Inca mystery

Print edition : February 12, 2010

MACHU PICCHU (OLD mountain) and Huyana Picchu (young mountain) form an awesome backdrop to the Inca ruins.-MACHU PICCHU (OLD mountain) and Huyana Picchu (young mountain) form an awesome backdrop to the Inca ruins.

MIST, mystique and mystery are the defining characteristics of Machu Picchu, the Inca ruins in Peru, the latest addition to the list of new world wonders. Tucked away in the Andean heights, perpetually draped in gossamer clouds and concealed from the prying eyes of treasure-hunters and tourists for over 400 years, Machu Picchu burst on the historical and archaeological scene in 1911 when Yale historian Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it during his search for Vilcabamba, the legendary city of the mighty Inca empire. At its zenith, Vilcabamba sprawled over about 4,000 square kilometres and included societies as far away as todays Colombia, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.

Bingham never found Vilcabamba, but what he did find was no less awe-inspiring. Machu Picchu is perhaps the most outstanding archaeological find in the Americas. But even a 100 years after its discovery, its origin and purpose remain a mystery, challenging historians and archaeologists alike. What we know about the site today is at best sketchy, pieced together from disparate sources and embellished with conjecture.

A SECTION OF the ruins of the urban quarters. The Inca king probably built Machu Picchu as a strategic retreat for the royal family, away from the prying eyes of potential enemies.-

Machu Picchu is a demanding destination. Reaching this Inca site requires time, effort and, above all, fitness. From Lima, Perus capital, one has to get to Cusco, the ancient Inca capital that perches at a height of 11,000 feet (3,353 metres), either by air or through a 20-hour hopping bus ride. A couple of days of acclimatisation there is essential before one can move further up to Machu Picchu at 13,000 feet (3,962 m).

There are only two ways to reach the destination trek the arduous Inca trail for three days or take the exorbitantly priced Peru Rail to Aguas Calientes and ride a bus from there to the gates of the ruins. One can also trek up the hill from Aguas Calientes; it takes a couple of hours. At the gates of the ruins, one only has to peer inside to comprehend the ordeal that lies ahead. There is quite a bit of climbing to do, both up and down, through a sprawling complex of slopes and terraces paved with steep and jagged stones, slippery with moss. All along, ones lungs strain to cope with the diminished oxygen levels.

After acclimatisation in Cusco, I take the four-hour backpacker train ride to Aguas Calientes. The journey, virtually all of it along the Urubamba river, is a tranquilising experience. Emerald terraces of maize and potato fleet past, while a majestic mountain range forms an imposing backdrop. The river roars, hisses and hurtles through rocks, cliffs and expansive valleys.

Aguas Calientes gets its name from the natural hot springs there. The town, verdant and drenched in a steady drizzle, might have been beautiful had not hasty development overtaken it. Bars and cafes line the streets and on offer are Inca Cola and Brahma Beer! There is a thriving artisanal bazaar hawking local crafts and alpaca sweaters, caps and socks. But there is no time to linger and haggle. I join the long queue to board the battery-run minibuses that wend their way up the steep slopes to the ruins.

LIVING QUARTERS OF common people. The Incas used perfectly interlocking blocks of stone, an enterprise that must have called for considerable skill and effort.-

No one knows the original name of Machu Picchu. Ever since Hiram Bingham discovered the ruins, the place has been referred to by the name of the mountain that towers over it. Veiled in mist, Machu Picchu (old mountain) and Huyana Picchu (young mountain) form an awesome backdrop to the Inca citadel. The ruins are tucked away out of sight until one is actually upon them. No wonder they were never found for so long. Historians believe that this settlement was built between A.D. 1438 and 1471 possibly by the Inca king Pachucuteq, ruler of Tahuantinsuyo. Carbon-dating of the site confirms this period.

GATEWAY TO MACHU Picchu. There is quite a bit of climbing to do through a sprawling complex of slopes and terraces paved with steep and jagged stones, slippery with moss.-

Our guide is at pains to explain that Inca in the native language refers to the king and that the people over whom the kings ruled are called Quechua, native Andean tribes. Who exactly were the Incas and what was their empire like? We do know that the Inca kings had fabulous riches, their palaces were covered in gold and they ruled over a population that numbered over 12 million. What became of those riches? How is it that such a civilisation vanished without a trace? Why is it that so little is known about Inca history?

These are questions that remain unresolved. What we know is based mostly on conjecture, partly because the Quechua people did not have a script. Inca lore was transmitted through oral legends and stories. In the process, much was lost. But, more importantly, when the Spaniards conquered the Incas, they destroyed all that was native and glorious.

AT THE HEART of the ruins is this semicircular structure, thought to be a sun temple. Scientists believe it was used as a solar observatory.-

Riven by internecine conflict and civil war, the Inca empire was at its vulnerable worst when the Spaniards rode into Cusco. A ragtag bunch of 180 Spanish conquistadores headed by Fransisco Pizarro landed in Cusco in 1532. Their arrival, at first, was viewed with little more than curiosity by the Incas; they did not recognise the danger posed by Spanish steel weaponry and horse cavalry. Pizarro and his men set a trap and successfully captured Atahualpa, the last sovereign emperor of the Inca empire, who assumed that the Spanish simply intended to raid the empire. He, therefore, offered them a ransom of handsome quantities of gold and silver in exchange for his release. Pizarro accepted the offer and promised to release Atahualpa.

