The last time I went to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas was about ten years ago. I went there for the Christmas holidays.
The first time I visited San Cristóbal was also at Christmas, and my husband and I also went to see the nearby town of San Juan Chamula with a guide. This is an extremely poor indigenous community that still speaks it’s own language. It is not recommended to go there alone, as “gringos” are not really welcome.
However, the description from visitmexico.com sounds rather friendly. Perhaps things have changed.
Get ready to connect with the mysticism of San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil community that grew independent from the Catholic Church and performs its own rituals in a unique religious syncretism.
The atrium will welcome you to the novohispanic style temple. Begin your immersion in the community as you carry offerings, wishes, pleas and gratitude to the temple.
Feel the pine twigs that blanket the floor under your feet. You will see that there are no benches to sit on. The inhabitants pray on their knees and perform rituals that mix the sixteenth-century evangelical customs with pre-Columbian religious beliefs.
Discover that the church is decorated with candles of many different colors, sizes and significance. You will notice that the saints’ images have mirrors hanging from them. According to local beliefs, they reflect the souls of the faithful.
My husband and I were able to visit the inside of the church, a truly unique experience but somewhat unsettling. I felt like an intruder, so did not take my own pictures once inside. This one is from abakab.com. If you’re wondering about the soft drink bottles, it’s an indication of how much these two corporations have succeeded in colonizing indigenous cultures.
We also visited the Casa Na Bolom or House of the Jaguar. This is a museum, hotel and restaurant located outside San Cristóbal’s historic center. According to Wikipedia,
The structure was built as part of a seminary in 1891, but it became the home of Frans Blom and Gertrude Duby Blom in the 20th century. Franz was an explorer and archeologist and Gertrude was a journalist and photographer. The couple spent over fifty years in Chiapas collecting tools, crafts, archeological pieces and clothing, especially related to the Lacandon Jungle and people. The museum is dedicated to this collection along with keeping some of the old household rooms intact, such as Franz’s study. It also contains a library with more than 10,000 volumes dedicated to the history, culture and anthropology of the region. There are magazine and sound libraries as well as the old chapel which contains colonial era religious art. The back of the structure contains a botanical garden.
Here is a photo of the sign on the Casa Na Bolom taken by AlejandroLinaresGarcia.
While there, I purchased a small jaguar pin made of silver. The jaguar is a symbol of the spiritual quest, so I enjoy wearing it to remind myself of my purpose in life.
Although I’d been there before, the last time I visited San Cristóbal, I decided to go on a tour to Palenque, which can be a truly magical place.
This photograph shows the main palace, which is unusual for a Mayan site, as they usually have a temple as their central focus.
My tour left very early in the morning, so I hoped there would not be too many visitors, as a crowd tends to destroy the ambiance of the site. While Aqua Azul is beautiful and certainly worth visiting, we stopped there for an extended lunch break and a swim, so by the time we got to Palenque, it was teaming with tourists, most of whom were Mexicans enjoying their spectacular heritage. Nonetheless, I did manage to find a few peaceful spots so I could absorb the magic.
According to Wikipedia, “it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.” The mind boggles.
The Temple of Inscriptions
The online Ancient History Enclyclopedia is particularly helpful. The following is an excerpt on the temple taken from the article on Palenque written by Mark Cartwright:
Set into a hillside and completed c. 682 CE, the pyramid has nine different levels, corresponding, no doubt, to the nine levels of the Maya Underworld. Carrying out an archaeological survey at the top of the pyramid in 1952 CE, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz famously discovered that a single curiously holed slab in the flooring of one chamber could be removed, and beneath it he revealed a staircase which descended into the heart of the building. At the base of the twisting 65-step staircase, after clearing away the deliberately left rubble and now deep inside the pyramid, Ruz reached a single corbel-roofed chamber, outside of which were five or six human skeletons, almost certainly sacrificial victims. Clearly someone important had been buried here. Inside the richly decorated crypt were nine stucco attendants on the sloping walls and two more in jade standing by the room’s most remarkable artefact. This was a sarcophagus topped with a magnificently carved 3.8 metre long slab depicting a Maya ruler falling into the jaws of the Maya underworld Xibalba. On finally opening the sarcophagus, Ruz discovered the jade and cinnabar-covered remains of that greatest of all Palenque rulers, King Pakal the Great. The king had been given a life-like jade mosaic death mask and a great deal of matching jewellery to accompany him into the next life. It was one of the greatest discoveries in Mesoamerican archaeology, and it finally proved that the great Maya pyramids had not simply been built as temples but also as tombs for great rulers, just as in ancient Egypt.
The death mask can be seen in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which is one of the top anthropological museum’s in the world, in other words, a must see.
When I visited the Temple of Inscriptions, a plaque inside stated that the other jewels were in the Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge, MA.
Later that year, I attended a conference in Boston, so I used the opportunity to visit the Peabody Museum. They had a special section which displayed the Mesoamerican plaster casts that had been made in the 19th century. While these were fascinating and worthy of another blog, the jewels were not on display. I wonder what has become of them.