Since our stay in San Cristobal de las Casas included a Sunday we decided to go and visit the market in San Juan Chamula, a small township in the surrounding hills. We’d read about the place in our guidebook where it was praised as a stronghold of indigenous culture and that especially on Sundays it was well worth a visit to see the market. The owner of the Argentinean restaurant where we had dinner the night before also highly recommended the trip. But he warned us, just like the guidebook did, that we should NOT attempt to take pictures anywhere in the village and especially not in the church. The Tzotzil people are highly independent and proud – in fact Chamula enjoys an autonomous status in Mexico and has its own police force – and they do not like having their picture taken. According to the restaurateur, beatings are a common response.
Of course that sounded quite exciting and deliciously foreign. So Sunday morning we snubbed our noses at the clouds and drizzle, grabbed a ‘colectivo’ bus, where we looked ridiculously out of place thanks to our skin color and height, and headed into the hills. The bus ride took about 15 minutes and was filled with constant repeats of 80s pop – every song had to be played at least twice, preferably three times in a row – and an overwhelming smell of cologne, underlined with a strong note of piss. But then again we paid MX$9 each, about EUR 0.45, so you can’t really ask for more.
Once we got to Chamula the rain had turned to a steady drizzle which turned the cobbled dusty streets to mud and steeped everything into a brown-grey monochrome. Even the colorful blouses and skirts of the Tzotzil women were hidden by fuzzy, black, wooly capes and sweaters. I wish I could say that the market was full of delights and interesting tidbits but I’d be lying. A lot of metal cooking pots were being sold, alongside dreary looking vegetables and cheap plastic toys. Maybe it was the weather together with the ‘danger’ of not being allowed to take pictures but Chamula did not make a very favourable impression.
The one really interesting spot was the church in the middle of the main square. Of course, once again photography was highly forbidden (even though I saw some Russian lady taking a picture outside of the church without even trying to hide; and she was definitely not beaten up!) but you can find pictures online quite easily. Here is one of the church and another one of the market on a sunny day.
In any case, the church is truly worth visiting simply because it is unlike anything you have ever seen. We entered into a dark and smokey nave filled with the smell of incense and pine needles. There are a few dusty windows up high on one wall but most of the light comes from the hundreds and hundreds of candles that are lit all over the church – on the floor, on little stools and on the tables that run along the walls. There are no pews but the floor is covered in a thick layer of green pine needles which get swept aside by worshippers who need space to stick their candles to the floor. The candles come in all different sizes but are exclusively white. For prayer, different numbers of candles are lit in various formations. I’m not sure if these have to do with the type of prayer or if it’s personal preference. Most of the worshippers make their space in the middle of the nave (when they can find a spot not occupied by a gaping tourist) and light a row of 5-6 long thick candles and start chanting/praying/talking. More rows of progressively shorter and skinnier candles are added as the prayer goes on until the last row directly in front of the person looks like little burning pencils are stuck to the floor.
Some worshippers turn directly to one of the many saints lined up on top of the tables that run the side of the church walls. Each colorful saint is kept in his/her own glass case, adorned with flowers and mirrors to ward of evil. In front of one wooden saint, the Virgin of Guadaloupe(?), a whole family complete with leathery grandmother and sleeping newborn had marked their space, lit dozens of candles and laid out offerings of Coca Cola, Sprite and candy. There was also a dead chicken next to one of the kids. I have a feeling that the poor bird met its demise only a few minutes earlier…
Towards the far end of the church, where the altar was covered in flowers and more saintly imagery, a woman had hired a shaman to pray for her (or guide her in prayer?). Once again, offerings of soda and candles galore were lined up. There was also a chicken present but this was one was still alive, nervously clucking in its purple nylon net and suspiciously eyeing the woman who was holding it down. We didn’t stick around to see what would happen later but I’d like to imagine that they were blessing the chicken for laying so many fine eggs.
Besides the woman who took a picture outside of church, we did not see a single camera in Chamula and we really didn’t want to test the limitations of the ‘no photography’ policy so kept our camera firmly inside the bag. But for your enjoyment I did find one picture online that someone more valiant or stupid than us took inside the church.