Just like water’s wet and fire’s hot, whenever there’s a major procession somewhere in Guatemala, especially in La Antigua Guatemala, there’s always going to be beautiful carpets of various materials adorning the streets of the processional route. These iconic carpets serve as offerings commemorating the passing of the processional march.
The tradition originates from biblical stories of the entry of Jesus of Nazareth into Jerusalem. According to the bible, the people of Jerusalem received him with palm branches while he rode in on his donkey. So, common practice during processions dictates that the first step onto a carpet has to be taken by the cucuruchos carrying a float with an image of Jesus. The only exception to this rule is on Good Saturday; the penitents carrying Virgin Mary get first dibs on stepping on the sawdust rugs.
The carpets are usually made out of various offerings such as pine leaves, carved fruits, flowers, and palms. The most elaborate carpet designs are normally made with coloured sawdust and bits of shaved wood, all arranged into complex patterns. In order to paint the sawdust, large quantities of the material are placed in an ink bath and are mixed thoroughly. Once the sawdust has acquired a uniform colour, it is left out to dry until it’s ready to be used.
The people who craft the carpets resort to cut-out moulds to add different shapes and figures onto the carpet. This is a tradition that, according to Antigua’s Chronicler, Carlos Berduo, stems from the Spanish custom of creating sand carpets made prominent in the Canary Islands.
The carpet-making for processions on this side of the world, as with almost every cultural ritual, has syncretic roots. “It’s a fusion of pre-hispanic elements that were used for celebratory purposes and passing deities,” explains Fernando Urquizu, a historian. “They were then adopted by the processions of the passion of the christ.” The historian also explained that pre-hispanic alfombras were made with flowers or cloth.
According to Mr. Berduo, the carpets were first adopted into Catholicism to be used during the Corpus Christi. However, when Guatemala’s liberal governments in the late 19th century dissipated many popular religious festivities, the carpets began to be incorporated slowly into lent and holy week processions.
Now, these carpets (“alfombras”, as locals refer to them) are world-famous, and the ones crafted in La Antigua Guatemala are particularly important. “The carpets made in Antigua serve as a model-guide for the rest of the country,” says Mr. Berduo. “It’s evidenced by the fact that many people come to the workshops where the moulds are made to get them and take them back to their towns.”