On the Trail of Mayan Secrets
The Puuc Region: Kabah & Sayil
This is the second in a series of articles that explores the philosophic and spiritual concepts of the Classic Maya. What did these intelligent people believe about themselves, life and the gods, and how did those ideas influence the way they lived? In seeking answers I went to the Puuc region of the Yucatan where several ancient sites are located.
“Please, madam, do not go outside the grounds at night,” insisted the Mayan hotel desk clerk.”It is not the tarantulas or alligators that you should be concerned about. But the coral snake. She is the one to watch. She will bite your shadow.”
The Mayan meaning of having one’s shadow bitten is to lose one’s ability to defend oneself. I’d say the coral snake had most definitely bitten me, for I was defenseless against the spell of the place that conjured so much mystery and passion. That night, cradled by the chorus of insects that sing through the night, my dreams were multi-layered with meaning and symbols. Through an open window a dark form. Was it a shadow play or real?
I’d driven from Chichen Itza that morning on a two lane straight path that rolled in leisurely fashion over the low hills toward my destination in the Puuc region. It was well-paved and passed through land virtually uninhabited by man. Once away from the capital of Merida, except for an occasional small truck, I had the road to myself.
The Yucatan, a slab of limestone that divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea has few lakes, no rivers and is honeycombed with caves and sink-holes, called cenotes that have broken through the limestone crust allowing underground water to rise. This relentlessly flat landscape carpeted in green hosts a medium-height tropical forest known most particularly for the over 475 species of birds who are responsible for one aspect of the wonder of the place.
Though Mayan, the Puuc is different than the rest of the peninsula in several ways that we know, and probably many that we do not. For one thing the 4700 square mile area is hilly rather than flat, and clothed in woodland, the hills are alive with a wider range of wildlife: puma, coatimundi, margay, armadillo, deer and spider monkeys, and of course, the birds. But the most important physical difference was that the area has no cenotes so they have no natural way to store water. The people of the Puuc developed a method for extracting the underground water and storing it in manmade pits. A system of cisterns and artificial watering holes are still in evidence. One of the mysteries of this region is why people settled here with no water. One possible explanation is that the hills are said to be extremely fertile due to the runoff from the hills. It is assumed that it was because they would be so dependent on rain for survival that their primary god was the rain god Chac.
Chac was a benign god who caused trees and plants to bud and flower and ripen. Besides his stylized elephant nose, his face was painted black; his jacket was a net symbolizing clouds and his crown was of heron feathers. He carried rattles to create thunder and stylized images of him show large circular eyes that give the appearance of goggles.
It’s only 50 miles from Merida to the first area of ruins at Uxmal, but with each mile devoid of human life, and nothing but monotonous scrub for as far as I could see, I felt I was going further and further from civilization, to the middle of nowhere. The feeling was exhilarating, until I remembered the state of my rental car, which had no odometer, no speedometer and no air-conditioning. Though as the temperature outside went up, I did occasionally fiddle with the switch on the dash that lured me with the promise of coolness.
My thoughts reached toward this place I’d read so much about but had never seen. The unique beauty of the architecture that Frank Lloyd Wright admired had captured my imagination, as well as the opportunity to explore ruins hardly touched by modern man. The area had been inhabited since 800BC and reached it’s height in power and architecture between the 7th and 9th century AD. Around 1200AD it disappeared. Unlike many of the classic Mayan sites that continued to be inhabited for some time after their height, the ruins in the Puuc were entirely abandoned. Why, I wondered?
My long study of the Classic Mayan philosophy and cosmology had showed me that their core beliefs were monotheistic and centered on cycles of change, love and consciousness. The many surviving myths make this point clear. Many Mayanologists believe that the acts of blood rituals and homicide came later and were a distortion of what had once been a complete vision of man’s place in the universe.
The Chilam Balam of Chumayel, the Maya collection of sacred books, expresses their philosophy of monotheism as well as a resonance with other world religions:
Where there was neither heaven nor earth sounded the first word of God. And He unloosed Himself from His stone and declared His divinity. And all the vastness of eternity shuddered. And His word was a measure of grace and He broke and pierced the backbone of the mountains. Who was born there? Who? Father, thou knowest: He who was tender in Heaven came into Being.
