“Bapi-every-body-is-going-away! I just want to go back now…” wailed our 6 year old son as he kicked water from a puddle. We had just visited the tomb of “Pacal” - the greatest and longest living Maya King.
It was raining hard and everyone else had already gone back to the tour bus. I was trying to capture some final images of the Temple of the Inscriptions with my ancient video camera.
We were on a 10-day road trip in Mexico. It was raining as expected in Palenque, one of the most fascinating, beautiful and haunting cities that the Maya built. Surrounded by lush tropical forests this place hides some of the biggest architectural Maya monuments discovered so far.
It was a busy holiday period and the place was swarming with tourists. Despite the rain, there was a flurry of colorful but temporary raincoats passing us by. I started recording bits and pieces of what the guide was saying. It was hard to understand his accented voice above all the surrounding noise - including that emanating from our wailing kid.
“Only 4% of this region has been excavated…”, said the tour guide.
Ok so we don’t know what we don’t know. Many questions remain unanswered. But one thing is clear – this was a fascinating age and a talented tribe of people that built these pyramids.
It is evident from the tablets, steles and inscriptions that have been discovered and deciphered - the Maya civilization was an advanced civilization consisting of architects, engineers, mathematicians, artists and astronomers, with their own hieroglyphic writing system and their calendar system called the Long Count. A year was 360 days consisting of 18 months of 20 days each.
The Maya believed that time was circular. One could return to the same place in time and space by completing the circle. They plotted the movements of the sun, moon and planets with remarkable accuracy. The Temple of Inscriptions where the tomb of Pacal resides - is an example of the astronomical prowess of the Maya. This building is designed in such a way that a person standing on top of the nearby Palace Tower, on the day of the winter solstice can see the setting sun sink precisely into Pacal’s tomb, perhaps signifying it to be the gateway to the underworld.
During Pacal’s reign the Maya prospered economically due to flourishing trade and commerce. Magnificent palaces, temples and courts were built and decorated tablets were installed to record the wealth and progress of that era.
Suddenly after a thousand years of growth, the Maya civilization seems to have collapsed in the 9th century. The reasons are still not known to us.
It could have been an earthquake or a plague like disease that led to the sudden collapse. One of the theories is that the Maya deforested the region to serve their increasing needs and to produce more of their monuments. For instance in order to make stucco they had to burn stone, for which they needed to get more and more wood from the forests. This could mean a tipping point was reached to trigger a dramatic change in climate.
Another theory is that there was growing inequity between the elite and the masses and a tipping point was reached then revolution broke out, the workers and peasants massacred the ruling class and with their passing the key learnings disappeared and that led to a rapid decline.
There are many such theories, but none are proven to be true yet. I guess any civilization could come to an end - if it reaches some sort of tipping point with the environment or with the social or economic set up.
Perhaps an angry young God became very impatient with the Maya and kicked their entire civilization out of existence. I looked at my son who was impatiently kicking the water from the puddles. Hmmm.
As we ran back to the waiting tour bus, I wondered if as per their ancient beliefs the Maya shall return one day and occupy positions of power and prominence in the world. What a strange thing to believe in today’s day and age. But I guess it finally depends on what we as civilized and scientific minded yet fantasy loving humans ultimately want to believe in.