Imagine being a top-notch athlete and a highly skilled warrior in ancient Mesoamerica. You’ve been celebrated; you are a highly desirable bachelor; you are also probably very well off. Then your king and the high priest select a team to play the ballgame with a rival team and appoint you as captain. Imagine playing the sport knowing to win; going all out to defeat the rival team; surpassing every other player while knowing fully-well, that if you do win, you will lose your head.
Now imagine playing the ballgame to win; going all out to defeat the rival team knowing fully-well that if you lose, you will lose more than just the match: you will lose your life too.
These are the opposing scenarios as interpreted by scholars and historians as to the religious significance of the Maya ballgame. Resembling present-day football, the game was an athletic event spanning several days, which transcended sport to enter the spiritual underworld of the Mayans. The ballgame, as a sport, has survived to this day, without the human sacrifices. But in the days of the Maya, and indeed throughout the cultures of Mesoamerica like the Olmecs and the Aztecs, the ballgame called Poc-a-Toc, was a ritual killer.
According to some experts, the winning captain was sacrificed, sometimes along with all his teammates, as a reward: the souls of the victims could seamlessly travel to paradise, without having to overcome all the obstacles that ordinary souls had to face. According to other scholars, the losing captain was decapitated, at times with the whole team, to symbolise the victory of light over darkness, and the sacrifice was used as a means to appease the powers that be.
Religious human sacrifice was an integral part of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican (Central America and Mexico) civilizations and the Maya were no exception. In other areas of knowledge like astronomy, mathematics, writing, art and architecture, they were very enlightened and sometimes more advanced than contemporary societies of the known world. The Maya knew that matter could not be created or destroyed: “Nothing was ever ‘born’ and nothing ever ‘died’”. They believed in the cyclical nature of life, which shaped their pagan beliefs. Their views of the cosmos in turn, influenced their achievements in architecture, mathematics and astronomy and permeated every aspect of their culture.
Origins of the Maya
The oldest known Mesoamerican civilisation is that of the Olmecs. No one knows where they came from or where they disappeared. But they laid the cultural and scientific foundations for all future civilizations in Central America. Hence, even though the ruins of these Mesoamerican cities reveal individual cultural characteristics, many architectural styles and features were borrowed from one another. The Maya flourished in what is categorized as their classical period (200 CE to 900 CE). But the Maya had built many city-states and cultural centres throughout Mesoamerica even in their formative years.
The archaeological site now known as Monte Alban in southern Mexico was the original capital of the Zapotec kingdom, which flourished between 600 BCE and 800 CE. The famous Maya calendar was born in the beginning of this period. By 200 CE, Teotihuacan had grown from a village to a metropolis of grand proportions. An important cultural centre, it was devoted to the Great Mother Goddess and the Plumed Serpent, who was her consort. Contemporary to Teotihuacan was El Tajin, one of the most important Mesoamerican city-states, it was founded on the Gulf of Mexico. More Poc-a-Toc ball courts have been found in El Tajin than anywhere else. There were people of many different ethnicities in El Tajin, but according to sources, the city was dominated by the Maya and the Totonac, another Mesoamerican tribe. The city-states of the Maya civilization stretched from today’s Piste in the north to Honduras in the south.
We know very little about the Mayans except for what three surviving native books and archaeology has revealed so far. Though the Mayans were prolific writers, their hieroglyphs cannot be deciphered due to lack of alphabetical references. After they arrived in the Americas, Spain sent Bishop Diego de Landa to convert the natives to Christianity. The Mayans were not very averse as the concept of a lord who dies and is resurrected to life resonated with their own beliefs.
However, the bishop suspected a dissident faction of the population was corrupting the minds of the natives so he destroyed their heritage. On 12th July 1562, the bishop burnt over 40 Mayan books called codices and more than 20,000 images including tablets. Landa even resorted to torturing the Maya to discover the secrets of their imaginary subversive activities. But ironically, much of our understanding of the culture Landa had tried to eradicate comes from his own work, Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan, which he compiled in 1566.
Between 250 CE and 950 CE, the Mayans consolidated their power from their great cities like Chichen Itza. Though its structures are heavily influenced by the culture of the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Teotihuacan and El Tajin, there is a significantly distinct new style in the art and architecture of Chichen Itza. It is here that the Mayans perfected their astronomy, mathematics (The Mayans had a zero), visual arts, architecture and the Mayan calendar.
Chichen Itza is located on the northern end of the Yucatan peninsula. The lavish scale of its monumental structures make experts believe that the city may have been a capital city that ruled over neighbouring vassal states. Chichen Itza’s ceremonial importance is conspicuous at all its structures, which are amazingly well-preserved. The city’s art and architecture is replete with images of feathered-serpents, jaguars, eagles, religious rituals and militarism. The feathered-serpent god, Quetzalcoatl (an Aztec name) was the dominant deity in all ancient Mesoamerican civilizations and many kings ruled as his incarnation.
