PAINFUL PROGRESS

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The Independent Culture
Easter is the most significant feast in the Christian calendar and Christ's painful progress to the Cross is the saddest journey ever taken.

Every year Antigua - the former capital of Guatemala, not to be confused with the Caribbean island of the same name - is the scene of a fantastic procession in which the figure of Christ, bowed under the weight of the Cross, is paraded through the town.

He is carried on a solid oak socle measuring more than nine feet and weighing about three tons - 80 people are needed to carry it. The streets of Antigua are strewn with sawdust for the occasion - coloured sawdust "woven" into carpets which are continually dampened to stop the bright colours fading in the sun or vanishing in a sudden gust of wind.

The idea of creating a carpet out of sawdust, particularly in a city as vulnerable to earthquakes, volcanoes and the other natural disasters of the tropics as Antigua (the capital was moved to its present site, Cuidad de Guatemala as a result of a particularly bad quake in 1771), seems both mad and inspired, testament to the faith of its people. For the past 50 years, the citizens of Antigua have been making Easter carpets out of sawdust.

In the former convent of Santa Catalina, a ton of sawdust has been deposited for the purpose. All around are pyramids of red, green, orange, violet and blue sawdust. Nearby there is a mountain of sand which will be spread over the cobbled streets to level the surface before the carpets are laid. The design of the carpets is done with stencils; one, for some reason, is to be an exact replica of a woman's belt.

The making of the carpets starts on Maundy Thursday and carries on through the night so that they are ready in time for the 7am Good Friday procession. Among those taking part in the procession are 3,500 bearers, many of them dressed as penitents in long purple robes; 132 Roman centurions; 200 censer-bearers suffusing the air with incense; 750 children and 50 women carrying the cortge of the Virgin Mary. Nearly 3,000 men and 2,000 women take it in turns to carry the statue over the five miles that the procession covers. And, at the end, when the dust has settled, no trace of the carpets remains.

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