Chamula

Chiapas, Mexico


Step back in time. Connect with the mysticism of San Juan Chamulá, a Tzotzil community that wove its own ancient tendrils within the Catholic Church and witness their indigenous rituals in a unique religious fusion.


 
modern, like the rest of the city
 

Some things have changed here in the last few years, judging by what my friends saw then and what we saw during our visit In March 2017 (I was here with my husband and two friends, travelling independently.) There is no more chicken blood in the church and to get inside is a simple process: just pay the entry fee of 25 pesos in the booth next to the church (this part was a bit scary before). But let's start from the beginning.

San Juan Chamulá is a town 2,200m up in the mountains about 25 minutes from San Cristóbal de Las Casas by car (always supposing that you can find your way out of the charming maze of San Cristóbal!) Park the car, not in the main square because you'll get moved on, but there are plenty of spaces nearby. Step over the threshold of the church of San Juan Bautista and find yourself transported back in time to before the Spanish conquerors brought Christianity.

The road to Chamulá from San Cristóbal is a continuous chain of Tzotzil allotments, houses and fields. The locals breed goats that are essential to this community. Apart from meat and milk they provide the hide that the Tzotzil use for their traditional clothing. A skirt from the matted goat hide is designed to last for 20 years!

 
We saw many village women taking goats to pasture. Below, women in goat hide skirts with long fibre.

We saw many village women taking goats to pasture. Below, women in goat hide skirts with long fibre.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_What_to_Do_Mexico_Mayan_pyramid_cemetery_Chiapas_church_Chamula_12.jpg
The Tzotzil man, building his house, wears white wool vest which indicates his important social status. Others wear black vests.

The Tzotzil man, building his house, wears white wool vest which indicates his important social status. Others wear black vests.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_What_to_Do_Mexico_Mayan_pyramid_cemetery_Chiapas_church_Chamula_13.jpg
 

The church of San Juan was built during the Spanish conquest of Chiapas but I would take those dates with a pinch of salt. I did not find any evidence that those dates are correct, despite the fact that those dates are stated under the middle bell. There are a few churches in Mexico that claim to be the first Catholic church in the country (for example La Antigua in Veracruz, although the sources differ even here, between 1523 and 1525).

 
Is this a catholic decoration? Or Spanish? Or Tzotzil?

Is this a catholic decoration? Or Spanish? Or Tzotzil?

.
 

Built as a Catholic church during the conquest, the church is now community owned. It is adorned in abundance with 4 and 8 pointed crosses that appear in an alternating sequence. There is an abundance of four pointed crosses, or a combination of two of these crosses as the 8 pointed cross in the ancient Maya artefacts. They are actually two separate four pointed crosses, superimposed. It is hard to believe that this would have been a decoration choice when the church was built during the conquest. I think we are looking at architectural syncretism, i.e. the Mayan motif and belief was added to the Catholic church at some point.

 
My finger points at the Earth Cross and above it 8-pointed cross, which includes the Galactic Cross.

My finger points at the Earth Cross and above it 8-pointed cross, which includes the Galactic Cross.

The Earth Cross and the Galactic Cross on the church door alternate. The crossing of the Ecliptic and the Milky Way?

The Earth Cross and the Galactic Cross on the church door alternate. The crossing of the Ecliptic and the Milky Way?

 

What you need here is an understanding of the Mayan creation myth in the context of the Great Celestial Conjunctions they encode. According to Jan Wicherink, the vertical cross represents the Earth Cross (also referred to as the Tree of Life, the sacred Ceiba tree) and the diagonal represents the Galactic Cross. The 8-pointed cross rotates and becomes a single 4 pointed cross four times during a precession cycle! 8 points represent the crossing of the Ecliptic and the Milky Way. I find it a bit hard to imagine how the crossing happens in the universe but I find this explanation really fascinating.

The Church of John the Baptist looks like a church, but effectively, it's a pre-Christian Mayan shrine. There are no pews or seating of any kind. Visitors just needs to walk about. The floor is covered in very long pine needles, almost like rushes, and they are green and fresh. Little groups of local Tzotzil Maya clear square spaces on the flagstones among the pine needles and plant rows of candles along the cracks between them. The families include the very young and the very, very old. Around them, the church caretakers studiously scrape away the old wax with spatulas. The atmosphere is reverent but relaxed. You'll be tempted to stop and stare at an old lady being massaged by a shaman, or a family man about to break the neck of the chicken under his arm, but keep moving. The caretakers will tell you that you're very welcome; just keep moving and don't stare (nor take any photos).

 
Photography in the church is forbidden so I borrowed a photo by Saul Ruiz.

Photography in the church is forbidden so I borrowed a photo by Saul Ruiz.

 

There are figures in glass boxes lined up along the walls. They look like Christian saints, but in reality, they are Mayan deities. As you enter the church, it's clear that the figures on the left are getting a great deal more attention than the figures on the right. They are decked with fresh flowers, while the ones on the right have no decoration. I only learnt after my visit (there's never enough time for research!) that the figures on the right belonged to the old church of San Sebastian, about 600m south-west of here. It was destroyed – I don't know how – 100 years ago and the locals blamed these saints for failing to protect it. So for years they stood in San Juan Bautista with their faces to the wall and their hands cut off. Now they are allowed to face inwards, and their mutilations are covered by robes. I wish I'd known that when I was there!

