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 to those
not afraid to dig deep into the history of ancient peoples rewards
exceeding any that one may read of or hear about. It is here now and open
for all who care to turn the key and unravel its wonders.
It is in San Cristobal, in my garden, among orchids and vegetables that I built a Temezcal and have 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 thirdly--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 which is closed by 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.
The following story is true and originates in and from ancient beliefs and
ceremonies that are still practiced in the indigenous communities that
surround San Cristobal.
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.
The Temezcal was finished eight days ago by Julio, the albanil. At that
time, he informed me I must wait seven days to build a fire and practice
the art of Temezcal bathing and healing. The walls of freshly poured
concrete and the ground underneath were weeping and required time to dry.
Weeks before, Xun and I discussed the merits of the Temezcal's healing and
purification powers and he offered to tame my Temezcal. He spoke of the
power of the Temezcal and assured me that his blessing was needed to a
allow sane and safe use of the Temezcal's therapeutic and purification power.
Originally, Xun wanted to kill a pollo (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 a gallo, it's neck wrung and sliced, its
life blood spilled onto my virgin
floor. Fortunately, Xun agreed to bless the Temezcal without blood being
The day before the ceremony, Antonia, our housekeeper, 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
After the candles burned for several minutes, I handed Xun an incensor,
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
Xuns' activities, spirituality and energies affirmed tranquility,
spirituality and a desire to enter the enigmatic world of the ancients to
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 the world of the ancients, a world ordinarily locked and closed to me.
After a few intense moments, Xun's world of prayer, an avenue to his Gods
that I am totally undereducated for, seized me and enticed me to enter the
other side. Captured, I went into and accepted the spell. I crossed over,
allowing my normal world and controlled environment, TV, NEWS, MOVIES,
COMPUTERS the WESTERN WAYS to be abandoned. Letting Xun's words act as song and melody, enticements to transport me into the new, into the fascinating
doorway of the ancient dogma and religion. I was transformed into a being
at the edge of time, free for the nanosecond, from the confinements of
modern avenues of knowledge and escape. FREE. I waited, captured, in time
and space, now, nowhere else, I was one with Xun's incantations. I was
completely and absolutely engrossed by Xun's mastery and learning, his
past, his culture, closer to the edge of existence, to the arts of
purification. Xun's connection to his history is vital and with his fervor
I was able to connect and empathize with the heart of the beast, yours,
mine and his, our collective PAST.
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 is 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, sodden with the
ages of his ancestor's grace. 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 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, Gods 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, an arena of his past rarely enter in the presence
of an outsider, where he finds release to enter times lost, an innate
acceptance of the wonders of his and his peoples yesterday.
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 fire sprang to life as though the prayers and voice of Xun
had entered and instilled a magical quality to each piece. 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,
intangible, ethereal and mystical. The heat generated by the rising fire
(and the Posh) directly impacted the sensation of ritual, of healing, of
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 the fire, 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, (thank you) slowly. The words seemingly came from
another, yet I knew it was Xun sitting next to me, praying and bringing the
ancient and modern Gods to the Temezcal to assure a peaceful and positive
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 bringing to the skin a radiant heat, a vibrant massage of transparent
hands. Malleable, I was, 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 as the heat and liters of perspiration
collected. 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, sparkling leaves and grass and raw earth. My senses were heightened, desirous of the fresh enticing air. I entered a world charged, electrified.
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, using a handful of fresh basil as I turned counter clockwise he
covered me with the purging and cooling water. The effected was similar to
the wondrous 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 the 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,
Craig "Cisco" Dietz conducts photo workshops in Chiapas. Students
headquarter in San Cristobal del las Casas in a gracious century-old house,
home of Cisco and his wife, Margaret. The workshops consist of excursions
to native villages, scenic jungle sites, beaches and festivals. For a
detailed schedule: http://www.mexonline.com/aper1.htm Telephone # 52 967 85727. Email email@example.com
Address Calle Tonala #27, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas 29220 Mexico
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.
ALBANIL, foreman, direct translation bricklayer
COLAVAL, Totizel for thank you.
INCENSOR, Incense burner
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.