Chavin de Huantar: Peru’s Forgotten Civilisation

I like to travel not just to see and experience new things.

But to understand and relive the experiences of ancient cultures.

From the mysterious Nazca Lines to the enigmatic Tiwanaku ruins, I find myself getting more and more amazed with how seemingly impossible things could be achieved.

This curiosity with the unknown brought me to the ruins of Chavin de Huantar.

Chavin de Huantar

Chavin de Huantar is an archaeological site located in the Ancash region of Peru, some 3 hours from Huaraz. Now when people think of Huaraz, they think of beautiful mountains and incredible trekking opportunities.

No one comes to Huaraz for historical ruins.

I had a free day before my Santa Cruz trek and the history lover in me decided to check out these UNESCO declared ruins. I was put in a Spanish-speaking group of mainly Peruvians.

The guide was brilliant, but he only spoke Spanish and I couldn’t understand him. Tough luck.

So it came as a surprise when we stopped at Lake Querococha. At 3980m above sea level and surrounded by mountains between mountains, it was one of the most breath-taking scene I’ve had in my travels.

The bus ride to Chavin was scenic, being located between the Cordillera Negra and Blanca (Black and White Ranges), with the desert coast to its east and tropical Amazonian jungles to its west.

More specifically, the site was built between the Amazonian headwaters of the Marañón river and the Ucayali River. Like my country Singapore, this strategic location covers the major trade routes over the Andes, making it an ideal trading post for goods and ideas.

As a result, Chavin de Huantar became not only a spiritual center but also an educational center with an advanced knowledge of agriculture, astronomy, acoustics, hydraulics, ceramics and sculptures etc, influencing future cultures throughout Peru.

Like most UNESCO sites (however badly preserved it is), you have to buy a ticket to enter. A normal ticket costs PEN $10 (USD $3.30) and a student price is PEN $5.

From the first step onto the site to the time I left, Chavin gave me a vibe similar to the Tiwanaku ruins in Bolivia: a state of disrepair and neglect, yet filled with mysterious energy.

But unlike there, I had a guide with me this time.

It is thought that the sacred Chavin site was built around 900 BC and research confirms that the Chavin, a pre-Incan culture, developed agricultural techniques ahead of their time using advanced irrigation systems to cultivate crops like potatoes, quinoas and corns; and had meat from llamas and guinea pigs – similar to the Incas.

The Chavin culture survived for 700 years by maintaining power over its neighbours through spirituality and religion, not military might unlike many ancient civilisations. In fact, there is no evidence of a standing army, military fortifications or even war-mongering hieroglyphs.

As we walked through the unkempt lawns of grass, it is evident from the brown-grey stone temples that this was a spiritual place. The guide likened it to the Vatican City – a place purely for religious/spiritual purpose.

There is a fairly well-preserved stone quarry ‘Old Temple’, a ‘New Temple’, a circular plaza, and an underground labyrinth chamber. Walls have been decorated with carved stone heads that resemble men, beasts and even gargoyles.

Temples such as these were known to be dedicated to deities that control the weather (especially rainfall), which is important to the survival in the Andes.

Indeed, deities play a huge role in the Chavin culture with their main deity being the Lanzon. Its carved stone symbol can be seen in the ‘gallery’, a series of underground tunnels and passages behind the ‘Old Temple’.

Interestingly, the Lanzon is the only major religious artifact still in its original location within a temple in South America, and some anthropologists likened this impressive statue to the axis mundi - a spiritual pillar connecting heaven, earth, and the underworld.

The Lanzon has a feline head and human blood had to be sacrificed to it in exchange for abundant rainfall, healthy crops and good fortune. Ironically, it was raining heavily when we were there.

To fully appreciate the grandeur of the site, we went into the underground chambers that seemed to be never-ending. It was like a maze down there: dark and claustrophobic.

It’s hard to imagine that in the past, young initiates stayed in these chambers for days, fasting and meditating, losing sense of time and being reduced to nothing, all just to come face to face with their deity, Lanzon.

The Chavins were also thought to be some of the early users of hallucinogenic spirit plants like huachuma, more commonly known as the San Pedro cactus.

Carvings and depictions throughout the site tell a story of shamans transforming into half-human, half-jaguar beings after ingesting the spirit plant, bringing them closer to the spiritual realm. Nowadays, spirit plants are being used as a healing tool.

Other theories suggest that the temple was designed to mimic the universe and Life itself, with all the décor suggesting equal and opposite principles: masculine and feminine, day and night, rainy and dry seasons, the earth and the sea.

Even with a guide, I still walked away feeling like I do not understand the area. Because unlike the Inca civilization where the Spanish kept written records, there are no written records of the Chavin culture.

It is a pity that not much is known about one of the most advanced civilization in its time. What’s worse is that although given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1985, the place is pretty much in shambles, a state of disrepair, mostly due to neglect.

Who can blame the authorities when hardly anyone visits the site?

I feel that more awareness and publicity should be given to these historically and culturally significant sites. Afterall, they were what shaped the world today!



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