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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific