History of Bonampak
Bonampak, meaning painted walls and was an ancient Mayan city located in the Lacandon jungle, along the Usumacinta River, in eastern Chiapas. The site contains upright engraved stones (stelae) and detailed murals of daily life, war practices and ceremonies during the Late Classic Period (c. 600–900 CE) of Mesoamerican civilisation.
Bonampak was never a major power house like Palenque of Yaxchilan, but they all used the Usumacinta River for trade and commerce. After numerous attacks, Bonampak became a satellite city and was governed by Yaxchilan during the mid 8th century.
In 1946, John Bourne, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune and Charles Frey were led by Chan Bor, a Lacandon to be the first non-Lacandon Indians to see Bonampak.
To reach the murals you first need to walk through the grand plaza which measures 110 meters wide and 110 meters long. The plaza is surrounded by various stone structures and contains stelae under protected canopies. At the far end of the plaza is the acropolis, which was constructed into a hill.
In the plaza are four stelae carved with various images of Chan Muan and inscribed with hieroglyphic writing. The images on the stelae are not particularly clear, but they do have signs explaining what they are of. Stelae 1 is approximately 5 meters tall and contains an image of Chan Muwaan II holding a shield with the face of a jaguar and a spear. Stelae 2 shows Chan Muwaan involved in a bloodletting ceremony, with his wife holding a sea urchin needle and his mother with a bowl to collect the blood. The third stelae show Chan Muwaan with captives before him.
To reach the temple of murals, you need to partially climb the stairs of the acropolis. The temple is divided into three rooms, only 4 people are allowed in a room at a time and you are required to leave your bags outside.
The murals in Bonampak are in fact frescoes created by painting on wet plaster, before it dries. The technique involved three steps. Firstly, a red outline of the painting is drawn on the wet plaster. This was followed by coloured paints and finally a black outline was added to create greater definition to the figures. The murals have enabled archaeologists to learn about the types of musical instruments that were used as well as clothing, weapons and daily life.
The unique, floor to ceiling murals distinguishes Bonampak from other more impressive ruins of Palenque and Yaxchilan. The paintings chronicle the events that occurred between 790 – 792 during Chan Muan’s reign.
The first room depicts Chan Muan II and his wife presenting the governors son, the heir, to the white robe clad nobility. The mural also shows the preparations for the event and the ceremony involving noblemen and priests, while accompanied by various musical instruments.
The second room in contrast to the first depicts was and torture of the enemy. Chan is painted clothed for battle wearing a jaguar skin, while the captives are shown being tortured by having their fingernails removed. There is one captive pictured next to a decapitated head. Ancient Mayans preferred to capture rather than kill captives as they could then sacrifice them to their gods. The murals have disproved the previously held belief that Mayans were a peaceful race prior to the Toltec arriving in Mexico.
The third room shows the celebrations following the battle in room two. There are dancers wearing masks of gods and lords in fancy headdresses. Interestingly the ruler is shown with his family puncturing their tongues for the blood letting ritual.
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday from 08:00 to 5:00.
Cost: There are numerous costs involved in visiting this site. Firstly, after turning off the main road you are required to pay a fee to enter the forest. You can’t drive you’re your vehicle into the site and you are required to leave it in a car-parking lot where the Lacandon people will drive you 20 minutes to the site, at a cost of 100 pesos a person. Entrance to the site is then 70 pesos or $5 AUD