Despite being an old Spanish colonial city, named after a 16th century Spanish friar who stood up for the rights of the indigenous inhabitants, San Cristobal and the surrounding areas retain a strong indigenous feel. My first stop was a village 20 minutes away by colectivo called Chamula.
Chamula is an autonomous town. No outside police or military presence is allowed within the town. The inhabitants are almost entirely made up of indigenous Tzotzils people. At the centre of the town is the church of San Juan which was the reason for my visit.
Throughout my travels I have visited a lot of churches. Churches in Europe, South America, Catholic churches, Russian Orthodox churches, and even once a Greek Orthodox church. Therefore, it is quite rare for me to be shocked by what I see and experience in a church, but that is exactly what I was during my visit to the church of San Juan.
Due to the heavily indigenous population of Chamula, the local form of Catholicism is deeply influenced by pre-conquest Mayan traditions. The first thing that I noticed was that the church doesn’t have any pews. Instead, the floor is covered by masses of green pine boughs. This coupled with what must have been thousands of continuously burning candles, the heat from which made the whole church unnaturally warm, strook me as a massive fire hazard just waiting to happen.
Luckily, no such fire occurred during my visit. Instead, the church was packed full of local people carrying out their rituals. The reason that the church is famous is that the rituals include the killing of a live chicken. The killing of a live animal in a religious ceremony seemed, in my head at least, to be something of a by gone era. Being able to witness it in person called not only to my inquisitive nature, but somehow also to my primal instincts.
The group I was with opted to get a tour from a local so that we could better understand the church and the rituals that are carried out under its roof. He explained that the chicken was used to absorb the bad energy of the person and that the eventual killing of the chicken was the removal, the killing, of the bad energy so that the person could be cleansed. Equally as interesting was the discovery that photos are very heavily discouraged in Chamula as a whole and banned completely in the church itself.
The reason behind this was not what I had expected to hear. The Tzotzils people believe that should a photo be taken of them, especially whilst they are performing a ritual, their soul will be taken away from them. Therefore, there are very strict rules prohibiting photos or videos of any kind in the church, a fact that you are constantly reminded of.
Somehow however, this did not stop some incredibly disrespectful tourists from sneaking photos whilst they thought there was nobody looking. It is actions such as this that really rile me up. I marched up to one such set of inconsiderate people and expressed my disappointment and anger at their actions.
“Can you not read the sign above the entrance to the church?”
I was met by a look of complete bemusement. It somehow seemed as though this group of tourists felt as though it was their right to take photos. Now I understand that what we were witnessing in that church was something that none of us had ever seen before, and will probably never see again, but there is a reason you can’t take photos. It is not as if it is done just to annoy tourists.
Rant aside, I hope that my questioning of this specific group may make them read the signs next time they visit a spot of importance for other cultures. However, unfortunately I somehow doubt it.