By Dr. Karan Singh
Tucked away in the Andes in Peru lies the historical sanctuary of Machu Picchu, the city the Incas sculpted out of stone. Abandoned centuries ago and rediscovered in 1911, this fortress city, renowned for its sacred temples and mystic fountains, attracts seekers from all over the world
You must visit Machu Picchu,” said a distinguished Latin American intellectual to me. I needed little persuasion. Ever since I had read about the Lost City of the Incas as a boy and had seen pictures of this incredible site, I had wanted to visit it. On a trip to Chile, I decided on an impulse to reschedule my return trip via Peru.
Flying from Lima, which is a port, to Cuzco, the great imperial capital of the Incas that is 3,400 meters above sea level, is rather like flying from Jammu to Leh. As we neared Cuzco we passed the majestic snow-covered Andes, with one peak that looked very much like Mount Kailash. The first impression of Cuzco is like Leh, with habitation against a dry, brown background.
Cuzco is laid out in the form of a gigantic puma, the South American lion that was sacred to the Incas. At each of the key points of the puma were constructed magnificent temples rich with gold and silver. At the heart was the great Temple of the Sun. The Incas were sun worshippers and like many early civilizations including the Hindu, saw in the sun the most majestic and manifest symbol of divinity. In keeping with their well-established practice, the Spanish conquerors systematically destroyed each one of the sacred sites and forced the local population with the pain of death and torture to construct churches thereon.
Curiously enough, the people of Cuzco also look quite like the Ladakhis, and I photographed two ‘Indian’ children blowing conches against the background of Cuzco. The music is also similar to our pahari folk music, especially from the Chamba-Bhadarwah region. It seems that mountain folk throughout the world partake, in some mysterious way, of a common heritage.
The sky above Cuzco was much clearer than in Santiago and Lima and the starry heaven was visible in all its majesty. But it reminded me that parallel with their outer achievements there was an inner mystical tradition presided over by shamans, very much like our Tantric gurus. In our times, Carlos Castaneda has dramatically described this in a remarkable series of books. In fact I picked up his ninth book, The Art of Dreaming, in New York and read it on this trip. It is indeed mind-blowing in its descriptions of the teachings and experiences that Castaneda went through under the guidance of his teacher/guru, the Nagual Don Juan Matus.
His book shows the close parallels with some parts of the Hindu heritage, specially the Tantric and Siddha traditions. Clearly, the two systems developed entirely independently, but it is fascinating to see how mystical experience cuts across barriers of time and space, religion and nationality, and in a mysterious way knits the human race together in subtle and usually unperceived bonds.
The journey to Machu Picchu begins with a two-hour bus drive from Cuzco which takes one up to a high plateau surrounded by snow-covered mountains. As I had noticed from the air, one of them looks very much like Mount Kailash, and of course Shiva, Girish (the Lord of the Mountain) is as much there as he is here. The landscape is generally bare at this altitude with sparse patches of trees and habitations. In the valleys large white clouds float around as if emerging from an unseen, benign volcano. The village huts are made of mud bricks with thatched huts or tiled roofs. They all seem to be deserted. Occasionally one passes llamas, which come in several colours—white, black and beige, and are usually herded by children.
A small tourist train took us to the foot of Machu Picchu. It was a picturesque journey along the sacred Urubamba River, with huge mountains towering over us on both sides, rather like going up the Liddar Valley in Kashmir. The train was full of tourists from all over the world, speaking many different tongues. In about 90 minutes we reached the end of the track and boarded buses that took us on a hair-raising ride up to Machu Picchu. Although a mountain man myself, this was one of the steepest drives I can recall.
On the way, we passed an isolated mountain circumambulated by the river, almost exactly like the one opposite Ramban on the Jammu-Srinagar highway, where dangerous criminals were sent for life, as escape was deemed impossible. The river, which the Andeans called Willkamayu, creates the sacred valley of the Incas that played such an important role in their culture and religion until the Spanish finally defeated them in the 15th century. From the river right up to the mountaintop, the land has been terraced for cultivation for thousands of feet, itself a marvel of agricultural technology that enabled Machu Picchu to remain self-sufficient and undiscovered by Spaniards for centuries.
