A Peasant Tradition that Lives On: The C'ha Cháak Ritual among the Mayans

The C'ha Cháak is a ceremony practiced among the farmers with the purpose of requesting rain and good crops to the supernatural owners of water.

A Peasant Tradition that Lives On: The C'ha Cháak Ritual among the Mayans
C'ha Cháak ritual or Mayan request for rain. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most striking cultural indication of the extreme importance that rainwater had and still has for the Yucatecan Maya is the millennial manifestation of the cult of Cháak, the water god; a manifestation that, in terms of resistance or intercultural survival, has survived since the colonization of the peninsula until today. The cult to the god-water assimilates the sign of the cross and its symbolisms are interwoven in the C'ha Cháak, Mayan ritual petition of rain.

When the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica, they had experienced successive flourishes of societies distributed in a geographically dispersed manner, but with similar cultures, in a map defined by a common history. Let's say that in the middle of the 16th century the silhouette of Mesoamerica included from almost the border of the current state of Sinaloa with that of Sonora, crossing towards the southeast in a winding diagonal, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, to the western section of Costa Rica. It was a regional unit forged through progressive exchanges between 1200 B.C. and 1500 A.D.: 2,700 years of solid cultural construction.

The relationship of the civilizations settled there with what we call nature today was always organized by an understanding that attributed a sacred character to the communion of its elements. Water was an especially important vital agent, not only for its domestic uses but also because of the privileged place it occupied for pre-eminently agricultural societies. If the sowing stick and practices associated with the reproduction of seeds opened up space in Mesoamerican soil for the germination of corn, words and ritual offerings opened up space in the regional cosmogony for access to water-related deities. The contact of tools, seeds, water, and soil was the conjunction of human and divine order.

With a less ancient boom period than that of the Olmecs and Teotihuacan, but less recent than that of the Toltecs and Mexicas, the Maya were, along with these and other peoples, one of the most outstanding groups that gave shape and background to the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican landscape. Today, the Mayan people constitute the largest concentration of indigenous people in a single region. The peninsular Mayas are found in Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo; but the millennial Mayan cultural influence extends to Tabasco, Chiapas, Guatemala, and Belize.

"Maya" is a Spanish word and has several etymological precedents; one of them can be associated with ma'yaan ja', which means "there is no water" or "place where water is not abundant". This indication expresses a characteristic of the liquid in the Yucatan Mayan region, determined by the type of soil: they are limestone and very permeable, therefore they lack considerable rivers and lakes; however, and according to their filtering properties, underneath them there are currents and subway water deposits, fed in part by rain infiltrations from the surface, but above all, they are constituted by widening of very complex subway river networks, sometimes lit by cenotes.

In addition, "cenote" is a voice adapted from the original word tz'onot, which directly designates a hole or hole in the ground; a well. The existence of these natural wells can confer another meaning to the word "Maya" because it could also be derived from the term máay ja', "a place where water is settled", that is, a place where there are wells or cenotes whose bottom contains filtered water. In any case, these are flows or pools of water that are not very accessible for agricultural use. There are, therefore, indirectly, in the fabric of the word "Maya", meanings that suggest agriculture in which rainwater had and still has a very important value, due to the impossibility of ensuring water for agricultural irrigation using natural surface flows, dams, and artificial ditches.

All the more so, water shortages are exacerbated because it does not rain from January to May. It is true that in the south of the peninsula the rain falls by more than 2,000 millimeters per year, but in the northwest, it barely reaches 500 millimeters; moreover, in that area, the behavior of the seasonal winds severely reduces the environmental humidity in winter and spring. Thus, if the timing and amount of rainfall are particularly decisive in all agriculture, they were and are even more so in the Yucatan, in the north of the peninsula.

Perhaps the most striking cultural indication of the extreme importance that rainwater had and still has for the Yucatecan Maya is the millennial manifestation of the cult of Cháak, the water god; a manifestation that, in terms of resistance or intercultural survival, has survived since the colonization of the peninsula until today. The cult to the god-water assimilates the sign of the cross and its symbolisms are interwoven in the C'ha Cháak, Mayan ritual petition of rain.

