Mexico’s Haunted City of Thunder – El Tajin: Surprising Connections Between Cultures Worlds and Eras Apart
El Tajin is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located in the North of the state of Veracruz, near the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The city, one of the most flourishing of the Classic and early Post-classic period, was only rediscovered in 1785, immediately capturing the imagination of European travelers with its imposing jungle-covered ruins and unusual architecture. Over the five centuries since the city’s abandonment in the early 13th century, all knowledge of the city’s former existence was lost, even among the local Totonac people.
A view of the central portion of El Tajin, with the imposing pyramid dedicated to the god of Thunder, known as Building 5. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)
A superstitious terror surrounded the region where the ancient city once stood, considered to be the home of spirits and supernatural beings. These beings were known as Tajines, meaning ‘lightning’ or ‘thunder’ and were believed to haunt the ancient pyramids in whose interiors they dwelled, as if in an underground palace.
The Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajin. The monumental access stairway, facing due East, is a later addition that covered many of the original niches. Because of the addition of this stairway, the number of visible niches no longer adds up to 365 – the number of days in a solar year. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)
Today, Tajin is known for its elaborately ornate architecture and peculiar construction techniques. The Pyramid of the Niches is perhaps the most emblematic of Tajin’s architecture. It was built of sandstone, and cut in small blocks arranged to form a pattern of niches and cornices that decorate the entire façade. There are 365 niches along the four faces of the pyramid – one for every day of the year – rising in seven tiers until the summit. The pyramid itself is approached by a monumental stairway adorned with frets and stone mosaics. The number of the niches suggests that the monument had a calendrical function, but it is not known how exactly it was used for the tracking of time.
Another view of the Pyramid of the Niches from the side. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)
The Ball Game
Over 40 other pyramids have been excavated at Tajin, mostly in the lower city, including a large plaza surrounded by pyramids known as the Arroyo Group. Among these are as many as seventeen ballcourts; one of the highest concentrations of this type of structure in Mesoamerica. The North and South ballcourts are constructed of large flagstones, among which are a number of carved panels containing scenes related to the Mesoamerican ball game. The Acropolis of the site has not been excavated, with the exception of a palatial area known as Tajin Chico, located on an artificially terraced portion of the Acropolis. Buildings in this area show a clear Maya influence, and are notable for the use of painted stucco and plaster decoration.
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Delicately carved panel from the South Ballcourt, depicting a human sacrifice. The style of the carving is very peculiar and reminds of the Near East and Sumer. (Photo © Marco Vigato)
A particularly remarkable aspect of Tajin’s architecture is the use of large, megalithic stone blocks in a number of constructions. The use of megalithic stones is particularly evident in the South ballcourt: Two parallel 60-meter-long (197 feet) walls delimit the opposite sides of the court, including six sculptured panels (three on each side). The walls rise in four rows of large megalithic stones, although there is evidence that the wall was probably higher. Most stones measure between three and four meters (10 and 13 feet). A particularly massive flagstone, however, measures over eight meters long (26 feet), with an estimated weight in excess of 10 tons.
detail of the megalithic wall delimiting the Southern Ballcourt. Some of the stones measure as much as 8 meters long, with a weight in excess of 10 tons. (Photo © Marco Vigato)
One of the main ceremonial avenues of El Tajin, flanked by pyramids. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)
In spite of their fine workmanship and the precision of the stone cuts and angles, the jointing between the stones is not always perfect, with the frequent insertion of smaller stones and wedges. This suggests that many of the megalithic stone blocks may have originally formed part of some other structure and are only found here in secondary use. A small temple at one end of the South ballcourt seems to be built entirely of reused stone blocks.
A megalithic wall of large sculptured ashlars in the Northern Ballcourt. The rightmost stone in the upper course measures over seven meters long. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)
A number of large megalithic stones were also employed in the construction of the pyramid of the Niches, in front of which stands a very peculiar, megalithic altar built of very finely carved and polished ashlars (highly worked square stones). This megalithic style of architecture is unique in Mesoamerica, and appears to have been at least partially influenced by Olmec construction techniques. For the size of the stones employed and the general quality of their workmanship, the megalithic walls of the South ballcourt of el Tajin are the finest in Mesoamerica and comparable to the best stonework of Peru.
Another unique characteristic of Tajin architecture: Some enormous plaster and cement blocks, as much as 1 meter thick are all that remains of the flat roofs of buildings that once stood on top of the pyramidal platforms. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)
Another unusual megalithic structure is known as the Great Xicalcoluihqui or the “Great Enclosure”. It consists of a single continuous wall enclosing an immense area of 12,000 square meters in the shape of a glyph believe to symbolize the Wind or the planet Venus. The wall is entirely constructed of finely carved and fitted megalithic stone blocks, each measuring between two and three meters (6.5 to 9.8 feet) in length. Doubtless, enormous efforts were spent in the construction of the Great Xicalcoluihqui, but no inscriptions or carvings have been found inside it that may help to explain its function. This structure is unique in all of Mesoamerica, and its ultimate purpose is unknown.
