Deep in the Amazonian rain forest, one of the world's fastest- growing religions has its rarely seen headquarters. At the heart of its rituals is a substance - enjoyed by, among others, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Sting - which, believers allege,e, puts those who take it in direct contact with the divine. Here, a non- believer with an interest in altered states of mind puts their claims to the ultimate test: that of first-hand experience
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IT HAS been said that every journey to the wilderness is also a journey into one's own inner landscape. And, usually, the greater the perils, the greater the rewards. Never has the truth of these sentiments been brought home to me so forcefully as when, late last year, I ventured up a winding creek in the upper reaches of the Amazon into the heart of the rainforest, in search of the village headquarters of the Brazilian church of Santo Daime.

For two cramped, bone-jarring days, our canoe had snaked through the forbidding green curtain that fringed the river and grew denser as we advanced. The blaring outboard reverberated like the combined gossiping of a thousand voices, and the quiet, as we drifted during refuelling, opened the air to a symphony of buzzing, whooping, chirrups and trills. The closer we got to our destination, the more nature seemed to close in on us; trees began to shove rudely into the canoe - some in their eagerness had stumbled across the river, their semi-intact root system maintaining a living archway. Butterflies of all shapes, sizes and colours became more numerous, the birds less wary of humans.

Late in the afternoon of the second day, we rounded a corner, and, suddenly, there it was. The jungle opened up into clearings on either side of the river - the banks connected by a wooden bridge - dotted with simple bungalows, sleepy dairy cows and villagers working the fields. Here was the 500-strong religious community of Mapia, made up of indigenous rubber-tappers and their families, urban hippies and a smattering of other outsiders. This remote region of the western Amazon is close to the point where the borders of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru shake hands; the first settlers arrived here after an epic trek 15 years ago, to live as members of the church of Santo Daime.

On the face of it, this is just one among many South American sects which combine aspects of Catholicism with other elements, among them indigenous indian animism and, as a legacy of Brazil's involvement in the slave trade, West African animism too. In fact, there is much more to it than that. This is not just because, since its foundation in the 1930s, the church has spread throughout South America and beyond, with an estimated 5,000 followers worldwide and groups established in Spain, Italy, Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the US and Japan. It is also because Santo Daime has at its heart a unique religious ingredient: a sacred drink, which, followers believe, gives those who drink it direct contact with the divine, unmediated by priests or symbolic rituals. The purpose of my visit was to test this claim for myself.

THE MAIN ingredient of Daime, the sacred drink, is ayahuasca ("vine of the soul" in the Quecha language), derived from the jagube vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). Combined with the leaves of a relative of the coffee bush, Psychotria viridis, it produces what aficionados call an "entheogen" (an "inner-god- releasing" substance), causing alterations in consciousness that can be understood only by those who take it.

Anthropological evidence suggests that the use of ayahuasca in the Amazon basin dates back 10,000 years or more; some claim that it was the driving force of the Inca civilisation. If so, however, it was suppressed by the 16th- century conquistadores, and for the next 300 years or so knowledge of its preparation survived only among isolated indigenous people.

In 1920s, an Afro-Brazilian rubber-tapper called Raimundo Irineu Serra was working as a government surveyor in a remote part of the country. A striking man, 7ft tall, he was invited by some Peruvian indians to join them in ayahuasca drinking sessions. They later taught him how to make it. According to Santo Daime lore, Mestre ("Master") Irineu - as initiates now know him - was smitten during one of these sessions by a vision of a female entity. This entity - which he referred to sometimes as the Virgin Mary, sometimes as a local deity such as the Queen of the Forest and White Moon - scolded him for drinking a degraded, unworthy version of the holy drink, and instructed him how to make a better, more powerful brew, mixing the leaves of a second plant (the Psychotria viridis) to provide a "feminine" counterbalance to the "masculine" jagube. Irineu named this drink Daime, Portuguese for "give me", and began to develop a new theology, based on hymns which came to him during further ayahuasca-induced visions of the Queen. This body of hymns, swollen to about 1,000 by contributions from his successors, today forms the entirety of the Santo Daime church's doctrine.

In 1930, Irineu settled in the fast-growing frontier town of Rio Branco, where he led small ceremonies in his home. The Christian elements of his new religion - ideas of equality and fraternity, for example - appealed to the poor, disenfranchised and uprooted population there, while its elements of African animism and native mythology appealed to their experience of forest life. And, while the traditional use of ayahuasca by Amazonian tribes to communicate with Sacha Runa, the spirit of the jungle, has steadily declined this century, the church of Santo Daime has gone from strength to strength. In the Sixties it came to the attention of a few Western psychonauts, including William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, who knew it as yaje and wrote about its "telepathic" effects in the 1963 Beat classic The Yage Letters; more recently, Europeans and North Americans of a New-Age bent have again been taking an interest in indigenous religions, and venturing into places like Brazil in search of enlightenment.

