We´re currently in the state of Chiapas in the middle of our backpacking journey through Mexico. Mexico deserves an entire post in itself – a fascinating land blending rich meso-america ancient history, magical towns preserved from the time of the Spanish conquest, beautiful beaches, delicious street food and the nicest people you will ever encounter. Yes, there is probably a ton of ongoing drug-related troubles, but one has to look beyond that to truly appreciate the beauty of this massive country.
From San Cristobal de la Casas where we are currently based for a couple of days, we took a side trip out to San Juan Chamula today, a smaller mountain town just 10km north. It is a recommended trip to witness an age-old tradition which is still being kept alive, in today´s world of Facebook, Twitter and all that technology-jazz. San Juan Chamula looks like any other remote mountain town as you drive into the centro, but the mystical practices happen inside their main church – Templo de San Juan Chamula.
You have to enter the doors of the church to realize that there is something strange about this mountain town. Inside the dark and smoky chapel, there are neither pews nor altars. Instead, you find statues of Saints enclosed in glass cases lined along the interior walls. On the marble floor pine leaves lie alongside indigenous women chanting prayers in the old Mayan language. I wish I could share pictures, but photography was strictly prohibited by the locals (by strict I mean you could get locked-up). As a protest against the Spanish inquisition, people of San Juan Chamula refused to adopt Catholicism, and instead continued to hang on to their traditional Mayan roots. The end product is a mix of Catholicism and Mayan beliefs, manifested in one of the strangest churches you will ever set foot in.
Chickens are sacrificed in front of the Saints in order to cure diseases, offerings of Mezcal or Pox (types of Mexican alcohol) and sweet beverages are made to the Saints, with hundreds of candles that represent a connection to the Otherworld. We were very fortunate to witness an intercessory procession, where a lady raised the chicken over an infant´s head, “adsorbing” the sickness, then “expelling” it by twisting the neck of the chicken in the sacrifice. No blood was involved, but you get the picture. (here is a Youtube link from someone who must have used some sort of a hidden camera) The Mayans and their descendants have ingeniously adopted Catholicism to make it work for them, despite having to live under the rule of the Spaniards. This reminded me of something I witnessed while I was in Salvador de Bahia 7 years ago – the Brazillian religion named Candomble, which began when African slaves had to mask their Orixas (gods) behind the Saints in order to continue practicing their traditional religious beliefs right under the nose of their Portuguese masters.
Outside the church, a massive Cross stands erected – but it is not a cross that represents the death of Jesus, but one for the local people to connect to the Mayan gods “in the sky”. The four points of the Mayan cross represents the Sun, the Earth, the Moon and the people. The culture at San Juan Chamula – the only place in Mexico where the religious essence is neither Catholic nor Mayan, but a fascinating blend of Catholic beliefs held together by an indigenous core.
How fascinating is this world that we live in?