Statue in Palenque Museum

America: Mexico

Maya Culture in Chiapas


Regarded by many experts, as the most brilliant civilization in New World, Maya culture flourished in Southern Mexico and Central America from the second to 16th century. It was at its peak from 300 to 900 AD. Tabasco, Yucatan and Chiapas are the states with most Mayan archaeological remains.

Not all the ethnic groups living in the state took part in the development of this ancient culture. However, one of them which does descend from Mayas of yesterday is that of Tzeltas. They still preserved the legend of Voltan, the civilizing hero who established himself in Usumacinta basin and founded the city of Palenque, the center of Old Empire.

In 6 AD, cities were abandoned; some Mayas emigrated to Peten and Yucatan, while others who remained in Chiapas split into independent chiefdoms, founding cities and conquering nearby tribes.

Religion of Mayas was polytheistic, with pantheon that included deities of all types, ages and both sexes. Various different rites were necessary in order to obtain their favors. One of them was human sacrifice, which not only established communication with gods, but also ensured that life would continue.

In 1482, the region was invaded, but not conquered, by Aztecs, who were ruled by Ahuizolt at that time. Tiltototl subdued Quelenes and left garrisons in Zinacantan and Soconusco. Moctezuma II resumed the fight against Mames in 1505 and imposed a tribute of cacao beans, feathers, jaguar skins and other articles.

Examples of architecture of these ancient Mayas still exist in Jiquipila and Cintalpa valleys that seem to be of funerary nature, along with the great archaeological cities of Palenque, Yaxchilam, Tonina, Bonampak and Chinkultic.

Palenque, a site in the Northeast of the state, is one of the finest examples of Maya art. Existence of this city deep in the rain forest had already been reported in 18th century, and it was visited by various explorers in 19th century: Desire Charnay, Guillermo Dupaix and John L. Stephens together with the illustrator Frederick Catherwwod, who all described or depicted architectural wonders they had see.

Palenque was the capital of extensive area from 600 to 900 AD and was its most splendid during the reign of Pacal , "Sun Shield" who ruled from 615 to 683. This king was succeeded to the throne by his eldest son Chan Bahlum, also known as "Serpent-jaguar".

Palenque, whose name is Spanish word meaning "wooden palisade", is in Otulum ("fortified house" in Chollanauage) facing Northern mountains. The main buildings on this 8 km-long site feature human figures on stone slabs, tablets set into walls and in stucco relieves.

Palace is a complex of patios, galleries and rooms overlook by square tower with four stories connected by inside staircase, which could have been observatory or watchtower. The palace has carving, low relieves and hieroglyphs on facades, wall and patios, while on exterior columns there are stucco relieves of governors and priests.

Temple of Inscriptions, which stands on high pyramidal base, has stone slabs carved with hieroglyphs. The most important pre-Hispanic tomb in Mexico was discovered underneath this pyramid. A staircase below the floor of inner chamber leads down to a tunnel that contained the collective burial of six people, who had been sacrificed to serve the person in funeral crypt behind sealed triangular slab of stone.

In the center of crypt was the sarcophagus of King Pacal, in monolithic lid carved in low relief. The main scene has three basic elements: Mask of Earth monster at the bottom, human figure in the middle and the foliated cross at top. Inside, there were pieces of jade, stone pendants, stucco heads and human remains, wearing jade mask, with shell and obsidian eyes.

Other important monuments on this site are Temples of Cross and Foliated Cross, which are very similar to each other, Temple of Sun, with fine panel of low relief carving, and a group of buildings in North that includes Temple of Count and Ball Court, covered in undergrowth. Some of these buildings still have the remains of roof crests, typically Maya decorative element, that make them look more spectacular.

Mayas developed sophisticated system of writing. Palenque has a good example of it in the shape of more than 350 genealogies of leaders and rulers including names such as those of ladies Zac-Kul and Kun-Ik. The on-site museum contains exhibits such as incense burners, plaques and stone slabs.

Another great Maya city in Chiapas is Yaxchilan, built on the banks of Usumacinta river. It developed between 350 and 810 AD, but it was during the reign of "Bird-jaguar IV" in 8th century that the city established its power. The main buildings on the site are Temple of Four Carved Lintels, Palace of Seven Chambers, Acropolis, Ball Court, Labyrinth, Hieroglyph Staircase, Red Temple and House of Hachakyum. Some of these are topped by magnificent roof crests.

Apart from its architectural attraction, site has the added interest of 124 texts on 59 lintels, 30 stelae and 21 altars. Lintels are finely carved with scenes of governors, while stelae are in low relief.

Tonina, "house of stone", in Tzeltal, lies on the spurs of the mountain range that closes Northern end of Ocosingo valley. Its buildings, which have the characteristic Mayan architectural feature of the false arch, stand on large pyramid bases. In addition to one Ball Court, there is another larger one with benches along the walls, Temazcal (steam bath) at one end, and two stone hoop targets. Stelae and sculptures have been discovered in surrounding area, most of them in pieces.

Buildings of this ceremonial center have typical Maya false arch and roof crests. This Maya enclave was at its height between 6th and 10th centuries AD. Tonina conquered Palenque in 730 AD and its last ruler was taken prisoner.

There is a stucco slab, like codex at Tonina, called Four Suns, that shows several deities as well as the gruesome picture of beheaded prisoner. This scene illustrates the legend of four suns or cosmic eras that ancient civilizations of Mexico passed through.

Bonampak, "painted walls", in Maya is set deep in Lacandon rain forest and was discovered in 1940s. Its more famous for its murals than for its buildings, possibly painted in 800 AD. These cover the walls of three chambers in Temple of Paintings.

They are done in mineral-based colors on surface of lime plaster. Walls of the first room show richly dressed priests, nobles and musicians surrounded by masked performers. The second has enemy troops engaged in battle, with prisoners condemned by victorious chief in the background, while murals of the third chamber depict dancers in fantastic but attractive disguises, an orchestra, nobles being attended by their servants and human sacrifices. Among different personages is Chaan Muan II, the last governor of Bonampuk, sporting magnificent jaguar pelt headdress.

In the South of the state is the city of Chinkultic, which was at its height in Late Classic period, between 600 and 900 AD. It grew up around several natural wells (cenotes), of which the most important is Cenote Azul. Although parts still have to be explored, acropolis formed of three small shrines, great temple with five stepped tiers and a base on the edge of cenote can be seen.




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