San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, where I chose to live five years ago, is a city time almost forgot. Situated in the highland valley of Jovel at an elevation of 2,100 meters, it’s a city mingling future and past. As the gateway to mountainous communities, more indigenous than mestizo, it’s a city where ancient Maya still dominate the countryside and interact very little with the Coletos of town. San Cristobal and Chiapas represent Mexico’s last frontier.
The city is in many ways still a mystery to me; a land that offers rewards to those not afraid to dig deep into the history of ancient peoples. It is for all who care to turn the key and unravel its wonders.
In San Cristobal, in my garden, among orchids and vegetables, I built a Temezcal and had my gardener Xun, from the indigenous community of Chamula, perform a traditional spiritual cleansing and purification rite to celebrate its opening. A Temezcal is an ancient sweat lodge of the local indigenous people; a location to bathe and to heal; a communal room where stories are shared and spirits appeased; where one may find refuge from the dirt of the milpa; cleanse the body of the drink of celebration and prepare oneself for love and birth.
A Temezcal can be made of anything from adobe blocks to plastic sheets slung over bent poles. I made mine of colored concrete, buried like the Kiva of native Americans of the southwest United States of America. I chose to bury mine for several reasons. First, to keep the Temezcal from intruding on my garden. Secondly, I liked the idea of entering into mother earth. And third–just because.
The building is oval shaped, ten feet by five feet, and four-and-one-half feet high. There is a small fireplace to heat the rocks and an entranceway on one of the long ends with a steel door. Inside, there are niches for candles, and other elements important to the bathing and cleansing rituals. In the center is a concrete table to place the heat rocks on. We sit on a concrete circular bench topped with flagstone. There are decorative tiles on the walls and four skylights in the concrete ceiling.
Tuesday in the highlands of Chiapas is the only day to bless a Temezcal. Morning dawned, to rolling waves of mist, in the valley of Jovel. Xun, the bearer of gifts, prayers and knowledge of ancient cleansing rituals was walking to San Cristobal, having left his home which was two hours away in the high jade green valleys of Chamula. Morning’s mist had evaporated and the sun shone brightly through the towering clouds of an early fall when he arrived at my home, exactly at high noon to commence the healing ceremony of my new Temezcal. Xun brought Posh, Pepsi, hunzio, candles, fresh rainwater and his history, of the continuance of traditions of Chamula, his people and fatherland; all, the living MAYA.
Weeks before, Xun and I discussed the merits of the Temezcal’s healing and purification powers and he offered to “tame” it. He spoke of the power of the Temezcal and assured me that his blessing was needed to a allow sane and safe use of it’s therapeutic and purification power.
Originally, Xun wanted to kill a chicken, adding its energy and life force to the Temezcal. He would then make a healthy chicken soup for us to eat. No, I said. I did not want this. I get sick at a bullfight, where the violence takes place many meters away. No, not here in front of me in an enclosed space did I want the neck of a living cerature wrung and sliced, its life blood spilled onto my virgin floor. Fortunately, Xun agreed to bless the Temezcal without blood being spilled.
The day before the ceremony, Antonia, our housekeper, scrubbed and polished the inside of the building. Xun cleaned it another thirty minutes on the day of the blessing. Then he took the hunzio , candles, Posh , Pepsi and ochote rojo into the darkened womb. I passed him the lena (firewood) which he had carefully selected from my supply, and the special healing and heating rocks.
Weeks ago, Xun, his family of eight, and I ventured deep into the backcountry of Chamula, an indigenous municipality north of San Cristobal. We were seeking a certain kind of healing and heating rocks that Xun said are used in a Temezcal and only available at two sites in Chamula. These dense, smooth rocks, generally the size of an adult’s closed fist, look like quartz for they have a slight transparency with white and rose being the primary coloring. We found the rocks on the face of a steep mountain cliff, high above the surrounding countryside in a mysterious river valley, shrouded in vegetation and dappled light. The site was two kilometers from the nearest road. We collected several kilos and transported them to my home where they were carefully laid out on the raw earth near the emerging Temezcal, to receive the sun’s energy and to be washed of their dusty crust by the late summer rains.
The time had arrived to call the Gods to enter and to be a part of the total consciousness of the revered soul/spirit, waiting to acknowledge the power of the natural way, the incarnate nature. Xun commenced the healing ritual by chanting concise soft prayers in Tzotzil, then when his prayers had begun to charge the atmosphere he set aflame fourteen small parafin candles for the sky Gods and twelve small sebo candles for Mother Earth. These candles were set in rows on the bench next to the fireplace. There were twenty-six candles, all white, except one orange and one red, white and green, which represented the evil neighbors. One white unpretentious round votive candle wrapped in red, white and blue paper with a white cross was placed in the center behind all the other candles; this represented Jesus.
After the candles burned for several minutes, I handed Xun an incensor (incense burner), filled with smoldering charcoal, which he placed on the floor in front of the candles. Copal incense was added, giving rise to mountains of acrid and perfumed smoke which wafted between the candles. Xun’s face was cloaked in a mystifying envelope of blue tinged smoke. I waited outside, on my knees near the entrance. The smoke which drifted through the opened door was sweet and consuming. The vapor from combustion entered my lungs with every breath, expanding the seemingly endless moments of Xun’s incantations, charging the moment.
