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Entrance to Balankanchè Cave. Source: Artix Kreiger 2 / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Maya Gateway to the World Below: Balankanché Cave, Throne of the Tiger Priest

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Caves are central to the cosmologies of many world cultures, used by humans from the dawn of time. They are associated with powerful natural forces and are believed to be dwelling places for benevolent and malevolent deities, protectors and disruptors of communities and individuals’ lives.

An example of this is the Balankanché Cave, located 2.5 miles (3.9 kilometers) southwest of the ancient metropolis of Chichén Itzá, Yabnal in ancient Maya, near the town of Pisté. The cave’s proximity to this major pre-Columbian site underlines the fact that Balankanchè was an integral part of the theocratic city for religious rituals and ceremonies.

The cave was called the “ Throne of the Tiger Priest” by E. Willis Andrews, in his 1970 archaeological field report. Its significance can be fully understood in contrast to the monumental secular site above ground. The interaction between the surface elements and those of the cave, give us an unusual light on the life of Chichén Itzá.

Chichén Itzá, Kukulcán Pyramid. (©

Chichén Itzá, Kukulcán Pyramid. (©

The conquest of the Yucatán peninsula by the Maya – Chontales or Putunes took place in 918; they were the people that already controlled the trade routes around the peninsula. They occupied the island of Cozumel and from there, crossed over to the peninsula and reached Yaxuná and invaded Chichén Itzá.

A second group of migrant-soldier invaders, together with nahualtl speaking Toltecs, reached Chichén around 987, introducing the cult to Quetzalcoatl from Tula, in the present-day state of Hidalgo, in central Mexico. They established a military dynasty that ruled the northern peninsula. The Chilam Balam de Chumayel, indeed refers to the two groups as the “ little descent” in 918 and the “ big descent” in 987.

All cenotes, or natural open wells, were at times used for religious ceremonies. The large Sacred Cenote, also known as Well of the Itzaes or Well of Sacrifice, is located at the end of a 600 foot (180 meter) sacbe or ‘white road’, that links the Great Plaza and the Kukulcán pyramid with the Sacred Well.

The cenote was believed to be the gateway to the underworld and Cha’ak’s home, the rain deity from pre-Toltec times. The Sacred Cenote was strictly dedicated to religious rituals and ceremonies, that at times, involved human sacrifice, as remains found at its bottom testify. The second cenote, the Xtoloc (Iguana) in the city, among others in the vicinity, supplied water to the community.

The Sacred Well or Well of Sacrifice. (©

The Sacred Well or Well of Sacrifice. (©

Among the known caves in the Maya lowlands, Balankanché has received less attention than it deserves. Its importance was first noted in 1958 by José Humberto Gómez whose pastime for over ten years had been the exploration of the cave. He eventually discovered what seemed to be a false section of one of the walls.

On examination, he realized it was made of crude masonry sealed with mortar and covering a small access chamber. Previous archaeological expeditions had come within feet of the wall, probably sealed during the last part of Toltec occupation, not realizing what lay beyond.

Entering the chambers in 1959, researchers found a large number of ceremonial ceramics, beyond two crude stone walls set 99 feet (30 meters) and 361 feet (110 meters) respectively from the entrance. In the corridors and side chambers, carved limestone effigy censers were found, placed into cavities in the cave’s complex stalagmitic formation, as well as simply laid on the floor. They were among many similar artifacts found in the cave.

The Tenants of Balankanché

Archaeologists believe that Balankanché’s first ‘tenant’ was probably Cha’ak, the Maya deity associated with agriculture and rain. Its attributes are akin to Tlaloc, known as the Lord of the Third Sun in Toltec mythology, whose roots go back to the ancient city Teotihuacàn and, farther in time, to Olmec cosmology.

The second invasion from central Mexico (987), explains the presence of Tlaloc ceramics and Xipe Totec, the enigmatic life-death-rebirth deity carved limestone censers at Balankanché. The total eradication of Cha’ak representations, underline the proscription of the old god by the new one. The Toltec invaders settled in power centers and towns, while traditional Maya- Yucatec’s Cha’ak and other deities remained unchanged in the countryside, as they are to this day.

Balankanché’s second ‘tenant’ was Tlaloc, the Toltec goggle-eye deity of rain, storm, lightning, and thunder. The deity came from Tula, on the central plateau of Mexico, and is associated with caves, cenotes, springs, and mountain tops—all believed to be guardians and holders of rain and maize in past and present Mesoamerican mythologies.

