Machu Picchu – Enduring Inca Mystery (2009)

Machu Picchu – Enduring Inca Mystery (2009)

Mist, mystique and mystery are the defining characteristics of Machu Picchu, the Inca ruins in Peru, the latest addition to the list of new world wonders. Tucked away in the Andean heights, perpetually draped in gossamer clouds and concealed from the prying eyes of treasure-hunters and tourists for over four hundred years, Machu Picchu burst on the world historical and archeological scene only in 1911 when Yale historian Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it quite by chance. Bingham was in search of Vilcabamba, the legendary city of the mighty Inca empire which, at its zenith, sprawled across a vast expanse of about 4000 square kilometers and included societies as far away as today’s Columbia, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. Bingham never found Vilcabamba, but what he did find in Machu Picchu was no less awe-inspiring. Machu Picchu is perhaps the most outstanding archeological find in all of Americas. But even after a hundred years of its discovery, its origin and purpose remains a mystery, challenging historians and archeologists alike.  What we know about the site today is at best sketchy, pieced together from disparate sources and embellished with conjecture.

Demanding Destination

Machu Picchu is a demanding destination.  Reaching this Inca site requires time, effort and above all, fitness. Not only do you need to fly half way across the world to Lima, but from there, get to Cusco, the ancient Inca capital, either by air or brave a twenty-hour hopping bus ride. Cusco perches at a height of 11,000 feet and so you have to acclimatize for a couple of days before you can move further up to Machu Picchu at 13,000 feet.  And there are only two ways to reach the destination – trek the arduous Inca trail for three days or take the exorbitantly-priced Peru Rail from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and from there, ride a bus to the gates of the ruins. You can also trek up the hill from Aguas Calientes;, it takes a couple of hours.  Once you arrive at the gates of the ruins, if you think you’ve finally made it, just peer inside and you’ll realise your ordeal has just begun. There is quite a bit of climbing to do, both up and down through a sprawling complex of slopes and terraces paved with steep and jagged stones, slippery with moss. All along, your lungs strain to cope with the diminished oxygen levels.

Backpacker Train

After acclimatization in Cusco I am ready for Machu Picchu. I can’t afford the luxury of hiking the Inca trail for more reasons than one. So I take the four-hour ‘backpacker’ train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. The journey, virtually all of it along the Urubamba river, is a tranquilising experience. Emerald terraces of maize and potato fleet past while a majestic mountain range forms an imposing backdrop.  The river roars, hisses and hurtles through rocks, cliffs and expansive valleys. You unwind completely and let the train rock you to a stupor. Aguas Calientes, as the name suggests has hot springs, but a dip will have to wait until you have completed your main project – visiting Machu Picchu.  The town, drenched in a steady drizzle and as verdant as they come, might have been beautiful, had not hasty development overtaken it.  Bars and cafes line the streets and on offer are Inca Cola and Brahma Beer! There is a thriving artisanal bazaar hawking local crafts and alpaca sweaters, caps and socks. But there is no time to linger and haggle. You join the long queue to board the battery-run minibuses that wend their way up the steep slopes to the archeological ruins.

No one knows the original name of Machu Picchu. Ever since Hiram Bingham discovered the ruins, the place has been referred to by the name of the mountain that towers over it. Veiled in mist, Machu Picchu (old mountain) and Huyana Picchu (young mountain) form an awesome backdrop to the Inca citadel. The ruins are tucked away out of sight until you are actually upon them. No wonder they were never found until the beginning of the last century. Historians believe that this settlement was built between 1438 and 1471 AD possibly by the Inca king Pachucuteq, ruler of Tahuantinsuyo. Carbon-dating of the site confirms this period.

Fabulous Riches

Our guide is at pains to explain that Inca in the native language refers to the king and the people over whom the kings ruled are called Quechua, native Andean tribes. Who exactly were the Incas and what was their empire like? We do know that the Inca kings had fabulous riches, their palaces were covered in gold and they ruled over a population that numbered over twelve million. What became of those riches? How is it that such a civilization vanished without a trace? Why is it that so little is known about Inca history?

These are questions that still remain unresolved. What we know is based mostly on conjecture, partly because the Quechua people over whom the Inca kings ruled never had a script. All they had was a spoken language and Inca lore was transmitted through oral legends and stories. In the process, much was lost. But more importantly, when the Spaniards conquered the Incas, they destroyed all that was native and glorious.

Rampaging Pizarro

Riven by internecine conflict and civil war, the Inca empire was at its vulnerable worst when the Spaniards rode into Cusco. A ragtag bunch of 180 Spanish conquistadores headed by Fransisco Pizarro landed in Cusco, the imperial capital of the Incas in 1532, their arrival  at first viewed as little more than a curiosity by the Incas. They did not recognise the danger posed by Spanish steel weaponry and horse cavalry. Pizarro and his men set a trap and successfully captured Atahualpa who assumed that the Spanish simply intended to raid the empire. He, therefore offered them a ransom of handsome quantities of gold and silver in exchange for his release. Pizarro accepted and promised to release Atahualpa.

All the gold in Inca palaces was carted away by Pizarro’s men, but Pizarro’s cupidity knew no bounds. He demanded even more gold to be brought to be shipped back home. The Quechuas never regarded gold as precious – their kingdom was replete with the metal.  Atahualpa ordered more gold to be brought from the mines in the jungle. As the llama train bearing its cargo of gold nuggets was on its way, the Inca king was murdered by Pizarro’s men. They also fanned out in all directions, systematically sacking other Inca cities and towns, Machu Picchu escaped their depredations primarily because it remained hidden from them, by virtue of its splendid location.

