Inside The Mayan Church of Chamula


The rooster patiently awaits his death.

The floor is covered with pine needles, there are no pews in this church. Thousands of candles adorn tables in front of Catholic saints, carved out of wood or wax, garishly dressed, themselves enclosed in glass boxes.

This, here in Chamula, deep in the heart of Chiapas, Mexico, is a Tzotzil Maya church, the ceremonies within a mix, a mezcla, of pre-Hispanic Mayan culture and faint remnants of Catholicism.

The healer, la curandera, begins the ceremony by lighting a glass-enclosed candle. She dips thin candles in the melted wax and stands them upright in six neat rows on the tile floor of the church. Each row is successively shorter as it nears the participants of the ceremony. White candles in the middle of the rows, yellow, green and rose striped candles on the outside.

We are four feet away, sitting on the pine needles, experiencing the ceremony as closely as outsiders could. We are forbidden to take photos [link], bringing us deep into the presence of an ancient ritual.

She chants, the repetitive Mayan words evoking a trance-like state. Bottles of Coca-Cola, orange soda, water and pox are placed in front of her as she kneels on the pine needles that cover the ground and perfume the air, which is at once hot from the candles and cold from the mountains.

Pox, pronounced pōsh, is a clear alcohol distilled from corn, similar to mezcal and tequila. It is consumed during the ceremony, even the children taste their pox. The Coca-Cola provokes burps, an expulsion of any bad spirits within.

Thirty minutes or more, the chanting continues, the candles burning hotter and lower, the melting wax forming colored rivulets across the church tile. Now it is time for the rooster. She holds it by the body and the feet, passing it over candles, rocking it back and forth over the bespoke altar.

The rooster makes no attempt to escape the clutches of the curandera. Perhaps it too has been lulled into a trance. It is an offering to the Mayan gods.

A man comes to assist, grabs the rooster by the head and neck and twists. Chicken necks don’t immediately snap, they bend, and as a woman then holds the rooster by its legs, it spasms and it’s head dangles uselessly until the life force passes from the bird and it is laid ceremonially next to the hot-burning candles.

The ceremony closes, one of dozens or more that has taken place in this church here in Chamula today. The Mayans live close to the edge of life and death, the veil is thin, the belief is strong.

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