Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Sacred Valley of Tepoztlán, Morelos

This year the rains were about a month late in arriving, and they are proving to be equally slow in departing. Last weekend we decided to get-away from perennially overcast skies. We headed for Tepoztlán, a pueblo (village) in the mountains between Mexico City and Cuernavaca. The good news is that it's only about 45 minutes by bus, and the bus station is ten minutes from our house.

Traveling through the Mexican countryside is always special. Maybe it's the altitude: Mexico City is 2,240 meters (7,350 ft) above sea level, and Tepoztlán is 1,710 meters (5,610 ft). The high point of the pass through the mountains is 3,100 meters (10,000 ft). At this altitude, one doesn't expect to see extensive agricultural fields and grazing lands extending for miles on both sides of the highway. The countryside reminds me of the long-running (1959-1973) TV series Bonanza—pine forests, open grasslands and big mountains.

Leaving the highway, the bus began its descent to the valley below. In the distance one glimpses a long, island of mountain pushed up from the valley floor, which according to GoogleEarth is 2.5 miles long. This is the massif—"a mountain forming an independent portion of a mountain range"—on which the ancient site of Tepozteco was built.

The El Tepozteco massif dominates the town of Tepotzlán
(Photos: Reed, unless otherwise noted)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. From the Tepoztlán bus stop, the town plaza is about five minutes away by taxi. Our hotel was a short distance outside the town center, or so the owner told Reed on the phone. In truth, it was another ten minutes outside town. As the road continued to narrow, we passed a river where a family was washing their clothes and, yes, we also passed a couple of burros wandering nonchalently along the stone-paved road.

Just about when we were beginning to wonder what we'd gotten ourselves into, we arrived at the hotel, which opened following construction just two years ago. Our room was quite comfortable and faced onto the courtyard, which boasted a small swimming pool. We would enjoy our typical breakfast of scrambled eggs with onion and ham and a side of frijoles, beans, with coffee and orange juice sitting in the sun soaking up Vitamin D.

The Task At Hand

Preparing for the visit, I came upon this description of El Tepozteco in Mexico Desconocido:
The climb isn't easy, especially for people who aren't used to exercising; however, there are many places along the way where one can sit and relax. Once atop Tepozteco, the view is spectacular. At the visitors' feet stretch out the majestic broad valleys of the lowlands of the state of Morelos. After the strenuous climb, this magnificent view invites us to soak up to the physical and emotional tranquility, take our best pictures of the view and of the pre-Hispanic ruins found there.
Pyramid at Tepozteco (Photo: Wikipedia)
According to archaeologists, these ruins formed part of a small architectural complex built during the government of the tlatoani Ahuízotl of Tenochtitlán [Aztec center, Mexico City], where the ancient Mexica warrior gods were worshiped. Evidence of this is found in the remains of walkways decorated with processions of richly dressed warriors with shields and arrows. Clay or stone representations of the fearsome Aztecs gods were also placed above those walkways, as part of the temple's interior decoration.
Pyramid at Tepozteco (Photo: Wikipedia)
Before the Spanish, only the high priests and supreme indigenous leaders had access to this sanctuary. Now, many years after its great splendor, Tepozteco's visitors can feel in this place the energy that brought glory and fame to the Mexican people.
Let's put it this way: in our eighth decade, a strenuous climb is no longer an option, but we were not to be deterred from enjoying the drama of this truly spectacular geological formation. So early the next morning, we called a taxi and were fortunate in having a pleasant, knowledgeable driver who was perfectly agreeable to take us along the base of the cliffs.

The Exploration

We drove back along the way we'd come the night before. In the clear, early-morning sun, the geology was stunning.

Peña, or free-standing stone, on the other (north) side of the river

What is known as "The Sacred Valley of Tepoztlán" is formed by three massifs (GoogleEarth)—that are said to form a triangle. The road to our hotel runs between the the massif to the South (top) and the two in the North, which from the aerial view seem to form a point. The display of raw geologic power was jaw-dropping.

Tepoztlán is almost in the middle of the picture, which looks SouthNorth being aligned with the lower left corner. The stick pin locates the Pyramid atop El Tepozteco. 

Turning off the main road, we headed up toward the base of the massif. It didn't take all that long before we arrived at a stone-paved lane. 

Stone-paved lane that runs along the base of El Tepozteco.
In almost an hour, I believe we passed one other vehicle. 

