Smoke, inside a Catholic church? I’d never seen this before. It rose from the hundreds of candles burning on tables or the floor, covered with pine needles. I strained my eyes to see the church alter clearly through the haze.
Ancient beliefs meet modern religion
The Tzotzil people, decedents of the Mayans, kneel and pray in front of the candles. They face all directions. There are no pews, giving a feeling of space. I felt transported – but to where?
Praying people crowd the church’s hall. Statues of Saints, lining one side of the church, stare down at the believers.
At the front, the small alter is covered with balloons tied from it to the roof. There are wide ribbons down each side, tied from the ceiling’s peak to the top of the wall below, thus forming an inverted “V” shape.
Some of the men wear thick wool black or white ponchos tied with either a wide leather belt or a wide piece of white or red cloth. The women wear embroidered blouses and woollen dresses.
Here, Catholicism meets their traditional Mayan religion, based on ancient healing rituals of the Maya but adapted to their current needs.
No more Crowing for you
I hear crowing. A rooster, imprisoned inside a whitish sac, cries anxiously for help. People still practice Animal sacrifice here, and the rooster just must await his fate. No more sunrises for him.
Groups of mesmerized tourists pass, oblivious to the poor cock. All wish they could pull out their cameras. For me, the temptation is great, but I resist.
Oh, do I wish I could take a picture
Photography is strictly forbidden and can bring a violent reaction. People here are very suspicious of outsiders and believe photos would capture their two souls, a ch’ulel and a channel. The ch’ulel being the inner, personal soul, while the channel is a wild animal shared with the wayjei, an animal spirit companion.
The chicken stopped crowing. Tour groups leave, while worshipers depart. I head for the street sellers. Zapatista dolls are sold in the markets spilling down the streets outside the church. These small rag dolls are covered in black, holding a rifle with only their eyes showing, mirroring the mystery of these mountain towns, who’s people shed the outside world.
Chamula is 10 km (6.2 miles) from San Cristobal del las Cases in Southern Mexico. There are frequent minibuses from San Cristobal. It costs 20 pesos to enter the church.