Por­tals of the Maya

In Mex­ico, age-old rit­u­als live on un­der the guise of Catholi­cism

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Babbling With The Bulgarian Was A Buzz Travel & In - MICHAEL DAVIS

ASMALL­fam­ily group is kneel­ing on the floor be­hind a row of can­dles. In the mid­dle is the shaman; be­fore him are the tools of his trade: a liv­ing but pos­si­bly drugged hen, a bot­tle of the lo­cal fire­wa­ter known as pox, and a cou­ple of bot­tles of Coca-Cola.

It is the child who is af­flicted: she has an ill­ness of the an­i­mal spirit that the shaman has de­tected through a read­ing of her pulse and for which the pre­scribed cure is the sac­ri­fice of the bird. The shaman takes the chicken and rubs it over the child’s body, all the while whis­per­ing an in­can­ta­tion in the sibi­lant Tzotzil tongue.

Then he twists its neck un­til it snaps and leaves the an­i­mal twitch­ing on the floor be­fore pour­ing pox into a glass for him­self and the whole fam­ily, in­clud­ing the child, to con­sume. To my sur­prise, he then of­fers some to us.

We are in the church of San Juan Chamula, a small, in­dige­nous town in the Mex­i­can state of Chi­a­pas. It is clearly no or­di­nary church. There are no pews. The floor is strewn with pine nee­dles and cov­ered with hun­dreds of burn­ing can­dles. Ren­dered al­most solid by the dense smoke of burn­ing in­cense, shafts of light stream through holes in the wooden roof and sev­eral small, plain win­dows high on the right-hand wall. It is other­wise quite dark.

Just in­side the door a group of mu­si­cians is play­ing a slow, hyp­notic re­frain over and over, the notes of their gui­tars and ac­cor­dions drift­ing into the smoky, pun­gent air.

Catholic though they may be in name, the lo­cal re­li­gious prac­tices would make your old Sun­day school teacher weak at the knees. In front of the can­dlelit shrines that line the church walls, peo­ple sit on the floor toast­ing the saints with pox and Coca-Cola, which is used to en­cour­age burp­ing, thought to rid the body of evil spir­its.

In the cen­tre of the church, an­other shaman is us­ing an egg to ab­sorb the ef­fects of a witch’s evil eye be­fore crack­ing it on the floor to break the curse. And, look­ing to my right, I see a sec­ond chicken ly­ing alive but mo­tion­less on the floor, un­aware that the hand stroking its feath­ers will soon be wring­ing its neck. The saints are dressed ex­trav­a­gantly, their shrines dec­o­rated with flow­ers, gaudy lights and pine branches.

From each hangs a mir­ror for the Maya, por­tals through which the spirit trav­els to oth­er­worldly realms.

Per­haps even more wor­ri­some for your parish pri­est is that St John is el jefe (the chief) here and stands above Je­sus on the al­tar­piece. The story, ac­cord­ing to some, is that Do­mini­can mis­sion­ar­ies showed the Maya a paint­ing of St John bap­tis­ing Je­sus, with Je­sus kneel­ing obeisant be­fore him. Oth­ers point out that St John’s Day falls on the sum­mer solstice, one of the most im­por­tant dates in the Mayan calendar.

De­spite the ap­pear­ance of con­ver­sion, this was more a case of Catholic rit­u­als be­ing adapted to the be­liefs of the Maya than vice versa. Even now, the Chamula wor­ship St John not merely as St John but as the Mayan sun god un­der a dif­fer­ent name; in­deed, all the saints rep­re­sent a Mayan de­ity.

The adap­ta­tion was easy: the Maya al­ready prac­tised bap­tism and even used the cross as a re­li­gious sym­bol, caus­ing some early mis­sion­ar­ies to be­lieve they had dis­cov­ered a lost tribe of Is­rael.

They also wor­shipped pa­tron deities and much of their econ­omy and so­cial sys­tem was based on do­na­tions to re­li­gious authorities. The church trans­formed this prac­tice into the ven­er­a­tion of the saints, en­sur­ing them­selves a flow of rev­enue, a pri­or­ity in the colonies where un­con­verted pop­u­la­tions pro­vided no tithe to the church.

