Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Palenque Part 2: More Gods, More Problems

After a relaxing day at Misol Ha and Aqua Azul falls, we headed into the Palenque Archeological Park for the main event. As Jill previously explained, the schedules all run a little later here, so when we arrived at around 9:30 we were probably within the first 25 visitors of the day. The layout of the park wastes no time in revealing the gradeur of the ruins; the entrance path runs directly into the main plaza and the first things you see are Pakal's tomb and the palace complex. In my opinion Pakal's tomb was the most impressive structure on the site, and its classic Mayan pyramid construction is just what people are thinking of when they think "Mayan ruins." Unfortunately, because of preservation concerns, Pakal's tomb is also the only struture on the site which is not open to the public, so we were not able to experience what has to be a spectacular view from the top.
The view from Jill's favorite temple
 Fortunately, just to the right of Pakal's tomb is a large hill with a number of ruined temples, all of which visitors are free to climb. This group has the highest elevation on the site, and is crowded in by jungle on three sides, with the fouth offering an amazing view of Pakal's tomb and the palace complex from above. This group also contained Jill's favorite temple, which was a more modest structure with three arched doorways on the facade. It was built into the hillside, and looked as though it could tumble down or be overtaken by the jungle at any time.
Jill at her favorite temple
I think the most 'magical' thing about Palenque was the landscape, and the way the overgrowth and steep, hilly terrain hid some huge structures from view until you were right next to them. Every time it looked like we were at the back of the excavated area, we would discover a path leading further into the jungle. Sometimes they would open onto large plazas and temples, or sometimes on to modest stone homes and beautiful natural pools and waterfalls. Seeing the vast ruins one small area at at time gave the impression of actually discovering them, and made each small site more personal and comprehensible. It's hard to know what these areas would have looked like when they were in use, but it's easy to imagine thousands of people living happily among the trees. 'Commuting' back and forth to the main plaza; making their way up and down the winding hillside trails, between the crystal clear pools and falls, accompanied by the constant din of life in the scattered patches of sunlight below the jungle canopy.

On a Mayan's morning commute, up the hill
On a Mayan's evening commute, down the hill.
But, over on the main plaza there were all of the sacrifices, decapitations and bloodletting rituals, so I guess that would be something to keep in mind before moving. Unfortunately we didn't have a guide in Palenque, as most were charging between $50 and $100 for a three hour tour, and as we're not technically on vacation, we felt that was a bit out of our price range. (These types of decisions are going to be tough to balance, as we don't have the money to do whatever we want, but we don't want to travel all this way and not do anything. More on that some other time.) 

Anyway, it would have been nice to have a guide, as we both felt that we didn't get the full story on the sacrifices and rituals for which all of these magnificent temples were built. My impression was that the Mayans worshipped myriad gods, all of which were pretty demanding when it came to lodging and (human) sustenance. If you weren't being sacrificed locally, you might still have the opportunity to be captured and sacrificed in a neighboring city, so, to prevent that, you should probably keep your gods happy... which means... offering them more sacrifices. Not a good loop to get caught up in, but by the looks of the many carvings of war captives in the palace, it was not an uncommon way to go out. There is actually a plaza within the palace built for the specific purpose of presenting captives to the king. It features carved images of captives from all of the surrounding cities, so maybe when you were captured you could feel at home? Just kidding, it's so later they can kick it and reminisce about that time when they captured and sacrificed you!
The plaza for the presentation of captives

More gods, more problems, it seems. 

We spent all morning and most of the afternoon wandering up, down and through Palenque, much of the time nearly alone. Something like 95% of the site is still un-excavated, and often when you reach the end of a trail you can see that the buildings continue as vine covered mounds as far as you can see...

Common homes taken over by trees, with more un-excavated behind

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