Iglesia de Santo Tomás

Church in Chichicastenango

This church on the plaza's east side dates from 1540 and is often the scene of rituals that are more distinctly Maya than Catholic. Inside, the floor of the church may be dotted with offerings of maize, flowers and bottles of liquor wrapped in corn husks; candles are arranged in specific patterns along low stone platforms. Enter through the side door rather than the front entrance and note that photography is very strictly not permitted inside.

The church's front steps serve much the same purpose as the great flights of stairs leading up to Maya pyramids (there are 20 steps, for each day of the Maya calendar). For much of the day (especially Sunday), they smolder with incense of copal resin, while indigenous prayer leaders called chuchkajaues (mother-fathers) swing censers (usually tin cans poked with holes) and chant magic words marking the days of the ancient Maya calendar and in honor of ancestors. The candles and offerings inside recall those ancestors, many of whom are buried beneath the floor just as Maya kings were buried beneath pyramids.