Pakal was a Maya king:
Kʼinich Janaab Pakal or simply “Pakal” was buried in a colossal sarcophagus in the largest of Palenque’s stepped pyramids. The building was called Bʼolon Yej Teʼ Naah “House of the Nine Sharpened Spears” in classical Maya. Though Palenque had been examined by archaeologists before, the secret to opening his tomb—closed off by a stone slab with plugs in the holes—was discovered by a Mexican archaeologist in 1948. It took four years to clear the rubble from the stairway leading down to Pakal’s crypt.
Once the tomb was opened, Pakal’s skeletal remains were still lying in his coffin, wearing a jade mask and bead necklaces, surrounded by sculptures and stucco reliefs depicting the ruler’s transition to divinity. Traces of pigment show that these were once colourfully painted, common to much Maya sculpture at the time.
Pakal’s sarcophagus lid is made of a single stone. Rectangular in shape, it weighs several tons. There are carvings on the top and sides which narrate events from his life and those of his royal forebears. The southern side records the date of his birth and the date of his death. The massive lid could not fit down the stairways—Pakal’s tomb was sealed first and the temple was built upon it later.
Kʼinich Janaab Pakal means “Great Sun Shield” in classical Maya. Pakal expanded Palenque’s power in the western part of the Maya states and initiated a building program at his capital that produced some of Maya civilisation’s finest art and architecture. One of the most enduring and enigmatic relics from this great ruler was the lid of his sarcophagus:
Above: Pakal being reborn into eternal life
There is a superb analysis here of the iconography that does not bear repeating. The composition is all about balance however, which is another way of referring to enlightenment. There is a reference to The Tree of Life here which has both roots and branches—the trunk is therefore the perfect balance point.
Indeed, in the centre of the artwork rests Pakal, who is depicted realistically—the detail in his head, hands and feet are all visually understandable. Even his attire is recognisable and can be identified from Maya culture. This is a reference to the human domain.
The rest of the sarcophagus is symbolic which means that it has to be interpreted. This is because it deals with cosmic themes outside our reality—ideas like the Tree of Life, death and rebirth. The genius of the Maya is that this very idea in encapsulated in the design of the sarcophagus.
Above: the World Tree celebrates the union of life and death
If we refer back to the sarcophagus above, we find atop the World Tree a bird wearing a jewelled pectoral and bearing sacred mirror markings on its forehead and tail. The cut shell on his head and other deity markers identify him as Itzam Ye, the avian form of Itzamna, a sky god who participated in the creation of the world.
Pakal himself is balanced at the navel. His hands are twisted in ecstasy which remains a common reflex action with participants in toad ceremonies. In fact, this depiction of rapture can be found in many temples, some as far away as Teotihuacan. It shows the death of the ego and the rebirth of truth. It’s like being flooded with the divine light of God—every cell is saturated with love. In Sanskrit this Buddhic Body is often called the Anandamaya-kosa or “the sheath of bliss.”
Beneath Pakal await the immense jaws of a dragon that rears upward to swallow both the Sun and Pakal into the underworld. The lower teeth of the great beast are seen at the base of the composition, while its upper jaws and eyes frame both sides of the lid as they curve upward and inward toward the left knee and neck of the king.
Above: the flowers of life blossom even in death
So what is the deeper significance of this amazing composition? What is it really saying? Well, it reveals that life and death are as important as each other. They are both opposing yet mirrored forces within the human body. They are as active and vital to evolution as each other.
Enlightenment then, is best experienced within the human domain. The serpents of life and death must be balanced for enlightenment to occur. Light and dark must be reconciled, acknowledged and celebrated as the sisters they truly are. If the human body is a temple then it is at once a tomb.
We all aspire to eternal life yet we are terrified of eternal death. In our naivety we have overlooked that both forces of conception and corruption are active within our bodies RIGHT NOW. To truly understand this leads to enlightenment. There is no world without this beautiful yet tragic dance within us.
Above: serpents or roots?
What does all this mean on a historical level? It infers that Pacal himself had at least one enlightenment experience BEFORE he physically died. The man in the mural appears young and vital—far from an aged king on his death bed. Indeed, the artwork confirms what many adepts already know—that substances capable of delivering enlightenment were readily available to the Maya in 603 AD.
Death then, remains as vital to the world as life. The roots of trees also look like rivers and this theme also finds its way into Maya art. Indeed, there is no greater symbol of rejuvenation than a fresh water spring, and this is exactly what runs beneath Pakal’s tomb:
Above: the House of the Nine Sharpened Spears still protects its secrets.
So you, dear reader, are literally the trunk of the Tree of Life. You manifest the higher with the lower, life with death and darkness with light. You are akin to the Buddha before the Bodhi Tree or Pakal beneath the Ceiba tree. You are royalty who only now is waking up. The balance you find will be your birthright—enlightenment!