Thursday, August 4, 2016

Olmec Yogis with Hindu beliefs: Did they migrate from ancient China?

The Olmec Yogis 
A few years back, in course of a long trip through Mexico, I had visited the La Venta Museum in Villahermosa. The open-air museum has an enticing collection of Olmec sculpture, including three colossal Olmec stone heads. The artifacts had been moved here from the Olmec settlement of La Venta in western Tabasco when petroleum exploration in La Venta threatened the safety of these rare archaeological specimens.
While the giant Olmec stone heads are certainly the most eye-catching objects on display, what caught my attention was a stone sculpture of an Olmec man seated in cross-legged posture. His hands were resting on his thighs, with the tip of the thumb touching the index finger. This is a simple yogic posture called Sukhasana, which is primarily meant for meditation.
Fig 1: An Olmec stone statue seated in a cross-legged yogic position called Sukhasana. Credit: Bibhu Dev Misra
Fig 2: The Sukhasana posture. Source:
I was intrigued by the depiction of yoga in Olmec culture. It is well-known that yoga had been developed in India thousands of years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence for yoga is the Pashupati seal dated to c.2300 BCE, found at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley. The seal shows a male deity (identified as an early prototype of the Hindu deity Shiva) with three faces, a horned head-dress with plumes, seated on a throne in a very difficult yogic asana called Mulabandhasana, in which the legs are bent below the body such that the heels are pressed together below the groin, with the toes pointing downwards.
Fig 3:  The Pashupati Seal discovered in Mohenjo-Daro, dated to c.2300 BCE. It depicts the Hindu deity Shiva seated in a yogic posture called Mulabandhasana. Source: Wikipedia
The depiction of Shiva in a yogic posture on an Indus seal is quite appropriate, for it is Lord Shiva - also called Yogeshwara (The Lord of Yoga) - who is credited with revealing the 84 classic asanas of hatha yoga. Each asana has many variations, which significantly increases the total number of possible postures. In 2008, with the intention of demonstrating that all asanas are public knowledge and therefore not patentable, a team of experts brought together by the Government of India published a database of 900 asanas from 35 ancient texts.[1]

I wondered from where the Olmecs could have learnt about yogic asanas. Did they have some kind of contact with the ancient Indians? It is well-known that the Olmecs were the first major civilization of Mesoamerica, flourishing between c.1500 BCE – 400 BCE in the tropical lowlands of the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, with their primary city-temple complexes at San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes. They are often called the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, for they laid many of the foundations for the subsequent civilizations of the region. Intriguingly, they sprang up as a fully developed, sophisticated civilization, sometime around 1500 BCE, with no sign of a period of cultural evolution anywhere in Mexico. This has raised the very pertinent question if the Olmecs may have been migrants from somewhere else.

After my initial curiosity about the statue seated in the Sukhasana posture at La Venta, I did not give much thought to this matter for a long time, until recently, when I was looking at some images of Olmec clay figurines and stone statues and realized that many of them depict yogic asanas. Going by the large number of figurines depicted in yogic asanas, it appears that the Olmecs were very serious yoga practitioners! Archaeologists interpret these artifacts as “acrobats” or as “shamans in the process of transforming into a jaguar”. But that is surely not the case. The figurines depict well-defined yoga poses, as shown in the following images.
Fig 4:  Olmecs in seated yogic asanas.
Fig 5:  Olmecs in seated yogic asanas.
Fig 6:  Olmecs in reclining yogic asanas.
Fig 7:  Olmecs in advanced yogic asanas.
I could identify 12 asanas practiced by the Olmecs, by looking at some online collections of clay figurines and stone statues. By no means does this represent the complete list of asanas known to the Olmecs. I do not have access to a complete inventory of Olmec artifacts, and even amongst the ones that I saw, I may not have recognized some postures due to my lack of familiarity with the humungous number of asanas and their variations – close to a thousand – that have now been documented. If a team of yoga gurus were to take a look at a comprehensive list of Olmec figurines and sculptures they would, without a doubt, come up with a much longer list.