Finally, we arrived at Machu Picchu, surely the most impressive monument on the entire American continent. This is the famous lost city of the Incas, rediscovered only in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, a professor of American History at Yale University, USA. The whole story of the discovery, excavation and research on Machu Picchu is a fascinating chapter in modern archaeology, and has been described in many books, including Bingham’s own classics Machu Picchu, A Citadel of the Incas (1930) andLost City of the Incas (1948).
Machu Picchu is an entire city built of stone, which when discovered was utterly deserted, having being abandoned centuries ago. There are numerous theories about its origins; the most accepted one being that it was a sacred fortress city where Inca rulers and shamans withdrew after the Spanish invasion. It is amazing that despite years of colonial rule, Machu Picchu remained safe from the predatory attention of the invaders. According to one theory, Machu Picchu was the original El Dorado, precious sanctuary of the gods; according to another, it was a strategic outpost of the Inca Empire. In an interesting book called Machu Picchu: The Sacred Centre, John Reinhard argues that it was part of the sacred geography of the Andes and linked with the mountain worship of the Incas.
It is smaller than one had imagined; even in its heyday its population was only about a thousand, evidently the temporal and spiritual elite. The beautifully constructed stone structures are bare, with none of the intricate carving that we associate with our own monuments. There are dozens of separate buildings including the main temple, the temple of the three windows, the main square, and many mysterious structures and beautifully constructed fountains. The stone city stands against the backdrop of the two almost perpendicular mountains: Waynapichu, the young peak, and the Winayawaynapichu, the small young peak.
There is an extraordinary stillness about Machu Picchu, as if unseen spirits are watching over it. I broke away from my group and wandered around the deserted city for a couple of hours. I had brought my flute with me, and sitting on the rocks, I played pahari tunes to whatever spirits reside there, hoping that they would find it a refreshing change from the monotonous drone of tourist guides as they shepherded their flocks up and down the stone stairways. As a perceptive observer has written: “Many historical sites are of unexpected beauty with a creative force that overwhelms the observer. However, there is no place like Machu Pichu where one comes close to infinity. The feeling of leaving the earth behind and gliding to infinity has never been strong as here. One needs to contemplate and lose oneself in the voices of nature and wind.”
The whole Inca civilization was dedicated to the sun, so I chanted the famous Ädityahridaya stotra of Rishi Valmiki, the ‘hymn to the heart of the sun’ that the sage Agastya gave to Sri Rama just before his final confrontation with Ravana. Even though the Incas have disappeared, the sun continues as the source of all light and life on our planet. What better symbol can there be of the all-pervading divine power described so beautifully in the Upanishads as “that which, shining, causes everything else to shine”.
I had brought three coins with me to offer at Machu Picchu, but was not sure where to place them. Almost instinctively, my feet led me to a flat, polished stone about 20 feet long and 10 feet high, which had been placed in a standing position against the backdrop of the mountains, evidently for some spiritual purpose. After circumambulating it, I offered my three coins, and as I did so, it suddenly struck me that the rock was an almost perfect silhouette of a huge Nandi bull, the sacred mount of Lord Shiva. Considering the mountain setting, I found this most appropriate. I offered a Sanskrit hymn to Shiva, and also for good measure, one to the Goddess because tradition has it that Machu Picchu was the seat of the high priestess of the sun and was inhabited almost exclusively by women. Later, reading Reinhard’s book, I was surprised to see a photograph describing this as a sacred rock.
Whatever be the precise historical facts, there is no doubt that Machu Picchu is a magical place, what Carlos Castaneda would call ‘a place of power’. Behind the façade of our everyday lives, there lies a deeper awareness of which the vast majority of people are not even aware. As Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: “Among millions, only a few hear of my teaching, and of those only very few follow the path.” This ancient path—the anu panthah puranah—is not the exclusive possession of any age or any culture, any religion or any prophet. It is the common heritage, of humanity. And among the landmarks of this heritage, a singular position belongs to the strange and magical stone city of Machu Picchu, to see which I had traveled literally to the ends of the earth.
Dr Karan Singh is a scholar, author, statesman and an authority on Indian spirituality.
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