Chamula, Chickens and Coca Cola: A Unique Religious Experience

There's a small town just outside of San Cristobal de las Casas in the highlands of southern Mexico, called Chamula. This town is unlike others in that it has it's own local laws. I was told the town has a semi-autonomous status in Mexico. Chamula has its own police force and no outside police or military are allowed in unless a serious offense, such as murder, occurs. The town, inhabited by indigenous Tzotzil Mayas, is also known for it unique religious practices. Oddly enough, we were able to witness a few aspects of their beliefs. 

Outside the church in Chamula's zocalo. We were only allowed to take pictures outside. Yes, it was a cold day.

Outside the church in Chamula's zocalo. We were only allowed to take pictures outside. Yes, it was a cold day.

Tourists are allowed inside Chamula's church for a small fee. Visitors are not allowed to wear hats or to take any pictures. If anyone is caught taking pictures, they will be immediately removed from the premises and released after they have shown that all evidence of photography are destroyed (pictures deleted or film exposed). Or they will be taken to jail. Needless to say, we did not take any pictures (and we took off our hats). 

The inside of the church was unlike any we've experienced. There were no pews. The floor was tiled and covered with green pine needles. The sides and front of the church were lined with tributes to saints and alters for various religious figures. Throughout the church, Tzotzil families were setting up rows of candles, probably 100-250+ of them. They started by heating the bottoms of the candles so that the wax would stick to the floor like glue. Then they'd plant them on the floor, light them like you'd normally light a candle and begin to pray and chant. The sets of candles looked like mini-bonfires and they were all over the place. 

I witnessed an older couple diligently praying as though the the spirit of a lost loved one depended on the strength of their beliefs. In contrast to this, I also saw an older woman chanting incantations and waving an uncracked egg over her daughter and grand baby. In front of her was a bottle of Coca Cola. The Tzotzil believe that the burping of Coca Cola releases evil spirits from the body. Occasionally she even spit Coca Cola at the candles. Other members of her family sat nearby and all of them were smiling. She gave us eye contact several times and appeared joyous to share her moment with us. I could have watched her for hours. As we left, a family of four gathered around their lit candles, sacrificed a chicken (in the church) and shared a bottle of Pox, a cane-alcohol beverage with 38% alcohol. 

The entire time we were in the church, I was on high alert. Not only was it mesmerizing to witness this unique spirituality, but I kept waiting for some green pine needles to catch on fire. How far were we from the exit and how many people were between us and it? Alas this didn't happen, and I haven't found evidence of fires in the church (except for the candles which were allowed to burn until the flames drowned in liquid wax all over the floor). Even with this fear, I highly recommend a visit. It's one I'll always cherish. 

If you're interested in learning more about the unique religious characteristics of Chamula, read here and here