The cult centre and underground world of Chavín de Huántar
Chavín de Huántar is an archaeological site located in the Ancash region of Peru, 250 km north of the country’s capital, Lima. It is located at over 3000 m above the sea level and is sandwiched between the desert coast to its west and the tropical Amazonian lowlands to its east.
While carbon dating suggests that the site was occupied at least since 3000 B.C., it was around 1500 B.C. that Chavín developed into a sacred site. Chavín became a ceremonial and pilgrimage centre for the religious world of the Andes. Thus, the religious system practiced at Chavín was disseminated over a wide territory of the Andes, as far as the north, central and south coasts, as well as the northern highlands and high jungle of Peru. As a result, Chavín saw a convergence of peoples from different areas, tribes and languages. The religious significance of Chavín can be seen in the two temples built at the site.
The ‘Old Temple’ was built in a U-shaped form around a circular plaza, and thought to be the earliest structure at the site. Archaeologists, however, have shown that there were actually early phases beneath the ‘Old Temple’. It has been claimed that the layout of the temple was directly influenced by Sechin Alto, where the largest architectural monument in the New World in 1200 B.C. was situated. Sometime after the ‘Old Temple’ was completed, a ‘New Temple’ was constructed. This temple incorporated part of the ‘Old Temple’, and extended to the south and east. As it was to be on a larger scale, the centre and axis of the original temple were shifted. Nevertheless, the original U-shape of the temple was retained. It has been suggested that temples such as this one were dedicated to mountain spirits or deities who had power over meteorological phenomena, especially rainfall, which was essential to the survival of the people of the Andes. This may explain the choice of Chavín as the site for the construction of such a pilgrimage centre.
Located at the Chavín Museum, a model of Chavín de Huántar, New and Old Temple constructions. Photo source .
One of the most interesting aspects of this site is its subterranean chambers. These underground passages and chambers are accessed via two entrances behind the ‘Old Temple’. It is the carvings and the sculptures of these chambers that are its most impressive features. For instance, there is the Lanzon, a prism-shaped block of carved granite that is 4.5m in height. This block of granite begins with a broad feline head, and tapers down to a point stuck into the ground. This feline motif can also be seen in the carvings along the outer stone walls of the Castillo sector (the southern wing of the temple). These carvings depict gargoyles (known as Cabeza Clavos), which are supposed to be the temple’s guardians. Apart from feline features, the gargoyles are said to have bird-like characteristics as well.
The underground chambers of Chavín de Huántar. Photo source.
The Lanzon, the prism-shaped block of carved granite. Photo source .
This iconography may help us to gain a better understanding of the cult that was practised at Chavín. Interestingly, the feline iconography can be seen across much of Peru, perhaps forming a wider cultural and religious sphere in the region. Although it may be safely said that the Chavín had an influence on some other Peruvian cultures, the origins of Chavín culture is still unknown. While some believe that extraterrestrials were responsible for bringing culture to the Chavín, others believe that influence came not from the sky, but from Central America. It is unlikely that a theory that everyone can agree on will be found any time soon.
A couple of the Cabeza Clavos. Photo source.
Personally, I think the more pressing question that should be addressed is that of the preservation and conservation of the site. Although the site was inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1985, it seems that Chavín today is in a state of disrepair, primarily due to neglect. This is made worse by a number of challenges, including environmental threats, structural damage, and the poverty of the surrounding area. Although it may be easy to suggest conserving and/or preserving the site, the reality is much more complicated, as there are various factors, such as the landscape and the surrounding population, that have to be taken into account. I suppose what we could do for Chavín is to raise awareness about this site, and let others know about the uniqueness and significance of this site.