Spiritual Travel - Chacchoben A Mexican Odyssey
by Arun Ganapathy
Imagine an ancient, long-forgotten civilisation which revolved around fantastically complex forms of worship – jaguar gods and plumed serpents with green quetzal feathers, stone pyramids with steps reaching dizzyingly up into the sky, secret incantations and ceremonies to the sun, nocturnal beings, dense forests and liquid skies ... I could go on and on, so inspiring is the ambience of the ruins of the Mayan temples in Mexico.
But I will start this travelogue from where I started my adventure – at Puerto Costa Maya, or the Port of the Mayan coast – the gateway to the ruins of the Mayan temple-pyramid complex of Chacchoben (which translated, means, Place of the Red Corn) in the Quintana Roo state of Mexico.
From here it was a 55-minute bus ride to the ruins, which are deep in the Mexican jungle, towards the border with Belize.
Along the way, our tour guide, named Jesus, provided us with a commentary on the geography of the region, which he said had played an important part in the mythology and religion of the Mayans.
“The jungle is thick and filled with many wonders like snakes, puma, ocelots and jaguars. The snake was represented in Mayan mythology as a plumed serpent and was known as Kukulkan or Quetzalcoatl. Along with Tlalchitonatuih (the later Nahuatl name for the jaguar god or the falling sun), Kukulkan was one of the most ancient and fundamental of the Mayan gods and played a vital role in their creation myths. His cult spread throughout Mesoamerica during the fourth to seventh centuries AD, and although they have now vanished, jaguars can still be seen on the highway,” said Jesus, pointing through the windows of the bus.
I looked out of the window to see if I could spot anything, but all I could discern were a few tin shacks, with a Mexican in a brightly coloured poncho and a straw sombrero urging his mule along the highway.
A short while later, we stopped at a small clearing in the jungle, and Jesus announced that we were in Chacchoben.
Chacchoben is the ruins of three temple-pyramid complexes that had been built by the Mayans around 700 AD. These were built by them with the primary objective of being a place of worship, and a place for the observation of the heavenly bodies.
Here, in the secrecy of the jungles, they watched the motion of the sun, the moon and the stars, and worshipped their serpent god, Kukulkan. As the centuries went by, they modified the existing structures and expanded these complexes into cities. Then (just when they seemed to have reached the pinnacle of their scientific and cultural accomplishments), they suddenly abandoned the temple complex – nobody still knows why – leaving them to the jungles on either side of us.
I was beginning to think about this mystery, when Jesus, my tour guide, blew on his ancient Mayan conch shell (which he said the Mayans had used to summon their people to worship), to usher us towards the entrance.
For the next 15 minutes, we walked through a forest of Cohune palms, moss, and some scattered cultivation of red corn. We approached a bend in the pathway, and I pushed aside a palm frond and looked up to see the ruins rising suddenly, almost dramatically, from the forest floor in front of me.
From here steps went up steeply to a grassy courtyard, the Gran Basamento, at the top. At the back of this was the main temple, ‘temple 1’. It rose, pyramid-like, in a series of stone steps that made me feel dizzy when I looked up to see where they ended. Most of them, like the ruin itself, were covered in moss.
As I walked up the steps, I tried to correlate what I had read about the Mayans with what I was seeing in front of me. Aided by a little imagination, the place slowly came alive. Picture a page out of Tintin and the Prisoners Of The Sun and you can step into my fantasy re-creation of that world. A high-ranking Maya (initially a king) dressed in elaborate feathered headgear, jaguar pelt and jade, sat at the top, enveloped in clouds of smoke from opal incense.
This Mayan was more than just a king; he was also a high priest, acting as a broker between his people and Kukulkan. Along with other astronomer-priests, who formed an important part of Mayan society, he looked to the heavens for guidance and observed the sun, the moon and other celestial bodies in their daily passage across the sky.
Why did the Mayans go to such great lengths in their astronomical observations?