At first what can be seen from the lane appeared to be so limited that we wondered what the driver had in mind, but suddenly, he stopped. Rising to one side was the impressive massif of Tepozteco rising 600 meters (1,968 ft.) above the valley floor. From our vantage point, it was visible above the red-tile roof of a modest adobe structure.

The massif rises abruptly behind the properties at its base.

The driver told us that many foreigners own large properties and houses along this road. In fact, we passed a family with three generations out for a morning paseo, a stroll, along the lane-way. The entry to one hacienda, as the driver referred to it, is below. Note the huge drain, which suggests serious runoff during the rainy season.

I'm gazing at El Tepozteco massif, which rises behind this hacienda.

Curious, I asked the driver what the other side is like—cliffs like this side?—he replied, no, the land slopes off gently. The effect is most apparent on the mountain range to the south in the earlier photo, which shows fields running almost to the edge of the cliffs. 

The geologic action must have been an upward thrust from tectonic plates at some distance away from the cliffs—the land thrust skyward as if on a giant hinge. In effect, these massive cliffs were torn from the flat plain. We continued our meander along the lane stopping periodically to just soak up the power of these cliffs. Here's what we saw ...

But the tour wasn't quite over. The driver had another destination in mind. Leaving the rural lane-way, we slowly made our way to a quiet Tepoztlán neighborhood.

Houses on stone-paved neighborhood lane tucked up against the massif.

Delightful as our tour had been, it raised more questions than it answered. What about the Tepozteco? We still hadn't seen the pyramid. And what did it all mean anyway?

The Legend of Tepoztlán

Returning to the plaza, we were slowly making our way toward the former Dominican Convent when Reed suddenly darted away only to call over his shoulder:
"You've got to see this! A mural of Tepoztlán's Founding Legend!"
Painted in 1995, the mural depicts the legend, but it also has features that suggest a more subtle level of meaning. For example, the mural's first figure is a warrior-king. In reference to the Aztec's own founding legend, the mural's background depicts Lake Texcoco with the cactus on an island, while the eagle holding a serpent in his claws, the national symbol of modern Mexico, flies over the kingly figure.

Aztec warrior stands at the edge of Lake Texcoco.
The poem on the scroll reads:
They destroyed my leaves, they cut my branches, they cut down my trunk ... but they will never be able to pull out my roots.  Anonymous.
So the modern muralist begins his depiction of the Legend of The Tepozteco:
According to the oral tradition, a maiden used to bathe in the Atongo Ravine. Although it was said that the ravines "give airs," the maid didn't believe it. But after a month, she knew she was in trouble. Ashamed, she went to her parents and confessed her pregnancy. 
Maiden bathing in the Ravine
When the baby boy was born, his grandfather made ​​several attempts to get rid of him. On one occasion, he threw the infant from a great height into the rocks below, but the wind deposited him on a plain. On another occasion, the baby was left near a Maguey cactus, but before long the leaves folded themselves up to his mouth to allow him to drink its sweet nectar. In another attempt to get rid of the child, it was thrown to giant ants but these, far from attacking the infant, nurtured him. 
Infant being fed by sweet nectar of the Maguey cactus. Nearby is the anthill.
Legend also has it that an elderly couple discovered the abandoned baby and adopted him. The baby was Tepoztécatl, son of Ejécatl, god of the wind. Later Tepoztécatl was chief of Tepoztlán.
Elderly Couple Find and Adopt the Infant Boy, Tepoztécatl
Very near the home of Tepoztécatl lived Mazacúatl, a feared snake of Xochicalco, whom the people fed by sacrificing the elderly. One day, the people's leaders announced to Tepoztécatl's adoptive father that he had to be sacrificed to this snake. Tepoztécatl offered to go to be sacrificed in his father's place.
Feared Serpent Mazacúatl at Xochicalco Demanding Sacrifice
Tepoztécatl left for Xochicalco. On the way he collected aiztli, small sharp pieces of obsidian, which he stored in his bag. When he arrived at Xochicalco, he was presented to Mazacúatl, the enormous serpent that immediately devoured him.
Devouring Serpent
Inside the belly of Mazacuatl, Tepoztécatl used the aiztli to tear apart the bowels of the dreaded serpent and thus escape.
On his return trip, he passed by a celebration in which the teponaxtli, kind of drum, and the chirimía (flute) were being played. Tepoztécatl wanted to play these instruments. When his desire was frustrated, he sent a storm that threw sand in the eyes of all. When the people recovered, the boy child had disappeared with the instruments. Far away in the distance, the sound of both could be heard. The people chased him, but when they reached him, it is said that Tepoztécatl urinated, thus forming the pass that crosses Cuernavaca. 
Tepoztécatl arrived in Tepoztlán and took possession of the highest hills. He settled on the hill Ehecatépetl. Since the people couldn't get to him, they wanted to bring him down by cutting away the base of the hill; in this way, the "air corridors" were formed. 
Tepoztécatl enjoyed the highest regard in his birth village. He was appointed Lord of Tepoztlán and priest of the idol Ometochtli (Two-Rabbit). But years later he disappeared. It isn't known whether he died or went elsewhere, but some say he went to live with the pyramid ... forever.
Depiction of Ometochtli, Two-Rabbit
But the muralist makes one more reference:

