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AP Photos: Bolivians bless skulls at festival

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Hundreds of Bolivians carried human skulls to the chapel at La Paz cemetery for blessing on Friday, asking for health, money, love and other favors as part of an annual highland festival.

The Roman Catholic Church considers the skull festival to be pagan, but it doesn't prohibit people from taking part in it. Mass was not being held at the chapel on Friday, but a bowl of holy water was left out so people could bless the skulls they were carrying in the ritual celebrated a week after the Day of the Dead.

According to tradition, the skulls should be from unknown people, but in some cases they are distant relatives. The devotees say they get the skulls, which they call "natitas," from abandoned cemeteries.

The festival is a mixture of Andean ancestral worship and Catholic beliefs. Experts say it was common in pre-Columbian times to keep skulls as trophies and display them to symbolize death and rebirth.

The skulls are carried to the cemetery chapel in urns of wood or glass, or in toy boxes. All have crowns of nardos, a curative plant with white, fragrant blossoms. Some skulls wear hats or caps inscribed with a name. Others wear sunglasses or even sport a lit cigarette in their mouths.

The festival began with prayers and songs by mariachi and other musical groups in the cemetery gardens. A woman street vendor arrived with two skulls, labeled as Hilario and Dionicia. Among the pile of skulls waiting to be blessed were two labeled as Juanito and Juanita. They were brought by police from the neighboring community of El Alto, who say the skulls sometimes help them clear up difficult cases.

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