Xun continued his prayers, his voice was musical, like an aria. As he came to an end of each incantation, his tempo became rapid with his need to complete the prayer in a single breath. I began to feel the concentrated heat from the candles as I waited. Looking deeply into the maw of the Temezcal, the Witz Monster, Cauc, beckoning, I felt an intense pull from a moment etched in time, a time that felt foreign and novel to me, a time lost to this day of yesterdays. It was as if the planets, stars, moon and Mother Earth, having watched over us for so long, were aligned to endow elements of art, growth, magic, purification in this introduction into the ways of the ancients.
Xun’s spirituality, activities and energies affirmed tranquility, and a desire to enter the enigmatic world of the ancients. To have them penetrate me and transport me to the very edge, to the lip of this timely experience. Hopefully, with Xun’s assistance and generosity in sharing this moment, I will be able to enter a world ordinarily locked and closed to me.
I was kneeling outside the Temezcal and Xun, after his extensive private ritual, invited me in. I entered the Temezcal, excited, stimulated to be involved. As I closed the door to the outside world, I knew I would be experiencing a life-changing event. The door closed with a resounding twang as the metal contacted concrete and we were sealed in the darkened room.
The moment began.
Xun continued his chanting of one-breath long prayers, haunting and penetrating. He was deep in concentration, gone over to his ancestors. His words rose and ebbed as he evoked the Gods to protect the Temezcal and those, who in the presence of the energy of the Temezcal, needed protection. A Temezcal is a powerful energy force, a living and dynamic being. Unless blessed in the proper manner, the Temezcal experience can subtly or dangerously affect the health of those who come for healing.
His voice brought the spirits of protection into this charged and magical space. Three times he bowed, his voice deep and reserved. Once he crossed himself and his words were animated and rose as his hand touched his forehead, nose and mouth. Candles flickered, danced and smoked in the currents from the voice of Xun. Internal eddies circulated within the Temezcal. The room filled with a dynamism generated by Xun, who channeled the power of the earth, sky and forces of ancient wisdom and goodness to a resolution; the purification of the bathers and the Temezcal.
Posh, God’s liquid spirit in a Corona bottle, was offered to the room through a series of prayers and salutations. After blessing the Posh, Xun poured it into a single small brown Mexican glass. Following an evocation to Mother Earth, the sky Gods and Jesus, the Posh was offered to the Temezcal; three pours in front of the candles; one in the center, one to each side. Each blessing seemed to engross Xun in a moment of wonder and cleansing. He was in a trance, a state of grace.
Xun took the Pepsi bottle in his left hand and with his right he summoned the opener, which I happened to have in my back pocket, having anticipated the need to remove the cap. The Pepsi was used in the same manner as the Posh – one splash in front then one to each side, the symmetry maintained.
After sprinkling the Posh and Pepsi, (I don’t know if Coke or Fanta or Sangria would produce the same effects), we sat in silence. Xun began to chant and raised his hands to the sky, which was obscured by the flat blue concrete roof. Chants, which again were one breath long and possessed increased force and energy, lasted ten minutes. Xun poured Posh into the brown glass, took a very small sip, raised the glass to the Gods, and then downed the firewater in one breath. He filled the glass again and handed it to me. Following Xun’s lead I drank the Posh, which burned my mouth and throat. The Posh entered my being like a messenger of God’s power; liquid fire and strength. The drinking Posh then Pepsi was repeated three times. We sat silently for several moments feeling the Posh enter and expand bringing a warmth that elevated us to a higher stratum.
Xun lit a single piece of achote rojo and used it to ignite the achote blanco which, when burning with a soft amber glow, ignited the oak firewood that he had carefully selected and arranged in the fireplace within the Temescal. The flames danced and talked to Xun, and to a lesser degree, myself. They told us of their desire to bring warmth to us and to the stones surrounding the fire. The fire flushed and climbed, illuminating the interior of the Temezcal with a glowing solar light. The heat generated by the rising fire (and the Posh) directly impacted the sensation of ritual, of healing, of magic.
Thirty of the specially selected rocks were now placed into the open flames and heated until they were red-hot. This took about forty-five minutes. Xun suggested that I remain silent. I watched the changing glow of the rocks and the ebb and flow of the fire as fresh wood was placed gently, deliberately into it, heating the rocks till they became alive, red, vibrating, waiting to release their power.
Occasionally, Xun would recite prayers or sing a melodious song that augmented the sounds of the fire, then again he would fall silent. Three times the songs ebbed and flowed and finally after a very high pitched crescendo, he stopped suddenly as the fire flamed into an explosion of sparks and a burst of focussed heat. Xun turned to me, smiled and said, “ ¡Listo!”! Ready!
