San Juan Chamula Church- where sacrifices take place and soul fragments maybe taken
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
Almost an hour’s drive from San Cristobel De La Casas, is San Juan Chamula, where the entire population of the village is indigenous from the Tzotzil Mayans. The town is so unique it has its own police that no military or outside police are permitted inside the village.
As we approached San Juan Chamula, our local guide warned us that we are not to take anyone’s picture in the village, and no photography inside the church. There wasn’t even the option of asking people for permission. It was a demand- 'do not take photos'. The excitement was heightened.
What is it about this village that is so unique?
We made a turn on a road and suddenly saw a crowd marching towards a house. The excitement of wanting to film this unique event, yet observing what was happening was as good.
Men dressed in long black thick wool dress made from sheep skin.Some wore it as a top with pants, and a cowboy hat. Men held a large cage above their heads with live chicken inside, some held one with sheep. Some men carried a large colourful plastic horse up in the air, and others a large plastic coloured dog. They all walked together following a man dressed warmly in white sheep skin on a sunny Chiapas day. The music played on traditional instruments by some of the men as they chanted upon entering the house. This is the culture we never imagined to exist, but it does, and it was amazing to watch.
The march was in honor of the head of the village on Christmas day.
San Juan Chamula church stood with all its white and green structure uniquely in a square facing a daily market of fruits and vegetables and local produce in general. The trees surrounding the square where all decorated with colourful balloons to celebrate Christmas.
At the door of the church, women and men gathered closely to each other. Women wore colourful flower designed outfits with bare feet. The men wore long pants with a white shirt, cowboy boots and hat. Their eyes all closed, heads up to the sky, dancing in a rhythm together. They had live chickens held tight in their hands above their heads while they all chanted and danced. Soon they all entered the church and we followed keeping our distance.
We stood inside the church observing everything around us. There were several shrines with pictures of different saints which represented the Mayan gods. There were no benches or chairs and the floor was covered with green pine needles. At the end of the church were trees full of colourful balloons, fresh flowers and plants. This was definitely not a regular church you’d see in other parts of the world.
Individuals sat on the floor and created their own alter which consisted of a plastic bottle of coke, a bottle of Pox (traditional Mayan alcohol), and candles. Specific coloured candles were waxed to the floor, each colour representing something they were praying for, grouped in 3 to 13 candles.
Each person at their altar held a chicken tightly at both ends as they chanted in prayer with their eyes closed. I watched a mother pouring the Pox on the floor and lighting it with the candle, and dripping candle wax over it. She held the chicken tight and moved it just above the shrine and then across the body of a teenager sitting next to her who seemed to be paralyzed from the waist down. She did this repeatedly, drank from the Pox, and then suddenly cracked the neck of chicken to its death. It's believed that the chicken had the powers to suck away the illness from the human body during a ritual.
This wasn't the only shrine that had a chickens neck cracked and apparently those with more wealth, would be seen bringing a goat or a sheep into the church as a sacrifice. We were lucky not to witness that. It was already quite intense watching an elderly woman trying to crack the neck of the chicken and she failed as a man came to the rescue to finish the chicken off.
There was a certain vibe in the church that can not be explained, but needs to be experienced. If one was to try and find a way to stay in the village they would sure discover a lot more traditions from the Indigenous people of San Juan Chamula.
Just before we walked out, a tourist was thrown inside the church and pushed. He had taken a photo of a local villager.
It is believed that with every snap of the camera, fragments of the persons soul gets taken away.
The consequences of taking their photo results in public humiliation, often breaking the camera, if not being kicked out of the village.
This truly made the experience of San Juan Chamula a very unique one, especially as their beliefs are unique and perhaps not found anywhere else in the world. Travelling to this village is a must, but one must be a sensible traveller, understanding that this is a tribe and they have their own way of thinking and carrying out traditions.