Irineu died in 1971, but his church was by then well-established, and it continued to grow under his successor, Sebastiao Mota de Melo. It was de Melo who, in 1981 - following an altercation between followers in Rio Branco and the police - announced that he had been instructed in a vision to found a new community deep in the forest, dedicated to the Santo Daime religion, to living in ecological and spiritual harmony, and to recovering lost knowledge of healing from the forest spirits. Around 100 followers accompanied him on the arduous four-month trek into the jungle. Finally they made it to a fork in the tiny tributary of the Rio Purus; before the year was out, the first trees had been felled in the clearing of what is now known as Ceu do Mapia - Heaven of Mapia.

After a precarious start, the church began to expand and proselytise. Word of the faith and its sacred brew spread steadily beyond the forest, initially in southern Brazil, where the first urban Santo Daime churches were established, and later to Europe and America. In return, a stream of converts - primarily from the affluent middle classes - began to trickle towards Ceu do Mapia, bringing with them much-needed cash and other material contributions. By 1988, the church had become sufficiently well-known for the Brazilian government to set up a commission to investigate media allegations that the cult broke up families and brainwashed its members. (The commission, and another in 1992, found no evidence to substantiate the allegations.) Today, that inaccessible settlement is the headquarters of a religion that, its European sympathisers believe, may soon develop an influence in the West comparable to that of Eastern religions in the Sixties.

THE hexagonal wooden church of Mapia is perched on a shallow hill overlooking the village, with spectacular views of the jungle's canopy. This is near the centre of a million-acre national park, and the situation alone is enough to fill the mind with religious awe. Floris, the photographer, and I were here - after long negotiations with Santo Daime followers in the Netherlands, where we had first come across the sect - to observe and participate in, along with a handful of other novices, the highlight of the church's calendar: a 12-hour celebration of Mestre Irineu's birth. It was an intimidating prospect - even for an inhabitant of Amsterdam with an interest in altered states of consciousness. I had dabbled with the Daime brew in the Netherlands, but only in a timid, non-committal way. The thought of participating fully in the ritual - of draining, as it were, the cup to its dregs - was as frightening as it was irresistibly exciting.

Unlike LSD, the action of Daime is not automatic. Its effect is different on everyone, and indeed each time it is drunk. A complex synergy between one's inner state, the atmosphere in the group and the strength and preparation of the brew are all supposed to play a part. Tips for maximising your chances of something extraordinary happening include abstaining from alcohol and sex for three days before and after, preparing with prayer and meditation, being smartly turned out (men in white suits and black ties, women in green skirts, white blouses, tiaras and rainbow ribbons), and, above all, being present: concentrating on what is going on and "opening one's heart" to the messages of Christian fellowship and multicultural eco-symbolism contained in the simple Portuguese songs, Irineu's hymns.

In the event, the actual service was, for me, a strange mixture of anticlimax and bizarre "revelation". Proceedings began at 5pm. There were around 500 initiates, or fardados, in the hexagonal church; we queued to receive the sacramental brew. The first glass of the bitter-sour Daime had no noticeable effect. But by the third small cup, things started to happen. A bystander vomited a couple of times over the side of the church wall, a clear sign of an "inner purge" in the eyes of the Mapians, while I started to become aware of forces welling up and flowing through my body. The air felt somehow thicker, flashes of blueish energy crackled across the floor. An intense introspection crept up on me, focused on a single question: why are you here?

The answer "to write a story" did not suffice, although it was true. Why was I - why were we - really here? The question became a dialogue that spiralled deeper and deeper inside, entwining itself with all the other questions I had about Mapia, Santo Daime, its organisation, its doctrine, but also about motivation, ambition, responsibility - about life itself.

Confused, I wandered out to the "chill out" area of the church and sat down, my head hanging, and closed my eyes. Then the strangest sensation came over me: I realised with astonishment that, at this micro-moment, I was experiencing what it felt like to be a tree. I was so shocked I leapt away from the sensation, losing it. According to the Daime philosophy, I had accessed Channel One of the "Amazonian TV", the lowest astral level, where the spirits of animals and plants reside. Sensations of being inside some jungle mammal, and later a fish, followed; pretty holographic spangles wandered into my vision. The service ended at 5am.

