Santo Tomás, a town on the bank of the Magdalena river, neighboring Barranquilla keeps alive one of Holy Week’s most controversial and remarkable traditions.
Photos by: Pacho Manrique
“The discipline” soars, drawing a semicircle through the air, before cracking as its’ beads find their fleshy mark. An aching body, swollen from physical punishment, is about to be defiled further by being cut open. A gruesome show goes on before my eyes, and despite having heard about it before; nothing quite prepares you for this kind of sight. Indeed seeing is believing and believing … well, as I now am about to realize, most definitely means something entirely different to each and everyone of us.
The holy roman catholic church, Colombia´s predominant religious majority, has discouraged the mortification of the flesh since the XIVth century, a practice that can be traced back to the dark ages and the times of the black death when flagellants sought atonement for their sins and thus deliverance from ill. To our days this tradition lives in places that inherited the faith through colonization such as Mexico, Colombia and the Philippines.
In the town of Santo Tomás, the church has been fighting this traditions for as long as there has been a representative of the faith. 1968 set a milestone on this battle as the year in which the church banned all sort of religious celebration during the Holy Week as a punishment for disregarding the ban on savage penitence, but it only served to increase the number of penitents that year, and onward. Some civil authorities have expressed their discomfort with having the town associated to the bloody customs, but the fact remains it is a phenomenon that is now embedded in popular tradition, and local culture, and it has become a touristic attraction, second to the town’s traditional parade during carnival.
Unlike the penitents of old, most participants are not purging their sins but rather asking for health miracles for their loved ones. Tradition calls for a “Promise”, that is a commitment to god for an odd number of years in which they must invariably return every Good Friday to town and fulfill whatever physical task has been vowed. It is not uncommon to learn about penitents living on neighboring countries returning each Holy Week only to tend to their pledge.
There are several types of mortifications that vary in level of pain and required stamina. There are penitents who complete the trail barefoot, there are also those who choose to burden themselves by immobilizing one arm and forcing themselves to hold with it a cup of wine without spilling a single drop in a feat thus called “the cup of bitterness”, there are “Nazarenes” who carry crosses and bear thorn crowns, and the final kind is that of flagellants which flog and bleed themselves. Of all variants, flagellants are the most well known, and those that attract more crowds.
It’s 6am and as the sun rises, on an otherwise beautifully peaceful landscape, we wait on the penitents to make their entrance on an intersection between the road leading to “The Cross” and the road leading to “Duck’s creek”, both traditional departure spots for penitents that converge on la Calle de la Ciénaga, a two kilometer long street that stages this trail of suffering.
First to arrive, around half past seven, are the policemen, securing the event from the start. A local later explains that last year, towards the end, things got violently out of hand and apparently the police are determined to avoid a repeat. Some pledges start to gather around “The Cross” to begin their mental process and go into costume before entering the trail. A barefoot walker tells us for her it has been several years now pledging, she asked for her son’s health and her “Promise” is a lifelong commitment, she comments on how some other penitents make 3, 5, 7-year or longer vows and once they’ve fulfilled their obligations they’re so satisfied with the received favors, that they even “give an extra year for free”.
She also mentions how some penitents offer to “keep other people’s Promises” for money. She worries out loud for a bit, remembering this year the street is no longer dirt but pavement, thus inflicting more pain as the sun grows hotter in the sky. She then introduces us to her husband, who walks beside her for moral and technical support and just then, another tradition comes to light: EVERY penitent has an entourage of supporters that encourages them, hydrates them, and tends to their wounds.
A group of people arrives to “The Cross” carrying two huge pieces of wood. Part of the posse starts assembling a heavy cross by tightening a thick bolt using tools; a woman pulls a thorn crown out of her purse, a “Nazarene” is in the making. The Nazarene waits in vain for us peeping toms to leave and after a while starts resigned his transformation. Excited, a tourist shouts from the crossroad, “some floggers are coming from Duck’s Creek!” and then a bizarre penitent safari starts for all of us, outsiders… non-penitent…. tourists.
Decided to stick to my “Nazarene”, my patience is soon rewarded as two flagellants that were waiting for photographers and peepers to go away, now start to change into their penance attires and begin to shift their states of mind preparing for the task lying ahead.
All flagellants wear long white skirts, and see-through hoods, both covered in small, black, cross-shaped pieces of cloth. One hand pulls the hood down, while the other swings the “Discipline”: a seven-end rope whip, ending at each of the seven tips on a hard wax bead that inflicts damage on the user’s lower back flesh, slightly above the waist. As their fellow penitents flagellants must complete a 2 kilometer long trail, passing through seven stations marked by black crosses, where they can make a stop to relieve the swelling in their bruises by getting a “Cutter” to drain blood from the wounds by making small cross shaped cuts with a razorblade.
Within each posse I notice a figure standing out, encouraging its flagellant, shouting remarks such as “ Yeah, that’s it, you’ve caught a stride…come on, don’t loosen up, that’s right! That’s the sweet spot! Go harder ! A little to the left! Yeah that’s the one! “; serving as eerie coach on some outlandish, dark, sport. This distinguished staffer is also constantly sprays alcohol on both the “Discipline’s” beads and the flagellant’s back, both mortifying the flesh and preventing infections. A scent of aguardiente invades the air surrounding the entourage, a round goes round to the staff and if the penitent is willing, a shot is made available to him. Occasionally the “Trainer” calls for the penitent to back up a couple of paces before going forward again, making it harder to reach the destination.
A second flagellant, somewhat more aggressive and intent as the first one shows up, then a third closely followed by a “Nazarene”, making a two for one package that can’t be missed. Their accompanying party tells me they’re uncle and father to a sick child and they’re all pledging for him, together as a family.
I then observe a female flagellant, a rarity that later turns out no to be as I come across a couple of others including “Nazarenes”. Shame on my biased preconceptions and me; when it comes to savage penance these people have their handle on gender equality.
As we leave the dusty road behind and enter the paved Calle de la Ciénaga (Wetlands street), another show comes to life: that of morbid spectators and plastic chairs set roadside on the sidewalk. People cooking and selling sancocho, beer, grilled skewers, ice cream and cotton candy. People taking selfies and chasing flagellants up to the Stations of the Cross to take cellphone pictures of the gory job the “Cutters” execute on the devout pennants now turned macabre performers.
Just as I’m about to decide I’ve seen enough and it’s time to leave, a rarity walks by. An aging woman dressed in white holds her cup in anguish. Her painful gaze is the drop that spilled the glass, a Cup of Bitterness that is. My guilty photographic safari of ache is complete.