Although I’ve come across a number of incredible sights I couldn’t or wasn’t allowed to capture on camera, the Church of San Juan is one where it wouldn’t matter. Behind this deceptively normal exterior in Chamula, Mexico, is where I witnessed the strangest customs I have seen, smelled, or felt in a religious building.
The Mayans Of Chamula
Located in southern Mexico, Chamula is an autonomous state inhabited by the Tzotzil, a Mayan people. Chamula itself is completely autonomous within Mexico, where by law, Mexican police or military are not allowed to enter and Spanish is a second language. The Tzotzil have their own police force for protection against crime but also loss of cultural heritage. Cameras should be pointed carefully as the Tzotzil believe having their picture taken robs them of one of their souls.
- You’re risk losing your camera for taking pictures you shouldn’t.
But beliefs in Chamula are much more integrated with the outside world. Although the Tzotzil’s religion is polytheistic, when the Spanish brought Catholicism to the area in the 1500s, it was absorbed to fit existing traditions. This explains why there’s a church in Chamula, a Mayan town of 77,000, in the first place.
Jesus The Sun God And Chicken Therapy
For example, the moon god is interpreted as Virgin Mary while Jesus might be the sun god. Walking into the Church of San Juan the first sensation is of pine leaves altering your step. As you look up from the pine leaves which obscure most of the stone floor, you notice a haze produced by thousands of candles burning around your feet. Candle flames illuminate Tzotzil worshipers looking up to murals of Christian saints as they burp Coca-Cola and posh, a liqueur made from sugar cane.
Families huddle around colored candles, praying in the Tzotzil language for alleviation from ailments represented by various wax shades. Particularly bad spiritual cases require the help of a shaman, who takes a chicken the suffering have brought, then rubs it on them.
Pulse, Pulse, Snap
As the confused bird is rubbed up and down the side of the afflicted in the shaman’s right hand, the left is taking the human’s pulse. It’s believed during this process that negative energy is transferred from person to chicken; once complete the shaman snaps the chicken’s neck. Followed by sips of cola and shots of posh, enthusiastic belching finalizes the cleanse.
How To Visit The Church Of San Juan
San Juan Chamula is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from San Cristobal de las Casas, the largest city nearby. (In San Cristobal don’t forget to visit one of Mexico’s quietest churches.) Local buses are available as are guided tours, giving you the advantage of a local who shows you around the neighboring areas. Most transportation leaves in the morning, returning in mid-afternoon; enough time to see the highlights. The Church of San Juan is open 24 hours with a nominal entry fee. Or course, no photos are allowed.
I visited the Church of San Juan with friend and fellow travel blogger Wandering Earl and while he has no photos to add you can read his description of The Most Amazing Church I’ve Ever Seen and Can’t Show You as well.
Wow very interesting about this church considering how Catholic the majority of Mexico is meant to be. Nice that they still speak the natural language as well.
In a lot of ways Chamula is its own world indeed.
Yup, by all measures, this is THE most interesting church in the world. I’ve made a point of visiting churches all over the world, mainly for the architectural value but also to experience how different cultures connect with a power greater then them.
I visited this church many years ago and was truly amazed. We happened onto this find while on a year long trip through Mexico and Central America. It was serendipity, in that we knew nothing of it until we were there. No photos, but you probably agree that it’s one sight that is embedded into your memory forever. It’s a story I’ve passed along to many travelers.
Thanks to you and Earl for putting your experience of this church onto your blogs. It’s a must for all travelers in this part of the world!
That must have been quite an experience to walk in and not know what was waiting inside. Even more jolting but pleasantly surprising. In a way it’s nice cameras aren’t allowed, they couldn’t capture what’s in there but now that I think about it, is there anything better than in person? 😉
Yer absolutely right Anil. Nothing is better than in person. That’s why we travel!
Indeed very interesting, not only the Church but this whole concept of Mayan people adapting to Christianity and then maintaining their autonomy is interesting. Here in India we have Churches where a lot of local customs from Hindu beliefs are also followed…
India is one of the first places I think of when cultural mixing comes to mind – and the one you gave is a good example of why.
We stayed in San Cris a week and didn’t make it out to this church, now I am really regretting it. Guess I should have done more research, lol. Really making me curious now.
If you ever get back, don’t miss it!
This sounds fascinating! The Mayan culture is so interesting and diverse, and I love how the prohibition of photography adds to the mystery and intrigue of the Chamula Mayan civilization.
I have been to San Juan Chamula 3 times. I have seen all sorts of ceremonies in there. They are very touching. I somehow think that being unable to take pictures made me capture everything else in a much stronger way – ie the smell from the pines all over! Lovely post Anil 🙂
I agree – not being able to have cameras forces you to focus as well as makes the experience a little more exclusive 🙂 Thanks Claudia!
This surely needs a trip to Mexico Anil! Sounds interesting and the place look absolutely transforming. I can see the risky pics and their stories well briefed by you. the church is artistically welcoming and I’m waiting to visit the same one day!