SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — An exotic aroma engulfed us as we stepped through the door of the church: a heady mixture of fresh pine, flowers, incense and candles.
It was the Church of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas state.
Outsiders come regularly to watch the syncretic rituals of the Indian/Catholic Maya, especially during Easter season, from the beginning of lent until after Easter Sunday.
San Cristobal is approximately 30 miles east of the capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutierrez, and about 670 miles southeast of Mexico City.
Religious holidays are a busy but sacred time at the Chamula village church. The white stucco building has no furniture, and its walls are lined with statues of saints and Christ in glass boxes.
People prostrate themselves before their favorite icons, several groups of two or three musicians add a low-pitched tintinnabulation of ancient instruments (each playing its own haunting melodies), and hundreds of tall lighted candles waxed to the floor in front of each penitent glow in the dim light.
Families kneeling together reverently pray, pausing now and then for a swig of pash, a potent local sugarcane liquor.
The church is no longer officially Catholic; it has no clergy and hasn't had for six or seven years. The rituals are now interpretations of the Indians who were baptized Catholic but raised in often secret ancient tradition.
The old marble floor is strewn with pine needles. I watched as the clothing of a statue was changed, a once-a-year event on the saint's feast day. The statue was washed scrupulously clean, and fresh new garments were solemnly placed onto the painted image.
Each carved figure was dressed in many layers of brilliantly flowered cloth, some with mirrors hung around their necks. It is said that the innermost layer of clothing is woven with secret symbols of the ancient Maya.
To visit the church it's necessary to obtain a permit, for a small charge, at the government building on the main square. No cameras are allowed in the village on this day.
It is a time for a special ceremony celebrated only once during each Easter season. Several hundred men from barrios around the countryside gather on the road surrounding the square.
Barefoot women and little girls gossip and socialize in the square while setting up their crude stalls to sell fresh vegetables, fruit, tortillas and cases of soda pop. In the making is a special market-day party that will last well into the night.
The men line up into three formations, much like ancient crusaders preparing to go into battle.
They are dressed in flamboyant antiquated costumes including high-heeled huaraches, tall cone-shaped hats covered with monkey fur and topped by colorful ribbons, knee-length pants, a red-tassled white scarf and striped cummerbunds. Some of the men wear monkey fur chin straps that resemble a beard.
A Mexican observer said that all this imagery has been passed down orally from the 1600s when Spanish conquistators subjugated the Mayas. These men are reliving a genetic memory of the ancient past.
Everything is symbolic, but because most of the people taking part can speak only a Mayan dialect, Tzotzil, and no Spanish, I was unable to understand the whole story.
For instance, why do some carry a ceramic goblet filled with incense? Or a cane made from the penis of a bull? What is the significance of the flowered banners on tall poles?
I can only guess. As the day continues I wonder if even most of those in the throes of this pageant really know the whys.
Two or three men in each platoon toot screechy old one-note brass horns. A single drum and clouds of incense initiate a flurry of excitement and the men begin to charge around the large square on a mad run. Little boys join the noisy festivities by running catch-up behind the men, practicing their roles for the future.
At an unseen and silent signal the running men stop as one, reverently waving banners over the incense, then begin running wildly again until they approach the government building where they stop and pause respectfully for the casiques.
The casiques, each man a leader of a different village, crowd together on a second-floor balcony overlooking the square, wearing their beribboned hats, and each holds under his arm a silver-headed rod as sign of his authority.
The colorful scene is punctuated throughout the day with intermittent cannon blasts, and at nightfall fireworks light up the sky.
First-time visitors to San Cristobal should know that the Chiapas Indians, especially the Chamulans, Zinacantecans and Lancandones, adamantly do not like to be photographed, and they like it even less when you produce a camera inside their churches.
In Chamula it's permissible to take pictures in the square as long as it isn't a special holiday. A warning about cameras is posted in most of the hotels and the warning should be heeded as the best way to avoid any unpleasantness.