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Rastafarianism

Although relatively small in number (there were about 14,000 firm adherents in the early 1980s), Rastafarians have had a wide-ranging influence on Jamaican culture. Their identifying dreadlocks (long, sometimes braided, hair) can be seen at virtually every level of society. In 2010, there were 290,000 Rastafarians.

Stressing the continuity of black African culture throughout history, Rastas believe in their direct spiritual descent from King Solomon's liaison with the Queen of Sheba. Rastafarianism, according to some, is based on an intuitive interpretation of history and scripture -- sometimes with broad brush strokes -- with special emphasis on the reading of Old Testament prophecies. Rastafarians stress contemplation, meditation, a willingness to work inwardly to the "I" (inner divinity), and an abstractly political bent.

Their beliefs are enhanced through sacramental rites of ganja (marijuana) smoking, Bible reading (with particular stress on references to Ethiopia), music, physical exercise, art, poetry, and cottage industries like handicrafts and broom making. Reggae music developed from Rasta circles has produced such international stars as the fervently religious Bob Marley. Jamaica's politicians, aware of the allure of Rastafarianism, often pay homage to its beliefs.

A male Rastafarian's beard is a sign of his pact with God (Jah or Jehovah), and his Bible is his source of knowledge. His dreadlocks are a symbol of his link with the Lion of Judah and Elect of God, the late Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, who, while a prince, was known as Ras Tafari (hence the religion's name). During the emperor's 1966 visit to Jamaica, more than 100,000 visitors greeted his airplane in something approaching religious ecstasy. The visit almost completely eclipsed Queen Elizabeth's a few months earlier.

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