Monte Alban

January 29, 2012

Columbus, MS, Culture, Lifestyles, Travel

In 1974 my wife and I travelled from Washington, DC to La Paz, Bolivia by land.  We drove our own car through the American South and through Mexico to Guatemala City.  From there we travelled by bus, train, and colectivo taxi the rest of the way.  The entire trip took over two months. Travel across the altiplano in beat-up, overloaded cars with no suspension took time.  So did grinding up and down Andean passes in old American school buses with splashy brakes and bad transmissions and seats that had not been retrofitted for adult passengers.  Not that it made much of a difference to Quechua and Aymara Indians who were not much bigger than American schoolchildren; but it did to me – at 6’2” nothing of me fit.  By the end of each bus trip my knees were bruised, my legs cramped, and my wife very out of sorts after being pummeled for 10 hours as I fought for purchase and position.

In retrospect, I am not sure I really enjoyed the journey.  Whenever I picture a towering, snow-covered Andean peak glistening in the sun and bright and clear in the thin air, a more compelling picture of a drunken bus driver, swerving his school bus back and forth across a narrow mountain road crowds it out.  Or when I picture an old colonial cobblestone square with its 17th Century cathedral, colorful local markets, and the sound of church bells, the disgusting pile of chicken bones on the floor of Pollo Campero edges in; or the piss-stink on the corner of the old Revenue and Trade Building; or the stale, airless stench of local busses and unwashed bodies.  We travelled so cheaply that we had no idea that there was actually a modern, clean, cosmopolitan Quito and La Paz.  Our hotels were fleabags by the bus station in the oldest part of town.

Mexico was another story altogether.  Yes, we were ripped off at gas stations and check points down by the Guatemalan border; and yes, the Pemex gas was as bad as we had been told, and the extra kits of points and plugs came in handy; but the country was extraordinary.  I, like most Americans of that era, had stereotyped images of Mexico, all based on the cheap towns along the border.  Greasy serapes, droopy mustaches, “You want to see my seester?”, the Mexican quick-step, touts, cheats, and chiselers.  So it was a surprise when we crossed the border at Piedras Negras and drove through the Chihuahuan desert, in bloom with desert sumac, apache plume, prickly pear cactus, snakeweed, and desert verbena.  It was as spectacular as the Mexican cordillera, which Pizarro described as a huge crumpled parchment, peaks and valleys receding into the distance, yellows and burnished browns changing with the angle of the sun or the height of the peaks.

What impressed me most were the pre-Columbian sites of Southern Mexico near Oaxaca – Monte Alban, Mitla, and Lambiteyco and the Zapotec civilization to which they belonged:

Like most Mesoamerican religious systems, the Zapotec religion was polytheistic. Two principal deities include Cocijo, the rain god (similar to the Aztec god Tlaloc), and Coquihani, the god of light. It is believed that the Zapotec sometimes used human sacrifice in their rituals.

There are several of Zapotec origin legends. One of them states that the Zapotecs were the original people of the valley of Oaxaca and were born from rocks, or descended from animals such as pumas and ocelots. There is also another origin legend which states that they only settled in the Oaxaca valley after founding the Toltec empire, and that they decent from Chicomostoc.

The Zapotecs tell that their ancestors emerged from the earth, from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people, while the elite that governed them believed that they descended from supernatural beings that lived among the clouds, and that upon death they would return to such status. In fact, the name by which Zapotecs are known today resulted from this belief. In Central Valley Zapotec “The Cloud People‘ is “Be’ena’ Za’a.” (Wikipedia)

Zapotec religion was animistic. Although not monotheists, “they did recognize a supreme being who was without beginning or end, ‘ who created everything but was not himself created,’ but he was so infinite and incorporeal that no images were ever made of him” (Marcus 1994:345). “This supreme being had, in turn, created a series of powerful supernatural forces including lightning, sun, earthquake, fire, and clouds which interacted with the Zapotecs… (

I had just left India after five years living there.  I never seriously studied Hinduism, but its outward expressions were hard to ignore.  Religion was everywhere – in large temples, at home; in processions, ceremonies, invocations; on the banks of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra; at Nasik, Hardwar, Varanasi, Allahabad.  Perhaps my most memorable experience was in Varanasi at the time of Durga Puja, a ceremony celebrated by Bengalis and others who had come to this city, one of the holiest in India, to venerate the goddess Durga, the slayer of demons.


I was impressed by the devotion of the pilgrims who would ritually bathe in the Ganges and pray to Durga.  Early each morning before sunrise, I would rent a small canoe and drift up and down the river past the ghats, broad flights of steps that provide access to the water.  The rituals of the bathers were as diverse as they were incomprehensible:  graceful, dancelike movements, then immersion in the river.  At every pass by Tulsi, Scindia, Manikarnika, Dandi, and Manmandir Ghats I saw more and more pilgrims descending the steps until at sunrise the river and the ghats were crowded.

