A three- to four-hour journey from Huaraz, and only 30km southeast of Huari, the magnificent temple complex of CHAVÍN DE HUANTAR is the most important Peruvian site associated with the Chavín cult. Although partially destroyed by earthquakes, floods and erosion from the Río Mosna, enough of the ruins survive to make them a fascinating sight and one of the most important ones in Peru’s pre-history. Though the on-site Sala de Exposición features ceramics, textiles and stone pieces relating to the cultural influences of the Chavín, Huaras, Recuay and Huari, it is the Chavín culture that evolved and elaborated its own brand of religious cultism on and around this magnificent site during the first millennium BC. This religious cult also influenced subsequent cultural development throughout Peru, right up until the Spanish Conquest some 2500 years later.
The pretty village of Chavín de Huantar, with its whitewashed walls and traditional tiled roofs, is just a couple of hundred metres from the ruins and has a reasonable supply of basic amenities.
The original temple was built here around 900 BC, though it was not until around 400 BC that the complex was substantially enlarged and its cultural style fixed. Some archeologists claim that the specific layout of the temple, a U-shaped ceremonial courtyard facing east and based around a raised stone platform, was directly influenced by what was, in 1200 BC, the largest architectural monument in the New World, at Sechin Alto. By 300 BC, Sechin Alto had been abandoned and Chavín was at the height of its power and one of the world’s largest religious centres, with about three thousand resident priests and temple attendants. The U-shaped temples were probably dedicated to powerful mountain spirits or deities, who controlled meteorological phenomena, in particular rainfall, vital to the survival and wealth of the people.
The complex’s main temple building consists of a central rectangular block with two wings projecting out to the east. The large, southern wing, known as the Castillo, is the most conspicuous feature of the site: massive, almost pyramid shaped, the platform was built of dressed stone with gargoyles attached, though few remain now.
Some way in front of the Castillo, down three main flights of steps, the Plaza Hundida, or “sunken plaza”, covers about 250 square metres with a rectangular, stepped platform to either side. Here, the thousands of pilgrims thought to have worshipped at Chavín would gather during the appropriate fiestas. And it was here that the famous Tello Obelisk, now in the Museo de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia in Lima, was found, next to an altar in the shape of a jaguar and bedecked with seven cavities forming a pattern similar to that of the Orion constellation.
Standing in the Plaza Hundida, facing towards the Castillo, you’ll see on your right the original temple, now just a palatial ruin dwarfed by the neighbouring Castillo. It was first examined by Julio Tello in 1919 when it was still buried under cultivated fields; during 1945 a vast flood reburied most of it and the place was damaged again by the 1970 earthquake and the rains of 1983. Among the fascinating recent finds from the area are bone snuff tubes, beads, pendants, needles, ceremonial shells (imported from Ecuador) and some quartz crystals associated with ritual sites. One quartz crystal covered in red pigment was found in a grave, placed after death in the mouth of the deceased.
Behind the original temple, two entrances lead to a series of underground passages and subterranean chambers. The passage on the right leads down to an underground chamber, containing the awe-inspiring Lanzon, a prism-shaped 4.5m block of carved white granite that tapers down from a broad feline head to a point stuck in the ground. The entrance on the left takes you into the labyrinthine inner chambers, which run underneath the Castillo on several levels connected by ramps and steps. In the seven major subterranean rooms, you’ll need a torch to get a decent look at the carvings and the granite sculptures (even when the electric lighting is switched on), while all around you can hear the sound of water dripping.
Another large stone slab that was originally discovered at Chavín in 1873 – the Estela Raymondi – is now in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia in Lima; this was the first and most spectacular of all the impressive carved stones to be found. The most vivid of the carvings remaining at the site are the gargoyles (known as Cabeza Clavos) along the outer stone walls of the Castillo sector, guardians of the temple, which again display feline and bird-like characteristics.
The Chavín cult, whose iconography spread across much of Peru, was not a coherent pan-Peruvian religion, but more of a widespread – and unevenly interpreted – cult of the feline god. Chavín had a strong impact on the Paracas culture and later on the Nasca and Mochica civilizations. Theories as to the origin of its inspiration range from extraterrestrial intervention to the more likely infiltration of ideas and individuals or entire tribes from Central America. There is a resemblance between the ceramics found at Chavín and those of a similar date from Tlatilco in Mexico, yet there are no comparable Mexican stone constructions as ancient as these Peruvian wonders. More probable, and the theory expounded by medical doctor and Peruvian archeologist Julio Tello (1880 to 1947), is that the cult initially came up into the Andes (then down to the coast) from the Amazon Basin via the Marañón Valley. The inspiration for the beliefs themselves, which appear to be in the power of totemic or animistic gods and demons, may well have come from visionary experiences sparked by the ingestion of hallucinogens: one of the stone reliefs at Chavín portrays a feline deity or fanged warrior holding a section of the psychotropic mescalin cactus San Pedro, still used by curanderos today for the invocation of the spirit world. This feline deity was almost certainly associated with the shamanic practice of visionary transformation from human into animal form for magical and healing purposes, usually achieved by the use of hallucinogenic brews; the most powerful animal form that could be assumed, of course, was the big cat, whether a puma or a jaguar.
Most theories about the iconography of Chavín de Huantar’s stone slabs, all of which are very intricate, distinctive in style and highly abstract, agree that the Chavíns worshipped three major gods: the moon (represented by a fish), the sun (depicted as an eagle or a hawk) and an overlord, or creator divinity, normally shown as a fanged cat, possibly a jaguar. It seems very likely that each god was linked with a distinct level of the Chavín cosmos: the fish with the underworld, the eagle with the celestial forces and the cat with earthly power. This is only a calculated guess, and ethnographic evidence from the Amazon Basin suggests that each of these main gods may have also been associated with a different subgroup within the Chavín tribe or priesthood as a whole.
Chavín itself may or may not have been the centre of the movement, but it was obviously at the very least an outstanding ceremonial focus for what was an early agricultural society, thriving on relatively recently domesticated foods as well as cotton, and well-positioned topographically to control the exchange of plants, materials and ideas between communities in the Amazon, Andes and Pacific coast. The name Chavín comes from the Quechua chaupin, meaning navel or focal point, and the complex might have been a sacred shrine to which natives flocked in pilgrimage during festivals, much as they do today, visiting important huacas in the sierra at specific times in the annual agricultural cycle. The appearance of the Orion constellation on Chavín carvings fits this theory, since it appears on the skyline just prior to the traditional harvest period in the Peruvian mountains.