Ceramic likeness of Tlaloc, the god of rain and the second tenant of Balankanché. (©

Tlaloc and Xipe Totec censers found in the cave are made of painted ceramic and limestone respectively. They represent deities that reached the Yucatán peninsula with the Toltec invaders. While relatively little is known about pre-Toltec deities and fertility gods of the Yucatán, the records indicate that the cave may have been the focus of a folk cult (Edward B. Kurjack, 2006 – personal communication).

The Structure of Balankanché

Balankanché’s surface mounds and other structural remains are seen scattered on the site above ground. The cave entrance, in the center of the complex, was surrounded by a 115 foot (35 meter) circular tulum or defensive wall, 12 feet (4 meters) wide at the base and raised 4 feet (1.3 meters) above the rock base. It was surmounted by a 6 foot (2 meter) enclosure made of perishable material now lost to time. The reason for such a strong defensive wall is not known and may pre-date the Toltec’s arrival.

The entrance today is located at the center of the circular walled area. It may not have been the location of the original entrance, nor its only access. From ground level, steps take the modern visitor down to a depth of 30 feet (9 meters) then the corridor branches off.

The accessible part of the cave is made up of more than a mile of passageways that vary considerably in shape and size, from broad and flat (as much as 30 feet (9 meters) wide and 15 feet (5 meters) high), to narrow crawling spaces. Other passageways are no longer passable. The cave is divided into six groups, one of them is now closed and may hold the other ancient access to the cave.

Limitations of Entering Balankanché Cave

The corridors and steps for visitors are well built, lit, maintained, and easily walkable, but there are limitations to admission to the cave. For lack of ventilation in the corridors, people of advanced age or suffering from certain health conditions (pulmonary and coronary in particular), or physical impediment are recommended not to enter the cave. Sections of the main corridors cannot be visited; some reach the water table at 70 feet (22 meters) beneath the surface in at least four places. Water depth varies with seasonal rains and entrance to the cave is sometimes suspended after sudden downpours. There is another corridor under the main one, half submerged and very difficult to access, that is reserved for professional cave archaeologists.

The cave’s main chamber (Group I) is a huge, impressive circular-domed room with thousands of stalactites covering the ceiling. The floor, naturally raised as a mound, holds massive twin limestone columns made of both stalactites and stalagmites linked in the middle, in the shape of a massive tree trunk.

The Altars of Balankanché

The cave is a strikingly beautiful work of nature; the high place of a culture that consigned its myths and beliefs in its gods and deities to the mineral world. The central column is a reminder of the trunk of the Ceiba, the mythological Wakah Chan, or ‘ Tree of Life’ whose branches reach to the heavens, while its roots are sunk deep into Xibalba the Maya underworld. The veneration of the ‘ Altar of the Tiger Priest’, can only be understood in the context of the vision of a dual perception of life.

Altar of the Tiger Priest in Balankanchè. (©

Altar of the Tiger Priest in Balankanché. (©

This impressive sanctuary created by nature but conceived by man as an altar for its gods was walled toward the end of the Maya’s Terminal Classic phase (850-1000). The ceramics on the ‘ altar’ are representatives of two non-Maya deities from the central plateau of Mexico. Twenty-nine large Tlaloc-effigy biconical ceramic censers and Xipe Totec carved limestone censers were found on the mound of the altar, together with mini- metates (stone grinders) and manos, miniature ceramic plates, bowls, and other offerings, dated from the Florescent (625-800) to the Modified Florescent (800-950) phases. Female Maya deities, Chak’Chel and Ix’Chel, representations of the waning and waxing moon respectively, patrons of childbirth, sexuality, and fertility are present in the cave. Of note is the fact that ancient Maya deities always carry a binary function, essentially that of opposites.

The ‘ Altar of the Pristine Waters’ (Group II) to this day holds a special place in Maya rituals. Archaeologists call the place the ‘storeroom’. At the foot of the limestone columns were placed ceramic urns, set there to collect virgin water–called zuhuy’ha in Yucatec, that drips from the stalactites above.

Today as in the past, zuhy’ha is believed to be the most sacred water in Maya rituals, since it is collected from stalactites, called the ‘ nipples of the earth’. It is sanctified because it never touches the ground and being transferred directly from nature (the rock) to culture (the manmade ceramic urns), acquired the highest ritual value.