On balance, I felt shaken but not stirred. This was clearly not a drug to be taken lightly, but whether or not it had any religious significance was a different question. Over the next 10 days, still curious, I wandered around the village, exploring the breathtaking forest and talking to fellow- initiates, joining in community activities, mundane as well as esoteric. Day-to-day life here revolves around rituals, including the making of the magic potion. And it was during this process that I did indeed experience a moment of chemically-induced epiphany.

It came quite unexpectedly, while I was helping to pound the tough jagube vines. Eight strong young men sat on stools around a neat pile of the plant; my heart dropped to my stomach as I saw the size of the mallets. Downing a serious glass of Daime in one, while praying that it would indeed "dai-me forca" or give me strength, I hefted the mallet above my head like the man opposite me, and whumped in time with the others. Within minutes I could feel my palms start to blister. Every so often I struck the wooden anvil rather than the jagube, sending juddering shocks up my arms. In my Timberlands and beach resort T-shirt, I felt like some stupid tourist at a New-Age Club Med for the ecologically-correct.

Then the power of the Daime began to make itself felt. In my inner ear, there seemed to be voices. I wasn't taking notes at the time, but it felt as if I was either understanding the words to the songs, or telepathically picking up what was going on. It's hard in retrospect to be sure. The vine was telling me how to bash it properly, how to learn from it; that the power that made it grow was the same power that gave me life. Five hours later, with barely a break, we finished the pile of vines. Despite the pain, my hands were barely red. Next day, my muscles were not at all sore or even stiff. Perhaps this does not seem particularly remarkable, in cold print. But I felt as if I had indeed been in touch with something passing human understanding.

REVELATION or recreation? It is, clearly, hard to be sure. As an atheist, I was not predisposed to believe the church's claims; but neither, having experienced them first-hand, was I particularly disposed to dismiss them. On balance my reaction was not so much to question my world view as to ask a more obvious question: what is this stuff and how does it work?

Daime has been analysed by scientists and found to contain a complex of molecules working synergistically, one of which, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is one of the most powerful psychoactive substances known. Three years ago, biomedical researchers and psychiatrists from UCLA and Helsinki University set out to study the psychopharmacology of ayahuasca, as the mixed brew is colloquially known to its users, and its long-term effects.

Published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, the study compared long-term members of the 5,000-strong Uniao do Vegetal sect (a more secular group that also uses ayahuasca, and the one with which rock star and eco- activist Sting took part in a ritual in 1994) with a control group of non-users. Several statistically significant psychological differences were found: UDV members tended to be more stoical, more gregarious, more confident and uninhibitedly optimistic. There was also a suggestion that long-term use of the drug had made them less self-destructive, impulsive, angry, alienated and generally unsuccessful - although it was noted that this group had had a greater than usual tendency to such negative traits before they became involved with the UDV.

The full implications of this research remain unclear. However, the scientists concluded that there was no indication of an "undesirable neurological or psychiatric state" as a result of "the religious use of ayahuasca". On the contrary, they pointed out, such use "is protected by law [in Brazil] because of its apparent benefits to the individual, their families and community."

THE FACT that the use of a mind-altering substance is at its very heart makes it unlikely that Santo Daime will ever achieve international respectability. But then respectability is arguably not what religions are for; and it has achieved a momentum, at least, that seems set to sustain it for many years. The village thrives on a combination of small-scale agriculture; secondary industries like the manufacture of rubber products and banana- paste puddings; and donations from church members around the world. The community also works with an ethno-botanical institute to provide healing herbs and salves from the forest. In fact, with its own school, and a clinic providing the only health care in the region for indigenous people, it is arguably a model of sustainable forest development.

Daime is not illegal in Brazil, but many European countries, and the US, take a different view. This year, Daime communities were established in California and Oregon; it is felt that - given the legal rights granted to the Native American Peyote Church - members may have a strong case for legal exemption. In Holland, Daime is legally imported, duty paid on it, and the two churches there keep tax returns. In Germany and Japan, police questioned a number of church members, but no arrests were made. Alfredo, the current leader, is adamant that his church should not operate underground; better, he says, that believers should face criticism and explain their "path".

But there is only so much that can be explained. Science may have uncovered evidence suggesting some benefits from Daime use, but the rational, scientific approach only takes you so far: the visions, the imagery, what believers consider the insights - these cannot be objectively assessed. Even I, having directly experienced the church's mysteries, feel unable to say with any certainty or confidence what I experienced, or what it means. As Valdemiro, a white-haired old man I met deep in the jungle, said: "You're writing a story about the Daime? Ask the Moon. She has all your answers."