The answer lay in their myths. As the sun rose and moved across the sky, it corresponded in Mayan myth to the birth and life of an individual. When it faded away and finally disappeared over the horizon, the Mayans related it to an individual’s death and entry into the underworld. As the sun reappeared the next day, it completed the cycle, the reappearance being associated with rebirth.
Enthralling as this analogy was, I was even more amazed by the way Chacchoben was aligned to the sun’s movements. At sunrise, the rays gradually illuminated the front steps of the temple-pyramid and at noon appeared directly over the courtyard. It was now late in the afternoon, and as I stood in the courtyard, the rays were already kissing the back wall of the temple. Soon, it would fade away over the steps at the back, leaving the world in darkness as it entered Xibalba – the Mayan underworld.
How did the Mayans design their temples with such precision over a thousand years ago? “With their naked eyes, a forked stick and a few shadow-casting devices,” said Jesus to my amazement. With these simple tools, they made detailed notes, which they recorded in their chronicles or codices. They later developed these into a calendar, which showed exactly when the celestial events fell every year. Using this information, they built the steps in a particular direction, or aligned the openings in a building in a manner in which the sun would cast its rays through them to light up the interior walls.
Highly sophisticated though these observations and calculations were, they related to the daylight hours. When the sun entered darkness (Xibalba), myth, again, took over. The Mayans believed the sun’s journey through the night was threatened by evil forces keen on impeding its progress. For this reason, ‘he’ needed human help and sustenance, which could only be provided through human sacrifice.
While the king and astronomer priests at Chacchoben were busy with worship and astronomy, the other priests and nobility prepared human sacrifices. They selected their victims, fashioned elaborate rituals, and walked around them mumbling incantations. Then they threw the victims down the pyramid, letting their blood spill over the steps. This bloodletting, they felt, replenished the energy of the sun and ensured the smooth progress of events.
I walked slowly around the complex, trying to understand this gory practice when I came upon a canopied section of a wall, a part of which was coloured red. Was this red the blood of the victims who were sacrificed? If so, who were these victims?
While I couldn’t find definitive answers to my first question, the answer to the second was in Mayan history. The Chacchoben complex, it seems, had been expanded around the eighth century to accommodate the common Mayans ( as opposed to the priests and nobility), the peasantry who spent their time here cultivating corn, growing cacao and trading in jaguar pelts, jade and obsidian. Dressed in colourful tunics and ponchos, and boosted by extra doses of mescal, and an intoxicating drink called balche, these Mayans danced with abandon in the plazas below the main temple. During the time of the important festivals, it was individuals from among them who were selected and sacrificed.
By now a rain cloud had descended over the complex (making Chacchoben look like the pictures you see of rain-enveloped South American peaks in the National Geographic), adding to the sense of enchantment and mystery. The tourists began hurrying back to their buses. Chacchoben, save for me, was deserted. Was this how the Mayans too had left – abandoning the complex because they were threatened by some natural calamity perhaps? And where had they gone?
I was in the middle of this reverie, when Jesus blew on his conch again. It was time to go, to Costa Maya.
“If you liked the Chacchoben tour, please recommend it to your friends; if not, my name is ‘Pancho.’ This is the third bad joke of the day,” announced Jesus, as I got into the bus.
I stopped for a moment and looked at his and the driver’s faces, closely. Both had high cheekbones, and elongated jaws. In the centre was a large nose between slightly slanting eyes. As I kept looking, the lines I had read earlier on the Mayans came back to me:
‘His head had been fashionably elongated by being pressed between boards when he was a few days old and his nose was built up with putty to give it an admired beak shape. Descendants of the Maya still form a large part of the population of the region.’
It wasn’t a bad joke, it was true.
Both Jesus and the driver were Mayan behind their Spanish names, and being with them was a good way to understand Chacchoben, a place that once visited remains part of one’s consciousness forever…
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