There were a total of four ceremonies to celebrate the Oxlajuj' B'aq'tun at Q'umark'aj, starting in the afternoon of the 20th of December and continuing through the next day. There were countless other ceremonies throughout the country, some more private and others more public. I was at Q'umark'aj starting around noon on the 20th, and so had the opportunity to participate in all four (although I left the next day at around 11, to head to Chichicastenango, where the B'aq'tun coincided with the annual patron saint feast on December 21). Some other friends had gone to Chichicastenango, where there had been ceremonies starting on the 19th and 20th. But I had had the sense that because Chichicstenango is a town that is heavily visited by tourists, and in many ways is dependent upon tourism, that the activity would be somewhat more oriented towards tourists, and that was also the opinion of some of my close friends, including one who lives part-time in Chichicastenango and has a fairly close relationship with the indigenous authorities there. So when my friend Jeanet and I were texting back and forth about our plans for the b'aq'tun and she said that she was going to Chichi, I had a moment's hesitation but decided to stick with my original decision to go to Q'umark'aj. The space itself is very tranquil, in part because it is somewhat "retirado" (out of the way). To get to the main ceremonial space, you walk down a long path lined with tall trees that slope in gently to form a green canopy between you and the sky, a kind of majestic woodland walkway, so that when you arrive at the ceremonial space, which is completely open to the elements, there is really a sense of entrance, of stepping out of the cover of trees and into this open expanse, surrounded by hillocks and remnants of ancient structures. After hearing the commentaries of the people who presided over the ceremonies, who insisted that we not use the word "ruin", I will try to avoid doing so. Their reasoning was that to call the built structures "ruins" is an acknowledgment that the Maya civilization is something that belongs to the past, to history and archaeology and not to the present. Labeling the site as "ruins" means consigning the Maya to museums.
There were several hours of preparation before any of the ceremonies began. People cleaned the space, and prepared altars. There were several truck loads of supplies that arrived and people spread out woven straw mats and sorted out candles and incense, and then brought them to the altars. People spread pine needles around the central altar, and then flower petals over that. Inside the circle, priests constructed the altar. A central element in Maya ceremonies is the sacred fire. Someone lights it at the beginning and at different times throughout the ceremony (depending upon the nature of the ceremony) the priests or participants add offerings to the fire -- usually candles, most often light-colored candles but sometimes other colors. I won't pretend to know enough to say why one uses candles of a certain color at certain times; it might have to do with one's nahual (guardian spirit or "sign" in the Maya calendar system), or what one needs to accomplish. People talked, joked, laughed as they arranged things. The activities seemed to be mostly run by the priests organized by Chilam Balam; there were folks from the CPO and the two groups met to coordinate, but the activities were most of a religious/spiritual nature -- at least as far as I saw. Perhaps the next day, after I'd left to go to Chichicatenango, the event turned more political. But there were messages and commentary interspersed throughout the proceedings, which extended over a period of about 18 hours or more.
There was a marimba set up at one end - I think it was the south end of the space, and also a microphone and amplifier for the people who were presiding over the event. All of us participants were in a loose circle around the altars, although some groups of people were sitting in clusters and kind of spread out on the small grassy hillocks surrounding the central space. Some had clearly come prepared to spend the night, with blankets and bags of food. One family erected two small camping tents, and others had pieces of plastic or tarps, or woven mats.
People arrived throughout the day and night, often entire families came, carrying young child in arms and older ones trudging along. From the huipiles, I could see that there was a sizable group from Joyabaj, and a smaller one from Zacualpa. Of course, not everyone wears "municipal traje" -- traje that is specific to one locale; most women wear "generic traje" -- puffy-sleeved blouses adorned with lace, sequined, beaded or embroidered trim, and cortes that are machine-woven, so it is often hard to tell where people are from simply by the clothing. However, the organizers were asking people to "check in" by community and municipality and several times throughout the proceedings of this day and the next, someone read out the names of all the communities that were present.
The marimba was impressive, not just with their artistry but their stamina. They played off and on from about 5 in the afternoon until who-knows-when the next day; there was a second marimba that arrived in the early morning, so that they could alternate, but the first group of marimberos (marimba players) kept things going for at least 12 hours on their own. They didn't play constantly; during parts of the ceremonies, and especially some of the prayers, there was no music, but throughout, one of the priests or priestesses would indicate that they should start, and they did. There was one slightly older man who played the higher, melodic notes: the way a marimba is arranged, the lower notes are on the right as the audience faces the marimba. There are usually three players, and sometimes a fourth playing a drum. The player to the audience's left carries the higher notes and the melody, and all of the ornamentation and flourishes. The players on the right and at the center play more basic rhythms. Kind of like the relationship between the highest -pitched drum, the quinto, and the two lower-pitched drums (tres-dos and tumbadora) in traditional rumba; the lower pitched drums keep the rhythm and the highest-pitched drum does the fancy stuff. A similar relationship (although not in terms of pitch) exists in ceremonial Afrocuban music: the bata drums are a set of three, and the largest (and thus lowest-pitched) drum, the iya, carries the "melody" and the two smaller, higher-pitched drums, itotele and okonkolo, maintain the beat. So this ensemble of three musicians, and the respective roles of each, is an interesting parallel.