Los chinelos
Let me tell you: tracking down this reference took a bit of doing. Ultimately, it was accomplished only with the assistance of a friend who lives in Tepoztlán, who kindly sent an article describing them.

A street vendor set up near the mural kindly corrected me when I asked if the figures are Spanish Moors: "No, they are chinelos." I have to thank Reed for discovering that the word "chinelos" comes from the Nahuatl word “zineloquie” meaning “disguised.”

Here's an excerpt from the article sent by our friend:
Cortés defeated the Aztecs in 1521. By 1870, the Spanish colonists in Nueva España were organizing elegant dances of Carnaval (Mardi Gras) preceding Lent, but only peninsulares, those born on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain, could attend. Tired of being excluded from Carnaval, a group of native-born young men organized a cuadrilla, disguised themselves in old clothes, covered their faces with pieces of manta, Mexican muslin, and began to shout, whistle and skip through the streets of town, mocking the Spanish, calling them huehuenchis, "old uglies" or "people who dress in old clothes." 
This local celebration was so successful that the following year the young people organized another cuadrilla. To represent the Spanish, they added beards to the masks. In 1872 the young people again took to the streets, this time accompanied by a wind band whose members were disguised in masks that not only had exaggerated beards and mustaches but blue eyes, in order to further ridicule the Spanish in revenge for the humiliations they had inflicted. 
As the party became more popular, its character gradually evolved and became ritualized as a subtle and fun way to protest. Then people decided to hold their own celebration. 
The corno, horn, was a constant in a mix that blended ancient rituals with those of the new, imported Spanish culture. The end result was pagan-religious or religious-pagan events, depending on those in charge. 
The dance—fun, festive, cheerful—keeps rhythm with the humorous notes of village bands. The colorful dances hustle and rumble like the cohetes, rockets, launched incessantly. All this energy culminates in the famous "leap of the chinelo," which is the typical dance of Carnaval. Performed on several occasions throughout the year, the dance called "leap of the chinelo" has remained little changed for more than a century. 
The dancers' garments are richly decorated with multi-colored sequins and beads. The cone-shaped hats are fully embroidered and decorated with faux pearls in an apparent nod to Arab-Moorish-Spanish ancestry. Spanish original: Los Chinelos
Mask and sombrero of El chinelo
The Spanish, who fought for 800 years before they succeeded in driving the North African Moors off the Iberian Peninsula, used their hard-won victory as an object lesson for Mexico's indigenous people: submit or die.

The Tezpoteco Is Challenged

Lest there be any doubt about the ambivalence of Tepoztlán's current inhabitants toward the Spanish invasion, during the pueblo's traditional fall festival, the people of Tepoztlán commemorate the ceremony of the baptism and marriage of the Tepozteco in order to remember the reason for converting from the polytheistic religion to the Catholic rite.

The re-enactment is performed in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, which is also translated into Spanish, the language of the invasores (invaders), whose soldiers brandished the Sword and whose priests carried the Cross. In this way, the moment in Tepoztlán when allies of Lord Cuauhnáhuac of nearby Cuernavaca challenged the Tepozteco is kept alive.

Dating to about 1850 CE, the tradition is maintained with dances representing the lords of Yautepec, Oaxtepec, Tlayacapan and Tepoztlán. After the dances, the people then set off for the central plaza.

Stay Tuned

The next morning we headed for the former Dominican Convent, which turned out to have an unexpected pleasure. Stay tuned for Tepoztlán, Part II.

Still Curious?

Related Jenny's posts:
Videos Available Via UTube:
  • UTube (3:09 min): Great walk up El Tepozteco path, which winds through massive cracks in the rock;
  • UTube (11:24 min): Baile de los Chinelos (Dance of the Chinelos) features 'leaping Chinelos', the dance step that is more of a hop.

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