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Tryst with the Mayan past
The Mayan netherworld may have vanished mysteriously after the Spanish attack, but some newly found ruins give us a glimpse at a speleological spectacle.

Hourglass-shaped cave entrance [Credit: K.V. Krishnan]
The hourglass-shaped cavern entrance loomed ominously unwelcome. Splashing awkwardly into the turquoise waters in my tennis shoes, I swam up to a ledge leading into the cave's dark belly. As the gush of the Roaring Creek angrily pushed me back against the slippery rocks, a wave of hesitation welled inside. Was I ready to take in those dark secrets of the Mayan netherworld?

Clambering upstream through large stones and squeezing through sharp calcite sculptures, I seemed to be wading forever through neck-deep waters into the world of an ancient people. It was just a couple of hours ago that we had driven from San Ignacio in western Belize where a large Mayan civilization had flourished more than 1500 years ago. Upon that very tract of lush forest now teems with the squeals of keel-billed toucans and growls of howler monkeys. For an hour we plodded through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve where a rustle hid a crouching jaguar or a shy tapir chewing on the bushes. We had made three river crossings already and our guide goaded us on.

Scary Had I foolishly signed up for an adventure marked out only for the hardiest? We were headed to a hoary Mayan sacrificial site — Actun Tunichil Muknal, or the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre tucked somewhere in Western Belize. Twenty years ago a farmer had stumbled upon this site which was then thrown open to the public in 1998 after archaeologists explored a couple of miles into its innards. Why, even the czars of adventure from a National Geographic expedition had covered this site not so long ago, branding it an utter ‘place of fright'.

Never before had I adventured into the maw of a Mayan underworld so well preserved in time. Many secrets were unveiled as I splashed through cold waters and impassable rocks guided only by the conical spot that my headlamp cast. Amid the glitter of limestone and sparkling flowstone formations, I noticed the blur of artefacts scattered just as ancient Mayans had left them over 12 centuries ago.

Ceremonial Jars [Credit: K.V. Krishnan]
Severe droughts between 700-900AD had left the Mayans desperate — their frightful gods of the underworld needed to be appeased. Week-long festivities at the cave's mouth propitiated these divinities and that mystical ceiba tree spreading its branches to the heavens. Alas, its dark roots led to dreaded Xibalba, the underworld whose gatekeepers weren't easily sated. They needed human blood.

Torches in hands, and muttering incantations, the shamans who had been feasting on hallucinogenic mushrooms might have waded through these very waters and clambered on the same rocks as I was struggling on, victim in tow. Their tall headdresses laden with feathers of the sacred quetzal must have slowed them down. The fervent chants of this ominous entourage seemed to drown in the cacophony of the gushing waters.

Several large jars laden with offerings may have been lowered down that sky-lit opening a quarter mile into the cave where the roof had collapsed. I saw an assortment of bowls and instruments for horrific rituals of blood. In all my years of adventure travel, the ‘Cathedral' was probably the most remarkable of sights I have ever seen.

Squeezing through narrow crevices above the roar of the water we entered an unimaginably vast chamber. Here was an endless speleological spectacle. We were asked to walk barefoot – for this was the sacred sanctum of the ancient Mayans. Here was a huge stone hall with stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones as coruscating adornments. Scattered on the floor were skulls and bones just as the ancients had left them after their horrific deeds.

Fourteen sacrificial victims lay sprawled here – there were probably many more washed away in the floods or buried atop a ledge somewhere. Many were children and infants from elite families noted by their cranial modifications. In one corner lay the glittering Crystal Maiden in silent repose. A 1000 years ago, a noble girl in her early twenties was struck with a stone axe as a sacrifice to the Lords of Xibalba in a desperate bid for a relief from the drought.

The larger jars collected the ceremonial waters — from the stalactites dripped only the purest of the pure. Pots were ritually shattered to release spirits — so the appeased gods may smite the clouds to usher in the promise of rains. What desperate purpose drove the Mayans to this deadly quest? Did the 12 formidable Lords of Xibalba reward the valley with a generous downpour after these bloody rituals? What stark thoughts ran through the mind of the maiden as she lay on the flowstone bed awaiting her end?

As with the powerful Mayan empire, their secrets have mysteriously vanished with their peoples. With the brutal Spanish conquest in the 1500s most codices were destroyed, bringing an old civilization down to its knees. Only those sparkling stalagmites twinkled with the secrets from an ancient past.

Three hours in a dark embrace had strangely transformed me, taking me into a time unknown. As I stepped into the sights and sounds of a new century, I knew I would never forget my recent tryst with an ancient past.

Travel Tips

Teakettle is the base to visit Actun Tunichil Muknal. The village is an hour's drive from San Ignacio, which is a two-hour drive from Belize City. Regular flights operate to Belize City from Miami and Houston, US. An hour's hike through the lush Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve gets you to the cave entrance. The trip involves swimming, climbing and scrambling through the rocks. A tough pair of shoes and a full change of clothes are a must. The place is considered sacred and swimming costumes aren't allowed. An authorised guide is needed.

Author: K.V. Krishnan | Source: The Hindu [April 17, 2011]

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