The Mayan pyramids were an integral source of communication between the Maya and their deities; hence these were also called temples. The Maya kings, known as ‘Kahul ajaw’ (holy lords) were considered as the mediators between these gods and the people. They claimed to be descendants of these gods, and were the only ones who had the right to conduct the religious ceremonies on these pyramid-shaped temples.
Did You Know?
The name Tikal―one of the largest archeological sites, and a powerful kingdom in Mayan history―translates to “place of whispers”. The local inhabitants say that the spirits of the ancient Mayans still wander among the ruins of Tikal. Which is why, modern Mayans prefer not to visit this place.
The Mayan civilization was probably one of the most powerful and mysterious civilizations in history. Religion played a very important role in their lives. They believed in many gods such as the sun god, moon god, god of the rain, and so on. The Maya closely observed the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, and used their observations to predict the forthcoming events. They also sacrificed humans and animals to please these gods and save themselves from the rage of these gods. The temple pyramids placed an important role for the Mayans to perform their religious rituals and sacrifices.
Mayan pyramids are of two types: (i) Not meant to be climbed; (ii) Meant for climbing. The later type was often used for carrying out sacrificial rituals, while the former type was sacred and not supposed to be touched. The steps made on these pyramids were very steep and often had doorways that lead to nowhere.
Most of the pyramids had a platform on top, which had a smaller building dedicated to any of the Mayan deities. When the priests or kings performed their rituals, they ascended the pyramid on staircases, which symbolized rising from the earth to the heavens, since they started from the ground level right up to the temple on top. While some pyramids had two staircases, on either side, others had four — one on each side. Often, there would also be a platform somewhere in the middle of the pyramid that would connect the staircases, where the priest/king would halt and perform a part of his ritual, and continuing to the topmost point.
According to some historians, one of the reasons the pyramids were built so high was that they served as landmarks for the Mayan people, since the tops protruded from the jungle. Also, they served to remind the populace that the gods were always present. To the Mayans, their pyramids also represented mountains, while their temples symbolized caves that led to the underworld. The doorways were representative of the mouths of monsters, and hence were embellished accordingly. Since they were excellent astronomers, they also used their pyramid structures as observatories.
According to the customs of each region as well as the time period, Mayan pyramids were built in a wide variety of forms to serve many functions, apart from religious ones. According to archaeological evidence, the ancient Mayans began building their characteristic ceremonial structures, about 3,000 years back, which were at first merely burial mounds.
Famous Mayan Pyramids
The ancient Mayans built these huge structures without the help of any wheels (which had not been invented then), metal tools, and domesticated animals, since they were not commonly used in the region they inhabited. The tools they had were very simple like basalt and fire axes used on wood, and tools made of quartzite, limestone, granite, obsidian, and flint. They also used a plumb bob for judging the vertical accuracy of the structures they built.
Given below are some of the many pyramids that once upon a time, flourished in the expanses of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and in the verdant jungles of Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala, that still leave visitors awestruck!
El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan), Chichén Itzá
El Castillo, also known as the temple of Kukulkan (the feathered serpent) was built around 1100 CE, this 180-square-ft pyramid has four stairways, each with 91 steps. The total number of steps in this pyramid adds up to 365 (including the top platform). Interestingly, this number comes up to the number of days in the Mayan year.
Another interesting feature about this temple is that during the spring and autumn equinoxes, a serpent-shaped shadow falls on this pyramid. This shadow descends the steps as the day passes, and eventually, during sunset, it joins the stone structure of the serpent head that resides at the base of the great staircase.
Also, some researchers say that if you clap your hands in front of this temple, it answers back in the voice of a bird, believed to be the sacred quetzal bird.
El Adivino (Pyramid of the Magician), Uxmal
What makes El Advino different from the other Mayan structures is that it is the only pyramid with rounded sides and an elliptical base. Not only is it the tallest structure in Uxmal, there is also a very mysterious legend associated with it.
Alternate names for this pyramid are: Pyramid of the Soothsayer and Pyramid of the Dwarf. According to the Mayan legend, it was built by Itzamná (the god of magic) and was meant to be the training center of healers, shamans, and priests. Another tale (among many) associated with this structure is this: A dwarf was born through an egg, which was hatched by an old witch. On being insisted by the witch, the dwarf challenged the king to compete with him in a trial of strength. Among the many challenges was to build a structure that should be highest in the city, or else the king would kill the dwarf. With the help of his mother, the dwarf built this pyramid overnight.
Another interesting fact about this pyramid is that, twice a year, on April 12 and August 31, the doorway on the west faces the setting sun directly. It shows the extraordinary calculations of the Mayans, considering that the sun god was a prominent god for the Mayans and these two dates were very important to them.
