Brasilia Awaits Its Next Life
In her diaphanous, lavender gown, spangled with sequined Stars of David and a crescent moon, Andrea Brandao reminisces about the pretty girl she once was -- 500 years ago.
“I lived in France, in 1500, and I was the daughter of a woman named Mary of Socorro,” Brandao said. “She was a nanny for a rich family.”
But the daughter of the house was consumed with envy and had Brandao killed “because I was beautiful,” she lamented, shaking a head at her own untimely end half a millennium ago.
It was an eyebrow-raising tale of Renaissance household intrigue -- and just one of countless stories of restless souls and discontented spirits told by fantastically costumed adherents of a mystical cult based here just outside Brasilia, the futuristic-looking capital that has been likened to another planet.
As Brandao, a 29-year-old hairdresser in her present incarnation, spoke, hundreds of Brazilians decked out as Mayan princes, spear-toting Roman centurions and wandering Gypsies milled about, gathered for a feast day. Faces rapt, they soaked up the dazzling sunshine and the supernatural energy they believe is harnessed here.
Since its establishment as Brazil’s capital nearly 50 years ago, after a colossal public works project that created a city virtually out of nothing, Brasilia has been a magnet for seers and sages, cultists and kooks. They consider the place a source of inspiration and even, some say, the cradle of a new race of spiritually superior beings -- politicians notwithstanding.
“The spot is very powerful,” said U.S. writer Alex Shoumatoff, author of a book on the history of Brasilia. “It’s sort of the Sedona of Brazil,” a reference to the Arizona town known for its “power vortexes.”
Many have come here in anticipation of the dawn of a new age -- sects that embrace reincarnation and universal oneness, academics and sci-fi enthusiasts who associate Brasilia with ancient Egypt or the lost city of Atlantis.
Their dreams are fed by an alien-looking cityscape, a showcase for Modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. Among his creations are the twin towers of the Brazilian National Congress, between which the sun rises, Stonehenge-like, on April 21, the date the capital was officially moved from Rio de Janeiro.
The city’s natural setting adds to the sense of being in an extraordinary place. Almost any spot in Brasilia affords a dramatic vista extending in every direction, red earth and green trees spread out beneath a seemingly limitless blue sky.
Then there is the prophecy.
In 1883, an Italian priest named Dom Bosco had a strange and wondrous dream of a land abundant in precious metals and oil that would be discovered between the 15th and 20th parallels. “There a grand civilization will appear, a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey,” the priest recorded in his journal. “These things will happen in the third generation.”
Many believe that Brasilia, situated between the 15th and 16th parallels, is that place. The man who made the city a reality, former Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek, thought so.
Construction of Brasilia began under Kubitschek in 1956, which, by the president’s reckoning, was about the third generation after Bosco’s death in 1888. “The mysterious forces that rule the world have acted in such a way as to ... create the opportunity to convert the old dream into reality,” he wrote in his memoirs.
The idea of moving Brazil’s capital inland, from the coastal city of Salvador and, later, overcrowded Rio, had been bandied about for more than a century, partly as a way to develop the country’s mammoth interior. Brazil’s constitution of 1891 enshrined the idea of setting aside 5,500 square miles somewhere for a new federal capital.
Kubitschek had made building Brasilia a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, promising to pick a site, hire architects and planners, finance construction and unveil the shiny, new city within four years, by the end of his first term. Some thought him mad, given that the patch of terrain eventually selected, in the landlocked state of Goias, was 75 miles from the nearest road and even farther from an airport. Equipment, workers and materials initially had to be dropped in by helicopter.
“The government gave the workers financial incentives, because nobody wanted to leave Rio,” said Aldo Paviani, an urban studies professor at the University of Brasilia. “It established the ‘double salary’ to recruit workers. Life was very expensive in Brasilia. Everything was imported.”
Besides Bosco’s prophecy, Brasilia was built to fulfill a secular dream of functional egalitarianism, which Niemeyer, urban planner Lucio Costa and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx tried to express in the city’s geometric design. From the air, it resembles a bird in flight, with residential areas in the wings and government ministries, the presidential palace and the Supreme Court clumped along the line of the bird’s body, a broad, grassy mall known as the Monumental Axis.
