Machu Picchu: The Engineering of a Civilization

To this day it still amazes me how the empires of yonder past accomplished jaw-dropping feats that we can only hope to achieve with the help of modern technology. They moved mountains and erected monumental structures that have withstood the test of time, despite their civilizations having faded into obscurity. 

The Incan Empire is no different. There were signs and remains of their ingenuity dispersed all throughout Machu Picchu, and Freddy, our guide, took the time to point these subtle clues out to our group. 

Our first stop was at a water bath. Baths are something that were abundantly found along the Inca Trail as all visitors, including the emperor, were expected to arrive at the sanctuary pure of soul and mind. Ritual cleansing of the body was very common; the upper class would us the higher levels of the baths and, as ranking decreased, the lower class would use tiers of the baths that were at a lower level (basically they washed in the water run-off). 

The bath had a carved channel with grooves  to divert and control the flow of water to the lower baths. Additionally, the edges of the stone had a sloped incline that served as a weir to reduce the rate of flow to the lower levels, allowing each individual in a bath module to enjoy a sufficient amount of water depth before it moved on to the next person. 

We then sat inside one of the four temples on-site. The stonework was so incredibly intricate! In the beginning of our hike we were told that stones pieced together with mortal were always essential buildings such as houses or forts, whereas stones puzzle-constructed with no invisible joints were generally palaces or temples.

It was sad, however, to see that the temple was starting to crumble at its edges. The white lines you see were drawn by archaeologists in order to document the rate of decline of certain at-risk structures in the sanctuary. 

We were told that when UNESCO first certified the complex, they recommended limiting the number of visitors to nor more than 1,000 at a time. However, the Peruvian president, in his greed, set the actual limit at 4,000, 4X the recommended limit! As a result, since Machu Picchu was never originally designed for this amount of human loading, parts of the citadel are starting to sink at a rate of about 2 cm per year. To combat this, timed-entry tickets were introduced this year in July, with only two visits allowed per ticket between the hours of 6-12 and 12-5:30. 

The Incans would cut each stone with precision. They would carve a nook into each large stone and hammer a piece of wood into the opening. Water would then be poured in to saturate the wood, which would expand upon freezing introducing stresses into the adjacent stone gradually forcing the segments apart. See the full split of the rock just right of the fern? We could see clear through it.

The stones were moved into place with a combination of rollers and handles chipped into the face of the rock. The handles would then be left in place, or sheared off after the piece reached its final position. 

You may recall the solar eclipse that crossed the entire continental US on August 21; solar eclipse sunglasses were flying off the shelves!

Since it was so important to their survival, and the agricultural season, the Incans very meticulously tracked the sun. Knowing that they could not look directly at it, they designed “reflecting bowls,” so that they could monitor the sun’s position in the sky without fear of harming their eyes. 

They also needed to be aware of geographical locations and the appearance / disappearance of certain constellations in the sky (in order to track the wet and dry seasons). 

To accomplish this, they carved a kite-shaped rock with the tip of it pointed toward true North. Many visitors, including our group, couldn’t help but use our smartphone compasses to test the accuracy of the stone.

 Compass North and Kite-North were 100% consistent!

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Travel: Khajaraho Temples

image*Disclaimer: The photographs contained in this post may not be suited for younger eyes.

This morning, we bid adieu to the chaos and clamour of New Delhi, and hopped a quick domestic flight to Khajaraho for the night.

Khajaraho lies 385 miles southeast of New Delhi and is home to a mere population of 20,000 people. It was the seating ground of the Chandela Dynasty which ruled much of the Bundelkhand region of central India between the 10th and 13th centuries.

imageThe name Kharjuravāhaka is derived from ancient Sanskrit (kharjura, खर्जूर meaning date palm, and vāhaka, वाहक meaning “one who carries” or bearer). As the legend goes, there was once two golden date-palm trees at the gate of the temples. Kharjuravāhaka also has another meaning in Desai, scorpion bearer; this is a symbolic name for the deity Shiva, who bears snake and scorpion garlands upon his shoulders. This is fitting, as Khajuraho is one of four holy sites linked to Shiva. Hindu mythology recognizes the town as the location of his marriage.

imageIn its prime. Khajaraho had 85 temples spread over 20 square kilometers. Today, there are only 12 temples spread over 6 kilometers. As is typical with Hindu temples, they are clustered near a body of water and face east, towards the sunrise. Each temple integrates the interdependence between feminine and masculine deities and highlights the four goals of life – Dharma, Kama, Artha, and Moksha.

 

 

imageLike most Hindu temples, these temples follow a grid geometrical design called vastu-purusha-mandala, which has three important components. Mandala meaning circle, Purusha conveying universal essence, and Vastu meaning a dwelling structure.

 

This is displayed by the geometric use of squares and circles. A square, divided into 64 perfect sub-squares (padas) circumscribe the circle of mandala. The square is considered divine and represents the product of knowledge and human thought while the circle, considered earthly, symbolizes everyday life.

imageTo further illustrate the comprehensive design of the site, the Chandela’s laid out the territory in three triangles, which converge to forma a pentagon. The three triangles represent the three realms (trilokinatha) and the five-side pentagon, indicates the five cosmic substances (panchbuteshvara).

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For me, the most interesting thing about the temples, is that the sandstone blocks aren’t glued together with mortar. Rather, in a fashion similar to classic Chinese wood construction, each mortise and tenon was precision cut so that the male piece could interlock with his female counterpart, allowing gravity to keep them joined.

 

We decided to take this side trip primarily because the temples are best known for the erotic carvings that adorn the faces.

imageHowever, these sexual figures only account for about 10% of the detailing on the temples, and are not prominent nor emphasized compared to the others. It was a bit of a “Where’s Waldo” scavenger hunt, as we went searching for these. Other sculptures depict the numerous aspects of human life and the values vital within the Hindu Pantheon.

Some of the positions just didn’t seem humanly possible! Although, given that the art of Yoga was developed in Ancient Pre-Vedic India between 5th to 6th century BC, perhaps our ancestors possessed a depth of flexibility that current humans do not.