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The Amazing Mayan Murals of Bonampak

January 6, 2016 , , Richard Quinn


Down by the Guatemalan border, in a remote corner of the Mexican state of Chiapas, there’s a small Mayan ruin known as Bonampak. The ancient, long abandoned city, really more of a large town, boasts a couple of smallish third rate pyramids, topped by some tiny fourth rate temples:

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

And a couple of stelae, elaborately carved standing stones:

Mayan Murals of Bonampak  Mayan Murals of Bonampak

The stelae are quite nice, but none of the rest of it is particularly impressive, or particularly well preserved. Bonampak was at its peak in the late classic period, roughly, between 580 AD and 800 AD, but even then it was little more than a minor satellite of a much larger Mayan city known as Yaxchilan, 30 km to the north. Yaxchilan was their ally in war, and their patron in peace, their noble houses united by arranged marriages–but there was never any real question about who was in charge. The difference in status is still readily apparent. Compared to Bonampak, Yaxchilan actually is quite impressive, with massive, classically built pyramids in a uniquely dramatic jungle setting, right on the banks of the Usumacinta river. (Even today, the only way to get to the site is by boat). Yaxchilan is not only bigger, and finer, it was far more powerful, and infinitely more important historically. So, which of the two do you suppose is better known to the world today, and which is the more important to Maya scholars? You guessed it: Bonampak! But its well-justified fame has absolutely nothing to do with its raggedy monuments.

The Maya were extraordinary artists, and they worked in a wide variety of mediums. They were stone carvers, jewelry makers, potters, weavers, and painters, famous for their colorful murals. The stone carving is pretty obvious–palaces, temples, intricate facades, bas reliefs, statues and figurines fashioned from limestone, from granite, from jade and other semi-precious stone. The buildings, the statues, the stelae that commemorate historical events–those things are everywhere in the former domain of the Maya, hundreds of sites, many of them yet to be excavated. Most of the jewelry that has survived has been found in royal burials, and graces the prized collections of museums all around the world. The pottery–same deal. Much of what is still intact was recovered from burials, and the elaborate scenes painted on many of these funerary offerings provide us with some of our best insights into the religion, the customs, and the culture of the ancient Maya. The skill, and the craftsmanship, is unsurpassed. The textiles, tapestries, and feather-work, all that elaborate regalia depicted in their bas reliefs and their polychrome pottery, that stuff has not fared so well over the centuries, certainly not in the damp climate of Central America. There are surviving examples in museum collections, but almost all of that sort of thing has long since rotted away or crumbled to dust. As have the paintings, particularly the elaborate murals that graced the interior walls of many palaces and temples. Those were likewise ravaged by exposure to the tropical climate–faded, flaked off, and crumbled to dust, leaving nothing but the occasional faint trace, or outline, with but a few rare exceptions. That’s the way it was throughout the former domain of the Maya. Everywhere except one special place. You guessed it again: Bonampak.

One of those raggedy temples, officially known as “Structure 1”, is a smallish building, fifty feet by twelve feet, divided into three small rooms. There are no windows, but each small room has its own door to the outside:

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

Temple of the Paintings. It has been roofed over to protect it from the rain, and lockable doors were added to protect it from vandals after hours.

Inside, each of those rooms is covered from floor to ceiling, wall to wall with elaborate paintings that actually HAVE survived, larger, grander, and in better condition than any Mayan paintings found anywhere else, ever. The site was abandoned shortly after the murals were created, around 800 AD. Through a quirk of fate, good fortune, or random circumstance, the interior space had just enough protection from the elements to preserve the paintings in remarkably good condition.

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

There are conflicting stories about the discovery of the site. Fact is, it was never really lost–the local Lacondon Maya were still using it for religious purposes, and had always done so, until one of them showed the ruins to a young American named Charles Frey, in 1946. Some say that the first outsider to visit was actually a photographer/explorer named Giles Healey, but regardless of which of those two was first to visit the site, it was Healey’s photographs that first introduced the murals of Bonampak to the rest of the world. The murals have been extensively studied, and they provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of the court during the period when they were created. Each of the three rooms depicts a different scene, including celebrations and musicians, as well as battles, torture, and human sacrifice. Maya Lords wear severed human heads as necklace ornaments, captives get their fingernails pulled out, a group of noblewomen partake in a ritual that requires them to pierce their tongues with thorns, in a gruesome bloodletting ceremony. Before the discovery of these murals, it was popularly believed that the ancient Maya were peaceful mystics. The scenes depicted at Bonampak permanently debunked that particular notion.