All the gold in Inca palaces was carted away by Pizarros men, but Pizarros cupidity knew no bounds. He demanded more gold to be brought to be shipped back home. The Quechuas never regarded gold as precious their kingdom was replete with the metal. Atahualpa ordered more gold to be brought from the mines in the jungle. As the llama train bearing its cargo of gold nuggets was on its way, the Inca king was murdered by Pizarros men. They also fanned out in all directions, systematically sacking other Inca cities and towns. Machu Picchu escaped their depredations primarily because it remained hidden from them by virtue of its location.

AT THE CONDOR temple, with a deity shaped like the beak of a condor. It testifies to the fact that the Quechuas worshipped animals and birds.-

The conquering Spaniards subjugated the natives, established their colony and systematically went about sacking Inca citadels, destroying anything and everything that was native and noteworthy. Thus, the Incas palaces were razed to the ground; temples were built over with Catholic churches, cathedrals and cloisters; music and culture were banned; and their way of life was destroyed beyond redemption.

It is perhaps strange that a civilisation that is relatively recent did not have a written language. Spanish has been the lingua franca since the 16th century. In fact, in todays Peru, there are very few elders who can speak the Inca dialect. But the Incas had an ingenious, if knotty, way of preserving relevant information. They coded their information in cotton and woollen strings dyed in specific colours and knotted together in specific ways. This system of writing, called Quipu, was prevalent throughout the region, with many South American tribes and societies being able to decipher and transmit information in this way. Experts believe that Quipu could have been the Quechua mnemonic device that helped oral historians remember ancient and important legends. However, the Spanish conquistadores were deeply suspicious of Quipu and destroyed all those that they could lay their hands on. Only a few survive and they have not yet been decoded.

Machu Picchu, by virtue of its unique location, may have been spared by the Spanish conquistadores, but Bingham seems to have completed the job begun by them. Our guide tells us that this historian from Yale University carted away as many as 40,000 artefacts of great archaeological and historical significance. These are now housed in the Peabody Museum in New Haven, United States. The Peruvian government is negotiating the return of these artefacts to Peru.

Meanwhile, Peruvians have lost no time in putting Machu Picchu on the global tourist map, with several million people visiting the ruins every year. Sustained lobbying by Peruvians has secured for Machu Picchu the status of new world wonder.

IN CUSCO, THE ancient Inca capital that perches at a height of 3,353 metres, a Quechua woman and children with a llama on a leash.-

A good deal of what we know about the splendid Inca civilisation comes from what has been pieced together from Binghams finds. The Inca empire flourished between 1463 and 1532, and Machu Picchu itself was occupied only during the period of the last three generations of Incas. It is probable that the Inca king who made Cusco the royal capital built Machu Picchu as a strategic retreat for the royal family, hidden from the prying eyes of potential enemies. But being deeply religious, the Inca kings made sure that the settlement was perched on a sacred mountain from where they would get a vantage view of the sun and stars and constellations.

The ruins at Machu Picchu can be broadly divided into two sections, farming terraces and urban quarters. The Quechuas harnessed water from springs and channelled them into their citadel through canals and fountains. The ruins comprise palaces, temples, warehouses and living quarters for the court staff and nobility and some public spaces for ceremonial congregation. The structures were built of stones quarried from nearby mountains and cut into slabs on the site.

The Incas managed to build the entire township without the use of mortar, just as the ancient Egyptians did in building the pyramids. They used perfectly interlocking blocks of stone, an enterprise that must have called for considerable skill and effort. Not even a knife-blade could penetrate the space between stone slabs. The roofs were covered with thatch. However, curiously, there are no embellishments, engravings or figurines that could have given a clue to their culture, religion and ethos.

THE PLAZA DE Armas, or main square, at Cusco.-

Today, all that remains of Machu Picchu are the bare walls and the foundations, spread over several terraces. At the heart of the ruins is the sun temple, a semicircular structure. Scientists believe it was used as a solar observatory. A condor temple with a deity shaped like the beak of a condor testifies to the fact that the Quechuas worshipped animals and birds. In Incan society all corpses were mummified in a foetal position. Mummies of noblemen were kept in temples, while those of common people were buried or placed in cemeteries.

On terraces, which must have once supported crops, llamas graze. Native Quechua women with characteristic twin plaits sell Andean corn very colourful and each kernel as big as a marble. As I make my way through the ruins, my knees cry out for rest. But a steady drizzle has rendered every stone and block wet and slippery. Our guide assures us that it rains every day during the wet season and almost every day during the dry season.

He leads us to a coca bush and offers a few leaves for us to taste. He informs us that bringing out the narcotic properties of coca takes quite a bit of processing with chemicals and that coca leaves themselves are quite harmless. Tourist curiosity about coca leaves has spawned a huge industry of coca products. Coca tea, coca biscuit, coca bread, coca drink and a host of coca products line the shelves of shops in all tourist areas in Peru.

TOWN SQUARE AT Aguas Calientes, which gets its name from its natural hot springs. Machu Picchu can be reached from here by bus or a two-hour trek.-

It is believed that Machu Picchu was abandoned suddenly by its inhabitants. As to the reason why this might be, there is only speculation, no definitive information. Since the citadel is almost intact but for the roofs, which must have been blown away over time, it could not have been a natural calamity.

Was it an enemy attack that drove its inhabitants out of Machu Picchu? We will never know for sure. Unlike Pompeii or Santorini, where a volcanic eruption snuffed out lives of the inhabitants but left enough vestiges for archaeologists and historians to reconstruct their life and times, Macchu Picchu remains an enduring mystery to date.