Nevertheless, there is sufficient information to conclude that the Olmecs were familiar with yogic asanas, and practiced it zealously. Going by their apparent mastery of the discipline, it seems that the Olmec culture was seeded by yogis! The figurines have been found in large numbers, which suggests that they may have served as visual aids for their yoga regimen.

Another culture in Western Mexico, generally termed as the “shaft tomb culture” flourished between 300 BCE – 400 CE, soon after the Olmec civilization had collapsed. Even though the shaft tomb culture does not show any obvious signs of Olmec influence in its art, the people of this culture were also advanced yogis. A number of ceramic figurines recovered from the Mexican state of Colima depict people in complex yoga poses.
Fig 8:  People of Colima in advanced yogic asanas.
We really need to ask the question from where the Olmecs, or the shaft-tomb culture of Western Mexico that came soon after, acquired their extensive knowledge of yoga. As I mulled over a possible contact between India and Mesoamerica during the time of the Olmecs, I noticed a few more connections between the Olmec and Hindu-Buddhist culture that took me by surprise.

Olmec Shiva 
A few hundred miles from the Olmec heartland is the cave and archaeological site of Juxtlahuaca, which contains the earliest sophisticated cave art in Mesoamerica. The most well-known of the cave art is Painting 1, which has been dated to the Olmec period (c.1200 – 900 BCE) and contains Olmec motifs. The painting shows a tall bearded person, holding a long snake or snake-like object in one hand, and a trident in the other, intimidating a small figure crouched in front of him. The man has long black hair reaching up to his ankles, and his arms and legs are covered with jaguar fur. He is wearing an elaborate headpiece, with wavy lines coming out of it.

I was amazed to note the extent to which this painting corresponds to the Hindu depiction of Shiva. Shiva has elaborate matted locks and long hair. A stream of water comes out of his matted locks, which depicts the mythological narrative where-in Shiva captured the celestial river Ganges in his locks, as she came down from heaven at a terrific speed, and allowed her to flow down to earth gently. Snakes coil around Shiva’s neck (he is sometimes shown holding a snake in his hand), and he carries the trident (trishula), which is the symbol of his power over the three worlds. He is clothed in leopard skin.
Fig 9:  Shiva in Olmec iconography.
The association with Shiva is further strengthened by the fact that this painting was found in a cave. Caves are important places of Shiva worship. Naturally formed stalactites inside caves are often worshipped as manifestations of Shiva. Caves were sacred to the Olmecs and their successors in Mesoamerica as well. Olmec sculptures show deities seated at a cave entrance. The Mayans believed that caves contained a pathway to the underworld. This is why caves acted as places of burial, religious ceremonies, and ancestor worship. The Juxtlahuaca cave was also used for burial purposes; a dozen skeletons have been unearthed here. Incidentally, Shiva is also the “Lord of the Cremation Ground” (Shmashana Adhipati), where he roams in his fiery Bhairava form. As Bhairava, Shiva is a protector of the eight cardinal directions, and keeps intruders out of sacred places (Kshetra Palaka). In this Olmec painting, Shiva appears to be performing his Bhairava role, threatening an intruder with his trident and serpent.

There are far too many correlations, both iconographical and contextual, between this cave painting and the traditional iconography of Shiva – the trident, snake, jaguar skin, long hair, headdress with wavy lines, cave, burial ground – to assign this to mere coincidence. Besides, as we have already discussed, the Olmecs were serious yoga practitioners, and yogic asanas were revealed by Lord Shiva. One would expect that a culture that was so much into yoga would have been aware of the deity who is credited with founding the discipline. 

Olmec Ganesha 
Let us turn our attention to a curious Olmec clay figurine, which Zecharia Sitchin described as a “toy elephant”. It was spotted by Sitchin, when he had visited the Anthropology Museum in Jalapa, Veracruz.[2] However, when he had returned to the museum in 1999, the toy elephants were nowhere to be seen. Apparently, they had been removed for an “overseas exhibit”, never to be seen again. An elephant figurine in Mesoamerica raises uncomfortable questions, since elephants had disappeared from the Americas at the end of the last Ice Age at around 10,000 BCE. How would the Olmecs, who flourished between c.1500 – 400 BCE, model a figure in its likeness?

