Mexican nave

The spirit of the Mayans is alive and well in Chiapas.

The authorisation letter, purchased for the princely sum of 30 pence, left me in no doubt that I was about to see something unusual: "Warning. It is forbidden to take photos inside the church. It is also forbidden to take photos during any rituals, as well as of officials wearing ritual costumes. Those tourists who do not respect these rules will be punished."

I was in the heart of Mexico's Zapatista rebel country, in a village called Chamula - a market-place and meeting-point for dozens of remote peasant settlements in the green and mountainous countryside. Everything there focuses on the simple, whitewashed church that lies at one end of the enormous square. But it's no oil painting on the outside. There are far grander Baroque colonial masterpieces, I reflected, in nearby San Cristbal.

Yet, by late morning that day, fireworks fizzed aimlessly into the sky from behind the church, competing with the din of small brass bands working up a frenzy beneath. The whole village was electrically charged. The doorway of the church was guarded by several youths, wrapped in brilliant white animal skins and wearing impressive Panama hats. My entry credentials were carefully checked, and I passed through solid doors that have been providing sanctuary for 400 years.

The villagers here are largely descended from the Mayan Indians, and although the idols of saints and the incense that hung thick in the air were vintage Catholic, the baring of souls taking place all around predated the Spanish arrival. Family groups littered the hay-strewn floor, chanting in front of thousands of small candles. A woman cradled her heavily pregnant daughter, seemingly in a trance, while a man lay face down under a wooden table - more likely drunk than tired. Many of the locals buy a powerful home-brewed spirit in the square outside, to be liberally drunk throughout their devotions. I noted that the greatest number of semi-recumbent bodies was around the altar rails, the quietest part of the building.

There are no seats in this extraordinary place. In the centre of the nave, an entire village group lined up behind guitar players, and a small boy squeezed a soothing series of slow chords from a rickety accordion. There was no co-ordination to their singing and chanting. But, as if some secret sign has suddenly been made, they departed together, faces stained with emotion.

People prayed in a mixture of incantation, meditation and tears. I felt like an observer in an outpatients' department for injured souls. And, as in a busy hospital, there was little concern about the outward appearance of the church: the emphasis was on healing.

The glorious ruined temples of Palenque and Uxmal are far grander monuments to what the Mayan civilisation once was. Here, though, surrounded by the humbled descendants of the Mayans, you get an understanding of the fervour that caused such places to be created. You also comprehend the collective belief in the campaign for self-determination, which manifests itself in support for the Zapatistas in the face of repression and human rights abuses such as those reported this week from the sad state of Chiapas.

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