The conquering Spaniards subjugated the natives, established their colony and went about systematically sacking Inca citadels, destroying anything and everything that was native and noteworthy. Thus, Inca palaces were razed to the ground, their temples were built over with Catholic churches, cathedrals and cloisters, their music and culture was banned and their way of life destroyed beyond redemption. A glorious civilization that once flourished in this part of the world was lost to posterity for ever, thanks to the depredations of a mindless, marauding army of a hundred odd men.

It is perhaps somewhat strange that a civilization that is relatively recent did not have a written language. Spanish has become the lingua franca since the sixteenth century.  In fact, in today’s Peru, there are very few elders who can still speak the Inca dialect.  But the Incas had an ingenious, if knotty way of preserving and passing on relevant information to posterity. They coded their information in cotton and woolen strings dyed in specific colours and knotted together in specific ways. Called Quipu, this system of writing was prevalent throughout the region with many South American tribes and societies being able to decipher and transmit information in this way. Experts believe that Quipu could have been the Quechua mnemonic device that helped oral historians remember ancient and important legends. However, the Spanish Conquistadores were deeply suspicious of Quipu and destroyed all those that they could lay their hands on. Only a few survive and they have not yet been decoded.

Bingham’s Plunder

Machu Picchu, by virtue of its unique location, may have been spared by the Spanish Conquistadores, but Bingham seems to have completed the job begun by them. Our guide tells us that this historian from Yale University carted away as many as 40,000 artifacts of great archeological and historical significance. These are now housed in the Peabody Museum in New Haven. The Peruvian government is negotiating the return of these artifacts to Peru. While that might take time, the Peruvians lost no time in putting Machu Picchu on the global tourist map. It is a hugely popular tourist destination, a money spinner for Peru. Several million visitors visit Machu Picchu every year. Sustained lobbying by the Peruvians has secured the status of new world wonder for Machu Picchu.

A good deal of what we know about the splendid Inca civilization comes from what has been pieced together from Bingham’s finds. The Inca empire flourished between 1463 to 1532 and Machu Picchu itself was occupied only during the period of the last three generations of Incas. It is probable that the Inca king who had made Cusco as the royal capital built Machu Picchu as a strategic retreat for the royal family, hidden away from the prying eyes of potential enemies. But being deeply religious, the Inca kings made sure that the settlement perched on a sacred mountain from where they would get a vantage view of the heavens, the sun, stars and constellations which they worshipped. Machu Picchu was not built on the site of a pre-Inca ruins.

Urban Spaces

The ruins at Machu Picchu can be broadly divided into two sections, the farming terraces and the urban quarters. Ancient Quechuas harnessed water from nearby springs and channeled them into their citadel through canals and fountains. The ruins comprise palaces, temples, warehouses and living quarters for the court staff and nobility and some public spaces for ceremonial congregation. The structures were built of stones quarried from nearby mountains and cut into slabs on the site. Like the ancient Egyptians building Pyramids, the Incas managed to build the entire township without the use of mortar. They used perfectly interlocking blocks of stone, an enterprise that must have called for considerable skill and effort. Not even a knife-blade can penetrate the space between stone slabs. The roofs were covered with thatch.  However, curiously, there are no embellishments, no engravings, no figurines which could have given us a clue to their culture, religion and ethos.

Today, all that remains of Machu Picchu are the bare walls and the foundations, spread over several terraces. At the heart of the ruins is the sun temple, a semi circular structure. Modern scientists believe it was used as a solar observatory. A condor temple with a deity shaped like the beak of a condor testifies to the fact that the ancient Quechuas worshipped animals and birds.  In the Incan Society all the corpses were mummified in a fetal position. Mummies of noblemen were kept in temples while those of common people were buried or placed in cemeteries. There are a few cavities where mummies might have been preserved, but none were found though.


On terraces which must have once supported crops, llamas graze. Native Quechua women with characteristic twin plaits sell Andean corn – very colourful and each kernel as big as marble. As I make my way through the ruins, my knees cry out for a well-earned rest. But a steady drizzle has rendered every stone and block wet and slippery.  Our guide assures us that it rains every day during the wet season and almost every day during the dry season. He leads us to a coca bush and offers a few leaves for us to taste. He informs us that bringing out the narcotic properties of coca takes quite a bit of processing with chemicals and coca leaves themselves are quite harmless. Tourist curiosity about coca leaves has spawned a huge industry of coca products. Coca tea, coca biscuit, coca bread, coca drink and a whole host of coca products line the shelves of shops in all tourist areas in Peru.


It is believed that Machu Picchu was abandoned suddenly by its inhabitants. As to the reason why this might be, there is only speculation, no definitive information. Since the citadel is almost in tact but for the roofs which must have been blown away over time, it could not have been a natural calamity.  Was it an enemy attack that drove its inhabitants out of Machu Picchu? We will never know for sure. Unlike Pompeii or Santorini where a volcanic eruption snuffed out lives of the inhabitants, but left enough vestiges for archeologists and historians to reconstruct their life and times, Macchu Picchu remains an enduring mystery till date.

(Published in Frontline dated Jan 30, 2010)

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