From the outside, Iglesia de San Juan Chamula looks like a typical small-town Mexican church. The statuesque white building is attractive with its many vibrant teal and blue adornments. To the regular eye, it’s just another beautiful church, worthy of a photograph from the outside and the contemplation of a quick walkthrough of the inside. But what lies beyond the walls from the inside is in many ways odd and indescribable. It’s one of those places better experienced in person to be able to absorb the full impact. It requires an open mind; think shamanism, exorcism of spirits and demons, and sacrificial rituals.
The story, of course, is deeper. Dating back to the 1500s, the church is symbolic of Mayan history. It stands directly in the main square of the indigenous village of Chamula. Chamula is located in the Chiapas highlands of eastern Mexico and inhabited by indigenous Tzotzil Maya people. So, visiting this Iglesia and the town of Chamula is about stepping back in time into a world away.
It’s also about witnessing a unique piece of Mayan history and culture. No matter how much the world changes either in Mexico or elsewhere worldwide – i.e. with a raging pandemic - the indigenous people here fight to preserve their traditions and community. The local traditions mean everything, especially to this one community. Travel to the next village of Zinacantan, and it’s an entirely different atmosphere. There’s less conservatism, less focus on preserving old Mayan heritage, and more openness to outside influence.
Chamula, in many ways, is its own stand-alone country because they have autonomous status within the country. No outside police and military forces are allowed in the village, and they govern themselves. The church is their main congregation area, with specific processions for leaders and families. Around Christmas and New Year’s, there are ongoing processions.
Stepping into the church, visitors will never know where to focus their attention or how to process what they are witnessing. The visit will also need to become a memory in passing as cameras are strictly not allowed in the building. The indigenous believe that photography can steal souls, so visitors can be kicked out of the town if caught taking a photo. This is a light sentence, as the villagers of Chamula have been known to deal with misconduct harshly. Criminals have been lynched and set on fire by community mobs in the past.
Walking through the church quite frankly sends shock across all the senses. As an outside observer, the experience can only be summed up as either an intense, divine spirituality or something experientially dark. The interior resembles a Catholic church in some ways. The religion here, after all, is based on a blend of Maya and Spanish-Catholic customs.
There are no pews in the church. Little pieces of hay and green pine branches are scattered everywhere. Surrounding the church walls are Mayan god and saint idolatry, and elaborately decorated altars of animals, balloons, blinking lights, and really anything imaginable. The establishment smells of thick all-consuming incense.
Groups of villagers gather around hundreds of lit candles, most of them sitting or kneeling on the hay, or praying directly below the saints. Many are deep in prayer, and their eyes zoned out as if in a complete trance. They speak in quick, hushed whispers, almost as if they are crying out or releasing their woes.
Every so often, the men and women will throw back a swig of liquid. They drink pox, a ceremonial Mayan corn-based liquor and Coke as part of their healing and cleansing process. The former purifies the soul and heart, while the latter helps to burp out or expel evil spirits.
In one corner, a group of women congregate around one set of candles. One older woman clutches a dead chicken in her hands for a sacrificial ritual. Blood drips on the floor ever so slightly mixing with the melted wax from the candles. She guzzles a bit of pox and waves the chicken around. She then spits the alcohol directly in the women’s faces next to her, including a baby, as if to cleanse them. She then passes the chicken to the woman beside her. This woman wrings the neck of the chicken and proceeds to follow in the same steps.
For Chamulans, this is healing and cleansing. These rituals are part of their being, their culture and their every day. It’s hundreds of years of history preserved.
It’s a heart-racing inducing experience to witness, and one which upon leaving carries feelings of darkness and intensity. For the outside observer, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity to be immersed with; and a visual experience that can leave the curious wanting more. Perhaps, with the next time, an actual cleanse from a shaman, or even a swig of pox and Coke would help with the integration.