It was a cloudy and humid day when we went to Chamula. San Juan Chamula is immersed in the countryside where houses are made of dried mud kept together with bamboo canes and where time is still measured with the sundial.
We got there with a colectivo from San Cristobal de Las Casas for $10 pesos per person. Here the indigenous Tzotzil people earnestly protect their society and way of life, these people are also known for their fantastic weaving skills.
Chamula sits at about 10 kilometres from San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. The official language isn’t spanish but instead is a dialect that carries within itself the seeds of the ancient Mayan language. The main form of commerce is barter and even laws are decided by the village chief. We didn’t run in any trouble luckily but we learnt that when a resident in Chamula steps out of line, local law enforcement is quick. Jail cells for men face to the outside so everyone sees who is in prison while women are held in private cells within the jail walls. Feeding the prisoner is left to the family or, sometimes, the benevolence of the spiritual leader. Most crime is petty thievery, but if an individual is jailed a third time, he or she is banished from the community. A serious crime, like murder, means the involvement of Mexican police.
As we walked towards the main square to see the famous Chamula’s church, we noticed a lot of people selling colourful blankets, scarves and clothing on the sides of the road. We liked the scarves a lot and we bought two.
The dress code for both men and women is based on natural fabrics and the open sandals worn by their ancestors. Men wear tunics of black or white sheep’s wool (white is for hotter seasons while black is for the colder ones), while the women wear skirts of black wool set off by hand-embroidered satin blouses of bright colors. Since sheeps provide the wool to protect the people from the cold, they are considered almost sacred and locals are not allowed to eat them.
When we finally made it to the main plaza we learnt that in order to enter the church we had to pay a fee. We didn’t want to and so we took a peek from outside. Unlike traditional churches, the San Juan Chamula Church does not have pews! The church is self-managed by the locals and a priest comes only once every year to baptise people. Here the religious syncretism is at its peak as Christian and Mayan spiritual beliefs blend together in something that has little of nothing to do with our interpretation of religion.