Land of the Incas
`The comforting murmurs of nature lulled the mind into deep meditation. Then I opened my eyes. The mountain of Machchu Picchu was behind me'... . USHA KRIS explores Peru.
... the splendour of Machchu Picchu, the Andes and the Urubamba river.
THERE was silence. The rush of water so constant that the sound receded into the deep recesses of the mind and so faded from the conscious. Birds chirped in different octaves. The rain came in a downpour adding to the music of nature. The orchestral composition was completed as the wind ruffled through the trees.
What is remarkable in this sequence is that the sounds were not man-made. The comforting murmurs of nature lulled the mind into deep meditation. Then I opened my eyes. The mountain of Machchu Picchu was behind me. Wyna Picchu was to my side, and Puttucusi right in front, shaped like Mt. Kailash. Of course there was no snow. A long fold of the mountain was like Ganesha's trunk. The sacred river Urubamba sped along in its long journey embracing the mountain at the foot, following its contour, then on around Wyna Picchu, racing to join the Amazon river ... tumbling down some 8,000 feet, saddling South America and then merging with the Atlantic Ocean on the East coast.
Cusco was the heart of the Inca empire. It retains its pristine charm inspite of a stream of tourists. The tiled roof tops, narrow streets and little balconies dotting the buildings add to the charm. We stayed at the Monesteria Hotel which is an original old Spanish monastery. As we walked through the arched verandahs around the central courtyards, soft music of the Dominican chant followed us into our rooms. This feeling of belonging to a bygone era continued even as we left the hotel and stepped into the small square where a colourfully dressed Inca woman awaited us with a child and a Llama stood waiting to be photographed.
Nestling in the Andes at an altitude of 11,000 feet, Cusco's main square has two large cathedrals. Naturally all these Spanish cathedrals were built on old Inca places of worship. Lavished in silver and gold from the plundered mines, the Spanish probably never envisaged the day they would have to give up possession, otherwise there would not be any of these riches left for us to see. The main altar has 12 altars, including one with a black Jesus who saved the people from a devastating earthquake. The main square, Plaza de Aramas, is lit up and is the place to spend the evenings in. A foot-tapping Rumba beat sent me spinning on the dance floor in memory of good old times.
The walls of the Sun temple, Korichancha, located in the city, were paved with the legendary gold of the Incas. This large temple has a replica, though much smaller, at Machu Picchu. Today the 16sides to one corner stone is all that is left to wonder at. Many of the old 17th Century paintings are on the walls of the churches. For some reason we were not allowed to photograph anything in the Christian sections, but the bare Inca stone walls are a free-for-all. A 10-minute drive up the mountain brought us to Sacsayhuman ( just say sexywoman fast!).
All the large sites resembled some bird or animal. Here, the shape was that of a puma, the symbol of Cusco. The head, the high point where we stood, the body spread all the way into the city. The various elements worshipped had specific temples dedicated to them with the veneration to Inti, (the sun), Quilla (the moon), Chaska (the stars) and Llapa (lightning). With stones weighing 90 to 128 tons, it must have been a Herculean task to complete.
Qenko, hardly 15 minutes away, was the place where the Incas built a labyrinth of caves with light pouring in from different angles. This housed a temple and a place for human sacrifice. The Incas apparently feared the winter solstice as they were afraid the sun would disappear if a sacrifice was not performed to appease the gods!
We drove on to our next stop at Urubamba on to Soly Luna. This was a quaint set of cottages built with local materials and talent. We woke up the next morning and stepped into the garden which was a riot of colour, surrounded by towering peaks of the majestic Andean range. The scenic variations that we encountered had me taking pictures constantly. The ninth Inca king had a relay of persons to scout the mountains for prospective places for agricultural cultivation. Hence it was in the heights of Chinchero that over 4,000 varieties of potatoes were grown, and some 35 varieties of corn in the lower reaches of steppe irrigation that we were to see.
We left the church and it straight to the market square here it was women weaving belts, straps, knitting sweaters in myriad colours and patterns, hand painted bowls, boxes and chess sets where the Incas played against the Spanish. Yet the most fascinating of all was an old Inca musician. Sitting in the midst of an array of flutes of all sizes, large drums and other musical instruments, this old man was trying to get our attention for the longest time. Fascinated, I bought a flute for my grandson, as I took many pictures of the man playing his solo band.
