San Juan Chamula is a Tzotzil community of pre-Hispanic origin whose name means “Dense Water”. Annually, the Chamula carvinal “K’in Tajimoltic” is held in which they dance the five lost days according to the ancient Mayan calendar. San Juan Chamula has a very important stance in the history of Mexico. It was the main battlefield in the Chiapanecan Caste War. Its municipal government is headquartered in San Juan, after its patron saint San Juan Bautista, or Saint John the Baptist, protector and guide of the Chamulas.
The most fascinating aspect of this community is the magical atmosphere inside its main church; in it, the Chamulas take part in a syncretism of rituals with a one-of-its-kind devotion and solemnity. The religion was introduced by evangelists in the 16th century and was adapted to the most ancient of traditions. As you enter this space, a certain mood takes over as you pass through a small door, used daily by the people of this town. Take in the aroma of nut grass and the lights of thousands of candles.
Situated 2,200 meters above sea level, this municipal is inhabitant by 58,000 people. It was founded almost immediately after the defeat of the Chiapanecan indigenous peoples in the battle of 1524.
Three neighborhoods (San Juan, San Pedro and San Sebastián) make up this Tzotzil ceremonial center, located in a valley that, according to beliefs, was the place Saint John the Baptist had chosen.
It is not just the sacred hills that frame these sacred spaces. The crosses signify the relationship of a Christian tradition rooted in pre-Hispanic customs. Not far from the main entrance to San Juan Chamula, you will find the ruins of the San Sebastián church. The main square is the point of civil and religious authority, the market and the church.
San Juan Chamula is the main town of the Tzotzil people. It is the religious and commercial center of this community. The most important site in San Juan Chamula is its famous cathedral San Juan Bautista. Inside you will feel an energy which is louder than words, and a sincerity and intensity of adoration and rituals. The air is heavy with the smell of burning incense, lighted candles, and the murmurs and prayers that fill the space.
The great gate is only opened on 24 June, the day of San Juan. This little town, only 10 kilometers from San Cristóbal de las Casas, is best visited with a guide who can give you detailed information and help you understand the distinct culture and pratices here. Like its neighboring town, Zinacantán, the Chamulas greatly enjoy their privacy. Similarly to other indigenous communities in this region, they are identifiable through the clothes they wear; here, purple and pink dominate the spectrum.
All clothes worn here are hand-made. From shearing sheep wool, cleaning, coloring to weaving, everything is done locally and nothing is sourced from the outside. Sheep are considered sacred here and are treated and protected as a member of the family. Upon death, they are mourned over like people. When driving through this region, it is of utmost importance to be prudent with sheep that wonder on the roads.
Ethnic group: Tzotzil. This community is considered one of the most important for its population size and its tradition.
Note: It is strictly prohibited to take photos inside the church, of ceremonial rituals and authorities. Photography is permitted outside the church, except of religious authorities. Taking pictures of its people should be done with respect and their consent. Do not disturb ceremonial rituals inside the church and take care not to trespass in forbidden areas.
Attractions and historical architecture
San Juan Bautista church
It is made up of one nave with a gabled roof and covered with baked earth roof tiles. Its façade is very similar to that of the ruins of San Sebastián. Its arched door takes up half the width. It is extremely big in proportion with the rest of the façade to allow visibility of the altar inside the church, a characteristic of many churches in colonial Central America due to it use of tiered doorjambs in a form of archivolts. Inside you will find the main altar dedicated to San Juan Bautista, or Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of the community. There are no pews in main nave as this church, unlike in other communities, serves over 58,000 inhabitants. Along the main nave, you can find different saints in glass-and-wood cases.
San Sebastián ruins
The ancient ruins of San Sebastián is situated right at the entrance to the community of Chamula. It is built in rough stone. The façade is covered with a layer of stucco, still preserved, and it features an arched door. The surface of the façade is totally flat and is part of four niches, in Baroque style. Today the ruins serve as a cemetery for the community.
Arts and handicrafts
The diversity of handicrafts produced in this community is rich. A big portion of them is made from sheep’s wool (considered a sacred animal). You can find blouses, bags, scarves, huipils and earthenware.
The average altitude of this town is about 2,300 meters above sea level. It is mostly cool and humid all year round, hence most of their traditional costume is made of wool. Sheep, apart from being considered a sacred animal for being in the arms of Saint John, is associated with pastoral work. Therefore, the sheep are only sheared for their wool to make clothes.
Traditional clothing is proudly worn and displayed during the festivities dedicated to the patron saint, all made with waist looms then hand-stitched in embroidery. Men wear chujes (long-sleeved coats without buttons, with a neck opening) made of black wool tied with suede belt. Civil authorities wear chujes made of white wool tied with a buckled belt.
Women wear stunning brocaded huipils (a loose fitting tunic), with diverse colors, embroidery and patterns with red, yellow and green stripes symbolizing the three protectors: San Pedro, San Juan and San Sebastián. They cover their heads with a black mochibal; a very traditional and ancient piece of clothing resembling a scarf with red tassels to tie in front. It can be used to cover the back from cold, or folded into a square, used to protect their heads from the sun.
Today traditional methods of producing these costumes face danger of extinction due to various factors, mostly because other types of clothes have replaced the time-consuming traditional production, like the blue chal (a kind of scarf) which is mass-produced. They also wear a skirt or a wrap made of two joined linens tied with a red sash of pre-Hispanic origin. It is matched with a European-style blue or white satin blouse, with a band of embroidery along with sleeves and neckline. You can purchase these blouses in San Cristóbal.
Celebrations and traditions
The Chamula carnival “K’in Tajimoltic”: It is celebrated four days before Ash Wednesday. In this festival, the celestial cycle resumes according to the ancient Mayan calendar. Three neighborhoods participate in these celebrations; they organize and pay for everything that is involved in the celebration, including a sacred drink known as posh (made of sugar cane and maize). The most important figures in this celebration include pasiones, comisarios, maltajimoles and xinolanes or Nana María KoKorina.
The Tuesday of the carnival is the last day of festivities where one of the weirdest rituals in Mexico takes place – body purification in the fountains of San Sebastián and San Pedro as well as a spiritual purification that includes walking through flames.
Semana Santa: It is celebrated in March or April with processions and special masses all over the state. In some towns, the Burning of Judas is celebrated, with historical and present figures represented in papier-mâché.
Festival of Saint John the Baptist: This is another important event that many in the community look forward to celebrating from 24 to 26 June in honor of the patron saint. Special masses are held and saint processions take place in different part neighborhoods of the community.
Independence Day: Every 15 September, the traditional proclamation of independence takes place. It is held in the civic square of the town with cultural shows and pyrotechnic displays.
Day of the Dead: It is celebrated of the first of November. It is a family holiday, but carries a magical and spiritual character.
Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe: Celebrated every 12 December, this is the festival of the patron saint of Mexico, with masses, serenades and pilgrimage.