It was a beautiful night. A clear, dark, full sky, dotted with innumerable little stars twinkling away to make their presence felt. The moon shone bright, its full outline clearly and sharply visible around the concave crescent, as if emphasizing to us that it had a full circular shape, just that today it was choosing to show a sliver of itself. I could not remember the last time I had seen a night sky so full of shimmer or a lunar outline so complete and sharp. No city lights impeding or trying to shut out the light of these gifts of nature, no clouds masking their beauty from us. I was not home, I was far away, in Peru, in the valley of the Urubamba river, called fondly by Peruvians as the Sacred Valley (Valle Sagrada) after the significance it held for their ancestors, the Incas. I was on vacation in Incaland. It was a trip we had really looked forward to. We had travelled through the sacred valley, Cusco and Machu Picchu, marveled at the different sites, dug into the delightful cuisine of Peru that is prolific enough to spoil even vegetarians like us for choice. Happy but a tad exhausted, we were now relaxing at our beautiful resort in the valley. It was winter, the air was cold. The resort had a lovely heated swimming pool. While half of the pool was indoors, its other half jutted out into the open outdoors, with an infinity edge on its far end – a real luxury as it allowed guests like me to enjoy the nip in the air while being in the comfort of warm water.
It was in this pool that night that I was enjoying serene solitude, as no one else was around at that hour. The atmosphere was very soothing, and after a few lazy laps, I chose to just float on my back, allowing myself a full view of the beautiful moon-and-star-studded sky that I describe above. The muted sound of lapping water in my water-submerged ears gave a sound effect that no dolby theater could match. It was magical, mesmerizing. I was looking at the beautiful expanse of the sky overhead, almost cut out from the rest of the world. Visuals of the sites we had been visiting in the past few days ran through my mind, and as they did so, they seemed strangely to be projected on the huge screen of the sky in front of me. I remembered the stories I had heard from our guide – how the Incas had ruled this area for over three centuries about five hundred years ago; how, like with most ancient civilizations, they had had their own well-developed ethnic culture and social, political, religious systems; how knowledgeable they were about nature, and how advanced in construction techniques.
The stars above twinkled away and suddenly an idea flashed in my head – what if the Incas are looking at me right now from the heavens above, from behind the stars, “listening” to my thoughts about them? The idea tickled me, and I tried my best to stifle a laugh as it would throw my floating posture off balance. But the idea grew on me; almost unconsciously, my thoughts began to organize themselves to have a conversation with the Incas, whose lasting presence I had felt in the valley for the last few days. It was easier than I thought for my mind to feign this conversation with the invisible Incas that it saw in the stars in the sky. “Hi there, hello! I am visiting your land, looking at what remains of the mighty and wealthy kingdom you had built in Peru. You guys were great, you must feel so proud of your achievements!” A twinkle of the stars looked like a “nod” of acknowledgment. I remembered little Simba from the Lion King, speaking to Mufasa whom he saw among the stars, and began to feel a bit like that. I was beginning to enjoy this game of solitaire my mind was playing with itself, allowing me to reminisce about the last few days and also collect my thoughts; I let the game continue….
“When I got here first, I could not understand why you would have wanted to build your fortresses and citadels so high up in the Andes – it was so difficult to construct! But as I understood you better, I began to appreciate your logic of being in locations that were unscalable and impregnable. No wonder Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spanish conquistadors and was uncovered much later. I began to understand some of your religious beliefs. Nature is the starting and ending point of life, our existence is a miracle of nature. You understood it better than us probably, that’s why you worshipped the Sun, the moon, the stars, animals and other natural elements. Your temples were dedicated to nature. The remnants of your beautiful Sun and Moon temples in the Korikancha castle in Cusco with frescoes of your depiction of the might of nature’s elements, are fascinating. The puma or mountain lion was sacred to you, and you dedicated the city of Cusco to it, by designing the whole city in the shape of a puma, with the citadel of Sacsayhuaman up there in the mountains becoming the head of the puma! What a unique way to pay homage, unique in your times and unique even today. The sturdy multi-level walls of Sacsayhuaman told the story of the murky battle you fought with the Pizarro brothers and unfortunately lost, changing your fate forever. The rows of gigantic boulders one on top of the other, which made up the walls, left us marveling at how you had managed to transport these multiple tons of giants up to these sites and then arrange and fix them in such perfect construction that the earthquakes that shattered modern buildings could not pry open the joints of these boulders. Even today, those joints are so perfect that not even a thin single sheet of paper can pass (we tried!). And these joints were formed not by cement or mortar but by the skill of sheer cutting, polishing and stone setting. What could not be affected by nature was damaged my human ravages; the conquistadors pillaged the site for stones and boulders to create their own buildings downhill in Cusco. Ironically, very few of those buildings or their parts survived the same earthquakes! We visited the mystical temple in Qenko with its perfect alignment of walls to get sunrays on to the holy stone on the solstice day. We marveled at how the full temple with its mazes and niches was built out of a monolith; we mused about the many legends that exist about what the temple was used for.
