The Culture That Inspired Picasso

The Culture That Inspired Picasso


Huanuco Pampa – City of festivals

Lanzon – the stone of power

Chavin – Picasso’s inspiration

Stone Temple Secrets


Walking in Peru’s highlands alone without a passport or money can be a forbidden adventure, itself. And if you know little or no Spanish, well then the situation spells doom. But such is the bond of trekking that when things begin to fall apart, the backpackers’ begin to bind together.


I had just lost my jacket with my passport, money, credit cards and last bar of chocolate when I met up with Caroline from Wales who was trying to polish her Spanish by travelling through remote villages. We discussed subjects of mutual interest and soon decided to move on together, towards the plains of Huanuco.


The wide ‘plains of Huanuco’ were full of cattle. Sometime later when we were tired and resting against a mud-house along the ancient road, a mid-aged lady arrived on horseback to deliver milk. The owner of the mud-house was kind enough to offer us stream cooled milk and sweet yoghurt. I was impressed with his innovativeness; he stored the milk in a plastic container and lowered the container into the stream running alongside his house. This “natural refrigeration” method kept his milk cool and prevented it from spoiling. I gracefully accepted his kindness and used the milk to run down the last crumbs of bread that I had found at the bottom of my rucksack.


Across the road from where we were sitting, we could see the ruins of what was once the Hunuco Pampa citidal, a city built for festivals. It lies on the major Inca thoroughfare that connected Cusco with Cajamarca. In the olden days, said the caretaker, different ethnic groups who were part of the Inca Empire, populated the area but why was it known as the ‘city of festivals’ is yet unknown. Perhaps it had much to do with the abundant produce in the region or the sublime beauty. Perhaps, also because it has traces of the most ancient human occupation in Peru, the Lauricocha people, dating back some 10,000 years.


Most adventurers, who come to this region like me, start their journey from Huaraz, capital of Ancash and the trekkers Mecca in Peru. Walking down the main street, I could see trekkers stocking up on vegetables, eggs, tinned meat, soup packets, marmite and local ‘pan’ (bread) that lasts, happily, for over four days. Chavín, the town, is three days from Huaraz by llama trek or three hours by bus. I chose the later (and lost my jacket on it) to explore the ruins of Chavín de Huántar, the temple that existed around 1000–200 B.C. a period called the Early Horizon.


Chavín de Huántar is located in the north-central sierra of Peru, sandwiched between the desert coast – one of the driest deserts of the world – and the humid tropical Amazonian lowlands to the east. The famed Andean prehistoric states, culminating with the expansive Inca Empire, were primarily situated in coastal and sierra environments.


However, what surprised me were the animals and plants, typical of the lowlands, in the Chavín art. Most observers agree that Chavín de Huántar would not have been the natural home to the animals like caiman (alligator), monkey, and plants represented in their art. But the Mosna River, along which Chavín lies, eventually leads to the Amazon where these exist.


Upon looking at the site’s structures, a simple sequence of construction can be postulated. An Old Temple, built in U-shape around a circular plaza. And a new temple on a larger scale extending in the south and east direction.


Built underground, its maze of tunnels and air ducts produced contradictory images in my mind. While on one hand I marvelled at the engineering skills of the natives, I was always left profoundly confused by the intricate maze pattern. In particular, I was struck by one single stone that stood at the centre; beautifully carved with snake-like shape having human and feline features. It is called “El Lanzon” and when I looked at it closely I noted that it had the form of the eye and tooth of a jaguar, an orang-utan or a tiger. It is the art that impressed me the most. But I was not alone in having reached this conclusion. Even Pablo Picasso had said “Of all of the ancient cultures I admire that of Chavín amazes me the most. Actually, it has been the inspiration behind most of my art.”


“Chavín” comes from a Quechua word meaning “centre of centres, the centre of the universe as a magic and sacred place.” Whether Chavín de Huántar was a temple or a fort at the centre of the Inca universe or whether Lanzon was the stone of power or sacrifice is not known. One archaeologist is of the opinion that, it was a ceremonial centre with a twist in its architecture – with drains where water could be pushed through, and the roar of the water could be heard through vents and chambers within the centre itself. When this was done, the centre literally “roared,” and one can imagine, easily, how awestruck the innocent worshippers would have been!


Chavín had proven links with religious grouping located on the north coast and in the sierra of Peru. Recent excavations have clearly proved these links by unearthing Chavín ceramics in the surroundings of Puemape, in Cajamarca.


There are so many of us who have been to Machu Picchu and there are so many more who know of the famous Inca citadel. But few have walked through the temple of Chavín. Archaeologist John Rick of Stanford University has been trying to turn this renowned archaeological site into a tourist interest destination that is equal in importance to Machu Picchu. Rick, who has been digging in for over 10 years, believes that this is not only feasible but also possible. The future of Chavín de Huántar looks promising thanks to the support of the Global Heritage Fund.


Caroline, my travel partner, told me that she had decided to study Chavín art and to stay back in Peru longer than she had planned. But I had to turn back and return to Lima to get my new passport and return home. Sitting in the aircraft I kept weighing the importance of Machu Picchu against Chavín de Huántar. If Machu Picchu is grand testimony of Mayan architecture, Chavín is an exemplary work of their advanced understanding and intelligence. The more I think of it, the more impressive it becomes. May be one day, we may know the secrets of the ‘stone of power’, but till then it will remain shrouded in mist and mystery and be a constant source of inspiration for all of us who visit it.