We witnessed many toasts to the saints. There were Coca Cola bottles in front of each group, for the children. Adults were drinking 'pox', a liquor made of corn, sugar cane and wheat; the word 'pox' [pronounced posh] in Tzotzil means 'medicine, cane liquor, cure'. It was and still is commonly used in religious ceremonies and festivals in Chiapas.

Each group also had eggs handy, for the shaman or curandero's cleansings. It is a unique shamanic healing form which uses eggs to energetically cleanse one's aura and to help cleanse the body, mind and soul of negativity.

 
A local family pays respect outside the church, father holding the dead chicken. The man in the straw hat is guarding the entry door.

A local family pays respect outside the church, father holding the dead chicken. The man in the straw hat is guarding the entry door.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_What_to_Do_Mexico_Mayan_pyramid_cemetery_Chiapas_church_Chamula_11.jpg
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Town_Villages_Chiapas_Chamula_18.jpg
A local man celebrating the birth of his child, with a mariachi band.

A local man celebrating the birth of his child, with a mariachi band.

 

This is not a Spanish town. 99.5 per cent of the population of nearly 80,000 speak an indigenous language. It's not a Christian town. You will see crosses everywhere, but they are not crucifixes. They are representations of the Mayan world tree – the ceiba (or kapok). The interior of the church is hung with long pink cloths representing the sacred Maya mountains. The painted doorway is full of Mayan symbols. And here's an interesting thing: photography is absolutely forbidden. Why? One theory is linked to the widespread idea that photographs steal your soul, but even more intriguing is the issue of mirrors (which pre-digital cameras contained) in Maya thought. Mirrors opened gates to the underworld. They needed to be treated with great respect. The deities in San Juan Bautista all hold mirrors. As a European, for me this all chimes in with the story of Perseus, and how he avoided being turned to stone by viewing the Gorgon Medusa only in the reflection of his polished shield. Powerful stuff!

 
The village healer in a black goat hide skirt, 2017.

The village healer in a black goat hide skirt, 2017.

Young vendors, during my visit in 2019.

Young vendors, during my visit in 2019.

 

With my little group, we walked back out into the sunlight, our heads full of pagan images: the flicker and smoke of the candles, Mayan deities masquerading as saint. The square was full of Tzotzil women in their distinctive black (goat hide) skirts. I took a photo (phew, at last!) of one woman. She did not like it but approached me, offering me a private cleansing ritual. She turned out to be a shaman or spiritual leader, who rented a place near the church to perform her egg cleansing rituals. I have experienced this in Playa del Carmen, and I was keen to see how it worked in Chamulá. In Playa, my egg was dropped after the ceremony in a glass of water and my 'curandora' (the healer) was able to have a vision of my health status (she was pretty correct, actually).

 
The private altar.

The private altar.

First the healer connected to her own gods and spirits...

First the healer connected to her own gods and spirits...

 

The village has over 100 spiritual leaders who are appointed for a year to look after a particular saint. They have to maintain a shrine for the whole year (and earn and save money to be able to do so, as the consumption of candles is pretty high!). It is a prestigious role and they can be on a waiting list for a long time. The condition is that they have to be married (not necessarily to just one person, apparently!) and they can be also female spiritual leaders, like mine.

'My' spiritual leader led us all into her dark premises. Again, the set-up appeared Christian at first sight: there were images of the Virgin Mary and flowers are universal. Among the objects, eggs, of course, and a carved duck, in Spanish, a companion. Animals are revered and respected because they connect us all.

Apparently, eggs can take on negative vibrations. The healer therefore pinpoints specific areas and allows the egg's sponge-like properties to absorb your inner energy. The negativity, stress, curses, whatever bothers you then transfer from you to the egg and the egg traps the energy. Whether you believe in such powers, or not, I can certainly say that as the healer moved the eggs over my body and intoned her blessings in Tzotzil, I felt cleansed and uplifted by very different powers.

 
Then I was given my own candles to start the ritual.
Limpia, the cleansing ritual.

Limpia, the cleansing ritual.

 

Another peculiar site in San Juan Chamulá is the cemetery, with the ruined church of San Sebastian. There are no headstones, just multicoloured crosses. I came here on my second visit to the village, in March 2019. The atmosphere was pretty special. At the time of our visit there was a mariachi music band playing at the funeral.

The best time to come to Chamulá is Sunday, as it is a market day.

 
The cemetery with the church of San Sebastian (on the right).

The cemetery with the church of San Sebastian (on the right).

The market on the church plaza. Right: wool for sale.

The market on the church plaza. Right: wool for sale.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_What_to_Do_Mexico_Mayan_pyramid_cemetery_Chiapas_church_Chamula_3.jpg
Hammocks_and_Ruins_What_to_Do_Mexico_Mayan_pyramid_cemetery_Chiapas_church_Chamula_8.jpg
 

Mix & Match

A good half-day trip from San Cristóbal de Las Casas. We had lunch at an unassuming but perfectly adequate restaurant on the left of the road back into San Cristóbal (I don't recall the name, but it was just before an extremely posh-looking place on the right, so all tastes are catered for!)

Sources:

Jan Wicherink: Great Celestial Conjunction Crosses