Friday, October 14, 2016

The Olmec Heads: Did they serve as the Dvarapalas of the Olmec shrines?

The Olmec Heads 

A long-standing enigma surrounding the Olmec civilization is the significance of the colossal stone heads found at the Olmec sites. Till date, 17 monumental stone heads have been recovered; 16 from the Olmec ceremonial centers at San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes, and a solitary one - the La Cobata head - which is also the largest, from a mountain pass in Sierra de los Tuxtlas. The La Cobata head weights nearly 40 tons while the smallest one is close to 6 tons. 
Fig 1: San Lorenzo Colossal Head 1. Source: Wikipedia
Fig 2: La Venta Monument 1. Credit: Bibhu Dev Misra
Fig 3: Tres Zapotes Monument A. Source: Wikipedia
Fig 4: La Cobata Head, Santiago Tuxtla. Source: Wikipedia

It is a mystery why the Olmecs expended so much time and effort to carve these stone heads. What do they represent, and why were they carved in such a monumental fashion?

Archaeologists continue to be in the dark as to how the large basalt boulders were transported over hundreds of kilometers for sculpting these heads. There is, as yet, no archaeological evidence of the wheel being used for transport, although a number of “wheeled toys” have been recovered from Mayan tombs, which indicates that the Mesoamericans were aware of the physics of the wheel. Nor were there any “beasts of burden” in Mesoamerica, prior to the advent of the Spaniards.[1] It is not unusual, though, for the Olmecs to have the capability to transport large stones, since many ancient cultures did the same; they moved, carved, lifted, and maneuvered into position, massive blocks of stone to create grand structures. How our ancestors accomplished this, thousands of years ago, without the aid of any modern equipment, has been the subject of many books, debates and controversies.

If we look at a sample of Olmec heads from the main ceremonial centers what comes across in a very striking manner is that most of them have pronounced negroid features with a flat nose and full lips. This was noted even when the first Olmec head was discovered at Tres Zapotes by Jose Melgar in 1862, who wrote that, “what astonished me was the Ethiopic type represented. I reflected that there had undoubtedly been Negroes in this country.”[2]  Since then, many researchers have espoused the view that some of the Olmecs could have been of African origin. 

The African origin hypothesis, however, does not find genetic support. There is no evidence of Pre-Columbian African populations in Mesoamerica.[3]  The modern day inhabitants of the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco bear no resemblance to the stone heads either. Most importantly, the hundreds of Olmec clay figurines discovered till now have well-defined mongoloid features i.e. epicanthic eye folds and downward-curving lips. Not a single one of them have negroid features. If there had been an African component in the Olmec culture wouldn’t there have been at least one clay figurine which would have substantiated this?

Most historians interpret the heads as “portraits of individual rulers.”[4]  La Fuente writes that, “but for the La Cobata head – that represents a dead individual –, the other sixteen are faithful enough portraits of Olmec rulers and sacred individuals.”[5]  But, the question which has been generally skirted by archaeologists, is, why would the Olmec rulers have prominent negroid features and look so different from the ordinary people depicted in the clay figurines?

Overall, there is a big mystery surrounding the stone heads. The Olmecs, who were of mongoloid stock (as is evident from the numerous clay figurines), had sculpted monumental basalt stone heads with prominent negroid features. Why did they do that? What do these heads symbolize? An answer to this riddle begins to emerge when we consider the manner in which these heads were placed in the Olmec ceremonial centers.

Olmec Heads as Dvarapalas

Both at Tres Zapotes and at La Venta, the Olmec heads were found at the edges of the ceremonial zone. Christopher A. Pool, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky, writes that the Olmec heads at Tres Zapotes,

“are located on the edges of the Middle Preclassic site. That is, they seem to mark the perimeter of the center, perhaps announcing the entrance to the heart of the Olmec polity. Similarly, three of the colossal heads at La Venta were placed at the northern edge of the ceremonial zone. Consequently, it seems possible that before the end of the Middle Preclassic the colossal heads had acquired a meaning…as icons and guardians of the polity.”[6]

This is a very significant observation. The Olmec heads at La Venta and Tres Zapotes are located near the entrances to the central ceremonial zone, and seem to act as the guardians of the site. They correspond, in their size and placement, to the giant door-guardians of Hindu-Buddhist temples called dvarapalas (or dwarapalas; dvara / dwara = door, pala = protector).  