In certain pre-Columbian works, rain gods appear, arranged in crosses. The meaning of the Mayan cross may refer to the creation of the cosmos and the first sacred ceiba tree, or it may refer to the growth of the corn plant. For some authors, it represents a directional tree, associated with the four cardinal directions and abundance, related in turn to the chaako'ob or rain gods. For other authors, such meanings were lost during the spread of Christianity; the cross of today's cults would then have a different meaning and symbolic importance than the pre-Hispanic cross.

In any case, there is no doubt that even the simplest figure of a cross used in the ritual of the C'ha Cháak contributes to recreating and commemorating a part of the conception of the Mayan universe. There, the water and the corn affirm their sacred quality and are invoked from the balance that would be between three planes: the place where human beings live, the dwelling of the celestial divinities, and the domains of the underworld and its lords; all of this crossed by a tree, perhaps the sacred ceiba: perhaps the archetype of the pre-Hispanic cross, without a doubt the cross of the Christianity of the Yucatecan Mayans.

It is a complex symbolism, even in the current ritual; the original version of the C'ha Cháak must have contained the maximum wealth of the pre-Hispanic worldview, with priests of the highest investiture as major officiants. The h-meno'ob, intermediaries who currently perform the rite of C'ha Cháak, are not direct heirs of those priests; they are their incidental successors because of the high priestly elites and the open representation of the supreme power of Cháak vanished with the Catholic evangelization.

The vigor of the cult of the Lord of Water, Cháak, allowed this tradition to be preserved with extraordinary strength. The thrust of Spanish colonial ideology and Christianity in Yucatan had first appeared without many breaks in 1519; Hernan Cortes then landed in Cozumel, where he destroyed idols and erected the Catholic cross. This act announced an advance of conquest toward the peninsular land, which would last, conventionally, from 1527 to 1546. Against their efforts, it took the first colonizers more than 20 years and three military campaigns to subjugate most of the population in terms of war. But both the military resistance and the religious life of the Maya offered lasting opposition. There were intermittent outbreaks of insurrection and paganism at different times. For example, in the 1560s several villages were accused of pagan practices under the command of members of the old Mayan priesthood.

In 1562, the bishop of Yucatan, Diego de Landa, ordered an Auto de Fe with the mandate to burn codices and symbols of the Mayan gods in Mani, located about 100 kilometers southeast of today's Merida. In the end, a century and a half after the armed conquest of the peninsula in the north, in 1697, all the Mayan natives had been baptized with Spanish names. Despite this, or because of it, the cross had been assimilated and interpreted with keys not exactly proper to the Christian faith. That symbol was tenaciously preserved by rural families as an object of veneration in various rites.

At least two causes drove the indigenous people to disperse, especially towards the south and east of the peninsula: one, to avoid the impositions of the encomienda, which institutionalized the captivity of the indigenous people through forced labor, punishment, bodily harm, and the forced payment of tributes; another, to continue applying the system of cultivation of the Mayan milpa, based on the rest of the land as a condition to restore its fertility.

Nowhere else in New Spain did the institution of the encomienda last as long as in the Yucatan: throughout the 18th century it imposed indigenous indebtedness to the Spanish regime; also vassalage, humiliation, and mistreatment. Those 100 years of harsh subjugation helped create the conditions for the War of the Castes, whose effects caused the death of more than a third of the peninsula's population over more than half a century, during the 19th century and until the dawn of the 20th. It is striking that for some authors the War of the Castes was first and foremost a rebellion of peasants, mostly indigenous, all Mayan speaking; and that from such a peasant identity it brought together the insurgents beyond their ethnic and civil condition.

It doesn't seem strange, therefore, that the last military bastion of the rebellion was a peasant town in the east of Yucatan where the cult of the cross was preserved with singular vigor, erected as the Talking Cross: Chan Santa Cruz was the name of the town, today Carrillo Puerto, in Quintana Roo. It seems that the dispersion of farmers during the 18th century facilitated the propagation of rites to the Mayan gods related to corn and water. It also seems that the Mayan cross, associated with those rites, confirmed its symbolic force as an emblem of extreme resistance, as suggested by the last Mayan peasant opposition, armed, in Chan Santa Cruz.

