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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Old Mexico: San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan - Page 2

Written by Kelly West
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A few weeks ago a rapist received the death sentence from the civic leaders. He was swiftly captured by his neighbors, covered in gasoline and set alight. Needless to say, these measures are very effective in preventing crime. The police force in San Juan Chamula are all locals. There are no outside police officers, and local policemen carry large sticks, and no guns as they're simply unnecessary.


A simple and beautiful looking church on the outside, San Juan Chamula Cathedral's inside is a totally different story


From the prison and civic offices we made our way to the church. We've seen our fair share of churches on our travels but we have never seen anything like the church of San Juan Chamula. The official religion here is Catholicism, but in reality it is a blend of pre-hispanic Mayan customs, Spanish Catholic traditions and their own innovations. The Vatican has no input here. We couldn't take pictures inside the church but I'll try to explain the best I can.


There are no pews in this church. The floor is lined with pine needles and gives off a wonderful aroma, giving you the sensation of walking in a forest. The walls to the left of the church are lined with statues of various saints, most of which have mirrors hanging around their necks to ward off evil on the one hand, and to reflect sunlight, and thus wisdom to the people when they are taken on parade at certain times during the year. 


The main altar is situated at the far end of the church and is heaving with candles that have been left by the villagers as a form of prayer and offering. There are crosses and a couple more saints lining the right hand side wall. In front of the saints and in various other spaces in the church there are rows upon rows of candles that have been placed at the behest of the Shamans when an individual needs to restore his or her soul for whatever reason. 


The open space in the middle of the church is where the magic is said to happen. Shamanic ceremonies take place in this church three times a week, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. We were lucky enough to be here on a Saturday so we were able to observe a number of ceremonies, some of which involving the killing of a chicken in sacrifice. To the outsider, all this can be viewed as black magic or voodoo, but, as with most other things in San Juan Chamula, it's simply the way the people have adapted to Catholicism by mixing it in with their own ancient beliefs.


Throughout our time in the church we had seen a man walking around clearing burnt out candles. First impressions told us that this man worked in the church and his job was to ensure the church was in a tidy state, which is true to an extent. Yes, this man was there to clean up and keep the space tidy, as well as make sure that no photos were taken, but it goes deeper than that. This man was actually one of the spiritual leaders in Chamula, and we had the privilege of visiting his temporary home and the shrine to his specific saint. 


There are a total of 122 spiritual leaders, 61 married couples, in San Juan Chamula, and they all "look after" specific saints. Being a spiritual leader is not a paid position, but it does result in the utmost prestige. Here's how it works: Because of the prestige and respect gained in being a spiritual leader, the waiting list to be one is quite long, up to 20 years. Each couple has a term of one year to be a spiritual leader, during which they rent a house near the church, at the end of their one year term they move back to their own home and hand over the responsibilities to the next couple in line. 


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Last modified on Tuesday, 01 July 2014

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