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Chichen Itza, Mexico - Haunting Heritage
1404    Dibyendu Banerjee    01/07/2019

Located in Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and occupying a huge area of 4 square miles, Chichen Itza is the ruined ancient Maya city, which has a long history of 1500 years. It is a completely arid region, where the city once stood and the only source of water around the city was from the wells or cenotes, formed by natural sinkholes in limestone formations. As the city was suitably placed with two big cenotes, it came to be known as Chichen Itza, which literally means, at the mouth of the well of the Itza. The Maya word Chichen Itza is derived from three different words - Chi stands for mouth or edge, Chen for well and Itza for the Maya tribe that settled there.

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It is believed that Chichén was founded about the 6th century AD, probably by the Maya tribe, who had occupied the region since the Pre-Classic period. The main early buildings were built in a specific style, known as Puuc. It is evident that, after the collapse of the Maya cities of the southern lowlands in the 10th century, Chichén was invaded by foreigners. It is considered that these invaders may have been the Itzá after whom the site is named. However, some believe that the Itzá arrived 200 to 300 years later. In any event, the invaders constructed most of the major buildings of the area, which include the huge El Castillo or the castle, a strange Pyramid like structure that rises around 79 feet above the Main Plaza.

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Chichen Itza is a huge complex and consists of several sites, of which the three most important sites are the Great North Platform, the Osario Group or El Osario and the Central Group.

However, among the three, the most famous sites of these complexes and perhaps the most important is the Great North Platform, which includes the huge step pyramid, known as El Castillo, Temple of Warriors and the Great Ball Court.

El Castillo, the temple of Kukulkan
El Castillo, the temple of Kukulkan

The massive El Castilo, dominating the centre of the Chichen Itza archaeological site, is a Mesoamerican step pyramid served as a temple of Kukulkan, the Yucatec Maya Feathered Serpent deity. The 79 feet (24 m) tall structure, with an additional 20 feet (6 m) for the temple, consists of a series of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. Each of the four sides of the pyramid has around 91 steps, which when added to the temple platform on top, comes to a total of 365 steps, the number of days in a Maya Haab’ year. After digging from the top of the pyramid, a second temple was discovered buried under the current temple.

Temple of the Warriors
Temple of the Warriors
Columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors
Columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors

Built between 800 and 1050 AD, the Temple of Warriors is a three level pyramid, which includes the colonnade of carved warrior and gift-bearer columns on its two sides. There is a building at the top of the pyramid, which has a doorway framed with feathered-serpents and two chambers. The interior walls of the temple were decorated with wall paintings depicting scenes of warriors with captives, a lake and thatched houses.

The Great Ball Court
The Great Ball Court

There are more than 10 ball courts at Chichen Itza, of which the one in the northwest section, known as the Great Ball Court, is the most impressive. Measuring 551 feet by 230 feet, the Great Ball Court is the largest and the best-preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. The two vertical walls of the Great Ball Court are 39 feet high (12 m) high and are complete with rings carved with intertwining serpents in the center of each wall. The walls are carved with scenes depicting teams of ball players and one panel shows a horrible scene of a headless player kneeling with blood shooting from his neck, while another player holds the head.

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Local legends say that, traditionally the winning Capitan used to present his own head to the losing Capitan, who then used to decapitate him. While this may seem to be a very strange and absurd reward, the Mayans believed it as the ultimate honor and direct ticket to heaven for the winning captain.

The Osario Group or El Osario, located south of the North group, includes a pyramid of the same name as well as the Temple of Xtoloc.

A Feathered serpent sculpture at the base of one of the stairways
A Feathered serpent sculpture at the base of one of the stairways

Like the El Castilo, El Osario is also a pyramid with four sides, along with staircases on each side and a temple on the top. The bases of its staircases are decorated with beautiful serpent heads. However, unlike El Castillo, a square shaft at the top of the structure leads to 39 feet down below in a cave that was once used as a burial chamber. The cave was excavated in the late 19th century, when seven tombs with human remains were discovered in it. It was named the High Priest’s Temple, though many believe neither that the structure was a tomb nor that the personages buried in it were priests.

A recently restored temple outside the Osario Platform, that overlooks the other large cenote at Chichen Itza, is known as the Temple of Xtoloc, named after the Maya word for iguana, ‘Xtoloc.’

The last among the best of the three sites is the Central Group, which includes El Caracol Las Monjas (The Nuns or The Nunnery), and Akab Dzib.

El Caracol
El Caracol

El Caracol (the Snail), is a round building on a large square platform and gets its name from the stone spiral staircase inside the structure. Probably, it served as an observatory for the Mayan people, to observe changes in the sky without any obstruction. Las Monjas is a complex of Terminal Classic buildings constructed in the Puuc architectural style and the group is distinguished by its concentration of hieroglyphic texts. The complex was named by the Spanish as La Monjas, which means ‘the Nuns’ or ‘the Nunnery’, but it was a governmental palace. However, there is a small temple nearby, known as La Iglesia (the church), decorated with elaborate masks.

Maya mask
Maya mask
Akab Dzib
Akab Dzib

Akab Dzib, located to the east of El Caracol, was the home of the administrator of Chichén Itzá and the name means dark or obscure writing in Maya and refers to the south-side annex door, whose lintel depicts a priest with a vase etched with hieroglyphics that have yet to be deciphered. .

Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. After a worldwide vote in 2007, El Castillo in Chichen Itza was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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