Before we go any further, I would like to reiterate that the Olmecs had adopted many principles of Hindu-Buddhist temple architecture, as I had argued in my earlier article titled “Olmec Yogis with Hindu Beliefs: Did they migrate from ancient China?”[7] The fearsome face with sharp fangs depicted above an Olmec altar is seen above the entrances to Hindu-Buddhist temples where they are called Kalamukha (Face of Time) or Kirtimukha (Face of Glory). The dwarf figures with upraised hands holding up the Olmec altar are identical to the portly dwarf figures called ganas, who are depicted below the cornices of Hindu-Buddhist temples, and whose function it is to support and protect the temple. The Olmec jaguars with bulging eyes and gaping mouth exposing sharp fangs, correspond to the pair of lion guardian statues that flank the entrance gate in a Hindu-Buddhist temple.

It would not be surprising, therefore, if the Olmecs had also adopted the Hindu-Buddhist concept of dvarapalas i.e. door-guardians. Let us explore this possibility in more detail.

Dvarapalas are giant figures, armed with a weapon (usually a mace), who stand guard in pairs on either side of the entrance to a Hindu-Buddhist temple. While this is the most common configuration there are some variations. A small shrine may have only one dvarapala; while a large temple complex with many entrances can have many multiple dvarapalas, standing guard in pairs at each of the entrances to the temple compound. For instance, at the Sewu Temple in Central Java, there are four entrances leading to the outer court of the temple complex, each of which is guarded by a pair of dvarapala statues. From the outer court to the inner court there are four more gates, each guarded by a pair of dvarapala statues, identical to the ones at the outer gates. Each of the dvarapala statues, made of a single block of stone, is 6.9 feet high, and placed on a square base 3.6 feet high.

Fig 5: Dvarapala standing guard outside a Shiva shrine in the Elephanta caves. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Fig 6: Bas-relief of a Dvarapala at Banteay Kdei in Angkor, Cambodia. Source: Wikipedia
Fig 7: One of a pair of Dvarapalas guarding the Sewu Temple, Java. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Fig 8: A 12 feet high Dvarapala at Candi Singosari, Java. Source: Wikimedia Commons
There is a stylistic variation, as well, in the way the dvarapalas are represented across Asia. In Indian and Cambodian temples, the dvarapalas are generally depicted in relief on the temple walls near the entrance, while in Java or China, the dvarapalas are large stand-alone statues placed near the temple entrance. The largest dvarapala statue discovered so far is in Candi Singhasari in East Java. It dates from the 13th century AD and is more than 12 feet high. In contrast, the largest Olmec head (the La Cobata head) is 11 feet high.

The dvarapalas of Java are carved from a volcanic rock called andesite, which is intermediate between basalt and dacite, while the Olmec stone heads were carved from basalt. An interesting aspect of the dvarapalas of Java (as mentioned in Wikipedia) is that, “in some cases only the fierce face or head of the guardian is represented, a figure very common in the kratons (royal palaces) in Java.”[8]  If this statement is correct i.e. if the entrances to the palaces of Java were guarded by dvarapala stone heads, then that would be very similar to the arrangement of the Olmec stone heads at the ceremonial centers of Tres Zapotes and La Venta.

At San Lorenzo, the first site established by the Olmecs in c.1500 BCE, the stone heads appear in a group of physically close and apparently related monuments which Cyphers Guillen terms as a “scenic display”:

“Each display contained a colossal head wearing a helmet, a monument in the form of a feline, a large rectangular throne containing a human adult emerging from a cavelike niche and a water conduit and trough.”[9] 

It appears from this layout that, at San Lorenzo each shrine had its own dvarapala and lion guardian. This is not an uncommon practice in Hinduism or Buddhism. A single dvarapala along with lion guardians may be associated with a small shrine. 

