Bonampak Tourist Attractions
How to get thereBy air taxi from Villahermosa, Palenque, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Tuxtla Gutiérrez and Tenosique.Although a road of sorts covers the approximately 150km/93mi from Palenque to Bonampak (via Río Chancalá, San Javier, Lacan-há, and Frontera Echeverría), it is often impassable and until improved should not be attempted without a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Day trips are organised from Palenque.The ruined Mayan city of Bonampak stands surrounded by dense rain forest on a hill near the Río Lacan-há in east Chiapas. Although relatively small and of no great architectural significance, its discovery in 1946 caused a sensation throughout the world on account of the wall paintings found in one of the buildings. These murals constitute an unrivalled source of information and insight into Mayan life and mythology.HistoryThe city, christened Bonampak (Mayan: "painted wall") by S.G. Morley, the expert on Mayan culture, belongs to the Classic period of Mayan civilisation (ad 300-900) which had its heyday here between ad 650 and 800. Although the site has not been fully excavated, the evidence points clearly to Bonampak's having been of only secondary religious and political importance in comparison with the major Mayan centres in the area (Palenque and Yaxchilán in Chiapas and Piedras Negras in Guatemala). In the Bonampak frescos the glyph (character) representing the Yaxchilán emblem appears in association with one of the principal female figures, from which archaeologists conclude that the Bonampak temples were subordinate to those of Yaxchilán. This view was recently reinforced when hieroglyphs were deciphered recording the victory in AD 729 of the Yaxchilán ruler "Jaguar Shield" over Ah-chuen of Bonampak. As well as being the most extensive, the murals are, from an artistic point of view, unquestionably the finest in Meso-America. Precisely why they should adorn so relatively unimportant a site as Bonampak will probably never be explained.The ruins were first discovered in February 1946 by the Americans Charles H. Frey and John Bourne, though the temple with the murals was not found and photographed until three months later by Giles G. Healy. When exposed the frescos were in an outstanding state of preservation, the damp having deposited a protective film of lime over the paint. The Carnegie Institute immediately commissioned Antonio Tejeda to copy them. Following the discovery, Bonampak and its surroundings became the focus of several scientific expeditions while also attracting large numbers of adventure-seeking travellers intrigued by news of the sensational finds.The RuinsThe principal buildings are situated on stone terracing at the foot of a natural mound. In front of the mound is an open rectangular space measuring some 90 3 110 m (98 3 120 yd), at the centre of which stands Stela 1, about 6 m (20 ft) high and ornately carved with the figure of the ruler Chaan-muan. The stela, reconstructed from its shattered remains, has a date deciphered as AD 785. Two other prominent stelae, Nos. 2 and 3, are positioned at the head of the first short flight of steps leading up the terracing. Stela 2 (left) has a particularly finely carved relief of a ruler-figure with two persons of lesser importance in attendance. Note the magnificent costumes and the head-dress. The upper section of the stela carries glyphs. More steps then continue to the top terrace, with Building III on the left. The fragment of a head lying on the floor of the building once embellished a temple façade.On the right of the terrace stands Building I, the Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of the Murals), now protected by a corrugated iron roof. The lintels over the three doors resemble those of Building 44 in Yaxchilán. Three niches above the central cornice formerly held seated stucco figures. The upper part of the building was originally decorated with stucco reliefs, hardly any of which have survived. Inside are three rooms, all of the same dimensions, their walls entirely covered by the now world-famous paintings executed using the Classic fresco technique i.e. raw colour pigments applied with water on a thick layer of fresh lime mortar. When first executed (between AD 790 and 792), the scenes depicted in these murals from the Classic Mayan period would have appeared brightly coloured and sharply delineated.The original in-situ frescos are unfortunately now in a rather poor state of preservation (whether they can be restored successfully or not remains to be seen). In consequence the rooms are quite often closed to the public. The reproductions in the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City are however excellent and offer visitors a thoroughly worthwhile alternative.Room 1On the left is a scene portraying some kind of ceremony, the participating dignitaries being decked out in white capes and shells (symbols of Earth and the Underworld). The halachuinic ("real man" 5 ruler of the city-state), identified in this case as Chaan-muan ("heavenly barn-owl") sits on a raised podium, flanked by two female figures. To one side is a servant, the halachuinic's child in his arms. Three lesser chieftains are also seen, surrounded by numerous attendants. These three chiefs appear again in the centre of the lower section of the mural, this time wearing typical, large, quetzal feather head-dresses.To their left, in addition to two figures holding sunshades, are a group of musicians whose instruments include drums, trumpets, pipes, rattles and tortoise-shells. Moving among the ranks of musicians are six grotesquely masked characters representing the Crocodile, Crab, Earth, Fertility and Maize gods (the other is yet to be identified). The figures on the right, also holding sunshades, are the audience.Room 2The battle scenes, showing bedecked, lance-wielding warriors attacking unclothed, unarmed adversaries, are dated August 2nd AD 792. They are thought to depict Bonampak warriors on a surprise raid of the kind commonly carried out in those days with the purpose of capturing prisoners for sacrifice.Another picture shows the captives being paraded before the halachuinic. Chaan-muan, dressed in jaguar waistcoat and gaiters and adorned with jade and quetzal feathers, stands on a podium surrounded by other chiefs and officials. Seated or lying prone on the ground in front of and below him are the almost naked captives, some with blood dripping from their fingers. A decapitated head rests on a mat of large leaves.Room 3These murals record the preparations for a feast. The chief, in the company of three women, is shown in the process of performing a sacrifice, piercing the sacrificial victim's tongue with a sharp thorn. An attendant hands him more thorns while between the two men stands a vessel for collecting the blood. Ten officials, some dressed in white capes, talk animatedly together. Below them are a further nine seated figures who also appear to be in some way involved.In another scene higher up twelve men are shown carrying a small figure with grotesque features, possibly the Earth god.Taking up most of the wall area of the room is the final scene portraying dancers and a human sacrifice. Three principal dancers stand on the top two steps of a pyramid, seven more dancers appearing lower down. All are exceptionally finely costumed, their quetzal head-dresses being particularly magnificent. Assistants untie the hands and feet of a naked figure who has apparently already been sacrificed.To the left of this central scene stand four dignitaries in head-dresses, probably participants in the blood-taking ceremony. A further eight figures appear on the right, some with musical instruments, others carrying sunshades.
The Río Lacan-há countryside in the vicinity of the ruins is home to the only surviving groups of Lacandón Maya (Yucatecan Maya: "Ah acantun" 5 "those who erect the stones") who, until recently, were the last descendants of the Maya to remain largely untouched by civilisation. Historians can only speculate about their origins. The now fast disappearing tribe, once numbering thousands, are believed to be remnants of a Mayan people who migrated here from southern Yucatán in the early 18th c., somehow contriving to avoid contact with the Spaniards. They lived a mainly nomadic existence in the rain forest named after them (the Selva Lacandona), engaging in only rudimentary forms of agriculture around their temporary encampments.The Lacandones, of whom at most 400 are alive today, call themselves Caribs, their settlements being known consequently as "caribals". Most are found in Na-há ("big water") and Santo Domingo, with a few in Lacan-há (Maya: "on snake river") and Mensäbäk ("powder maker"). They wear their hair to the shoulder and dress traditionally in a calf-length, white, sack-like garment. Not very long ago these isolated forest Indians still lived by the bow and arrow, celebrating their ancient rituals in the decaying ruins of the temples built by their forefathers. In recent years they have been overwhelmed by a spate of missionaries, ethnologists and tourists, forfeiting much of their self-sufficiency and independence in the process.
Map of Bonampak Attractions