Mystics immediately converged on the area, among them Tia Neiva, a purportedly clairvoyant truck driver who founded the Vale do Amanhecer, or Valley of the Dawn, in 1959. Preaching a blend of Christian beliefs, Afro-Brazilian rituals and pagan elements, the sect operates out of a funky temple complex that boasts a red pyramid, painted wooden cutouts of Tia Neiva and Jesus, and the words “God Saves” in large, white letters on the hillside.
Adherents swear by the group’s ability to improve their present lives and to rescue and comfort the unhappy souls of past ones, all in preparation for the advent of a new civilization in the third millennium.
“We have more love for our neighbor, we tolerate better the consequences and causes of things that happen to us and we help other people. But mainly we help the disincarnated,” said Gilda Celeste Oliveira, a 35-year-old typist. Pinned to her chest was a badge identifying a spirit named Drogana, the “green slave of the Centurion,” as her personal spiritual guide.
“It’s a logical religion that works with faith and reason,” Oliveira said. “It only looks weird from the outside.”
Universal peace, healing and harmony are common themes among the sects in and around Brasilia -- the hallmarks, members say, of the enlightened age to come.
At the Cidade Ecletica (Eclectic City), about an hour’s drive from the capital, followers of an ex-Brazilian air force pilot known as Master Yokanan strive to unify all religions on Earth. Yokanan founded the group in Rio but, guided by the stars, moved it to the Brasilia area in 1956. Today, about 600 people live in the community, sharing a single telephone and attending services, robed in white tunics.
For the more academically minded, there’s the International Holistic University on Brasilia’s outskirts, for people seeking higher consciousness.
And believers in the power of crystals, as well as less ethereally minded tourists, flock to the Temple of Goodwill, a seven-sided pyramidal building on the city’s west side. Nestled in the pyramid’s apex is what the temple describes as the world’s largest raw crystal. It weighs 46 pounds and is “capable of purifying the atmosphere and condensing energy,” minister Enaildo Viana said.
In keeping with the way things seem to happen in these parts, the crystal was donated by a miner in nearby Cristalina who had dreamed of making a major discovery three days before he struck pay dirt, Viana said.
“We found [a crystal] exactly when we needed it,” Viana said. “We had been looking all over the world.”
The temple welcomes people of any or no faith who are in search of harmony. Visitors can meditate in the Egyptian Room, an underground chamber with painted hieroglyphics and Nile scenes, and a replica of King Tut’s throne.
The identification of Brasilia with ancient Egypt is one of the city’s most intriguing pieces of lore.
In his history of Brasilia, Ronaldo Costa Couto recounts that a U.S.-trained Egyptologist named Iara Kern concluded, after six years of study, that Kubitschek was the reincarnation of the pharaoh Akhnaton and Brasilia was the modern version of Akhnaton’s made-to-order capital along the banks of the Nile.
Kubitschek and Akhnaton dedicated themselves to constructing their new capitals, and both died 16 years after inaugurating the cities, Kern noted. Their capitals boast pyramids or buildings based on pyramidal or triangular forms. The ibis was a bird sacred to the ancient Egyptians, and Brasilia, don’t forget, resembles an ibis from the air.
Akhnaton ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago and tried to impose monotheism on his kingdom, then a radical innovation. Brasilia, according to Kern, also embodied forward thinking and was destined to become the capital of the third millennium.
That prediction has yet to come true. Nor, critics say, has the city fulfilled Bosco’s prophecy that it would flow with milk and honey or the dream of modern Brazilian leaders that it would exemplify an egalitarian, utilitarian society.
“The city could be fairer when it comes to the distribution of wealth. You have a center where the rich live, and the poor live far away,” said Paviani at the University of Brasilia. “Lucio Costa, the urban planner, had the opposite in mind when he planned it.”
Visitors complain that the distances and the huge, car-clogged boulevards are hostile to pedestrians, as is the blazing sun.
But the passions Brasilia inspires, religious or otherwise, are what make it special -- even awe-inspiring -- admirers say.
“Brasilia was born under special circumstances,” Viana said. “It carries with it a heavy mystical load.”