Palenque Ruins

Chiapas, México

 The photographs are thumbnails.


It is difficult writing about the ruin sites, other than to describe the number of temples, mounds, plazas or tombs. Palenque is small compared to grander ruins like Copán, but still holds a quality in common with almost all the sites I have seen. Sitting on temple steps or walking through mazes of crumbling rooms, I have felt an energy that exists nowhere else. The word "magical" has often referred to that quality for lack of a better description, but this overused catchword is insufficient. When I visit a site, impressions of populations, commerce and activity seep into the periphery of my senses. Images rise-- plazas filled with isles of vendors sitting on mats or cloth, selling everything from pyramids of polished fruits and vegetables, mounds of herbs and medicinal remedies, baskets of beans, rice or other staples, to cooking utensils and tools. The air is slightly smoky from charcoal and wood fires and the smells of freshly cooked food, livestock, dust and crowds. There are processions of priests and politicians, incense, drums and flutes. These images always rise, like holograms.

The main plaza at Palenque lies on flat ground cradled up against dense, jungle-covered hills. Away from this plaza, a group of small temples called the Group of The Cross adorns tiny hills. The plaza itself consists of the massive Temple of the Inscriptions and the Palace, a large complex of buildings and the four-storied Palace Tower surrounding several courtyards.  The main area of the site also contains a ball court, a section called the North Group, and a few unnamed structures.

(A couple of days ago, a young naked Mayan man threw himself from the Tower to his death because, they say, he had ingested some hallucinogen and thought he could fly. Another traveler named Kelly witnessed the senseless tragedy and is still shaken by it.)

Deep within the center of the Temple of the Inscriptions is the spectacular tomb of Pakal, one of the most important rulers of Palenque. It rests at the bottom of a steep, dimly lit flight of about 75 damp and mossy stairs. The actual sarcophagus in which he is buried is a plain, one-piece, solid rectangular mass about 5 by 10 feet square and 4 feet thick. The body is laid in a mummy's-coffin shaped hole in the center of this gigantic stone. After the body was interred, the cut "lid" was put back in place like a cork, which is flush with the stone's surface. When this lid was in place, a massive, flat piece of rock about 7 by 12 feet in area and 12 inches thick, which is wider on all sides than the burial stone, was laid on top, creating what looks like an enormous table.  The surface of this table-top-like stone is carved with exquisite, intricate designs.  The large central design is a bas-relief wherein the reborn Pakal is figured with symbols of the afterlife in the Mayan cosmology.  Around the edges, within a wide border, are glyphs that record events in the life of the king. It is the most elaborate I have actually seen yet, and the surface of the carved stone is in near perfect condition.  This is history in intensely elegant art by consummate artisans.

Palenque commanded an area stretching miles and miles across a vast coastal plain reaching as far as the Gulf of México. Backed by a lip of the moist, fecund Chiapas Mountains, it was a sea of activity for tens of thousands of people and a center of life and death-- another vortex of history, myth and reality.  To this day, the setting is magnificent and can easily transport you across time, if only you take a moment to imagine.


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