ONCE UPON A TIKAL
(Travel log to Guatemala - 1992)
Tikal floats between the past and the present in an effortless dream. Here you can
walk with your eyes open and yet encounter the past and present at the same time. From the
top of a tall pyramid, or from a condor's back, a sea of green can be seen extending to
the furthest horizons. Remnants and reminders of a past age rise up like small sudden
islands in this variegated sea of green.
Ruined temples and pyramids float above the tall tropical trees, enveloped in a
sea of grey morning mist. Howler monkeys and numerous birds fill the air with their noise,
marking a significant victory of nature over civilization.
Once a mighty city stood here, three and a half times the size of ancient Rome.
Sprawling over 30 sq km, it was once home to over 100,000 people. Tikal now stands empty.
Tree frogs and parrots now occupy it's shady thoroughfares. Clamour of merchants,
customers, soldiers, citizens, slaves and sacrifices is long replaced by insect and bird
songs. Hustle and bustle of a bygone era is now replaced by tourist traffic, drifting in
the tropical heat from one site to another.
Once a grand city, Tikal was the centre of a mighty Mayan empire. Numerous ant
colonies have conquered its once sacred squares. Their proud priests long forgotten, their
great kings buried deep in their own ruins. Tikal is a living mausoleum to a culture that
once flourished between 700 BC to 900 AD.
Once, accessible only to the Gods and their servants, it's lofty temples are now
disturbed by inquisitive tourists and mindless monkeys. Tourists
casually take photos and have
picnics on it's sacred terraces. Nothing is sacred any more. Nothing is private any more.
Palaces and mansions of the rich and mighty now allow all kinds of animals to trespass.
Their sentinels long gone, their inner-most recesses are mere curiosities for the
As grand monuments become mausoleums, their outer beauty fades with time. As ruins,
they acquire a strange kind of beauty, fired by their inner grandeur. Coarse stones,
smooth carvings and soft dirt. All of these combine to form the monuments of Tikal.
Imperial splendour of Tikal is evident even in its decay.
As the afternoon sun beats mercilessly, people dart from shade to shade, building to
building. Dappled canopy of green offers no real protection from the heat, or an
occasional shot from sun's fiery gaze. People congregate around drinks stand as they must
have done centuries ago. Only the names and prices of the drinks have changed.
Great vastness of Tikal only becomes apparent as one climbs on to the tallest pyramid
in all Americas. It was unrivalled in height until the Capitol was built in Washington
D.C.! It even manages to catch a breeze from the world beyond Tikal. If abandoned here,
one could be forgiven for thinking the Earth was completely wrapped in a shawl of emerald
green. No mountains, deserts, skyscrapers or chimney stacks spoil the magnificent view. As
our American friends would say, "It's Awesome!!"
Temples, pyramids, palaces and terraces around the main plaza form an interesting
skyline. Predating the modern skyscrapers by over a millennium, these are impressive for
their sheer size and tenacity of their builders. Steepest pyramid of this group also
graces the Guatemalan national currency.
Beautiful carvings, delicate paintings, sombre masks, and silent sanctuaries speak
louder than their guides. They quietly teach us about the mortality of man, and
immortality of his genius. Long after all else has come to pass, man's ideas and works
endure the test of time that man may himself have failed.
Tikal is inherently beautiful. Beauty springs from it's very earth. Tall trees soar
towards the heavens like gothic columns. Branches of ancient trees intertwine, mimicking
complex pattern of Moorish arches. Enveloped in the hazy light of the tropics, filtered by
myriad leaves, it is an ideal place to forget the worries of a world thousands of miles
(or years?) away.
Stranded in a time warp, Tikal is also physically isolated. Nearest town is an hour's
ride by car! A three - four days stay is recommended to take full advantage of it's
reasonably priced accommodation and pollution free air. For those rushed for time, a
fly-by visit allows you to glimpse the beauty of the main group in a day. If your visit
can coincide with the full moon, don't miss seeing the ruins by moon light, there is
nothing quite like it.
Tikal is a mysterious place. Beautiful by day and magical by moonlight. Soft rustle of
leaves, dappled sunlight and aromatic smells of the jungle mix uneasily with presence of
snakes and other wild animals. Woods of Tikal are full of unexcavated mounds, underground
passages, whispers of the past and boundless beauty of nature. In it's isolated glory, it
is pleasant to be charmed and spell bound by it all. Just don't disturb the dream for all
our futures to come by playing Indiana Jones. Let this tropical paradise remain intact.
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