Brasilia: Born of prophecy, haven for cultists, mystics

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 her head at her 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 compared 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 in this particular location.

Inspiration for all sorts

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.

"The spot is very powerful," said U.S. writer Alex Shoumatoff, author of a book on the history of Brasilia.

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 slender towers of the Brazilian National Congress, between which the sun rises, Stonehenge-like, on April 21, the date the capital was 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 for miles in every direction, red earth and green trees spread out beneath a seemingly limitless expanse of blue sky.

Then there is the prophecy.

In 1883, an Italian priest named Dom Bosco had a strange 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.

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.

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.

`Help the disincarnated'

"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, 35. Pinned to her chest was a badge identifying a spirit named Drogana as her personal guide.

"It's a logical religion that works with faith and reason," Oliveira said. "It only looks weird from the outside."

At the Cidade Ecletica, or Eclectic City, about an hour's drive outside 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.

For the more academically minded, there's the International Holistic University, a center for people who seek higher consciousness.

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 Akhenaten and Brasilia was the modern version of Akhenaten's made-to-order capital along the banks of the Nile.

Kubitschek and Akhenaten dedicated themselves to constructing their new capitals, and both died 16 years after inaugurating the cities, Kern noted.