Author of the Month

Enter the Jaguar (cont.)
By Mike Jay

The emergence of Chavín as a ceremonial centre, probably around 900BC, adds much to this earlier picture: it’s more complex in construction than its predecessors, and far richer in symbolic art. It’s set not on a peak or commanding ridge, but in the narrow valley of the Mosna river, at the junction of a tributary, with mountains rising up steeply to enclose it on all sides. Similarly, the temple structure itself isn’t designed to be spectacular or visible from a distance, but is concealed from all sides behind high walls. The approach to the site would have been through a narrow ramped entrance in these walls, whose distinctive feature was that they were studded with gargoyle-like, life-size heads, some human, some distinctly feline with exaggerated jaws and sprouting canine teeth, and some, often covered in swirling patterns, in the process of transforming from one state to the other. This process of transformation is clearly a physical ordeal: the shapeshifting heads grimace, teeth exposed in rictus grins. In a specific and recurrent detail, mucus emanates in streams from their noses.

Inside these walls – now mostly crumbled, and with the majority of the heads housed in the on-site museum – there are still substantial remains of a ceremonial complex which was reworked and expanded for nearly a thousand years, its last and largest elements dating to around 200BC. The basic arrangement is the by now traditional one of plaza and step pyramid, but these are adorned with far more complexity than their predecessors. Many lintels, columns and stelae are covered with relief carvings, swirling motifs featuring feline jaws, eyes and wings. The initial impression is amorphous and chaotic, but on closer inspection these motifs unfurl into composite images, their interleaved elements in different scales and dimensions, the whole often representing some chimerical entity composed of smaller-scale entities roiling inside it. As the architecture develops through the centuries it becomes larger in scale, reflecting the increased scale of the site; at the same time, the reliefs gradually become less figurative and more abstract, discrete entities melting into a mosaic of stylised patterns and flourishes.

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