Although Sitchin describes the artifact as a “toy elephant”, it is unusual for an elephant to stand upright comfortably on its hind legs. The artifact looks surprisingly similar to the portly, elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha. Ganesha is a pan-Asian deity, and one of the most popular gods of Hinduism. The remover of obstacles and the patron of arts and sciences, he is honored at the beginning of any religious ceremony. Ganesha is also the son of Shiva. If the Olmecs were aware of Shiva, they could have been acquainted with Ganesha as well.
Fig 10:  Ganesha in Olmec iconography
The presence of Ganesha in Mesoamerica is borne out by yet another figurine which was found in Campeche, Mexico, dated to c.600 – 900 CE. It is that of a portly, elephant-headed person, dressed in ornaments and a crown, with his left hand raised in blessing, and holding a mace in his right hand. The figurine is certainly that of Ganesha, which establishes beyond doubt that the Mesoamericans were familiar with the deity by 600 – 900 CE. This makes it more likely that the Olmec figurine of the elephant-headed person is that of Ganesha.
Fig 11: Ganesha figurine found in Campeche, Mexico, c.600-900 CE. Source:
The Ganas 
Another Olmec sculpture suggestive of Hindu influence in Olmec culture is on display at the Museum of Anthropology in Jalapa, Mexico. It is an Olmec altar supported by a pair of dwarves with upraised hands. Scholars speculate that the altar may have been used for religious ceremonies, or it could have been a throne on which the ruler sat.

Exactly the same type of dwarf figures called “ganas” are often depicted below the cornices in Hindu-Buddhist temples! They are a portly bunch of merrymaking dwarves, who hold up and protect the temple. They are depicted with upraised hands supporting the temple, as well as in a variety of poses – singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, clapping etc. The ganas are dressed in loincloths, ornaments, and sometimes a head-dress as well. It is astonishing to see how much they resemble the dwarves on the Olmec altar. There is no doubt that the same concept was being put into execution by both cultures.
Fig 12:  Ganas in Olmec and Hindu iconography.
Interestingly, the ganas are regarded as attendants of Shiva and the leader of the ganas is Ganesha (who is called ganapati i.e. “Lord of the Ganas”). Thus, a set of closely linked religious constructs of Hinduism – Shiva (the Lord of Yoga), Ganesha (the son of Shiva), and the ganas, who are the attendants of Shiva and the followers of Ganesha – appear to have been known to the Olmecs.

The ancient Egyptians also worshipped a dwarf deity called Bes, who was the protector of the household and of childbirth. He is depicted below a cornice at the Denderah Temple complex, which suggests that he played a similar function of supporting the temple in Egypt. However, stylistically the dwarf figures in the Olmec altar most closely resemble those seen in Hindu-Buddhist temples.
Fig 13:  The dwarf deity Bes depicted below a cornice in the Denderah Temple complex. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Kalamukha: The Face of Time 
One of the most significant pieces of monumental Olmec sculpture is the Altar 4 at La Venta. The altar shows a figure seated at the entrance of a central niche which symbolizes a cave. The Olmecs and other Mesoamerica cultures regarded caves as sacred places. Human beings were fashioned inside a cave at the center of the world from where they emerged to serve their patron deities. Caves also provided a pathway to the underworld – the land of the ancestors. Given the sacred connotations associated with a cave, it appears that the figure seated at the entrance is that of a deity or a revered ancestor (although some scholars think of it as a ruler).

On the cornice above the deity is a depiction of a fearsome face with sharp fangs. The deity appears to be seated in the mouth of this monster. All around the cave entrance there is a serpentine foliage pattern terminating in what appear to be “flower buds”. The same design motif can be seen carved on the lintel stone above the entrance to many Hindu-Buddhist temples of India and South-east Asia, where it is called Kalamukha (Face of Time) or Kirtimukha (Face of Glory).
Fig 14:  Kalamukha (the Face of Time) in Olmec and Hindu-Buddhist architecture
The Kalamukha is a fearsome monster face, with large bulging eyes, and a gaping mouth with huge fangs. From its mouth, it spews forth a serpent body, wreathed in foliage, which runs downward to frame the entrance on either side. Generally, the lower jaw of the monster is absent, which creates the impression of being devoured by the Kalamukha as one enters the temple. The Kalamukha is also used as a decorative motif above niches on the temple walls.