The true origins and detailed historical evolution of the C'ha Cháak are not known with the clarity and precision desired, however, it is clear that the symbols and meanings of the sacred invocations to promote rain and good crops were reworked during the colonial and independence; The symbols and meanings of the sacred invocations to promote rain and good harvests were reworked during the colonial and independent period; they survived the exploitation of the indigenous people and the soil, under the Spanish regime, by creoles and mestizos; they survived the ups and downs of the sugar, cotton and henequen industries; they also survived the literacy programs with the Spanish language, and the agricultural modernization and diversification of soil use programs established throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

The C'ha Cháak is woven with the braid that forms the rituals of the pre-Hispanic tradition, the popular religiosity celebrated in the festivities of the patron saint, and the bases of Catholicism; it is an exquisite syncretism. The Mayan language hosts and defends that tradition in oral memory.

Its decisive guards have been marginal farmers, milperos, who by asking for the favor of water for crops, find again their place of belonging, reaffirming their presence in the surrounding fields. There, in their water ceremonies, they show themselves to be restrained, humble, undefeated. They have the dignity that has made them: earthly guardians of the supernatural guardians of the cornfield and the rain.

The C'ha Cháak ceremony

The C'ha Cháak is a ceremony practiced especially among the farmers or milperos to request rain and good crops to the supernatural owners of water. For the Mayan worldview, man is not the owner of the elements or materials that surround him; their owners, guardians, or lords are invisible entities that guard and have the domain of the tangible; they receive the generic name of yumtsilo'ob, also called yumtsiles or yumes. They are there to protect important sites or elements of all kinds. For example, the kuliob-k' axo'ob are owners and guardians of the mountains.

Among those associated with water, related to the proximity of rain, there are the ii'k o'ob, or iikes: lords or masters of the wind. The guardians or gods of the clouds and propitiatory of rain are the yumes called chaako'ob, or cháak-es (jackets). As a product of religious syncretism, those jackets keep some symbolic relationship with Catholic saints; however, one can notice a peculiar difference between the plane of the authority of the Catholic God for Mayan owners or lords.

True, although the chaques are subordinated to the Catholic god, with the rite of the C'ha Cháak is asked to that one god to intercede before the chaques to send the rains so that there are abundant crops. There are four chaako'ob corresponding to the four fundamental directions of the world; these directions are a rough analogy of the cardinal points determined in Western culture. Their patron (and most powerful cháak) can be identified as Yum Michael Archangel. The officiant is an h-men, prestigious farmer and minister par excellence of the rite, who knows and transmits the cult through generations

In many indigenous cultures, an intermediary is needed to establish contact with the supernatural world, when it comes to specific rituals and healing. The figure of the h-men among the Maya fulfills this function, although other characters share other sacred functions. The h-men is the one who has obtained the gift of communication with the supernatural numbers and has the capacity and the experience to carry out the agricultural rituals, especially that of the C'ha Cháak. Sometimes considered as a healer, sometimes as a fortune teller, the h-men is the one who organizes the ritual of asking for rain in the cornfield and is also the one who knows the words to address the chaako'ob, beings who bring wind and rain, to ask them to "give food to the cornfield", that is, to take care of it and give it rain for its growth and development.

On some occasions, these rain bearers are also called ah-hoyao'ob, "those who water", who carry the water in jícaras and ride their horses across the sky. The ceremonies of the C'ha Cháak have special characteristics according to the community concerned, or also varies how the h-men perform, although many elements remain identical. On some occasions, children participate in imitating the croaking of the frogs, to attract the rain, for example, and in some Mayan communities of Quintana Roo, the ceremony is known as Okotbatam.

For an h-men from Espita, Yucatan, the C'ha Cháak ceremony is "the biggest scoop". From the hand of this h-men, we will describe the ritual, based on a description and ethnographic record made in 2007 in Espita by a now-deceased colleague (José Luis Meléndez Vega). The phrases in quotation marks that will appear in the text belong to the h-men. There are some recommendations before starting the ritual, which should be followed if a positive effect is sought. In the first instance there is the formation of the h-men itself:

"Then an h-men, to reach a high degree, you have to be with a strict heart, you cannot take advantage of anyone with your work, you cannot exercise your whims through your work, neither healing nor the sacrifices of the first fruits of your work, nor the selfishness of others".