Following Xun’s lead, I disrobed. Resting somewhat uncomfortably on the now hot laja benches I watched as Xun selected seven radiant, crimson rocks from the bed of coals with metal tongs. Removing them from the fire he placed them on the small stone table in the very center of the Temezcal. They rested, radiating light and heat, rhythmically pulsating in the darkness of the Temezcal. Xun, rocking, gently prayed over them. Suddenly he let out a forceful cry, sounding like a coyote’s yelp, and sprinkled the rocks with blessed water from a small tonal. Immediately a geyser of steam rose and filled the Temezcal, bringing a wonderful sensation of peacefulness and relaxation.
Vaporous heat, perfumed with herbs Xun gathered from the medicinal garden he is growing within my garden, entered my lungs expanding them and bringing an immediate tranquility to my spirit. Xun, whose eyes were closed tightly, began to chant. This time, he repeated the word colaval, colaval, colaval, slowly.
The heat became oppressive after five minutes. Perspiration ran down my naked flesh, collecting on the warm rock bench we had been sitting on for nearly two hours. Xun continued to periodically splash the herbed water on the rocks, creating immense quantities of steam that penetrated and heated our bodies. I was malleable, softened by the magnitude of the vapors. The heat modulated and became a warm friend enslaving me in the diaphanous resin of the herbed steam.
Seemingly infinite moments passed. Xun passed the Posh to me after again blessing the candles, which were nearly extinguished by time and the moisture in the tightly sealed Temezcal. By now, the fire was a bed of warm orange embers glowing in the darkness. I reluctantly took a small sip for my head was already swimming in the intoxication of the moment, the earlier glasses of Posh and the effects of the scented spirituous steam. The effect of the Posh as it slipped into my mouth, throat and stomach was an instant high; unlike any I had experienced previously when Posh was used simply as entertainment. I was electrified, charged and sated by all.
Xun reached out and placed his hands firmly on my shoulders, bowing gently he said a few soft and comforting words then motioned me to exit the Temezcal. I opened the steel door with extreme hesitance, but with soft prompting from Xun I pushed through. Opening the sealed Temezcal, I found a portal, a lid on a New World, one that was sparkling in the late afternoon golden crystalline light. The air, which was perfumed with ginger, from the opulent profusion of growth near the Temescal, entered my lungs with my first full breath. I was excited to enter a New World, aromatic, intoxicating in it’s freshness.
Xun asked me to wait on the brick patio several meters from the Temezcal. Earlier he had placed on the bricks a vessel made of fired clay filled with pure rainwater brought from his home. Sprinkling the fresh rainwater on me, and using a handful of fresh basil as I turned counter clockwise he covered me with the purging and cooling water. The effect was similar to the moment when, after a sauna, one rushes into a nearby pool or rolls in freshly fallen snow. My skin cooled, tightened expelling all the impurities collected in my pores. My head swam again, in the moment, in the sheer power and purgation of the Temezcal experience.
I was then instructed to lie on the green luxurious grass of my garden until I was totally dry. Xun reentering the Temezcal, while I was drying on the grass, started a new round of prayers. These were quick, intensely personal prayers to insure that our presence in the Temezcal was vaporized with the coals of the firewood and steam of the hot rocks. He emerged and sealed the Temezcal placing hunzio over the entrance. I was instructed to wait three days and only then remove the hunzio from the entrance and surface of the Temezcal. Then, I could enter and thoroughly cleanse the interior with fresh water, remove and bury the hunzio, candles, incense and ash in a place that only I was to know. I was never to tell where I buried the ingredients of our day of cleansing, and I haven’t.
After dressing into fresh clothes we dined on a simple meal of tortillas, chilies, beans, cheese, salt and fresh water. Xun then said “Adios”, and left my home for the two-hour walk to his home in the mountains of Chamula.
The Temezcal is now ready to act as a vehicle of healing and cleansing and is protected from the evil that may have lurked in its confined space. I deeply thank Xun for a journey into the mind, life and spirit of a culture so ancient, yet living side by side with the new millennium.
Adios from the magical heart of Chiapas,
TEMEZCAL, a healing and cleansing structure used since ancient times by the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. Very much like the sauna, hammam, Turkish bath, or other type of heated room to bath in. Generally the structure is of adobe or wood constructed above ground. Mine was built into the ground in the fashion of a Kiva built by the Native Americans located in the Four Corners area of the USA.
XUN, Chamulan; my friend, gardener, spiritual advisor for his people, a positive man of great and permanent spiritual integrity.
ACOTE BLANCO, pinewoods from the achote blanco pine used to maintain fires and also for hot water heaters.
ACOTE ROJO, pitch pine, lighter log, small pieces of pine from the achote rojo pine that is saturated naturally with pine resin and used to start fires.
COLAVAL, Totizel for thank you.
HUNZIO, fresh pine needles, vibrantly green.
LAJA, Flagstone used in paving, counters and benches.
POSH, the local firewater distilled from panella, a very crude sugar, which is produced in the tierra caliente, the hot lands.
TONAL, a flat-bottomed gourd, which grows on trees in the tierra caliente, and is used for storage of water, tortillas and other small items.
WITZ MONSTER, the symbol of the living mountain. A Maya symbol used as the entry into the mountain, the doorway into a temple.