Down on the other side of Chinchero, we were led down the circular stepped irrigation. This worked its way in a concentric circle down some 800 feet, culminating in a small central circle. Different levels had different crops growing, depending on the amount of sunshine and water they needed. The Incas had a powerful vision with aesthetic and practical benefits.
You would never believe that at 10,000 feet there would be a stream with salt water flowing out of it. Just past Maras, at Moray, we walked down the hillside to the 3,000 pools of water. It appears that this salt water had flown down to the Urubamba River all these tens of thousands of years. The Incas decided to channel it to collect the salt. This was to become a lucrative business for the many families harvesting the salt. The salt had made interesting patterns with the white deposit, resembling stalactites. In the pre-Inca period, the local people would collect the salt water and add it to their food for the taste, and the water would flow into the river.
"White river rafting", it said on our itinerary. Pausing at the river bank, we donned our life jackets and helmets (just in case we fell off and hit our heads on a rock!). The raft was inflated, and set on the river. Then William, our rafting guru, gave us precise instructions. The actual experience was a bit of a shock. To hear about huge rocks and crashing waters is one thing and to encounter the same, another. There were moments when I thought I wouldn't see my safe placid Chennai, and others when I couldn't wait to brag about the event back home. Thanks to William's deft handling of the boat, Ed's strong rowing, and my sister Sudha's and my invaluable support, we came through rather well. An eight people raft handled by the four of us on an eight-mile stretch which had no less than five rapids to contend with. An elaborate packed lunch awaited us. Our chauffeur/cook Juan, with Wilber our guide had put out a fare fit for a king. The see-through tent with the bridge in view, the Andes range always visible and the great river surging ahead completed our tableau. A sudden darkening of the sky accompanied by a resounding thunder clap reminded us that we had to be thankful to the rain gods for having given us a bright rafting day in the middle of the rainy season
Machchu Picchu is the most talked of places to go to. Yet all the pictures and descriptions couldn't do justice to it. We got off the train, at a little station. Nearby was our dream Pvablo hotel. It was straight out of the movie sets, and I wouldn't be surprised if many movies have been filmed in these idyllic settings. In fact, many souvenir sellers introduced themselves as George Bush, Marlene Dietrich, and so on. Up a few steps, and into the room with view as though we were in the middle of a clearing in the forests. We walked through the traditional rows of shops carrying many handmade items, as we went to the bus stop. Up six hairpin bends, we were catapulted to the most amazing views. While in the archeological ruins of Machu Picchu, the actual mountain was behind us, Wyna Picchu, the young mountain, stood as if in challenge, straight and tall, in front, and to the side was the gorgeous Putucusi, meaning happy mountain. The vast site of housing and temple complex had us spell bound. As we climbed higher and higher towards the gateway of the sun, the view became even more dramatic. We could still hear the gush of the speeding Urubamba way down below. It was by accident that Bingham discovered the ruins. The local people were still farming corn in the adjacent hill sides, and had not gone beyond. When Bingham discovered the site, it was under buried in the undergrowth. When cleared, the site emerged in all its glory. The sun was the centre of their being. The sun temple is also the most unusual with a circular wall, much smaller in size to the one we saw in Cusco. Machu Picchu (which means "manly peak") was most likely a royal estate and religious retreat. It was built between 1460 and 1470 A.D. by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, an Incan ruler. The city is at an altitude of 8,000 feet, and is high above the Urubamba river canyon cloud forest. Apparently it did not have administrative, military or commercial use. After his death, Machu Picchu became the property of his allus, or kinship group, which was responsible for its maintenance, administration, and any new construction. Unfortunately for the Incas, the Spanish came just when the civilisation had reached its zenith, and wiped them out of power.
Up and down steep steps, we went around the whole day. We had decided not to do the six-hour Inca trail as we wanted to spend two days at Machu Picchu. It was just as well that we made the decision. The first morning was spectacular, a clear day in the middle of the rainy season. The next day was cloudy, and though it rained constantly, the sheet of fog hiding the snow capped mountains added to the beauty.
As we got on the quaint train to Cusco, being one of the highest altitude trains, it had to zig-zag a few times to make the incline. We moved against the river flow, right by the side of it, from an altitude of 8,000 ft. to that of 11,000 ft. at Cusco. So we finished our trip having traversed the distance along the mountain side, by rail or road, the river echoing the bends and curves with a constant murmur that kept us company. Once at Lima the present world caught up with us, and the dream that is symbolic of Peru slipped into the past.
Usha Kris is a freelance photographer and writer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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