Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico.

My Mexico Trip, Part 6: The Forested Maya Ruins of Palenque.

Continued from My Mexico Trip, Part 5: Veracruz to Palenque.

We rose to the twittering of birds and the unmistakable calls of howler monkeys coming from high up in the tree tops. My son and I quickly got ready and took a stroll through the lush forested grounds of the hotel, then headed for breakfast. On the way we saw an iguana with a bloody nose. Perhaps it had a run-in with a dog. But it plodded steadily on, where ever it was headed, unfazed. I admired its pluck and resilience.

An iguana, Palenque.
The poor iguana with the bloodied nose at our hotel in Palenque.

Today we would be visiting the famous Maya ruins of Palenque. Located in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, where the gulf plain meets the rising mountains of the interior, it is an area of heavy rainfall and dense forests. Palenque was occupied from around 100 BC, reached its peak from 640 to 730 AD and was largely abandoned by 900 AD. The jungle took over until it was rediscovered and investigated in the nineteenth century. The forest covering was peeled back revealing magnificent buildings from a bygone era. But, only a very small fraction of the area has been explored and archeological digs continue. Who knows what the future may reveal.

Maya ruins, Palenque.
First view of the jungle covered Maya Ruins at Palenque, Mexico.

Our tour bus stopped at the parking lot and we waited while Pepe went to get the tickets. The first glimpse of the ruins was almost a scene from an Indiana Jones movie—dense jungle peeled back revealing ancient temples. On our right, we saw a row of temples with steep, rising steps and behind them, dense, waving verdure.

Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico.
Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico.

Pepe pointed out the Temple of Inscriptions (Templo de las Inscripciones), a stately, much-photographed temple so named by the Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, for a series of inscriptions found on inside panels detailing the history of the place and the building. In 1952 he discovered the tomb of Pakal, the celebrated Maya ruler, in whose reign, 615-683 AD, Palenque rose to great prominence. His burial crypt, accessible by a secret passage leading down from the top, was located deep within the bowels of this temple. It took Lhuillier four years to remove the accumulated debris to uncover the burial chamber.

Lhuillier’s grave, marked with a simple stone slab with his name, is opposite Pakal’s tomb, a fitting place for a man who had done so much to bring the history of Pakal and the Maya to light.

Visitations to Pakal’s crypt are now banned since the humidity from the many bodies was destroying the painted murals on the walls. His skeleton, ornaments and jade-studded death-mask were removed, relocated, and the tomb recreated in the Archeology Museum in Mexico City. We had seen it earlier.

Pakal's Triptych, Palenque.
Representation of Pakal’s Triptych, (vertical), Palenque, Mexico.

Pakal’s enormous sarcophagus lid was decorated with a complex motif, the Pakal triptych, that has many interesting interpretations. That motif is seen in the painting held by the souvenir vendor in the picture above. The three parts of the triptych can be described as follows: in the center, Pakal is seen reclining next to the the world tree (the Ceiba), signifying his life in this world. Above him is a stylized depiction of the celestial bird, his connection to the heavens and beneath him an open mouth, a stylized portrayal of the doorway to the nether world—altogether a befitting depiction on the sarcophagus of a powerful emperor.

Now rotate this by ninety degrees to the left (see the figure below), and the interpretation could be very different.

Pakal's Triptych, horizontal, Palenque.
Pakal’s Triptych, rotated 90 degrees, Palenque, Mexico.

In this orientation, one could surmise (with perhaps a lot of imagination), a man sitting at the controls of some contraption with flames and gases shooting out from behind. In short, a spaceship. Some have postulated such a scenario, the paleo-contact theory, in which advanced aliens had come in contact with humans in the past and had helped jump-start or advance human civilization. For example, how did the Maya carve and move huge blocks of stone without metal tools and pack-animals to make these enormous pyramids? Aliens, with their superior technology, helped. Same argument put forth for the Nazca lines and the Egyptian pyramids.

A notable proponent of this theory was Erich von Daniken, a Swiss author who wrote “The Chariots of the Gods”, which I read as a student in India. In fact, he had given a talk in Kolkata which I had attended. It created quite a stir. In his book he presented this very picture as support of his hypothesis. Although I do not succumb to his line of reasoning, it was nevertheless pleasing to see the place where the triptych originated and learn its history.

