With temple-pyramids that were perfectly aligned with the sun and the stars, observatories, astronomy, mathematics and a calendar system, thrived the ancient Mayan civilization for over 3000 years.
By Priya Narayan
In Central America’s southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador rest the remains of an ancient civilization which had raised moments of doomsday anxiety in the modern world with a calendar that ended on 21st December 2012.
THE MAYAN CIVILIZATION
It emerged in 2600 BC, evolving into many independent states before declining around 900 AD. The perfect geometrical temples, palaces and observatories that the Mayans left behind are all the more impressive for having been built without metal tools and implements.
Known for their art, mathematics, astronomy and complex religious beliefs, the Mayans were one of the ancient civilizations with a deciphered hieroglyphic script, giving us a glimpse into their life and beliefs. They were skilled farmers who had cleared vast tracts of the tropical forest, built underground reservoirs to store rainwater, and were skilled weavers and potters with extensive trade networks.
CITIES AND ARCHITECTURE
The Mayan cities were densely populated and were generally the administrative and religious capitals. Unlike the neat perpendicular grids
of other ancient civilizations, these cities were unplanned with temples and palaces being torn down and rebuilt over time. This left the Mayans with city boundaries that were not well-defined, although a few had moats or defensive earthworks around them. City walls were rare, and the few that were found, dated to the collapse of the civilization, pointing towards cities under siege at this stage.
Tikal in Guatemala is home to many of the magnificent structures, including the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, Temple of the Masks, the North Acropolis, among others.
The towering temple pyramids were built from hand cut limestone blocks, often with paintings on them and images carved. Some housed tombs of high priests with personal items buried with them.
While temples were the imposing structures, palaces made up the bulk of Mayan construction. Single-storeyed in general and built on platforms lower than those of temples, palaces had multiple rooms and one or more courtyards. Yet, the narrow and spartan rooms raise doubts which do not have answers – did the rulers and the elite actually live in them? Or as a few other archeologists conjecture, did priests, nuns or religious figures occupy them?
Reservoirs, steam baths and ball courts were common too. The cities often had pillars or stelae, built sometimes on platforms, and facing important
temples and palaces, usually with an altar in front. Religion was central to the Mayans who worshipped hundreds of Gods and compounds were built for citizens to view the frequent religious ceremonies performed on platforms above the cities.
People continue to gather each year at the temple pyramid, El Castillo in Chichen Itza, the principle Mayan city in the Yucatan peninsula during the vernal and the autumnal equinoxes. The Sun gradually illuminates the stairs of the pyramid and the serpent head at the base, creating the image of a snake slithering down the sacred mountain.
This is just one example of the Mayans aligning their ceremonial buildings with precision with the Sun and the stars and they did this to venerate the Gods. Visit the Tomb of Pacal, the Mayan Emperor, in the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque and you’ll find that it’s aligned with the Sun. At winter solstice, the Sun enters a temple doorway as it crosses the sky, falls on the back wall, and when the Sun sets, it is in line with the centre of the temple roof, seeming to descend the temple stairway into the tomb, thus equating Pacal’s death and entry into the underworld with that of the Sun.
Mayan art is known for its intricate designs and paintings, decorations on ceramics, flint, bone and shell, in addition to decorated cotton textiles. What little metal they used was for ceremonial purposes and in necklaces, bracelets and headdresses. Carvings in wood, stone and clay were found in Mayan sites, so were terracotta figurines.
Much of the art, inscriptions and architecture were commissioned by kings to be remembered over the centuries. Copan’s hieroglyphic stairway with statues, figures, ramps and the central stairway depicts the history of the royal descent.
Out of the many theories that try to solve the mystery of the Mayan decline, the more popular ones refer to drought and climate change. Sediment samples from Belize’s Great Blue Hole, an underwater sinkhole, showed fewer tropical cyclones and longer droughts during the period of the Mayan decline. This in turn could have led to famine and war and the eventual disintegration of a once great civilization.
21st December 2012 has come and gone, and the earth lives on. When the date was still some months away, doomsday theories ran rife based on the fact that the ancient Mayan calendar ended on that day. The Mayans with their advanced astronomy, mathematics and calendar, it was argued, had foreseen the world’s end.
Saner voices said that it simply was the end of the 13th Bak’tun, an approximately 400-year period in the Mayan long count calendar and with the end of the day, the new cycle begins.