A parade of beliefs

JILL WORRALL
Last updated 08:08 14/04/2014
antigua
Taking part in the processions is a family affair.
antigua
The processions were originally a way to tell the Easter story to a largely illiterate population.
antigua
A statue of Christ gets a spruce-up before a Lenten procession.

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It's Saturday afternoon in Antigua, Guatemala, and a strange ritual is taking place outside one of the dozens of churches in this former capital city.

A church volunteer is clamping a wooden device down on to the shoulders of a lineup of men while beside him at a rickety desk another helper is noting both names and heights in a register.

Several of the men in the queue have shiny purple satin robes draped over their arms; a little boy holds his father's hand with his left and clutches a doll, also clad in a purple-cowled robe, in his other hand.

The laborious task of carefully measuring the height of hundreds of men is part of the preparations for what is now regarded as the largest Lenten celebrations in the world.

Lent is the approximately 40 days before Easter Sunday when many Christians across several denominations prepare for Easter. Traditionally this is a time for prayer, repentance and penance.

Although it might be regarded as the most important event of the Christian year, Lenten celebrations in New Zealand are relatively low-key compared to those in mostly predominantly Catholic countries and they in turn pale into insignificance compared with Lent in Antigua.

Antigua became the Spanish capital for much of Central America in 1543 and up until 1773 the colonists lavished money on the city, which once boasted 38 churches and a university. A massive earthquake in 1773 just about destroyed the city, however, and the capital was shifted to modern day Guatemala City.

Despite frequent earthquakes since, Antigua's remaining architectural heritage survived into the 20th century, with the city declared a world heritage site by Unesco in 1979. Work preserving the city continues today, although many of the churches destroyed in the 1773 quake have been left in ruins as a testament to the destruction.

With the ground regularly shuddering under their feet and ringed by three volcanoes (one of which, Fuego, is still active, it erupted several times during my visit), it's probably not surprising that Antiguans are deeply religious.

But the sheer scale of Antigua's Lenten processions and other observances probably owe their origins to the strength of religious brotherhoods known as hermandades, each of which is dedicated to a particular saint or other religious figure.

During Lent, statues, many of which are mounted on elaborately decorated and extremely heavy wooden "floats", are paraded through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Antigua.

It is for these parades that the men (and also women who carry floats bearing images of the Virgin Mary and other female saints) were being carefully measured.

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The largest of the floats weigh between two and three tonnes, and take up to 100 men to carry them. Ensuring the bearers, who balance the floats on their shoulders, are evenly matched is, therefore, crucial. The men are rotated regularly, itself a precision manoeuvre as the replacements ease into position, while keeping the enormous floats aloft.

I'd first seen one of the processions in 2013 while standing on a jammed footpath in Antigua's narrow streets. This year I watched from the relative open space of Antigua's Parque Central, the town's main plaza.

All around the square purple banners fluttered and festoons of purple cloth hung from windows and above doorways. The colour purple is inextricably linked with Lent; it was the colour of the robe in which Pontius Pilate and his Roman soldiers clothed Jesus Christ before his crucifixion as a form of cruel irony (purple being the colour of royalty) but is also associated with mourning, piety and penance.

In Guatemala its use is not restricted to church vestments. As well as being used to decorate parade routes in Antigua, for example, many people erect simple wooden crosses in their front gardens and then drape them with purple cloth.

This year the parade was led by a group of Guatemalans sweating under fake armour and clad with Roman-style helmets topped with what look suspiciously like red broom heads. Clearly the Easter story is not as well known among less religious nations as I overheard several tourists pondering the significance of the Romans.

A band, its members in dark suits (several entwined with sousaphones) followed, playing funeral dirges. And then, rhythmically swaying from side to side came the main focus of the day's parade, a float bearing an image of Jesus shouldering his cross.

The men carrying the float stepped slowly in perfect time, their purple robes gleamed in the late afternoon sun, their faces partly obscured by purple cowls. Behind them came the women, mostly dressed in black, lace mantillas over their heads, who carried a smaller float on which stood an image of the Virgin Mary.

Both floats stopped in front of the Cathedrale Santiago that dominates one side of the square. On the steps, under its gleaming white facade, stood various white-clad Catholic hierarchy.

The floats were blessed. The crowd murmured along with the liturgy and then crossed themselves fervently as the floats began to move away. Robed young men waved incense burners alongside, sending clouds of pungent smoke into the crowd.

Along the route participants stepped over Antigua's famed alfombras - flower carpets created painstakingly by the locals. A layer of sawdust and or pine needles is first laid on the cobblestones and then coloured sawdust poured through templates to make intricate designs that are often further decorated with flowers, fruit, and vegetables.

All walked over the beautiful carpets, reducing them to mounds of multi-coloured sawdust and crushed flowers; a symbol of sacrifice and personal offerings to God.

What is especially intriguing about these carpets is their fusion of Christian and Mayan symbolism. The Mayans were the greatest of the Mezzo-American civilisations that date back to 2000BC and flourished in the region until the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century. Up to 40 per cent of Guatemalans today have at least some Mayan ancestry and many Mayan languages are still in everyday use. This is a living culture - most of the women were dressed in Mayan costume with their handwoven brightly coloured skirts and blouses, the latter often also embroidered with birds and flowers.

The Mayans, known for their unique architecture, especially stepped pyramids, writing system, calendar and elaborate myths, believe that humans were created from maize. So corn and other fruits and vegetable associated with Mayan beliefs feature strongly in many of the carpets.

Catholic symbolism, Mayan mythology: all come together in a vibrant, fragrant kaleidoscope of colours and beliefs. But it's not all mourning and introspection. The floats and bands are followed by the candy floss and balloon sellers, boys bearing trays of rapidly melting icecreams and sticky Lenten breads, and girls draped with rosary beads for sale, some the size of plums.

At the rear were the municipal rubbish trucks and workers with shovels, who swept up the sawdust and the flowers ready for the brotherhoods and the rest of Antigua's believers to start all over again next Sunday.

- The Timaru Herald

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