This sys­tem is now the frame­work of the lo­cal econ­omy. To see it at work, Alex, our guide, takes us to the house of Mar­i­ano, a lo­cal re­li­gious au­thor­ity or may­or­domo, the tem­po­rary care­taker of a shrine. Leav­ing the church, we walk slowly up the street, the air around us crack­ling with the sky­rock­ets that are a ubiq­ui­tous ac­com­pa­ni­ment to lo­cal re­li­gious cel­e­bra­tions here.

We fol­low Alex and Mar­i­ano un­der a door­way strung with green branches into a small room al­most en­tirely oc­cu­pied by an al­tar dec­o­rated with fo­liage and lined with many can­dles.

We sit and chat to Mar­i­ano as sev­eral wor­ship­pers en­ter the shrine — which is ded­i­cated to To­jtik Vi­na­jel, the keeper of the sky — to per­form their de­vo­tions. They drink the pox that is on of­fer, light can­dles and pray to the de­ity­saint. It is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the may­or­domo to sup­ply all the ne­ces­si­ties of wor­ship and the po­si­tion in­volves a con­sid­er­able fi­nan­cial out­lay; Mar­i­ano has had to leave his land in the sur­round­ing moun­tains to rent the house in town (the Chamula are still pri­mar­ily farm­ers). He es­ti­mates that he will spend the equiv­a­lent of $16,000 just on sup­plies over the course of the year. Still, he as­sures us, the pres­tige he will gain will more than com­pen­sate.

With so much at stake, the Chamula fiercely pro­tect their re­li­gious au­ton­omy. A pri­est is al­lowed into the church once a month to per­form bap­tisms, but the Catholic mass has not been held here since 1968, when the con­fes­sional was burned in a sym­bolic re­jec­tion of re­li­gious in­ter­me­di­aries. More­over, about 30,000 Chamula have been ex­pelled from the area for con­vert­ing to evan­gel­i­cal churches. Those ban­ished now live on the out­skirts of the nearby city of San Cris­to­bal de las Casas, sell­ing hand­i­crafts in the tourist mar­kets.

These com­mu­ni­ties also have ties to the Za­p­atista move­ment, which briefly cap­tured San Cris­to­bal in 1994 be­fore be­ing de­feated by gov­ern­ment forces and turn­ing to po­lit­i­cal means in its pur­suit of in­dige­nous rights.

Alex warns us the Chamula are equally vig­i­lant with strangers. Tak­ing pho­to­graphs in­side the church or of the town authorities is pro­hib­ited and the town hall has a room filled with con­fis­cated cam­eras. There are re­ports of vis­i­tors be­ing beaten with sticks or spat on and it is fu­tile to com­plain as even the po­lice have no au­thor­ity here.

Nonethe­less, we find the lo­cals to be wel­com­ing — es­pe­cially, and some­what sur­pris­ingly, in­side the church. While we are not ex­actly en­cour­aged to par­tic­i­pate, we are not shunned or ig­nored ei­ther. When we take only a sip of the pox the shaman of­fers us, he sends it back, telling us to fin­ish the cup.

It’s fiery stuff, es­pe­cially at 10am, but keen to avoid be­ing beaten with sticks, I do as I am­told, though not al­to­gether re­luc­tantly, it must be said, as the liquor is ac­tu­ally quite tasty.

Later in the day we drink a va­ri­ety de­li­ciously flavoured with hi­bis­cus flow­ers.

Back in San Cris­to­bal, where lovely cob­ble­stoned streets and bal­conied colo­nial build­ings nes­tle in the pic­turesque val­ley be­low, many vis­i­tors limit their ex­pe­ri­ence of the Mayan cul­ture to pe­rus­ing the mar­kets or lo­cal co­op­er­a­tives, where you can buy mag­nif­i­cently wo­ven and em­broi­dered tex­tile prod­ucts.

Yet barely 30 min­utes away in the moun­tain vil­lages, the unique re­sults of a cen­turies-old cul­tural en­counter make for a far more fas­ci­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

TOM JELLETT

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