Temple XIII, Tomb of the Red Queen Palenque, Mexico.
Entering Temple XIII, Palenque, Mexico.

Close to the The Temple of Inscriptions was Temple XIII with the Tomb of the Red Queen. A series of steep steps lead up to the entrance which was shaded by a thatch-roof. I debated whether I should risk a climb up the stairs and the riskier climb down. There were unfortunately no hand rails. But curiosity got the better of me. I figured the safest would be to clamber up the steps using hands and feet like the gentleman on the right in the photo. I made it to the entrance. Inside was a narrow passage leading to the tomb.

There was a long line of visitors inching slowly forward. I took the time to study the so-called “Maya Arch”. It is a corbelled arch in the form of an elongated inverted V. You can see that shape in the ceiling. We soon stopped in front of the crypt where the body of a noblewoman, covered with red pigments, was discovered. She was therefore called the Red Queen and is believed to be a wife of Pakal. Her remains are now in a recreated vault in the Museum of Archeology, Mexico City. The entrance to her crypt was blocked by a metal net, but her sarcophagus with its red interior, was still visible. Just as well. It was too small to hold the large throng of visitors.

Temple XIII, Palenque.
Inside Temple XIII housing the Tomb of The Red Queen. Note the narrow passage and the Maya Arch, Palenque, Mexico.

I was happy to step out and breathe the fresh air. It was stifling in the narrow tomb. This was February. I wondered what it would feel like in the heat of summer. I carefully descended the stairs and headed for The Palace.

At The Palace, Palenque.
My son and I in front of The Palace (El Palacio), Palenque, Mexico.

This was a complex of buildings with large rooms, airy corridors, courtyards and an iconic, four-story tall tower. It was used perhaps as an observatory to study the heavens. Or, it might have been a prosaic watch tower, where sentries kept a sharp lookout for enemies advancing over the surrounding plains. This was the residence of royalty and high priests, hence the moniker-The Palace. We posed for some pictures.

Templo del Sol, Palenque
Temple of the Sun. Note the elaborate roof-comb on the building, Palenque.

To the left and opposite the Temple of Inscriptions was a group of three temples together known as the Group of the Crosses (Grupo de la Cruces). Many of the buildings had elaborate roof ornaments—the roof-combs. Notable among them, the Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol) had the tallest and the best preserved roof-comb. Their utility is not clear. Perhaps they were mere decorations, a means to show “mine is bigger”. Some modern traits can be traced to ancient times.

After spending some time there we walked back toward our bus noting the lush vegetation and colorful flowers that lined our path. The sun was getting hot and the air conditioning in the bus felt good.

Stone carving at Palenque museum.
Stone carving depicting a prisoner kneeling in front of a warrior in a feathered headdress with descriptive glyphs on the side, Palenque Museum.

We drove the short distance to the site-museum. There we saw numerous carvings, statues, utensils, and glyphs unearthed from the digs in Palenque. I was impressed with the detailed carving of a tied-up prisoner kneeling before his exultant captor brandishing a spear. How many times has this event been repeated throughout human history right up to modern times? I also noted the feathered headdress. The plumes reminded me of similar adornments on Greek and Roman helmets.

Censer stand, Palenque museum.
Intricately carved censer stand, site-museum, Palenque.

An elaborately carved censer stand in the shape of a man’s face caught my attention. These were used in Maya religious ceremonies. Just note the intricate design.

We headed to our hotel for a much needed lunch. We had the afternoon to ourselves. After a refreshing nap, my son and I made for the plaza, a short walk from our hotel. We stepped into the church next to the plaza. After the centuries old magnificence and gold-and-glitter of the cathedrals in Puebla and Mexico city, this church felt homely, a quiet place to commune with god and yourself. We took some time to do just that. We left refreshed in body and spirit.

Church, Palenque.
The church beside the plaza in Palenque, Mexico.

We then sat on a bench in the plaza watching the children play and eat ice cream under the watchful eyes of their parents. It was a simple, quiet setting under the pleasantly warm, bright winter sun. I took a final picture as the sun leaned westward—a souvenir of our visit to Palenque, before walking back to our hotel.

Palenque plaza.
At the entrance to the Plaza, Palenque, Mexico.

Next: My Mexico trip, Part 7: Uxmal, Sun and Sand and Baile Folklorico.

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