The Mayan belief that creation would continually recycle; ending and beginning endlessly, can be seen in another place in the Chilam Balam:
All moons, all years, all days, all winds, reach their completion and pass away. So does all blood reach its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne. Measured was the time in which they could praise the splendor of the trinity. Measured was the time in which the grid of the stars would look down upon them; and through it, keeping watch over their safety, the gods trapped within the stars would contemplate them.
Here again was the concept of the cyclical nature of life I’d explored in their calendars at Chichen Itza. Within the movement of the heavens extending three million years, stillness was felt, like a spoked wheel that when it whirls at great speed appears solid and at rest. Everything turns on its cycle, reaches completion and finds its quiet place, it’s power and its throne. Here is fulfillment and back to the beginning; the perpetual cycle seen in the heavens and reflected on earth.
As I drove through miles of almost complete emptiness these beautiful ideas of the Maya seemed particularly haunting. Where were they now? The Yucatan still has a Mayan population but the people live mostly in small villages that have not physically changed in a thousand years. The early beliefs that had been responsible for the rise of a sophisticated culture were all but lost to the modern Maya.
Suddenly out of the empty landscape, a vision of oasis quality materialized; hundreds of palms and tall graceful trees, elegant Spanish buildings with red-tile roofs, and a sweeping entranceway that was Uxmal’s Hacienda Hotel.
As I walked to dinner that night a Toucan greeted me from his perch in a grass roofed hut-cage on the veranda of the hotel. His huge yellow beak was backlit in the last of the sun’s rays, reminding me of the classic Maya profile with hooked nose, and of the rain god Chac whose main feature is that famous shaped nose. The Maya are known for their interest in the meaning of things beyond the material which made me wonder what meaning they were referring to beyond the prominent nose whose shape ornaments so many of the temples. Was it the crescent moon, the arc planets make around a sun, the passage of time itself?
As I sought to understand these underlying meanings, I felt that my own mind was being bent by this place where Mayan minds thought such thoughts, where they pondered the secrets of the universe. Was my present bent of mind being stimulated by the sounds in the air; enchanting me with songs of love and truth?
The next morning dawned full of birdsongs and filtered light through the canopy of occasional clouds. I’d decided to head first for Kabah and Sayil, two sites nearby said to be untouched and lovely, and explore the larger and more famous ruins of Uxmal tomorrow. I filled my camera bag with all types of film, since I didn’t know what the conditions would be; the weather in the Yucatan can change in minutes and often does.
At Kabah I could hardly believe my good fortune when I drove the 23 miles to the site and pulled up in the grass on the side of the road with no parking lot, no buses, no one but me and the ancient man at the entrance — a wood hut with dresses hanging on a line for sale — who took my 20 pesos–2 dollars, with a toothless grin and a warm, buenos dias.
Kabah, The Lord of the Strong and Powerful Hand, closely linked to Uxmal and the two other primary centers, epitomizes the Puuc style of architecture. The main buildings were larger than I’d seen at other sites and the design was definitely unique. A thin limestone veneer covered over a cement and rubble core; decorated cornices swirled around the columns in doorways; frets and lattice like designs criss-crossed over the surface, and lavish stone mosaics in the upper façade emphasized sky-serpent faces with long hook shaped noses!! Chac was everywhere and most particularly on the Kodz Poop which means rolled-up matting, a long building with over 250 stone masks of Chac that ran row after row over the entire westside of the structure. The repetition was absolutely breath-taking in its effect and clearly expressed their reverence for this god.
I was reminded of the Buddhist prayer wheels that are lined up and run in a circle so that one can walk and spin one after the other sending one’s prayer to the gods over and over again. The builders of this structure must have had something similar in mind. The idea of the repetition of prayers is not unlike present day affirmations. But in this case, the Maya actually created the prayers in physical form, once again demonstrating their symbolic way of thinking. They believed that whatever existed on the physical was representative of the unseen—of the spiritual.
The eastside of the Kodz Poop was equally impressive in an entirely different way. Delicate lattice work and stylized huts were set below two huge statues of humans that looked out from their vantage point across the hills imparting a sense of guardianship and safety. The head of one was missing but the other’s face was decorated with tattoos, marking them as nobility. Facing east was probably connected to their concept of eternal return; the cycle of life seen in the rising of the sun in the east. They believed that the west and not the east is the seed ground, perpetual re-creation of life out of death. Rebirth occurred when the light dawned in the east the following day. As the sun dies or disappears, the seeds of its rebirth are planted.