The kumbh mela is one of the most important holy pilgrimages for Hindus:

It is the power of faith that can part a river, move mountains, and endure the hardships that come bundled up for being an integral part of Kumbh Mela, a congregation of millions, gathered together to be freed from the vicious earthly cycle of life and death and move towards a heavenly realm, which knows no suffering or pain. It’s the mythological history of India and the sacred religious texts that bind us carnal souls to an eternal hope – things will be better, without the ever-imminent fear of them getting worse that cripples us here. “An eternal life free of sins” is the promise that comes attached with the magnificent event of Kumbh Mela. It’s a promise to which millions want to be bound with, and it is this promise that has made Kumbh Mela what it is today.

I visited Allahabad, a city which hosts the kumbh mela every six years.  The 45-day ceremony was attended by 70 million people in 2007.  The year I visited was an off year, but I could see the vast pilgrimage grounds – acres and acres stretching for what seemed miles into the distance, punctuated only by police stanchions.  Yet, I had no way of visualizing such crowds.  I only imagined that being among so many millions of devoted, intensely religious faithful must be an incredible experience.

The point of this digression from Mexico to India is to explain how my experience in India had influenced me and made me open to the powerful animistic religions of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.  Whenever I was in Varanasi or Allahabad or any of the other holy sites in India – and I made many special trips – I couldn’t help think of the tame religious upbringing that I had.  St. Maurice Church was very New England with white frame and tall steeple.  Catholic Mass, while baroque and operatic compared to the Protestant service of my friends, was simple, ordered, disciplined, and outside of the shrill and off-key voices in the loft, totally uninspiring.  Although I had been taught that Jesus Christ himself was reincarnated in the host at consecration – that God himself was on that altar at that moment – I simply could not pay attention.  I looked around at the sweaty New Britain burghers standing and kneeling around me.  I read my Latin text and tried to memorize the greatest lines (Dominus, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea); and bored, corrupted them to read, “Lord, only say the word, and this Mass will be ended.”   I was never a religious person, but felt that if one were to be religious, then it should be the powerful, symbolic, and yes, operatic version that I saw in India.

The Zapotecs lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods.  This religion was not a tame animism – like that still found in India when I lived there.  I would occasionally see a tree trunk painted red and garlanded with marigolds to honor the spirit who lived there – a quiet presence to be revered and respected, but not feared.  Here in the Oaxaca valley under a powerful sun and surrounded by mountains, there was no escaping the temperamental and eruptive forces of Nature and the gods.  Farther north in the Aztec civilization, warriors dressed as panthers, wolves, mountain lions, and bears and became them as they engaged the enemy.  They were human soldiers and animals and gods all at once.

I especially was taken with the idea of human sacrifice.  The ‘sacrifice of the Mass’ was nothing to actual ritual sacrifice.  I could not imagine the power, the mass emotional power – thousands around the sacrificial mount, surrounded by the living gods of mountains, sun, wind.  Not even the 70 million pilgrims at Allahabad could possibly generate the religious feeling that must have been felt at the moment of sacrificial death.

I went on to write a book about all this.  As a first novel it was a mishmash of every thought I ever had about religious experience.  The main point, if the reader could decipher it from all the gloss and dross, was that the eventual total interface between mind and computer, freeing the human spirit to range limitlessly in a world where no distinction between fantasy and reality would exist, would be as potentially powerful, liberating, and complete human experience as any before.  In 1974 when I wrote it, I anticipated the concept of virtual reality and extended it to religious and philosophical domains, and I am proud of that.

Those days are long gone.  I think of religion rarely and am indifferent to it.  Occasionally I have spurts of interest – not in faith, but in religious expression.  I spent many years working and travelling in Eastern and Central Europe, and became fascinated with Eastern Orthodoxy.  Participating in a Sunday ‘Mass’ was like being in India.  Everything was happening – people kissing icons, crawling over and under sarcophagi filled with saints’ bones, censers swinging, filling the church with sweet frankincense, the priests secluded behind the iconostasis, silhouettes and shadows mysteriously preparing for their entrance, and then the screen parting and the procession of bearded, elegantly dressed clerics proceeding amongst us.  I loved it.

Monte Alban is not that impressive as an ancient ruin, nothing like the temples of Greece or Egypt; but what it stood for was what stuck in my memory.  It was the symbol of one of the most powerful expressions of human life – religion.  A pagan, powerful, insistent, and pervasive religion which has nothing to do with our diluted, passionless, religious expressions of today.

Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog,


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2 Comments on “Monte Alban”

  1. bumberjack Says:

    I would like to meet a traveler like this, going to these far and adventure places. and living to tell about it.


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