What do candles, sesame seeds, and soda have in common?

Answer: They were all a part of the Mayan Kaj’yup ceremony that took place among ancient ruins on a hill overlooking the city of Rabinal.

Curious how they’re used? 

I certainly was when I saw the Voces y Manos youth, both new groups students and old, carrying bags of these mundane items to the site of the Mayan ceremony.

Our trip began in Rabinal’s central park, where Voces y Manos students, interns, and volunteers congregated before beginning what I like to call subiendo-ing (with subiendo translating to “going up”). This means we climbed up a very, very steep hill for an hour before reaching the ancient Mayan ruins where the ceremony was to be held. Although we began the trip early (7 am!), I had to remove my glasses halfway through the climb because I was sweaty enough that they wouldn’t stay on my face – and I can’t say the students and my fellow volunteers were in any better shape. The immense amount of sweat pouring down my body had me questioning the worthwhileness of this uphill climb until I put my glasses back on and saw this view of Rabinal:

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All I could think was: wow.

After pausing to gulp down half my bottle of water, myself and the rest of the group continued subiendo-ing up a few more stairs to the Mayan ruins. And with that, we were ready to begin the ceremony.

The leader began with a brief history: we learned that Kaj’yup is one of the most sacred and historical sites of the Achí people, who live in Rabinal and its surrounding areas. According to tradition, Kaj’yup was the site of the Achí prince Rabinal-Achí, who continues to act as a guardian spirit over the people of Rabinal. 

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The ceremony itself centered around a homemade fire pit made of wood, bread, and what looked to me like balls of chocolate mousse covered in coconut (can you tell I hadn’t eaten much breakfast?). That still didn’t explain, however, the soda and candles that were arranged to form four corners of a diamond shape.

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The leader explained that these represented the four cardinal directions, which are immensely important in Mayan tradition. Ok, so what about the soda? Well, they represented blood, earth, bones, and water (though, as the latter was easier to obtain than blood and bones, the leader used a bottle of real water).

And with those explanations, the ceremony began! Although I can’t claim to have understood most of it because my Achí is a little rusty (aka, non-existent), the ceremony involved burning candles, sprinkling sesame seeds counterclockwise around the fire, and facing the four cardinal directions during certain key moments during the ceremony (though again, can’t claim to have understood those key moments exactly).

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Upon conclusion of the ceremony, the older students chatted with Voces y Manos leader Miguel (Michael, for those non-Spanish speakers out there) while the younger group began cutting fruits I could only describe as massively humongous. After snacking, we began bajando-ing (going down), which turned out to be significantly easier than our uphill climb that morning. All in all, the ceremony was an early yet beautiful and interesting start to my second Sunday in Rabinal, and provided the students new and old with valuable bonding time. 

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