A Holy Cacophony

The sanctuary—lit by hundreds of candles set upon tables and on the floor that stretch the length of the open space—smells of incense, candles, sweat and the grass and pine that cover the floor. Large portraits and figures of the pantheon of Catholic saints line the walls, as people move freely around, praying or offering a bottle of coke or other soda in areas strewn about.

Here in this sacred space worship and ritual never cease, neither does the building ever close, and reverence and holiness are not contained to any one location. Tourists mill about, some awkwardly, while the Tzotzil people speak prayers, light candles, and share rituals. The local Tzotzil Mayan population may enter, pray, perform rituals, light candles, leave offerings at any time of day or night. No official staff or priests are employed—volunteers serve to clean, scraping up dripped wax—and shamans simultaneously perform varied rituals.

This place, the church of San Juan in a town called Chamula, is alive with holy cacophony, full of blending and contrasting sounds, sights, and smells separate yet woven together as one.

As I breathed in the pungent aroma of incense and candles, our guide for the day was explaining some of the goings on around us. A shaman woman in front of us pulled out a chicken and snapped its neck in some sort of ritual. Sympathizing with the vegetarian in our group, I also couldn’t help but recall memories with Batak people in rural Sumatra Indonesia—being present for killing and blood letting of pigs to make a special dish used in weddings, funerals, and church celebrations. The Batak Indonesian Christians have a hybrid religion, too, using pigs’ heads for prayers of blessing among other things. Exhaling back into the present, I breathed my own prayer for whatever it is these people before me were seeking.

This temple is only one aspect of the culture for the people of Chamula in Mexico’s Chiapas state. This town is completely autonomous in every way. They have their own traditional clothing set apart from other towns, their own way of policing themselves (Mexican police and military are not allowed), their own jail, their own system to meet and elect local leaders. No written law is adhered to, though they do carry out justice in their own manner.

Having resisted the colonial Spanish rule, and thus the hierarchy of Catholicism, the residents of Chamula formed a hybrid religion of their own traditions meshed with elements of Catholic religion. Photography inside the church and of rituals is not allowed, and most people in Chamula do not want to be photographed. Therefore, out of deep respect, have my words to describe the scene. The pictures below are outside the church in Chamula, the cemetery in Chamula, and another Tzotzil town, church called Zinacantan, with a woman weaving using a backstrap loom.

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