In the Indian tradition, Time is synonymous with Death, so the Face of Time is also the Face of Death or the Face of Yama - the God of Death and the Lord of the Underworld. The jaws reject what is toxic and undesirable, and allows only the pure soul to come in the presence of the Great Spirit. It controls the passage from the multiform world of senses to the state of primordial unity, from the cycle of birth and death to the realm beyond time and death. In Buddhist art, the Kalamukha represents Shinje (the Tibetan equivalent of Yama), who holds the Wheel of Life in his mouth and devours all beings figured there, signaling his control over the cycles of birth and death.

It is likely that the symbol carried an analogous meaning amongst the Olmecs. The face above the La Venta altar resembles the Kalamukha, and even the “foliage pattern with flower buds” depicted on either side of the seated deity looks similar to that seen in Hindu-Buddhist temples. So, not only is there an overlap of a complex religious concept, but even the stylistic execution is similar. The subsequent cultures of Mesoamerica, including the Mayans, adopted the Kalamukha motif, which was depicted above the entrances to their temples and cave sanctuaries.
Fig 15:  Kalamukha in Mayan and Hindu-Buddhist Temples and cave sanctuaries.
The Lion Guardians 
While the Kalamukha protects the temple entrance, in most Hindu-Buddhist temples a pair of “lion guardian” statues flanks the temple gate. Sometimes multiple lion statues are positioned along the access road or stairway leading to the temple entrance, and all around the temple walls. The lions are typically in a seated position, having bulging eyes and a gaping mouth exposing sharp fangs. In Olmec art, and that of the subsequent cultures of Mesoamerica, it was the jaguar that was depicted in a very similar pose.
Fig 16: Olmec Jaguars and Lion Guardians of Hindu-Buddhist Temples
At San Lorenzo, a pair of jaguar statues was found in close proximity to an Olmec altar, which suggests that they may have served a protective function. Like the lion of Asia, the jaguar was revered by the Mesoamericans. Both animals were associated with royalty. Mesoamerican kings and deities wore jaguar skins and sat on jaguar thrones, like their counterparts in the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Asia. Evidently, the symbolism of the guardian lion was replaced by the jaguar in Mesoamerica.
Fig 17: Mayan Jaguar throne and Hindu Lion throne
While the lion guardians of the Hindu-Buddhist temples were depicted with ferocious features, in Mesopotamia, Greece and Egypt, the lion guardians took on more realistic forms. The Sphinx, which is a winged lion with the face of a man, was a popular symbol in Assyria, Greece and Egypt, where it flanked the doorways to temples and tombs.

The Olmecs, therefore, were not only earnest practitioners of yoga, but they appear to have been acquainted with the Hindu deities Shiva and Ganesha, and had adopted many elements of Hindu temple architecture such as the ganas, Kalamukha and the lion guardians. Their sudden appearance in Mesoamerica sometime around 1500 BCE, with all the evolved elements of their culture, can only be explained by a migration from the other side of the Pacific.

When we look at the various Olmec figurines in yogic poses, it becomes obvious that the Olmecs had distinct mongoloid features. The mongoloid characteristics are so distinct that some of the ceramic figurines of the yoga-practicing Western Mexico shaft tomb culture were named “Chinesco” by art dealers due to their Chinese-like appearance. For quite some time there have been talks of a Chinese presence in the Americas. In 1882, thirty ancient Chinese coins were discovered by a miner in British Columbia, in the auriferous sand twenty five feet below the surface. The coins depicted the Chinese chronological cycle of sixty years, invented by the Emperor Huungti in 2637 BCE. In 1975, large numbers of Chinese stone anchors were discovered in 12 to 25 feet of water off the Palos Verdes peninsula south of Los Angeles. In an article titled Stone Anchors: Asiatic Shipwrecks Off the California Coast published in the Anthropological Journal of Canada, Prof. Moriarity and Prof. Pearson said that geological studies showed the stone anchors were not of California origin and cited this as evidence that “Asiatic vessels reached the New World in pre-Columbian times.”