Okay, enough cross-cultural ethnomusicology. Don't expect me to say much more about marimbas in terms of music and playing because I really know next to nothing about the marimba other than that it is the national instrument, that it is autochthonous to Central America, and that it holds a special places in people's hearts and spirits.
The first ceremony started in the late afternoon, before it was fully dark. The priests lined up in two rows, men on one side and women on the other, and started to walk down to the caves, to the accompaniment of the marimba. We were invited to join, and a few of us scrambled to try and take photographs. Many people had camera phones or digital cameras, not just the few journalists who were there for the long haul, and so participants were filming and photographing throughout the ceremony. The sex-separated lines didn't hold up as we worked our way down the steep, rocky path to the caves. At the entrance, the priests had built another fire, and so we all stood behind them as they chanted some prayers. However, after a while some of the priests went inside, followed by others, while some stayed outside. It was a tight squeeze with about 50 people squeezed onto the path leading to the cave, and hard to see what was going on, but eased up once people started to go onside. There were candles placed along the floor all the way to the back of the cave. The cave is a long, narrow passageway, and only at the end -- as I remember it (I didn't make it all the way to the end this time) it widens out a little bit. The time I had previously entered the cave there was no illumination (other than the screens of our cell phones) and it was a bit claustrophobic and eerie.
This time it was relatively well illuminated by comparison, but I didn't go all the way back, mostly because people were already starting to come out, and also at the back it seemed very crowded with people and hard to get close to the "action". I clambered back up to where the main ceremonial site was, and bit by bit everyone else came back up and then the rest of the ceremony started in earnest. It went on for about two hours, and then there was a break before the second ceremony started at 10.
During this break my friend Eunice finally arrived; she had been delayed in leaving Xela as she had work to finish up, and we had been texting each other intermittently, so I knew that around 7:30 she was at Los Encuentros waiting for a bus, and then around 9 she finally made it to the site. I was about to suggest that we go out and get some food - she had called me from the entrance to say that there were some women selling churrascos, but the organizers had brought some large cauldrons of a traditional food called tayuyos. These are a kind of unfilled tamal, but black beans are mixed into the corn meal dough, along with some salt, before the tayuyos are formed and steamed, so they are simple but have an earthy taste from the beans, and are also more nutritious than plain tamales. This was a stroke of luck for me, and so we feasted on a few tayuyos apiece, and luckily Eunice had also brought some water. She is the daughter of one of my good friends, and although she is in her twenties, she and I have also developed a strong affinity and have stayed in touch via Facebook mostly. It was good to have some company, although I felt very welcomed, but I didn't really know too many people. My one-time K'iche' teacher Leonardo, who is also an ajq'ij, was there; his family arrived in the morning, but he spent the entire night. And Mario --a very quiet, soft-spoken man who works with Chilam Balam, was also there. But it was especially lovely to be with Eunice although we didn't talk a lot as we were trying to pay attention to what was going on with the ceremonies -- the last time I was in Guatemala we didn't get to see each other at all. So although the night was bound up with ceremonies and talks and a little time for sleep, it was nice to just be in the same place and share an experience together.
The ceremonies was mostly in K'iche' with a bit of explanation or interpretation in Spanish. The organizers clearly saw it as a teachable moment, and from time to time called out to people who were standing on some of the structures to get down, saying that it was important to protect the remains of Q'umark'aj, but also noting that this was not a spectacle, not folklore, not a performance. That people were welcome to participate but that it wasn't an event for people to just stand on the outside and look and take pictures
But in between the organizers took the opportunity to share some reflections about the significance of the event. Earlier in the day, someone had told me that the previous day (the 19th) some government officials (from the central government) had come to Q'umark'aj, but that they (the organizers) had turned them away, as they didn't want the government to turn the b'aq'tun into a political event, something for their own gain. Someone from Chilam Balam had told me that the government tourist agency, Inguat, had offered to provide lights, sound system and other equipment and supplies for the event, but that they had wanted to control in and so they had turned Inguat down and thus had to scramble around on their own to find the necessary equipment.
The second ceremony -- the one that began at 10 -- went on until about 1:30. During this one, the four additional altars were used, and at one point we were directed to go to the altar of the cardinal point that corresponded to our own nahual (each of the 20 nahuales corresponds to a particular color and to one of the cardinal points: I went to the east and Eunice went to the north).
Meanwhile, probably before it became fully dark, another group, much smaller arrived. They clearly seemed surprised to see that the central ceremonial area was already occupied, but they moved to another flat area about 20 yards behind where the musicians were. They were a pretty mixed group, with a fair number of foreigners. I didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to what they did, other than to note that there was someone who was dressed in a loincloth and with a plumed head-piece, that is, wearing something that looked like a reproduction of a stone carving of an "ancient Maya" -- the kind of costume I have seen people wear in dance performances of the "folkloric" variety -- that is, when school children or others put on a version of the "baile de la conquista" (the dance of the conquest). It was cold, and he had only the skimpy costume and some body paint. He danced at various times during the ceremony -- something I have never seen in other, what I would call more authentic ceremonies. I subsequently asked a friend who was there if he knew who that group was and he said no, but he thought that perhaps some tourists who had come with a tour guide who had promised to bring them to an authentic ceremony.
More... and still more....