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Tunneling into the past: an underground glimpse of the Mayas


“Are you sure, it was a good idea to undertake this adventure?” Asked, almost angrily, my wife Shelley.

“Not hundred percent, but let us find out what lies ahead.” Was my quasi assurance.

Belize rainforestWe just entered into a dark cave only illuminated by the tiny lamps of our miner’s hats as well as a flashlight from our guide. Over the past few years we were visiting the places known to have had been inhabited by the Mayan civilization especially in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, respectively. During those visits, we also came to know about the past presence of the civilization in Belize, a former British Colony, situated south of Mexico. In particular, we learned about the presence of a cave, from the Mayan era, known as the Actun Tunichil Muknal, discovered only in late 20-th century. The cave contained the relics from everyday Mayan lives and sacrificial rituals and it is open to the visitors when accompanied with a licensed-guide. The Mayan civilization had been known as a highly developed one, flourishing in architecture, arts, calendar, mathematics and astronomy. Both archeological and historical evidences suggested that the civilization might have started well before 2000 BCE. The civilization, depending on its advancement, went through pre-classic, classic and post-classic periods followed by a contraction period between mid-sixteenth centuries to the end of seventeenth centuries.

Belize caveThus, in this trip, we flew to Belize City and then traveled on road to Belmopan, the current capital of the country. One early morning, we along with our guide arrived at the trail-head of the hike that would lead us to the opening of the cave that sits in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. The trail, within a lush green rain forest that was glistening in morning sunshine, ran parallel to a stream on the other side of the parking area.

We crossed the stream at an ankle-high water-level to begin our journey. However, the stream appeared to become wider as we moved forward. Hiking on the trail, soaked in the morning sunlight while inside a rain-forest as well as next to a gentle stream, while the birds were chirping, proved to be quite a pleasant experience. However, after a hike of a few kilometers on the trail, the stream (now appearing more like a narrow river) was seen to be flowing through a tunnel-like opening, curved out of the rocks.

“OK guys, we need to swim now to cross the river to go to the other side.” Announced the guide.

Belize cave“What do you mean?” Shouted my wife in disbelief.

“You heard me alright, lady.” The guard was nonchalant.

We, fully clothed in our hiking gear, followed the instruction and crossed the water passage with a combination of swimming and floating. After reaching to the other side and manually drying as much as possible under the sun, we began to climb up on a rocky trail to arrive at the dark tunnel-like entrance of the cave.

At the narrow opening, we took off our still wet hiking-shoes and socks and put on dry socks and miner’s hats (brought along by the guide inside a water-proof package). Upon entering, the enormity of the dark cave, as much could be seen from the minimum amount of the light of our miner’s hats as well as the guide’s flashlight, became apparent. This section known as “The Cathedral” is a part of an extended cave-system and thought to be the place where sacrificial ceremonies used to take place on an elevated planar rocky platform.

Mayan artefacts in Belize caveOur guide started to shine his flashlight periodically on the wall of the cave to show us the centuries-old geologic colorful rock formations as well as the formation of stalactites from dripping rain water. It should be noted that after we completed our visit while taking photographs, cameras have been strictly prohibited in recent days inside the cave due to the purported damage to some of the artifacts from falling cameras.

From the nature of the artifacts found here, archeologists hypothesized that the cave was in use during pre-classical period (ca. 700 – 900 CE) of the local Mayan civilization. During our exploration, we learned that the artifacts remained in the same locations as found originally. Our guide shone his flashlight on the collection of the remnants of old potteries.

Next, the remnant of a human skull became visible, though from the curved shape of the surrounding area as illuminated by the flashlight, it appeared that the rest of the skeleton might have been covered with a coating of deposited rock material.

Our guide then led us to the barrier-wall of a smaller chamber, accessed by a hidden passage. Looking inside through an opening, a full skeleton was observed in a chamber. Originally known as the “Crystal Maiden”, it was thought to be a sacrificial female adolescent, but in recent years that characterization has come to question. However, the entire skeleton has been calcified radiating a sparkling appearance.

We turned off all our light sources to get a sense of the total darkness inside the cave. At that very moment, I also attempted to imagine the inherent dichotomy of the advanced Mayan civilization with its ritual of human sacrifice. And I realized same dichotomy still flows through our modern civilization with our culture of technological advancement with the power of war and destruction.

All photographs by Shelley Chatterjee.

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