According to the h-men, the ritual of the C'ha Cháak must be done at noon, since it is an hour "central in the shadow of us" and that is when the ritual can take more strength; moreover, it is not desirable to do it at night, because the daylight denotes the sincerity of the one who performs it. The will and the sincerity are two important conditions that both the h-men and the assistants in the ritual must observe. It is desirable that those attending the ritual be "white" or "yellow", that is, that they have the characteristics of purity of heart and affection for mother earth, coinciding with the colors into which the Mayan cosmos is divided. On the contrary, "black" people are prevented from attending the ritual, that is, those who are not in disposition and who keep a dark soul; the color black is identified with the underworld, the Xibalbá. For the above mentioned, it can be interpreted that the C'ha Cháak is a solar religious practice, daytime.

Although the h-men is indeed called by a family to perform the ritual in their milpa, there are more assistants, such as neighbors or inhabitants of the same town. For the h-men, these people witness the ritual because it is "a mountain of joy". The payment for performing the ritual is not economic: it is based on the offering of food to the h-men and the satisfaction obtained by the family that has called him to do this work; sometimes the assistants donate in kind or money to the h-men, but he never charges for his services. One condition is that the women do not participate in the ritual, nor the preparation of the food.

The h-men himself prepares both the food and the altar, with the materials and utensils provided by the family that has called him. The food consists of the sacred drink balché (bark of a tree, soaked in suhuy-ha, that is, virgin water, fermented with honey and aniseed, and bread made from pumpkin seeds and beans.

The h-men prepares his ritual scenario using a high table, parallel to the east and is decorated with a crossed arch of green vines, symbolizing the arch of heaven. The vines are called beel-cháak, Chaac's path, which will guide the chaako'ob to "water" the correct cornfield; at that same cardinal point, at a distance of approximately one meter from the high table, two crosses are placed, one large and one small; Then the same is done with the north, the west and the south, which represents, in the words of the h-men, "closing the land", that is, drawing the contours where the ceremony will take place and the territory where only the h-men can stay. For a renowned anthropologist, the C'ha Cháak...

It is a ceremony of mimetic character, in which the altar represents the terrestrial quadrilateral; the branches and vines that adorn it are all of "cold" nature as corresponds to the desire to obtain the freshness of the rains.

In each of the crosses that surround the high table, a small jícara is placed that will contain balché "so that the heart of the sky penetrates in that, that is the first invocation, the heart of the sky is here". On the high table, 13 jícaras are placed, one under the crossed arch, in the center, which represents: "Yum Hunab Ku is the heart of heaven, the heart of mother earth, the heart of the sun and the heart of the air; they are the four elemental points that will bring us closer". Since the ceremony attracts the elemental energies, the h-men must function as a container and regulator of these energies:

"Here, on the table, it is to bring down (...) the strength and vitality of the rain on the ground; it is the vitality of the energy, which I want everything to go perfectly well; to water (...) the field, crops, plants and other exercises more, that is the great vitality".

The crosses that surround the high table not only delimit the ritual space but, in the words of the h-men himself, represent the eye of Yum Hunab Ku and, at the same time, serve as signs to mark the path that the eastern and southern winds must follow to attract rain and to defend the cornfield from the northern and western winds.

In the eastern part of the high table is where the sacred fire is lit, the pib (oven in the ground), in which the feathers and guts of the chickens that will be sacrificed will be burned, and that the farmers take as offerings for the chaako'ob; there the food will be prepared. The smoke provoked, according to the h-men, will serve to "consecrate first the space of the land", using it, in addition, in association with the formation of the clouds that will attract the rains, as it happens for many Mesoamerican cultures.

Once the ritual space has been prepared, the h-men begins with the prayers, known as payalchi'ob, different from those used in Catholic rituals. First, there are 13 invocations to the east, followed by nine and then seven. The numbers of prayers correspond to the 13 steps or strata of heaven; to the nine strata of the underworld and the number seven is associated with the protective numbers, lords of the mount, the Yuum Balam. That is, the invocations cover the four cardinal points and the three layers of the universe.

Turning to the north, the h-men makes other invocations, which represent the strength and vitality of the deceased, also the release of the earth's force. The respective invocations are made toward the west; it is the place where the night, the stars, and the dark wind are, and where night animals come from. Then the h-men turns to the south, toward the white path crossing the sky (the Milky Way), where "the space of all movements of the air and force, the vitality of all exercises of the firstfruits" is found; it performs their final invocations.