After Cancun, Chichen Itza is the second most popular tourist destination in Mexico; it was voted one of the Seven New Wonders of the World in a 2007 poll. The Itza were actually a branch of the Mayans and the term Chichen probably refers to ‘the mouth of the well of the Itza’. It was the sacred cenote (the well) where the Mayans threw offerings of gold, jade and the corpses of sacrificial victims into. The discovery of goods native to faraway places in Central America, testify to the commercial supremacy of the city. The city also had a port, which is today called Isla Cerritos. That they cultivated cacao is a fact and the city monopolized the profitable salt beds on the northern coast.
A City in Two Phases
The height of Chichen Itza is divided into two major phases. The first phase is the later classic Maya phase between 800 CE and 1000 CE, after which the Maya are believed to have abandoned the city and founded a new capital elsewhere. This makes up the southern part of Chichen Itza. The buildings here display the distinctive architectural style and hieroglyphs. This part of the city is built on a north-south axis along what could have been the course of the Xtoloc Cenote, the city’s main source of water.
The Mayan exodus may have been the result of a Toltec invasion, where the second phase of Chichen Itza begins in the northern part of the metropolis. Toltec Chichen Itza is dated between 1000 CE and 1200 CE, after which even the Toltecs abandoned the city. The structures of this section of Chichen Itza have the unique Toltec hallmarks. However, there are many architectural and sculptural elements, which are common with the Mayans. These include rattlesnakes with quetzal feathers, warrior columns, clothing, support columns in the form of men called atlantides, shape of the sacrificial basins, sacrificial skull racks called ‘tzompantli’, the depiction of Tlaloc, the rain god, and incense burners, suggesting a long chain of cultural links with the Maya.
Pyramid of Kukulcan
Chichen Itza is a classic example of art and architecture designed to optimally reflect religious philosophy. Kukulcan was probably the Toltec king who captured Chichen Itza from the Maya, so his pyramid would necessarily portray the art and architecture of the Toltecs. However, there are Mayan elements as well. The pyramid is 24 metres high and is made over nine levels. Each side of the pyramid is 58.9 metres wide. On each side of the pyramid is a staircase that leads to successive levels. In Spanish, this pyramid is called El Castillo.
All the stairways leading up to the summit have 91 steps, with the exception of the northern side, which has 92. Adding the steps on all the staircases, we arrive at the meaningful figure of 365. A bird’s eye view of the pyramid reveals a cross created by the four stairways, which seems to be superimposed on the square base of the pyramid. The image that unfolds, represents the Mayan symbol for zero. The pyramid of Kukulcan is based on the Maya calendar. The most important rituals probably took place in the chamber at the top of the pyramid.
Equinoxes at El Castillo
On the days of the equinoxes, the Earth’s equator is positioned directly under the sun, so the day and night are of equal length. At Chichen Itza, on the day of the equinoxes, the natural light and shadow creates a monumental spectacle of its own. The light casts soft, triangular shadows as it gradually descends along the balustrade of the north-eastern staircase, creating the illusion of a giant snake creeping down the steps to eventually join the head carved at the bottom of the balustrade. The soft triangles resemble the contours of a snake’s body.
Archaeologists, astronomers, historians, scientists, architects, and artists are unanimous in that the phenomenon is no coincidence. El Castillo has been mathematically planned and designed to represent the descent of the feathered-serpent to Earth and blessing its people with the good things of live before it disappears into the ‘well of the Itza’. The descent of Quetzalcoatl is a dramatic display of the Mayan knowledge of astronomy, mathematics and geometry. It takes almost five hours for the serpent god to descent from the top, but the effect last for about 45 minutes and appears for 3 to 4 days. However, the phenomenon is most dramatic on the actual day of the equinoxes.
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Light, Sound & Stories
Every night, the pyramid of Kukulcan is lit up with a kaleidoscopic display of the religious and cultural elements of the Maya. History comes to life through the stories told with the play of light and sound. The spectacle is capable of raising emotions, as the voice recounts tales of war, love, life, death and the religious rituals of one of the more obscure societies of ancient Mesoamerica.
The show lasts for half-an-hour and the presentation is in Spanish. However, non-Spanish speaking people can follow the stories because of the visual symbolism. The show can be as educational as it can be entertaining. It illustrates the theories and beliefs, which moulded the everyday, scientific, religious and militaristic lives of one of the most sophisticated civilizations of the ancient world. A world isolated from every part of the then known world.
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Restoration of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is home to many monuments apart from El Castillo, and all of them are fascinating. The site is open to the public throughout the year; it gets 7000-8000 visitors in high season. Previously, visitors were allowed to climb on to the monuments and explore the interiors of structures. However, this caused the monuments to wear down structurally. It also made it difficult to see the monuments from a distance as tourists swarmed all over them. Tourists also left other marks such as graffiti.
On 5th January 2006, an American lady by the name of Mrs. Black climbed almost to the top of the pyramid of Kukulcan before she fell to her death. Today, visitors no longer have access to the monuments and cannot enter their chambers. Chichen Itza was declared an archaeological site in 1986 and today is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The ancient city is protected by the Federal Law on Monuments and Archaeological, Artistic and Historic Zones