Altar of the Pristine Waters in Balankanchè. (©

Altar of the Pristine Waters in Balankanchè. (©

The importance of the rain god Cha’ak, and its multiple representations in Mesoamerican cosmology, essentially revolve around a simple word: water. The peninsula lies nineteen degrees north of the equator. Its geographical location and lands further south enjoy only two seasons: dry and wet.

If the rains do not come on time, crops are short or fail entirely. Famine may then endure with its retinue of malevolent deities and social disruptions together with hunger and the fear of tomorrow.

Balankanché’s Underground Lake

On the underground lakeshore is Group IIIa, where archaeologists found a peculiar arrangement of small ceramic censers, plates, and small spindle whorls, as well as stone mini metates, and manos. How and why they were displayed is not known, nor the reason for the assemblage and their respective numbers. Their small sizes are particular to Tlaloc offerings; their purpose point to their use by small children. Of note is the fact that their display today was arranged by archaeologists, since we do not know of their disposition in ancient times.

Ethnographic accounts throughout Mesoamerica document miniature objects as offerings, often associated with rain-making rituals. Young children, particularly girls were favored by Tlaloc, god of rain and thunder.

The presence of spindle whorls underlines the symbolic significance of weaving that has been documented to be associated with females and with Chak’Chel ( great or red rainbow), the aged goddess of curing and childbirth in Classic times. She is also known as Ix Chel ( lady rainbow), from her shrines on the islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. To the ancient Maya, rainbows came from the underworld and were dreaded omens of illness and death.

The ‘ Waterway’ (Group IIIb) is mostly flooded now, because it is located close to the top of the water table. The underground lake extends about 115 feet (35 meters) from the shore, then dips below the ceiling of the cave and turns northeast for another 330 feet (100 meters), before rising again above the water table reaching Group IV, which is not accessible today. Investigators found ceramics and stone censers in the water and on limestone outcrops.

At the end of the elongated lake is a chamber that seems to be the limit of human penetration in this direction. The average depth is 5 feet (1.5meters) with about half that depth in mud.

The Water Chamber of Balankanchè. (©

The Water Chamber of Balankanché. (©

Passages to the Water Pools

On the muddy floor of the waterway archaeologists found scattered offerings, such as Tlaloc effigy censers, studded censers, and a variety of pottery offerings, with a distribution densest near the shore. According to Andrews, at least four passages lead to underground water pools, the main reasons for the cave’s long period of use for this area, where the water table lay 65 > 76 feet (20 > 23 meters) below the surface.

Long before Tlaloc, the cave was used for the same purposes by its first tenant, Cha’ak, the Maya rain deity. The cave was ‘returned’ to Cha’ak during a complex and elaborate ritual ceremony, the ‘Reverent Message to the Lords that started in the early hours of October 13, 1959 and lasted three days and nights . It was preceded by ancient rituals and ceremonies performed by Maya h’men or shamans from the neighboring villages, intended to pacify the deities in the cave, the Yum Balames, to safely allow non-Maya to enter the hallowed precinct.

Balankanché – The World Below

Caves were believed to be the place where humans were born and set forth on earth at the beginning of time and where they would return at the end of their days. The pyramids are the World Above, counter images of caves, the World Below, that are the sanctuaries of the endless cycle of life and death. Each morning the rays of the sun, coming out of its travel in Xibalba the world below, lights the top of the pyramid first, as the blessing of Culture by Nature, to sanctify the powers vested in the lords and the priests by the gods.

No less than the sacred earth, caves are believed to be the meeting grounds between humans and the divine.

El Castillo aka Kukulkán. (©

El Castillo aka Kukulkán. (©

Top image: Entrance to Balankanché Cave. Source: Artix Kreiger 2 / CC BY-SA 2.0.

By George Fery


Andrews, E. 1970. Balankanché , Throne of the Tiger Priest. Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University.
Chan, R. 1980. Chichén Itzá. Fondo de Cultura Econòmica, Mexico.
Roys, R. 1967. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel. University of Oklahoma Press.
Sharer, R. and Traxler, L. 1994. The Ancient Maya. Stanford University Press.
Thompson, J. 1970. Maya History and Religion. University of Oklahoma Press.



Tri-lingual freelance writer and photographer based in Dallas, Texas. Travelled extensively over the last 35 years from Europe to Africa and the Americas. His web site  focuses on the history of the Americas up to the arrival of the... Read More

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