Further fuel was added to the trans-pacific diffusion theory, when in 1996, Dr. Michael Xu of the Texas Christian University put forward the hypothesis that the Olmecs may have emigrated from the Shang dynasty of ancient China. 

Migrations from Asia
Michael Xu had spent many years analyzing the inscriptions on a large number of Olmec jade, stone, and pottery artifacts, in particular the inscriptions on the six jade celts in Offering No.4 at La Venta. He was struck by how closely the symbols on these artifacts resembled Chinese bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 - 1046 BCE) who ruled in the Yellow River valley. “When I first brought my artifacts from the Americas to China, scholars there thought that I just had more samples of Shang writing,” Xu says. “The similarities are that striking.”[3]

An emerging view is that the migration from China may have taken place during the Xia dynasty (c.2070 – 1600 BCE), which preceded the Shang dynasty. The Olmecs called themselves “Xi” which could be derived from “Xia”. In addition, since the Olmecs did not have knowledge of metallurgy, the emigration should have taken place prior to the emergence of bronze metallurgy in China at around 1800 BCE during the Xia dynasty.

In 1975, Betty Meggers, a research archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution, had proposed a Shang dynasty influence in the Olmec culture. She thinks that Asian contact goes back even further, to around 3000 BCE. In 1965, she had observed striking similarities in the techniques and decoration motifs of the Jomon pottery of Japan and those excavated in Valdivia, Equador, and proposed a migration from Japan’s Jomon culture to Equador – an idea which was roundly criticized by archaeologists at that time - but has now found genetic corroboration.[4]

Both Betty Meggers and Mike Xu believe that natural Pacific water flows, such as the Kuroshio Current from Japan and the Black Current from China, transported boats to the New World. From the 1600s to the mid 1800s several dozen Japanese ships were carried from Asia to North America along the powerful Kuroshio Currents. It is improbable that such contact would have started only after the Europeans landed in America.

Mike Xu has pointed out that the Olmecs, like the Chinese, viewed jade as a precious and pure stone, which they carved into a variety of artifacts. The Olmecs jade masks look similar to the jade masks of the Neolithic Hongshan culture of China (c.4700 to 2900 BCE). A particular design called “Taotie” appears on Chinese jade artifacts and bronze vessels from the Shang dynasty. It is a gluttonous ogre mask, with large eyes, sharp fangs, and sometimes with no lower jaw. Scholars of religious symbolism regard it as the Chinese version of the “Kalamukha” depicted above the entrances to Hindu-Buddhist temples. The same design is depicted on the Olmec altar 4 at La Venta.
Fig 18: Taotie and Spiral motifs in China and Mesoamerica
The presence of the Kalamukha motif in Shang dynasty China is not surprising since there had always been a great deal of overlap between Chinese and Hindu religion, culture, philosophy, astronomy, and architecture. The Taoist philosophy is no different to that of the Upanishads, the concept of energy meridians and chakras was known to both cultures, the Chinese concept of 28 lunar asterisms is same as the Indian Nakshatra system, and the Chinese calendric system with its 12 year and sixty year cycles is also prevalent in India.  

Mike Xu mentions that both the Chinese and the Olmecs used cinnabar, a red pigment, to decorate ceremonial objects. [5] I want to add that the custom of anointing ceremonial objects with red vermillion powder (which is obtained from cinnabar) continues to this day in India. The conch shell is still used as a trumpet for religious and ceremonial occasions in India and the Hindu-Buddhist nations of South-east Asia, but was at one time common across the Pacific Islands, and amongst the Olmecs and their successors in Mesoamerica. Mike Xu writes that the Olmecs and the Chinese have the practice of placing a few jade beads inside the mouth of the deceased. An analogous practice in India is to place a few gold pieces on or inside the mouth (gold carries the same sense of preciousness and purity in Indian culture as jade does in China).

