Archive for December, 2014

I had been to Mexico City in May but had forgotten to write about an interesting opportunity I had, to look up their history. Recently, I came across my notes and so, this is a delayed post from the visit on 22nd May, 2014.

I had heard about some pyramids near Mexico City, in a place called Teotihuacan and that had intrigued me quite a lot, especially as I had thought that pyramids were to be found only in Egypt. There are operators that run daily tours to Teotihuacan and the site itself is only an hour’s drive from the city. The tour also included a couple more sites en route and the first stop was at the “Plaza of the Three Cultures” (Plaza de las Tres Culturas).

This plaza is in the city itself and has three cultures – Aztec, Spanish and the modern Mexican – represented there by way of buildings. You can see the ruins of an Aztec, a Franciscan church built in the early seventeenth century and a modern apartment complex – the last being an eye sore.

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The next stop was the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe or the Virgin of Guadalupe. This Basilica is a very important shrine for Catholics and has an interesting story behind it. On December 9, 1531 a peasant of Aztec origin, by name of Juan Diego, was walking on a hill by name of Tepeyac. He saw a maiden there, who spoke to him in this native Aztec language and asked for a church to be built for her at that site. From the conversation, Jan Diego understood that this was Virgin Mary herself and rushed to the Archbishop of Mexico City to convey the news. The Archbishop was sceptical and asked Juan Diego to return to the spot and collect evidence from the lady about her identity. Juan Diego went back to Tepeyac Hill and conveyed this to the lady; she then asked him to gather some flowers from the top of the hill. Normally, the hill would have been barren in December but to his surprise, Juan Diego found some roses there and more surprising was that those roses were not the variety that grew in Mexico but those that were found in Castile in Spain. The lady arranged the flowers in Juan Diego’s cloak and he took it back to the Archbishop and when he opened the cloak there, the roses fell out and on the fabric, the image of the Virgin could be seen. This was proof enough for the Archbishop and a church was built, in due course of time. The original cloak is still preserved in the Basilica. It was interesting to me that such stories seem to be common across the world. Many are the stories I have heard in India about how one god or the other appeared to some king or a pious individual and asked for a temple to be built. In any case, this is one of the most sacred sites for Catholics in Mexico and Juan Diego was canonized in 2002.

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Mexico City was essentially a large lake that the Spanish dried out and they constructed buildings on the lake bed. However, they did not fully appreciate the issue of building on soil which is not very firm and so many of the buildings from the Spanish colonial era are sinking. The original Basilica was also sinking and a new and far more modern version was built between 1974 and 1976 with stronger foundations. This building is quite interesting and does not resemble a typical church and looks from the outside, like a museum. All the glass work on the building has been made by Indians and the light inside is very strange and the overall feel was very, very different from the other churches I have been to.

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Before we reached the pyramids themselves, there was the customary stop at some tourist traps. There, we were shown how important the Maguey variety of cactus was, to the indigenous people. A short grows from the centre of the cactus and when this is cut out, a bowl shaped area of formed and every day, each cactus produces around 4 litres of juice for six months in a year. This juice, when fermented, becomes an alcoholic drink. I tasted it and found it quite like toddy, which we get from coconut trees. At the tips of the leaves of the cactus, you can find a very sharp and sturdy black coloured needle and the needled has a kind of string attached to it and can be used to sew clothes together. From the inside of the leaf, a very thin layer can be removed and it can be used like paper or papyrus. Overall, the Maguey cactus is a very useful tree and almost all of it can be used, much like the coconut tree.

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Teotihuacan city is estimated to have been built in BC 100 and it lasted till AD 550, when it was destroyed and burnt down. The major monuments were under constant construction till AD 250. It pre-dated the Aztecs and in its prime, was supposedly the most important city in pre-Colombian Americas. The major sights today are the Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon, Avenue of the Dead, The Citadel and the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. These pyramids are built on a geological fault line running from San Francisco to Guatemala and since the architects wanted the buildings to last for eternity (as they were built for the gods) the pyramid structure was adopted and it is earthquake tolerant.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest structure in Teotihuacan and faces west. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, the pyramids in Mexico are temples, not tombs. The Pyramid of the Sun represents the god of life and has areas that resemble eyes, nose etc. of a face. It was not clear what the pyramid was originally called this name was given by the Aztecs, that came later.

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This Pyramid is about 246 feet high and is the third tallest pyramid in the world but is only half as tall as the Great Pyramid in Giza. The steps were a bit steep and each step was quite big and so the climb was a fairly rigorous affair. At the top, there was an altar but I could not find any trace now. One can see a major portion of the site from the top with views of the buildings that existed there, pyramid of the Moon etc.

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The Pyramid of the Moon is dedicated to the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan but I could not find much more details about it from the guide. It was interesting to me that there was a concept of a Goddess but all I could find was some information from the internet, which I am not reproducing here. The Pyramid of the Moon was quite beautiful and the walk leading up to this pyramid is called the Avenue of the Dead. I couldn’t get any information as to why it is called the Avenue of the Dead – it was lined with small pyramids with square platforms at the top on either side.

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On one building on the Avenue of the Dead, is a mural depicting a Puma with large claws. Supposedly, this was part of what was called The puma Complex, but further details were not available.

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Next stop was the Citadel, which was the nerve centre of life in Teotihuacan. In those days, there was no currency and trade was completely based on barter system. This raised the issue of how to fix the relative value of commodities being bought and sold and this lead to many quarrels. To settle these quarrels, judges were appointed, who were specialised in the important commodities. These judges could not marry and thus were expected to be corruption free. They sat atop some platforms on pyramid like structures and these structures had no roofs to enable easy connectivity for the judges with the gods.

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Just after the Citadel, is the most beautiful structure in Teotihuacan – the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. This is partly ruined but you can still make out some very beautiful sculptures on the side of the pyramid. Some of these looked quite exquisite and I spent a long time looking at those figures.

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These pyramids are quite majestic and beautiful and these are perhaps the first temples I have seen which have no concept of entering into the structure itself. You just walked on the structure and the altar was on top of it. It seems the ancient people believed that time had a cycle of 52 years and the gods needed to remain strong after each 52-year cycle for the universe to remain intact. Hence, each ruler build a structure over an existing pyramid after a 52-year cycle, thus completely cutting off any access to the earlier structure and this is how pyramids grew in size as well. The Pyramid of the Moon had at least six such renovations.

Somehow I felt that I could not find out enough information about Teotihuacan and that there is much more to be learnt here. So, may be, I will be back one day!