Pyramids of Tikal
The lost city of Tikal was one of the largest Mayan cities, and is located in Guatemala. There are many pyramids in this city and more than 4,000 structures have been discovered till now. Some of the pyramids in Tikal are listed below.
Temple I or Temple of the Great Jaguar
Also known as Temple of Ah Cacao, Temple I was the tomb of one of the greatest Mayan ruler Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, who ruled from 682-734 CE. This temple was also built around the same time. It stands 145 ft above the ground and consists of nine stepped levels, symbolizing the nine levels of the underworld. The top room consist of the images of the king. It is said that his tomb consisted of jaguar skin, jade, and carved human bones with hieroglyphic text engraved on them.
Temple II or Temple of the Masks
Temple II, also known as the Temple of the Masks, is said to have been built by Jasaw Chan K’awiil I for his wife Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’, which means “Twelve Macaw Tails”. She was also the mother of Yik’in Chan K’awiil — the heir of Jasaw Chan K’awiil I. This pyramid is 125-ft tall. There is an image of a royal woman on the doorway at the top platform, believed to be Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’ herself. Her tomb has not been discovered yet.
Temple III or Temple of the Jaguar Priest
Temple III, or the Temple of the Jaguar Priest is known to be the funerary temple of Chi’taam, the last major ruler of Tikal. However, his tomb has not been found till now. This pyramid consists of a finely sculpted obese figure wrapped in jaguar skin, hence the name, ‘Temple of the Jaguar Priest’.
Temple IV or The Two-headed Serpent Temple
Temple IV, also known as the Two-headed Serpent Temple is the tallest pyramid in Tikal measuring up to 212-ft. This temple was built in honor of the 27th king of Tikal, Yik’in Chan K’awiil. Experts believe that his tomb lies undiscovered within this temple.
Temple V, the second-tallest pyramid (190 ft) in Tikal is believed to be a burial structure by experts. However, whom the temple was built for is still unknown. Some experts suggest that this temple was built in honor of Chaac, the Mayan rain god. This is because various large masks of Chaac were found in this temple. Also, the temple is designed in such a way that it faces towards the greatest water source in the city of Tikal.
Temple VI or Temple of the Inscriptions
Temple VI is also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions because of lengthy inscriptions of hieroglyphic text on the roof comb of the temple, measuring about 40 ft. This text records the significant events that took place in Tikal, and is therefore of great importance to the scholars.
The Lost World Pyramid, Tikal
Mundo Perdido, translates into the ‘Lost World’. It is a huge ceremonial complex consisting of various Mayan monuments, the most famous one being the Lost World Pyramid or Structure 5C-54. This pyramid is 102 ft high and has a maximum base width of 221 ft. Archeologists consider this pyramid to be amongst the largest monuments in Tikal. Another interesting aspect of this pyramid is that it was built over four pyramids. Experts believe that the oldest among these four pyramids dates back to 600 BCE. The current monument has stairways on the eastern and western sides. These are extended to the top. The stairways at the northern and southern sides can be climbed only till the eighth level, out of the ten levels in the structure.
The Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
Yet another fascinating Mayan structure is that of the Temple of the Inscriptions (not to be confused with Temple VI at Tikal, which is also known with the same name), in Palenque, Mexico. This was a funerary pyramid built in the seventh century for king K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (Hanab Pakal). Three hieroglyphic tablets were discovered in the inner walls of this temple. Recordings of events related to the king’s life and death are shown on these tablets. The inscription tablets also emphasize that the events that have already taken place in the past shall be repeated again on the same calendar date. This belief has also been mentioned in the Books of Chilam Balam, which is a handwritten document of the Mayans, reflecting their spiritual life.
La Danta, El Mirador
La Danta in El Mirador happens to be one of the largest pyramids in the world, standing 230 ft above the forest floor! It has a volume of 2.8 million cubic meters, making it the largest pyramid in the world by volume. What makes it one of the massive ancient structures in the world is the fact that it is a man-made structure built on approximately 18,000 square meters!
There are many more pyramids of various sizes and fame in the ancient Mayan cities that had been built and inhabited by them in their glorious period in history. Destinations including Calakmul, Copán, Tulum, Caracol, Comalcalco, and the surrounding areas, consists of various Mayan structures and artifacts that make you marvel on their mighty reign. Recently, a 2,300-year-old Mayan pyramid was bulldozed in Belize by a construction crew. This act gained a lot of attention and was stated as a tremendous loss to the archaeological field. Another recent discovery was all over the news regarding the findings of an extraordinary frieze in Guatemala city inside a Mayan pyramid that dates to 600 CE.
This only proves that all the discoveries made till date may be only the initial findings. As we dig deeper into these ancient cities, there might be revelations beyond our imagination. As a matter of fact, the presence of all these Maya ruins is a haunting reminder of the sudden collapse and disappearance of their civilization, which occurred around the 10th century, and still remains as one of the enduring mysteries of the world.