It occurred to me that, because of the immense cultural overlaps between India and China, the Hindu-Buddhist influence in Olmec culture can be effectively explained by a migration from the Xia or Shang dynasty of China. Even yogic asanas, which the Olmecs practiced ardently, were known to the Chinese in the pre-Buddhist period. A number of jade statues from the Shang dynasty show people seated in the “Vajrasana” posture.
Fig 19: Shang Dynasty jade statue seated in the “Vajrasana” posture. Source:
A pair of protective guardian lions stood outside Chinese temples, imperial palaces, and tombs from the Han dynasty onwards (206 BCE - CE 220). The lion motifs began to appear from the 7th century BCE, predating the arrival of Buddhist influence in China. The pair would consist of a male, leaning his paw upon an embroidered ball, possibly representing supremacy over the world, and a female with a cub under its paw, representing the cycle of life. The stylistic representation is similar to that seen in the Hindu-Buddhist temples of India and South-east Asia, and the jaguar status of the Olmecs and other Mesoamerican cultures.
Fig 20: Stone statue of a guardian lion at Mount Emei in China. Source: Wikipedia
I could not find any Chinese version of the ganas – the dwarf figures that support the Hindu-Buddhist temple. But, what I did find is that both Shiva and Ganesha were a part of the Chinese religious tradition as early as the 4th century CE. A painting of the elephant-headed Ganesha, seated next to a four-armed, trishula-wielding Shiva, is found in Cave 285 at Dunhuang’s Mogao caves. The chamber was excavated in the Northern Wei dynasty (c.386-534 CE). Thus, the knowledge of Ganesha and Shiva could have also passed on to the Olmecs through a migration from ancient China.
Fig 21: Ganesha and Shiva in Cave 285 at Duanhuang Mogao caves. Source:
The remarkable similarity between stepped pyramids on either side of the Pacific – which has already been pointed out by many researchers – is also very important indication of ancient contact between Asia and the Americas. The Olmec pyramid at La Venta, made of earth-fill, presently has a conical shape due to 2500 years of erosion. Originally, however, it was a rectangular pyramid with stepped sides. It resembles the stepped pyramids of China, which were built as tombs for the elite, and the temple pyramids dedicated to Hindu gods in South-east Asia.
Fig 22: Stepped Pyramids on either side of the Pacific.
Undeniably, there are mountains of evidence that the Olmec civilization, which appeared in fully formed state in Mexico sometime around 1500 BCE, adopted many elements of Hindu temple architecture, yogic practices and deities, as well as Chinese artistic styles, traditions, and the Shang script. These striking correlations can be effectively explained by migrations from Asia, most likely from the Xia or Shang dynasty of China. This was by no means the first wave of migration from Asia, or the last, as researchers have been claiming for ages. Multiple waves of migration took place from Asia to the Americas over the past 5000 years, giving birth to a diverse set of inter-related civilizations all over the continent. As research archaeologist Betty Meggers says, “Ancient man saw the ocean as a superhighway and not as a barrier”.

Many Mesoamerican scholars, however, continue to ignore or deny evidence of Pre-Columbian trans-Pacific contacts. But the nature of these connections is becoming so evident and compelling that, by denying the obvious, these academics, and the institutions which support them, are undermining their own credibility. As a consequence, there is an increasing distrust of the version of history propagated by mainstream scholars, which seem to be guided by rigid dogmas. One can only hope that a new generation of historians will shake off the old restrictive paradigms and take due account of the plethora of archaeological and cultural evidences that indicate deep connections between the ancient civilizations of Asia and the Americas.  

End Notes

[1] "India Documents 900 Yoga Poses to Block Patents", Voice of America News 11 Jun 2010 <>

[2] "THE CASE OF THE MISSING ELEPHANT", The Official Website of Zecharia Sitchin 2000 <>

[3] Jennifer Viegas, "Early Crossings: Scientists Debate Who Sailed to the New World First " <>

[4] Brad Lepper, "JAPANESE FISHERMEN DISCOVER AMERICA 5,000 YEARS AGO?" Ohio History Connection 19 May. 2013 <>

[5] Jocelyn Selim, "Chinatown, 1000 B.C." DISCOVER Vol. 21 No. 2 (February 2000) <>