Sects and drugs

A religion in Brazil mixes Catholicism with powerful hallucinogens. Alex Bellos joined the congregat

Céu do Mapiá is probably the smallest com munity in the world with its own time zone - half an hour in front of Boca do Acre and half an hour behind Pauini, the two nearest towns in this remote and underpopulated corner of the western Brazilian Amazon. The village of roughly 500 people is unique for another rea-son, too - it is the nucleus of a Catholic sect based on the regular consumption of the hallucinogenic tea ayahuasca.

As befits the village's status as a religious retreat, the main building in Céu do Mapiá is a church. I visited to attend the Easter ceremony and, as dusk fell on the eve of Good Friday, the church - a construction in the shape of a six-pointed star - filled up with worshippers.

Everyone was in uniform, a religious garb that made no concessions to the climate or the informality of jungle life. The men all wore blue pressed trousers, a blue tie and a silver sheriff's star pinned to a white, long-sleeved shirt. Each woman wore a long, blue skirt and a white, short-sleeved shirt with a blue dicky bow. The flock looked like the Plymouth Brethren on a jungle trek: hardly like followers of a religion with indigenous roots.

Ayahuasca is a brew made from boiling the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with the leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). The word itself means "vine of the spirits" in the Incan language Quechua, and the drug plays a prominent role in the culture of the native peoples of the western Amazon - to such a degree, it is said, that ayahuasca is the single most important instrument in creating and sustaining tribal identity.

Settlers in the Amazon at the beginning of the 20th century, introduced to ayahuasca through their contact with Native Americans, developed new uses for it. In Peru and Colombia it became the tool of shamans, faith healers and herbalists. In Brazil, however, it took a different course: a black rubber tapper who had emigrated from the rural north-east, Mestre Raimundo Irineu Serra, used the drug to create a religion, Santo Daime.

Next to the church at Céu do Mapiá is the tomb of Padrinho Sebastião, a disciple of Irineu's who founded the Santo Daime community here in 1983. The village attracts many middle-class Brazilians, as well as a few foreigners, and they have evolved a successful way of living in the rainforest. The defining characteristic of the rural Amazon is extreme poverty. There was none in Céu do Mapiá. It felt, in fact, like being in a village somewhere in Europe.

Before the ceremony started, the worshippers queued in an orderly line for the drug - the Daime - served in a corner of the large hexagonal main hall. Each of us was given a small glass of the muddy liquid, poured from a ceramic water filter. The man who served mine, also dressed in a shirt and tie, could have been a barman in a gentleman's club passing me a shot of Bailey's. Behind him were gallons of Daime in office-sized mineral-water barrels, stacked on shelves.

Ayahuasca being a powerful hallucinogen, there are many strict rules governing its use, and these are zealously enforced by church wardens. I was almost instantly reprimanded for crossing my arms: crossing any limbs is prohibited because it breaks the free flow of good energy.

The taste was dreadful, but I didn't vomit as many people do. I was then shown to where I should stand. In the centre of the church, musicians were sitting around a small, star-shaped table covered in flowers and candles. The men stood separately from the women, with everyone positioned in con centric hexagons around the table. Virgins and non-virgins had their own sections within both groups. The virgins sang the first few words of each hymn, and then the musicians joined in. Once they got going, the rest of us picked up the tune and the dancing began.

One, two, three, four. We all moved left. One, two, three, four. We all moved right. The congregation revolved in one direction and then the other, like a circular chorus line on an endless loop. Almost everyone had his or her own rattle with which to beat out a rhythm. The ritual had a distinct beauty. The white-and-blue flock swayed back and forth like the tide. We were due to sing about 60 hymns and the ceremony was scheduled to last until dawn.

The hymns were short songs with simple lines and catchy tunes, like nursery rhymes, or even advertising jingles. The melodies hardly varied from one hymn to the next. The style alternated between march, waltz and mazurka.

To believers, the altered state that the Daime creates is a spirit world. The path to happiness and self-knowledge is through the work done in this spiritual realm.

Unlike most drugs, which require the user to take ever-increasing doses to get the same buzz, the more Daime you take, the less you need, because your mind becomes more res ponsive. It follows that those unaccustomed to Daime, like me, often need a larger amount than others to trigger any effect. I did not hallucinate. I did feel sensitive to the intense energy that the service was creating. The sense of belonging was great. I felt part of a giant wheel.

An accordionist joined in, adding a lovely warm texture to the overall sound. And - even if this doesn't count as an epiphany - I achieved at least some kind of intellectual enlightenment. The accordion playing was in the unmistakable style of the folk music of north-eastern Brazil. The lyrics stood out as belonging to that region's traditions of improvisational poetry. The church service represented the early-20th-century culture of rural north-eastern Brazil, as perfectly preserved in the rainforest. Even the uniforms made sense: they were expressions of hill-billy Brazilians' Sunday best.

Santo Daime may appear to be like a religion invented on LSD, yet it is an immaculate syn thesis of Brazil. In it, you can see influences of the three continents that have populated this country: the circle dancing is Afro-Brazilian, the hymns and iconography are Catholic, and the Daime is Native American. In fact, in view of its indigenous basis, Santo Daime is perhaps the most authentic of all Brazil's faiths.

Alex Bellos is the author of "Futebol: the Brazilian way of life" (Bloomsbury, £7.99)