The 144,000 Antankarana, meaning “people of the rocks,” are one of forty people groups of Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island. Though previously ruled by the Sakalava, the Merina, and the French, they have retained their group identity. Their present leader, Ampanjaka Tsimiharo III (see picture), is a descendant of King Tsimiaro I (1812-1825), who vowed that his people would convert to Islam if they survived the Merina invasion.
There is much syncretism of Islam with ethnic animistic religions. Some traditions, like the feeding of the sacred crocodiles (in which, according to legend, the inhabitants of a village which disappeared under Lake Anivorano are believed to live), are observed by most of the people. The Tsangan festival, which is aimed at consecrating royal power, includes the sacrifice of cattle and a pilgrimage to the sacred caves which were a burial place for the kings.
The Antankarana are fishermen and cattle owners. They speak a distinct dialect of Malagasy and have no Bible or Christian media. Madagascar’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom is generally respected by the government.