MAYAN HOLY WEEK CARPETS [ALFOMBRAS]

guatemala_carpet-1

There are two basic kinds of procession carpets. Ones made from colored sawdust and ones made from just about anything else. This would include flowers, pine needles, fruit, vegetables, rocks, dolls, candles and other objects. In some cases there are combinations of all materials.

The carpets are made by residents, friends, and families along processional routes. They are offered up as a sacrifice in anticipation of the procession that will destroy them by marching through the painstaking and fantastic creations. When one procession has gone by, a clean-up crew follows removing the remains.

Almost immediately residents may begin to build yet another carpet in anticipation of the next procession later that day or the next.

guatemala_carpet-2Carpets are also made inside churches. Carpets in the churches are made for the holy vigils [velaciones] and are made by brotherhoods [hermandades].
Materials for making carpets are sold in local markets and stores. Stencils/templates to make various shapes are sold in stores as well. Sometimes you will see people picking up materials from a walked-over carpet to put in their carpet before the street cleaners pick everything up.
The themes for the carpets are usually religious. Crosses and hearts are common symbols but the sky’s the limit here. There are also political motifs and the occasional Mayan themed carpet.

HISTORY

The custom of making carpets was brought from Spain and the Canary Islands. However, it is believed that in pre-Hispanic times the Maya made carpets for various ceremonial reasons. Possibly the carpets were used in alters to induce positive energies and absorb negative ones. Thus the constant destruction of the carpet is necessary to remove bad energies and bring new positive ones with the construction of a new carpet or offering. [We use the term “energies” here simply for descriptive sake. The phenomenon is obviously metaphysical and energies seem to be the best term to use.]
guatemala_carpet-3It is also not too hard to imagine an over zealous volunteer force or an ego-maniacal king forcing his subjects to carpet his path during ceremonial times with flowers and other objects. The king being “God on earth” would be the “secretary” to the great God entity akin to a secretary in a Mayan alter.The Christian history for carpet making appears to stem from the Bible itself.
The Canonical Gospels describe how Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and how the people laid down their cloaks in front of him, and also laid down small branches of trees.It was a common custom in many lands in the ancient Near East to cover, in some way, the path of someone thought worthy of the highest honor. The Hebrew Bible reports that Joshua was treated this way, and many of the pre-Christian mystery religions, particularly that of Dionysus, report that their central human-divinity figure entered a major city in this way, usually before their death and resurrection.
Both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John report that people gave Jesus this form of honor. However, in the synoptics they are only reported as laying their garments and cut rushes on the street, whereas it is John that specifically mentions palm fronds.
The palm branch was a symbol of triumph, and of victory, in Jewish tradition, and is treated in other parts of the bible as such (Leviticus 23:40, and Revelation 7:9, for example). Because of this, the scene of the crowd greeting Jesus by waving palms, and of carpeting his path with them, has given the Christian festival its name.

HOW DO THEY DO IT?

guatemala_carpet-4To build a sawdust carpet the first thing they do is get the materials. The sawdust comes in bags. If you are walking down a cobble-stone street and see a bunch of bags leaned up against a wall there is going to be a carpet built there soon. When they are ready to build they block off the street. Traffic is now forced to make a detour. Motorists take it with stride.
Before laying the base, the spot is washed with a garden hose. There are a number of reasons for doing this. Obviously it cleans the area prior to building. It also holds down the sawdust base, gluing it to the street. The Maya also believe that water absorbs evil energies, and then evaporates into the ethers.
A frame of 2 x 4s is made and a layer of raw sawdust is poured in to make the carpet level as the streets are not flat.

After the frame and base layer are complete it is time to put the design on. Some people work off the top of their heads while others have a drawing. I guess it depends on how many carpets you have made.
guatemala_carpet-5Templates are used for repetitive design elements and some of the pictures. Some pictures are done by hand without the aid of a template. The templates are laid down on the base sawdust and colored sawdust is poured in through the cut-outs in the template to produce the design element. The template is then moved and more elements made, until completed. Templates are quite often used for repetitive bordering.
For builders to work in the middle of a carpet large boards are placed across a carpet resting on the 2 x 4s (like a bridge) so the workers do no come in contact with the carpet.
guatemala_carpet-6Each carpet making fraternity has its own tools. This consists of numerous pails, sifters, templates and small “cookie-cutters” to make design elements and a host of leveling devices akin to masons working with concrete.
To make the non-sawdust variety of carpet various measuring devices from a tape measure to a string are used. Like a sawdust carpet the builder will have a drawing or work off the top of their heads.

Quite often flowers are cut just prior to the building of the carpets. Some people have gardens with particular flowers planted to bloom during Holy Week. Most buy their flowers or get their fruits and vegetables from the market or family and friends with farms.
Non-sawdust carpet builders do not use templates and usually eye-out their geometric designs or use a measuring tape.
After a carpet is made it is sprayed with water again, to hold it together and remove any negativity.

SIZE AND COMPLEXITY

guatemala_carpet-7Size and complexity depends largely on the size of your workforce and the amount of money raised to buy materials. Also carpets made by children are usually smaller and not as elaborate – but just as beautiful!
Some families gain notoriety for making their creations year after year. Although not a competition, the Maya are a competitive people and one cannot wonder if the competitive process is not playing out here on different levels.
After a crew has made their carpet they often sit close by to watch the reaction of passerby’s. Some areas turn into street-parties with the carpet maker’s drunk-as-skunks, but most often it is a family affair with devout Catholics at the helm.
Stopping and taking pictures makes the carpet maker’s day. Telling them that their creation is amazing brings warm smiles. Offering the carpet makers a donation for their outstanding work generally brings astonishment and surprisingly most will not accept your money.

LOCATIONS

Carpets are made in churches and along procession routes. I cannot tell you how many cities and villages participate in this ritual but have been told it is quite widespread all over Guatemala during holy week.
The two main cities that hold the greatest processions are Antigua and Guatemala City. Antigua is however the place to be during Holy Week.
Procession routes change every year and asking a local where and when the procession will be generally garnishes a blank stare. You see, the processions are everywhere, all day and all night. For more about processions see Processions.

Mayan Holy Week Overview
Processions
Carpets

Guatemala Travel Tips