum’s collection, human figures are also sometimes found at the base (1998.317.1). The context in which these posts are placed is dramatic and imposing. The Mahafaly inter their dead in family tombs, large and solid boxlike structures of cut and natural stone that loom large in the semi-arid scrub of southern Madagascar. Multiple aloalo posts sprout from the tops of these forms, and the skulls and spreading horns of zebu cattle sacrificed during funeral ceremonies are arranged beneath them. The term aloalo is thought to derive from the root alo, which means messenger or intermediary, and is also related to the craft of weaving. This suggests that aloalo were considered a point of connection between the living and the dead, and reinforces the link between textiles and funerary rituals.

Merina burial structures of the central highlands bear no sculptural forms. Instead, geometric motifs are painted or incised on the stone walls of these houses for the dead. Ultimately, the most important artistic elements of these tombs are the lavish lambda mena that swathe the remains of the deceased inside. As discussed above, lambda mena were gifts to the dead used in ceremonies of reburial to comfort the souls of the deceased and protect them from the pollution of death and decomposition. Historically, the tombs were opened during important royal ceremonies to allow the textiles to be displayed, reinforcing the king’s connection to his royal ancestors.

Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

October 2003


Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “Kingdoms of Madagascar: Malagasy Funerary Arts.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)

Further Reading

Evers, Sandra, et al. Madagascar: The Zebu as Guide Through Past and Present. Exhibition catalogue.. Berg en Dal, Netherlands: Afrika Museum, 1998.

Green, Rebecca L. Once Is Never Enough: Textiles, Ancestors, and Reburials in Highland Madagascar. Bloomington: Indiana University Art Museum, 1998.

Additional Essays by Alexander Ives Bortolot