At first sight, Sunrise Valley looks like a miniature theme park—where visitors can see copies of the world's wonders without having to travel to the actual sites. Built in Planaltina, a satellite city of Brasilia, the lakeside temple complex features a pyramid, a spaceship-like temple, a six-pointed praying center, and several ellipse-shaped sculptures.
While the valley’s physical setting can feel disorienting, it is not accidental. Meticulously designed, it is reflective of the religion’s intricate, all-comprising doctrines and beliefs—drawn from a diversity of religions and civilizations, including Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, the Inca, and ancient Egypt.
According to Sunrise Valley followers, extraterrestrial beings landed on Earth 32,000 years ago to advance human civilizations. The beings then returned to Earth through successive incarnations across various cultures and eras. Valley members, known as mediums, believe themselves to be the beings’ latest incarnation, the Jaguars.
Sunrise Valley was established by Neiva Chaves Zelaya, known as Aunt Neiva, in 1959. A widow with four children, she was working as a truck driver in Brasilia, then under construction to replace Rio de Janeiro as Brazil’s capital. There, she said, she began to experience psychic episodes, which she later believed to be visits by spirits from the extraterrestrial world.
Neiva said she was primarily guided by Pai Seta Branca, or “Father White Arrow,” a spirit emissary who is depicted in statues and drawings today as a native South American leader.
Brazilian photographer Gui Christ was drawn to Sunrise Valley because of its fantastical origin story and the mediums’ colorful, lavish garbs. He documented an array of rituals, some of them involving long hours of chanting while encircling the lake.
Two mediums usually work in pairs during the rituals. An apara, or reception medium, has the job of physically incorporating a spirit, be it benign or troubled, and an indoctrinator medium takes on the task of teaching the spirit and helping repel it back to the spiritual world. Followers believe the rituals also help mediums atone the karmic debts from their past lives.
A believer of Umbanda, a spiritual Afro-Brazilian religion, Christ felt struck by an indescribable energy while photographing the rituals. “I have seen many religions in Africa, Asia, and in Brazil but this is the first time I feel I was connected to something,” he says. “I need[ed] to get out of the temple because I was feeling dizzy.”
Sunrise Valley is one of Brazil’s fastest-growing religious movements, claiming 800,000 followers and 600 affiliated temples globally, according to Kelly Hayes, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Indianapolis.
Still, mainstream society and religious communities in Brazil often shun Sunrise Valley, categorizing them and other spiritualist groups as cults. Tension is especially rife between Valley members and the evangelicals who have built churches near the community, targeting members for conversion. “[The evangelicals] believe Valley members are under the influence of the devils,” Hayes says.
Instead of dismissing the Valley as an innocuous cult, people should consider it in the context of its foundation, Hayes says. Established in the 1950s, the religion was popular among poor farmers and migrants who came to help build Brasilia. “Brasilia, at that time, signified Brazil leaping into the modern world and becoming a modern nation,” Hayes says. But the hyper-organized concrete city turned out to be an inhospitable dystopia, plagued by overcrowding and crime.
The spiritual healing the Valley offers is therapeutic for some of Brasilia's discontent souls. “A lot of it is about re-narrating your life,” Hayes explains. "Those narratives give lots of people a sense that they have some control over their lives ... that justice and equality are possible through your work.”