Thus, the size and placement of the Olmec heads at the primary ceremonial centers of San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes are correlated with the dvarapala motif of Hindu-Buddhist temples. While at Tres Zapotes and La Venta the Olmec heads appear to be guarding the entrance to the ceremonial center, at San Lorenzo they are attached with individual shrines. The use of monumental stone blocks for sculpting these heads is in keeping with the tradition of depicting dvarapalas as giant door-guardians. Besides, “with only two or three exceptions, the (Olmec) heads have a flat, and mostly plain, back”, which suggests that the backside “was not intended to be seen, as if the heads were standing in rows (suggested in San Lorenzo as well as at La Venta), against a wall.”[10] Could it not be that the stone heads were placed against a wall on either side of a doorway like dvarapalas?

The facial expressions on the Olmec heads - which ranges from stern to passive to smiling – can also be seen on dvarapalas statues. Many Olmec heads have a fearsome grimace, with the forehead wrinkled in a frown; some have a placid, unperturbed face; while a few of them sport a wide grin. In case of dvarapalas, we find that they are generally depicted in India and Cambodia with serene facial expressions, often with an welcoming smile, while those in Java and China are more likely to have stern, threatening facial expressions. Sometimes, one of the dvarapalas in a pair has a benevolent face while the other has an intimidating look. This variation is commonly seen in the temples of Cambodia such Prasat Kok Po, Preah Ko etc. 

Another feature of the Olmec heads is that some of them have slightly parted lips, sometimes exposing their teeth. Dvarapalas can be depicted likewise. In Buddhist temples, one of the dvarapalas is depicted open-mouthed, uttering the “a” sound, which is the first grapheme of Sanskrit Devanagari symbolizing the beginning of life. The other dvarapala in the pair is depicted close-mouthed, vocalizing the sound “hum”, which is the last grapheme of Sanskrit Devanagari signifying the end of life. These two characters together symbolize the birth and death of all things. Men are supposedly born speaking the “a” sound with mouths open and die speaking the “hum” with mouths closed. The contraction of both is Aum (ॐ), which is Sanskrit for The Absolute.[11] 

The following set of images illustrates some of the similarities in the facial expressions of the Olmec heads and the dvarapalas.
Fig 9: Olmec head and Dvarapala with a smiling face
Fig 10: Olmec head and Dvarapala with a stern expression
Fig 11: Open-mouthed Olmec head and Dvarapala
Thus, not only is the size and placement of the Olmec heads at the ceremonial centers consistent with the dvarapala custom, but the facial expressions of the Olmec heads – stern, passive, smiling, and open mouthed – can be seen on the dvarapalas as well.

In spite of these correlations, a couple of things bothered me. First, the prominent negroid features of the heads: why did the Olmecs, who were of mongoloid stock, depict the heads in this fashion? Another distinctive feature of the Olmec heads is the tight-fitting headdress, made of cloth or animal hide. Sometimes, the headdress has a band tied at the back of the head. 

If the Olmec heads were the dvarapalas of the Olmec ceremonial centers, then there should exist dvarapalas with similar characteristics. As I searched for answers, I realized that the Olmec heads have been carved in the likeness of the dvarapalas of ancient China.

The Dvarapalas of Ancient China

According to Prof.Mike Xiu of the Texas Christian University, the Olmecs may have emigrated from the Shang dynasty of ancient China, taking with them the Shang script and Chinese traditions and artistic styles.[12]  In my article on the Olmec Yogis [13], I had supported this hypothesis, and suggested that the presence of many elements of Hindu temple architecture amongst the Olmecs is due to the substantial overlaps between Indian and Chinese culture since time immemorial.

