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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

San Juan Chamula

After spending the night in the hotel, we got up early and took a mini bus out of San Cristobal and travelled to San Juan Chamula.San Juan Chamula is a municipality and township, with over 50,000 inhabitants. Chamula is located in the Chiapas highlands, at an altitude of 2,200 meters (7,200 feet), and is inhabited by the indigenous Tzotzil Maya people, whose Tzotzil language is one of the many Mayan languages. It took about about half an hour to navigate up into the mountains through windy country roads. There was a stark change in the scenery once we travelled some 10 km out of San Cristobal, from the clean and well paved tourist frequented streets to the rugged countryside.

The town enjoys unique autonomous status within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in the village and the people of Chamula have their own police force. The reason we made our way to Chamula was to visit the famous Mayan church which is situated in the town.

The church of San Juan, in the municipal cabecera (headtown),looks like a normal Catholic church from the outside, but on the inside , the local population still practice pre-conquest Mayan customs mixed with some Spanish catholic traditions and more recent innovations. Inside the church the air is filled with smoke from burning copal resin incense. After a few minutes inside we were all coughing and spluttering as the thick clouds burned into our eyes and lungs.

Many parts of the church inside look like a traditional Catholic church, such as the dressed-up wooden statues of saints in large wooden cases that line the walls. The saints look like normal Catholic statues apart from they are all wearing mirrors which hang from their necks. According to Mayan beliefs the mirrors are used to deflect evil.It is also said that when the people pray to the saint the soul of the person praying leaves their body.The mirror supposedly helps the soul find its way back by reflecting it back onto the body. The Mayans believed that mirrors opened portals into the Otherworld, through which ancestors and gods materialise themselves. They gave rulers the special vision of prophecy.Despite their appearances the saints are not Catholic saints, but representations of Mayan gods.

As well as the mirrors hanging from their necks, we also notices that the saints were missing arms and hands, which is is a result of a punishment that was carried out on them by the local people. The saints originally belonged to the church of San Sebastian which is pictured below. The church lies in ruin in the entrance of the village as it was destroyed almost a century ago by a fire. Not much remains but the local people managed to rescue the statues before it completely burned to the ground. After saving the statues, the local people decided to punish them as the hadn't protected the church from harm. For several decades the statues were placed inside the church facing the wall as well as having their hands and arms cut off.

I didn't take any photographs as it is strictly prohibited within the church. Some of the locals believe that taking a photograph could steal a part of their soul. We were warned before going into the town that the rule is strictly enforced and acts of violence had taken place against tourists who did not respect the rules. We witnessed people having their phones and cameras searched inside the church due to the locals suspecting that they contained photos taken within it. Some locals are also said to protect infants from the cameras, covering their babies and often their own head with a scarf whenever they are in the vicinity of photography. They believe that a baby's soul is fragile – it is prone to leave the body and a photograph may “blind” the soul, making its return impossible.

Inside the church there are no pews, and the floor area is completely covered in a carpet of green pine boughs and plastic bottles (mostly Coca Cola). The church is always busy inside, with people carrying out tradional Mayan rituals. Curanderos (medicine men) diagnose medical, psychological or ‘evil-eye’ afflictions and prescribe remedies such as candles of specific colors and sizes, specific flower petals or feathers. Along with these objects , we witnessed the people sacrificing chickens by killing them as offerings. Groups of people were knelt on the floor of the church with sacrificial items, sticking candles to the floor with melted wax, drinking ceremonial cups of Posh, artisanal sugar-cane-based liquor, and a more recent tradition of drinking Coca Cola or Pepsi, while chanting prayers in the local Tzotzil dialect.

After visiting San Juan Chumula, we went to another village close by called Zinacantan. We walked through the area and visited a local family. Inside their house they prepared tortillas by hand over their fire and practiced backstrap weaving (a tradition that has been practised since ancient times). There are a few photos of below of the colourful textiles which they produce.

After a pretty exhausting day walking around in the roasting sun we headed back to San Cristobal and checked into a hotel . The following morning we headed back into Tuxtla before travelling 6 hours back to Ixtepec. Next on the list of things to do was going to a Jaripeo(bull fighting and riding) in Ixtaltepec.

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