In all the cardinal points this h-men invokes not only the chaako'ob, but also Yum balam-acab (protective numbers) and its two spirits, as well as the Bacabes (the holders of the world), who watches over the night and those who also accompany their two spirits, which change color according to the correspondence of the cardinal points.

For the Mayans of Yucatan, the east corresponds to the color red; the north to the color white; the east to the color black, and the south to the color yellow. But these supernatural beings are not the only ones mentioned in the prayers of the C'ha Cháak, since different types of chaako'ob also tend to appear: the big four are on the edges of the sky; then several more may appear, with particular characteristics: for example, those that produce persistent rain, those that create lightning, those that make it rain torrentially or those that clean the sky after the rain is over.

The following is from a translation from the Maya, the fragment of a prayer used in the C'ha Cháak, but from the town of K'ankab Dzono'ot, where it begins with a recount of the chaako'ob.

I will now beg you to descend

All the Beautiful Saints who Water the Rains,

Lords Who Rule,

Lords who water,

My Lord.

To the beautiful Santo Cháak

Sustainer of the origin of Heaven,

My Lord.

Beautiful Saint Dancer of the Clouds,

My Lord.

Beautiful Holy Celestial Rain Dragonfly,

My Lord.

Beautiful Holy Celestial Engraved Rainstone,

My Lord.

Beautiful Heavenly Holy Rainbow Stone,

My Lord.

Beautiful Celestial Saint Rain Casting,

My Lord...

With each invocation, the energy of the ritual is increased and that is why the h-men ensures:

"... one has to be very attentive to that, because if by lowering the energy... And if an h-men does not know it, to raise it, to arrive at its place, that is when the air is produced to them, the bad wind; it is when the rain begins to fall with lightning, with many problems in the cornfield. It is sometimes when there are provocations inside the lake of the cenote or wells, that is when the moson ik', as they say, begins to enter (...), because that is what bad invocations mean because they are not completed, otherwise [it] has to be complete".

It depends on the good management of energies and the correct performance of this rain request ceremony that the corn grows in abundance or dries up. Such is the importance of the realization of the C'ha Cháak ceremony for the Yucatecan Mayans.


Although the ceremony of the C'ha Cháak has been maintained for years, and that surely comes from a pre-Hispanic tradition modified by contact with European culture, the h-men mentioned refers to a declining trend in the assiduity with which the temporary farmers practice this rite. According to it, for nearly 30 years it has been the ranchers, those who "have enough animals and cattle", who ask the h-meno'ob for his service.

One of the reasons for this trend is that in the Maya zone there is a decline and abandonment of both the traditional milpa and this ritual associated with it; however, outbreaks of this tradition can be found in times of return to agricultural activities. It is a surviving tradition that has united agricultural activities with the rain gods. Like its remote past, its near future is uncertain. Its presence seems to continue to be associated with the fertility that water induces in seeds and soils, a cultural condition where human beings are worthy of nature where they live and worthy also of a nature that inhabits them. As the h-men of Espita says:

"Not only the farmer who learns, who likes to learn, can learn, because that is what I am carrying now in my living voice and my heart because someday my time will come to leave this beautiful land, because no way, but we can leave the root of the work we are fighting to rescue within a lifetime".


Daniel Murillo Licea

Communicologist, editor, and writer. Doctor in Social Sciences from the University Metropolitan Autonomous. Works at the Center for Research and Studies He has a degree in Social Anthropology and is the coordinator of the Water and Culture Program within the International Hydrological Program of the Organization of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Mexico. For 25 years its lines of research have revolved around communication for development, water, and indigenous peoples, water governance, conflict for the water, and symbolism of the pre-Hispanic hydraulic systems.

Pablo Chávez Hernández

He has 35 years of experience in the planning and implementation of projects related to sustainable development and technological and scientific research related to the water sector. His main line of action has been communication for development. He has analyzed social, technical, technological, and environmental, small and medium scale, with perspectives of interaction complex culture. He has participated as an author, co-author, director, or co-director in 382 audiovisual productions, whose formats range from the promotional spot to the anthropological and ethnographic documentary. Work in the Sub-coordination of Diffusion and Divulgation of the Mexican Institute of Water Technology.

Source: Library of Official Publications of the Government of the Republic