While exploring depictions of dvarapalas in ancient China, I found that sometimes they were shown wearing a tight-fitting head-dress similar to the ones found on the Olmec heads.
Fig 12: Chinese Dvarapala wearing a head-dress, Yuan Dynasty (1234 – 1368 CE). Source:
Fig 13: Chinese Dvarapala wearing a head-dress, Tang dynasty, 7th century AD. Source:
 The most astonishing artifact that I came across is a dvarapala head from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE) which not only possesses distinct negroid features i.e. thick lips and flat nose, but wears the same tight-fitting head-dress as the Olmec heads. The dvarapala wears a head-band with a central circular ornament, tied in a knot at the back of the head, which can be seen on some of the Olmec heads as well. The dvarapala has unusually long ears like some of the Olmec heads. The dvarapala head still bears traces of former color, which suggests that originally they were painted. One of the Olmec heads from San Lorenzo also bears traces of plaster and red paint, suggesting that the Olmec heads were originally brightly decorated.[14]
Fig 14: A Chinese Dvarapala head depicted with tight-fitting headdress, ear ornaments, and negroid features very closely resembling the La Venta Monument 1.

Overall, the resemblance between the dvarapala head from the Ming dynasty and the Olmec heads is so striking, that we can claim, with a fair degree of conviction, that the Olmec heads were fashioned in the likeness of the dvarapalas of China. The negroid features on the Olmec heads do not reflect the racial type of the Olmecs. It simply reflects a proclivity on the part of the Chinese to depict dvarapalas with negroid features. Since the dvarapalas were demigods, different cultures had adopted different artistic conventions for representing them. Sometimes, dvarapalas were depicted with facial features that resembled the local population, while at other times they took on fearsome countenances which bore no resemblance to the artisans.

This, of course, leads us to the question: why did the Chinese sometimes represent dvarapalas with negroid features? I can think of two possible reasons: First, there may have been a small African population in ancient China, who may have served as warriors and protectors of the border provinces and over time came to be associated with the dvarapalas. Second, the Chinese may have been simply aware of the fact that people with negroid features can be big and powerful, and since the dvarapalas were the giant, powerful, guardians of the temple complexes, they were shown with negroid features. There could be some other explanation as well. It is certainly an intriguing topic that deserves more attention.

In the end, the dvarapala explanation for the Olmec heads is consistent with everything we know about these enigmatic monuments. The enormous stone blocks used for carving them, their placement at the entrances to the ceremonial centers and in association with small shrines, the wide range of facial expressions, the negroid features with tight-fitting head-dresses and head-bands – all of this can be seen in the representation of dvarapalas as well. This, once again, highlights the Asian influence behind the Olmec culture, and adds to the ever growing list of Pre-Columbian Trans-Pacific contacts between the Americas and Asia.

End Notes

[1] Peter Standish, A Companion to Mexican Studies (Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2006)8
[2] Jose Melgar (1869) quoted by Pasztory Esther, Thinking with things. Toward a new vision of art (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2005)
[3] Genetic history of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Wikipedia.
[4] Michael D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, "In the Land of the Olmec (University of Texas Press, 1980)293.
[5] La Fuente Beatriz de, “El arte olmeca”, Arqueología Mexicana, 1995 II (12), pp. 18-25.
[6] Christopher A. Pool, "Stone Monuments and Earthen Mounds: Polity and Placemaking at Tres Zapotes, Veracruz", The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use, and Meaning in Mesoamerica's Preclassic Transition, ed. Julia Guernsey, John E. Clark, Bárbara Arroyo (Harvard University Press, 2010)124.
[7] Bibhu Dev Misra, “Olmec Yogis with Hindu Beliefs: Did they migrate from ancient China?”, 31 Aug 2016 <>
[8] Dvarapala, Wikipedia.
[9] Carolyn E. Tate, Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation (University of Texas Press, 2012)126
[10] Claude-François Baudez, "Beauty and ugliness in Olmec monumental sculpture", Journal de la Société des Américanistes 2012, 98-2 p. 7-31
[11] “Gate Guardians”, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum <>
[12] Jennifer Viegas, "Early Crossings: Scientists Debate Who Sailed to the New World First " <>
[13] Bibhu Dev Misra, “Olmec Yogis with Hindu Beliefs: Did they migrate from ancient China?”, 31 Aug 2016 <>
[14] Olmec colossal heads, Wikipedia.