The flowing water fountains and baths in Tambomachay bore testimony to your amazing technique of water management, thanks to which clear, abundant water falls even today down the structures you built, entirely sourced from the natural springs in the heart of the mountains, channeled and maneuvered through a system of invisible aqueducts, to flow like it was just coming from the top of the rock there. And then we visited the neighbouring ruins of Pukapukara showing remains of constructions with a beautiful surrounding view… ” Another pronounced twinkle of the stars brought forth another smile to my lips. And the talk continued…
“We visited the ruins of Pisac and stood rooted looking at your massive terraces. We marveled at your science (or should I call it art?) of building perfect terraces that not only sustained your lot by allowing you to benefit from tilling land, but also caused minimal harm to the slopes of the mountains you held so sacred and dear. How I wish we in modern times had taken a few leaves from your book, and been sensitive to the needs of nature while benefiting from it. Your terrace farming took a new form and magnitude in Moray – the huge pool-shaped terraces you built there had a temperature difference of 15-20 degrees from the top levels at peripheries to the bottom level at the centre, falling a bit by bit from level to level, creating for you a real-life laboratory to experiment with the types of crops and plants your people could grow in different parts of the country. Innovative indeed! If that does not blow a modern man away, your salt pans in Maras definitely will. Your technique of channeling the naturally salty spring water from high up in the mountains into carefully constructed and maintained salt pans, which are used as large crucibles to crystalize salt, amazed us no end.
The citadel of Ollantaytambo built at a high altitude, again with superlative and strong stone construction techniques was a treasure trove. Again the huge boulders taken high up from the quarry which we could see down below, again fitted with perfect angles and joints. We saw more examples of your knowledge of astronomy and science in the sun dials, in the way you built walls such that sunrays fell on certain points on certain days. The wall of the six giant monoliths in this temple is remarkable. Looking at these huge rocks and more others lying around, each weighing 40-50 tons or more (no exaggeration) and imagining how you managed to bring them up here and in other sites made my head spin! The terraces on this site are beautiful as well. One is impressed by their size from the facade, but the real realization of their size and magnitude comes painfully only later as one starts to pant and puff climbing up their steps. We climbed up and down the entire site, not wanting to miss anything. We saw the lovely fountains at the bottom of the site and the storehouses on the opposite slope. We went around the little town that even today, maintains a feel of how things might have been back then. Ollyantaytambo was one of our favourite sites in Peru. It is only half-constructed as you abandoned it half-way. What a pity you could not complete the construction – if it is so enchanting half-constructed, I wonder what it would have been if completed. We know you had grand visions for this site. We also heard that this was one place from where, perched high up, you had fended off the Spanish in a famous win. I’m sure God Wiracocha whose gigantic face you carved on the opposite hill slope looks fondly and proudly at this site as a great testimony of your scientific, artistic and military accomplishments. …” Did I see a twinkling acknowledgement in the skies again?
By now I had floated close to the infinity edge of the pool. I sat with my arms on the edge, watching out at the mountains and valley in front of me. And my thoughts now moved on to the beautiful site we had come from just today – Machu Picchu. First, the approach to the site through the little panoramic train showing mesmerizing views of the Urubamba valley had piqued our interest. We then went up in a bus along an excruciatingly winding road that went around the mountain at least twelve times (I counted!) followed by a reasonably steep climb. Just when we were wondering if this would be worth the labour, we stood face to face with the beautiful main site of Machu Picchu spread out in front of us. Ensconced in one of the most dramatic and beautiful landscapes possible at 8000 feet above sea level, with Wayna Pichu mountain peak in the background, embellished by cottony white clouds dotting a perfect blue sky, the two-hundred-odd old ruins of the much-talked-about citadel stood in silence, washed aglow in the morning sun, paying homage to the might of the Incas. It was a sight that pinned us to our spot and we spent a long time admiring it from there. Split into two levels – one for residential use of the plebians (lower one) and the other for the temple, royal residence and farming. We saw the beautiful sun temple with the by-now-familiar stonework and windows showing perfect alignment with the solstice sun. We saw the Intihuatana rock, the perfect terraces for farming with irrigation and channel systems to harness the heavy rainfall into usable water, the same masterful earthquake-proof boulder-setting techniques, the sloping walls, the trapezoidal doors and windows, the storehouses and the guardhouses. We tried to imagine the psyche of the last tribes which had to abandon this lovely citadel in a rush. While elements of nature wore it down, it was also nature that protected this site under forests for centuries, saving it from human plunder, for us to appreciate today. I looked up at the sky and repeated the remark I had made on our trip back – that while the entire Sacred Valley is beautiful, I know now why Machu Picchu is hailed as the masterpiece! I applauded mentally, and got that imagined gesture of recognition back from the starry skies.
My mind now wandered to the sad stories we had heard from our guide about how the conquistadors had denuded Korikancha of its wealth, how all the gold and silver covering its walls and artefacts had been not just looted but destroyed by conversion to ingots. I remember the stories of harassment of the locals in the haciendas by the colonists. And I looked back at the skies, this time with a sad smile, “I feel so sad about what you had to suffer. Seeing your wealth and power eaten away by others would have been very painful to witness. I wonder how things might have been, had the conquistadors been more tolerant with you. What if they had ruled with a softer fist, integrating better with your culture, allowing both fabrics to weave into each other, amalgamate and thrive? Wouldn’t you then have seen more longevity of your culture and traditions? Wouldn’t we have been lucky to see your old structures intact and more new ones built? How I wish that had happened… We cannot change the course of history but I hope we learn from it; it would make your suffering worth something.
I am so glad that we at least have what we have from your times. I am so grateful to the Machu Picchu inhabitants who deserted the place because that may be the single biggest reason it was saved for us to see today. I am glad we traveled here half way around the globe to experience it live. I cannot stop being in awe of all your multiple achievements and skills in construction, farming, astronomy, handicrafts and metalwork. I carry with me beautiful memories and pictures that will be played back again and again with friends and loved ones in times of leisure. I carry souvenirs that will take place of pride in my house, and I carry in my heart a whole lot of respect for you, your culture and your heritage. Hats off; Te saludo!”
I looked up with admiration at the stars. They were still twinkling. I smiled back and said a quick good-bye to the Incas. The moon was further up in the sky; the air was getting nippier. With one last look up above accompanied by a salute, I quit my supine position on the water and turned around to take my last lap heading indoors.