A very ornate building façade belonging to one of the elite palaces in the area known as Tajin Chico. (Photo © Marco Vigato)
A small temple built with large megalithic stones stands at one end of the Northern Ballcourt. The loose joints and wedges inserted between the stones show that these are probably of secondary use. (Photo © Marco Vigato)
From the Great Xicalcoluihqui, a jungle-covered path leads to the Great Ballcourt and to the Acropolis. Unfortunately, none of these structures have been excavated, but it is clear that they must have been among the most monumental buildings on the site. A huge number of megalithic stone blocks are found scattered in this area, suggesting the presence of very large buildings still awaiting proper mapping and clearing. An estimated 50 percent of the ancient ceremonial center still lies buried and unexcavated, which may include some of the oldest structures on the site.
One of the monumental entrances to the Great Xicalcoluihqui, consisting of large and finely fitted megalithic stones. (Photo © Marco Vigato)
detail of the complex ornamentation of the Great Xicalcoluihqui. The construction technique of the upper portion, with two parallel stone walls filled with rubble, is particularly noteworthy. (Photo © Marco Vigato)
So unusual is the megalithic architecture of El Tajin, that its origins may well be outside of Mesoamerica.
Churning of the Sea of Milk
Surprisingly, Tajin also contains some of the clearest evidence of Pre-Columbian contact with the Old World. Not only does the style of the carvings and bas-reliefs remind of similar examples from the Near East, Mesopotamia and the Hittite world, but also the very style of architecture of Tajin bears striking similarities with the great temples of Angkor and the pyramid of Koh Ker in Cambodia.
Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia. (Olaf Tausch/CC BY 3.0)
Over two thousand years separate the known beginnings of Tajin from the peak of the great civilizations of the Near East, but it is equally possible that many of the megalithic structures at the site could significantly predate its Classic and early Post-Classic flourishing. It is, however, the similarity between the architecture of Tajin and that of the Khmer temples of Cambodia that is perhaps the most striking. Is it a coincidence that, just at the turn of the 10th and 11th century, two equally mysterious pyramid-building civilizations suddenly emerged from the mists of unknown beginnings to build monumental cities in the jungle and then vanished almost without a trace?
So striking is the similarity between the architecture of Tajin and that of the Khmer capitals of Angkor and Koh Ker, that one is prompted to wonder whether the same unknown architects were contemporarily at work in both places, at the opposite sides of the world.
Similarities are not limited to architecture, but extend to art and iconography too. A striking bas-relief in the little site museum of Tajin contains a depiction virtually identical to the famous “ Churning of the Sea of Milk” known from Hindu art and famously portrayed in a grandiose scene at Angkor Wat.
Kurma avatar of Vishnu, below Mount Mandara, with Vasuki wrapped around it, during Samudra manthan, the churning of the ocean of milk, ca 1870. (Public Domain)
Churning the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat (Ddalbiez/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Author Carl de Borhegyi was the first to point out the similarities between the Tajin bas-relief and ancient Hindu myths. On the panel, one can appreciate all the typical elements and iconography of the Hindu allegory. Two sets of figures are depicted pulling from opposite directions the body of a snake wrapped around a pillar or pole symbolizing the world axis. The world axis rests on the shell of a turtle, which symbolizes the Earth and the four cardinal directions. From the “churning”, the waters of the primordial ocean are set in motion, and soma, the nectar of immortality is produced.
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A bas-relief depicting the “Churning of the Sea of Milk” from the small site museum of El Tajin. (Photo © Marco Vigato)
An old drawing of the same bas-relief from which all the elements of the mythical composition can be fully appreciated. Two sets of figures stand on the opposite sides of a rotating device, around which coil two entwined serpents. The central pole symbolized the world axis, supported by the turtle – symbol of the earth and perhaps of the constellation of Orion. The stormy sea is depicted in the lower left and right corners, with the mouths of sea monsters jutting out of it. Two figures stand on the opposite ends of the bas-relief carrying curious handbags believed to contain the nectar of immortality. (Courtesy INAH – Museo del Sitio El Tajin)
In their book Hamlet’s Mill, Giorgio Santillana and Hertha von Dechend describe this myth as part of a once universal mythical language, which also appears to embed advanced scientific concepts and notions related to the precession of the equinoxes.
In other terms, it is possible that both Tajin and Angkor—even in the absence of any direct contact—may bear the imprint of the same extremely ancient tradition. What is perhaps more puzzling and difficult to explain is how this tradition was apparently revived at the same time in ancient Cambodia and Mesoamerica by entirely unrelated cultures, as if the same mysterious impulse had guided the development of both civilizations.
Marco M. Vigato has traveled extensively across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, South-East Asia, North and South America and is an independent researcher into ancient mysteries and megalithic civilizations. His expeditions and photographs dedicated to ancient history, adventure travel, and archaeology can be found at Uncharted Ruins.
Top Image: Sculpture of a head from 950-1150 AD found at Building Y in the Tajin Chico section. On display at the Tajin site museum, Veracruz state, Mexico (AlejandroLinaresGarcia/CC BY-SA 4.0), and El Tajin Pyramid, lightening (Public Domain);Deriv.
By Marco Vigato
UNESCO World Heritage Center, Prehispanic City of El Tajin – On-line resource: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/631
INAH, Zona arqueológica de El Tajin – On-line resource: http://inah.gob.mx/es/zonas/153-zona-arqueologica-el-tajin-y-museo-de-sitio
Arturo Pascual Soto, El Tajin, Arte y Poder, UNAM, 2009
Carl de Borhegyi, Hindu mythology in Pre-Columbian art – On-line resource: https://mayamushroomstone.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/hindu-mythology-in-pre-columbian-art/
Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill, 1st edition 1969