Some sections of the murals are far better preserved than others, and there’s evidence of what appears to be vandalism: faces of some of the figures were deliberately obliterated at some point after the painting was completed.

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

Deliberately “De-faced” figures on Bonampak murals.

On other figures, the eyes were gouged out. According to scholars, this was in fact deliberate, but it wasn’t vandalism. Many of these painted images represent specific individuals who lived in that era. The artistic mutilation of those images was a way to nullify the power associated with their image. It was a graphic representation of shifting political influence, and was not at all uncommon among the Maya. Such “de-facing” is actually thought to predate Mayan culture, as it is a practice that originated with the Olmecs. There is other damage to the murals that was not intentional, but much more recent. Early visitors to Bonampak were in the habit of spraying kerosene on the murals, to brighten the colors for their photographs. This practice caused significant damage to many of the panels, but by the time anyone realized that, it was too late to reverse it.

They’ve used modern scientific techniques, infrared photography, and thermal imaging to bring out details in the murals that can’t be seen with the naked eye. A couple of different projects, one sponsored by Yale University, another by the National Geographic Society have done extensive study of the murals, and they’ve used computer assisted graphic techniques to recreate these amazing paintings with something that comes amazingly close to their original glory:

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

Original photo from Bonampak.

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

The same scene after restoration, as reported in National Geographic Magazine.

Getting to Bonampak requires some effort. There is no town of any significant size anywhere near the ruin. There are, however, bus tours that leave from Palenque. It’s a three hour ride in each direction, and with a couple of hours at the site, that makes for a very full day. Other tours require two full days and include a visit to Yaxchilan and an overnight stay at a jungle lodge. Those tours are a bit on the pricey side, as they include not only the bus, the tour guide, and your lodging, but also a fairly expensive boat ride to Yaxchilan. There are public buses that will take you to within a couple of miles of the ruins, or, best alternative, rent a car. No matter how you get to Bonampak, there’s one hard, fast rule: don’t travel that road at night. It gets incredibly dark, there are numerous hazards on the highway–everything from animals in the road to potholes larger than your car, plus, it’s a border area, remote, and somewhat lawless, and there are goings on after nightfall that you really don’t want any part of. For that reason, the tours leave Palenque early in the day, and return before dusk. And the tours that extend for an extra day will have you safely in your hotel long before sundown.

One other thing, no matter how you go, the last five miles will be in one of the small vans that ferry visitors from the parking lot to the ruins. This isn’t optional–no private vehicles are allowed on that last section of road, and it’s a bit too far to comfortably walk it. Once the van drops you off, you’ll still have to walk a short distance across an open area:

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

Until you get to the main plaza. What you see is what you get: note the Temple of the Paintings on the right in this photo (below). The ruins are actually more extensive than they appear–only the small section around the Temple of the Paintings has been cleared and opened to visitors.

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

After you climb the steps to the Temple of the Paintings, you’ll be met by the caretakers of the site, all Mayan men from the nearby village who guard the place pretty carefully–as if it were their own. They’ll make you show your ticket to them before they let you look inside the temple–even though it’s impossible to even get that far without first buying a ticket. No more than four people will be admitted to any of the rooms at the same time–there’s too much moisture in our breath, and it’s bad for the paintings. No bags or backpacks are allowed (not even camera bags), and, while you can take all the pictures you like, you can’t use a flash. Ever. Not even a little one. No tripods, either. That makes it tricky to get decent photos, but with modern digital cameras set to a high ISO, you’ll get enough light in those rooms (provided it’s a sunny day outside) that you’ll be able to hand-hold your camera and come away with perfectly usable images.

The Bonampak murals are like nothing you’ve ever seen, and well worth the trip. Quite frankly, no photo can do them justice. You have to see them in context, in order to really appreciate them for what they are: simply extraordinary.

Mayan Murals of Bonampak

Click the thumbnail (above) to access a gallery of photos from Bonampak

1 comment

  1. Thanks for the photos and helping me relive my trip to Bonampak! My buddy and I visited Bonampak in July or August 1995 when it was being excavated. We hiked the last five miles from the bus stop and arrived at dark. The excavation team was camping at the site and used horses for transportation. They tried to kick us out at first but let us stay since we had nowhere to go. They let us visit the Temple of Paintings. We played volleyball at night with the workers and slept on hammocks at the edge of the jungle clearing for a couple nights. It was a magical experience!

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