The morning passed quickly as I explored every nook and cranny of Kabah, so different than any site I’d visited previously. The long structures with several stories expressed a more expansive multi-layered attitude. Except for the pyraminds, other Mayan sites on the peninsula tend to be square, single storied and with little ornamentation. It was no wonder that Frank Lloyd Wright had been so impressed with this architecture that had reached the height of sophistication
A five minute drive brought me to Sayil where another surprise awaited me. A well tended path wound through dense jungle and into a beautiful flower garden with a traditional Mayan thatch-roofed hut tended by a gracious woman. I was so surprised to find myself in what was obviously her private garden that I stumbled an awkward, Tres bonito jardin, mixing my small French with smaller Spanish.
She laughed kindly. “Thank you, Senora. It is my passion.” Fortunately speaking English.
“Are you guardian of the ruins?”
“My other passion. Will you look?”
“I will. What do you know about them that I should know as I go through?”
“The structures are far from one another, so look for the signs and don’t give up and come back too soon. Are you alone?”
“Si, it’s just me.”
She nodded and smiled what seemed to be approval. “The jungle is dense in this region, and the way is long from the Great Palace to the other buildings. But it is safe, so, please, don’t worry.” She patted my shoulder.
Sayil means, The place of Ants, hardly a name our modern minds relate to positively, but what did it mean to the Maya? Did they have a special love of ants, or did they mean something entirely different?
It was nearing noon, and the sky was free of clouds, making the day warmer than usual as I headed into the dense growth where flowering vines leapt across the space from tree to tree, and plants, more root than stem, grabbed at my feet as I carefully walked the rock strewn path. I was soon glad of the woman’s warning, for it seemed I’d walked forever without seeing anything or anyone besides the jungle. It was probably no more than half an hour but alone in such a place had a forever quality about it. The only sound was of birds. I was in their territory where there was no illusion of whose place it was.
But what a delight awaited me when suddenly the jungle gave way to a huge open space and the largest single structure I’d seen. The Great Palace reminded me of the ancient Minoan palace at Knossos. There were over 100 rooms reached by wide stairways to three separate floors where I imagined robed figures with feathered head-dresses conducting elaborate rituals.
Both Kabah and Sayil would have been the spiritual centers for the villages around them where the priests and elite served the needs of the people by imparting the wisdom they had come to understand and conducting regular rituals for the maintenance of their way of life. These were a people whose spiritual lives were deeply woven with the physical and with their concepts of multi-layered symbolism, they would not have believed there was a difference.
Might the Maya have lost sight of the truth they had come to know and by so doing, lost their creative edge as a culture, falling back into superstition as the village people of today had. The distortion that occurred in their thinking is demonstrated before the fall of the Classic period when they embraced violence and blood sacrifice. Could that have been the beginning of a loss of consciousness? I see a great people in their concepts, and by virtue of their awareness, there is an ability to do great things. The vast and glorious sites of Kabah and Sayil were for ritual worship of the gods for all the surrounding villages. But when the gods become terrifying who will want to come near them?
The front of the palace structure had been excavated but the back had been left untouched. Trees and vines grew from cracks in the tumbling rocks conveying the sense of a long passage of time. The Mayan concept of destruction and creation occurring from out of the rubble of what went before was obviously in evidence here.
I decided to explore the palace more closely, and peering inside one of the many openings to the rooms, was startled by dozens of birds that flew out and around me. Curious, I looked in several others and discovered that thousands of birds were now the inhabitants of Sayil’s Great Palace. I chuckled at the idea that maybe the visionary Maya had been moved to build these semi-permanent nests for the rightful inhabitants; tricked into doing so by the will of the bird god?
Able to wander alone in the silence with the many elegant structures reclaimed by vegetation and creatures of all sorts, I felt privileged and could practically see the moment of the high culture’s disappearance hovering in the air like a message left by those who’d loved this place and left. It was not an answer in words but in feeling; of sadness and loss, of dreams ended and an unknown future, of courage and vision, and ultimately of humanities vast ability to recreate itself, watched from above by the gods trapped within the stars. With their ability to foresee the future, had they known the end was coming and gone to nearby centers, transforming their lives as the hero twins had taught them to? There are as many theories about the end of the Classic Maya as there are theorists but one thing is certain; they understood cycles of change probably better than any other culture.
As I made my way back through the dense growth to my car, I thanked all the creatures seen and unseen for the gifts of this day. I had received more than I could have hoped for and still there was Uxmal tomorrow.