The hum of the single-engine Cessna obscured all other sound as we ascended above the Peruvian desert. Below, flat expanses of dry, brown earth extended in every direction, punctuated only by dry, meandering riverbeds, a landscape bereft of all life. Then, as the aircraft touched 500ft, the pilot’s voice floated in over the microphone: “Look at those squiggly lines...in 2 minutes, you will see the astronaut…in 3 minutes, you can spot the hummingbird, and then the whale, the monkey...”
Ancient secrets: (clockwise from top) A view of the Nazca valley; a recently unearthed unprotected mummy in a skull-laden tomb; a young boy demonstrates gold processing by rotating a huge boulder; and a drawing of a condor, seen from the air. Photographs by DK Bhaskar
As we watched disbelievingly, the haphazard lines on the ground took on definite shapes. There, that was actually a finned tail. At the other end was a wide-open mouth. Somewhere in between was an eye, so real from this height that I felt it was staring at me. It was a giant line drawing of a whale, carved deep into the landscape. Yet another assemblage of lines yielded, piecemeal, a head, a giant beak, claws and the open wing tips of a condor in flight. The most easily identifiable of all the drawings was the hummingbird, with its characteristic long beak and serrated wings. Except for the so-called astronaut—the most mysterious etching of all, whose disproportionately large eyes could be responsible for the popular nomenclature—all the figures would have been known to the Paracas-Nazca Indian culture, which archaeologists date between 300 BC and 900 AD.
Who drew these lines? Why? And how? Bear in mind that the lines reveal the full picture only to the airborne. A Unesco World Heritage site since 1994, the Nazca lines are one of the mysteries of Andean civilization, 200 sq. km of soft flats and hillsides imprinted with 70 giant figures and some 10,000 lines. The world’s vastest open-air art gallery features recognizable figures of birds, animals, flowers—almost all of them asymmetrical, such as the spider with one leg longer than the other seven or the hand with four fingers—as also spirals, mazes, grids and geometric motifs thousands of feet long.
It’s tempting, while stunned by the magnificence of these prehistoric artworks, to buy into popular theories of their extraterrestrial origin, wonder if they were actually landing strips for alien ships from outer space. But according to German mathematician Maria Reiche, who lived in the desert for 30 years researching the drawings, the Nazca lines are of astronomical significance, with many of them pointing directly to the rising and setting points of certain celestial bodies. Another school buys partly into her view, claiming that the lines are some sort of astronomical calendar, while yet others believe they were “walking temples”. Regardless of their purpose, or how they were made—Reiche, for one, thinks their designers must have worked from small-scale models—they are as awe-inspiring today as they must have been 2,000 years ago.
For proof, look no further than Nazca, today a small settlement (by developing world standards) of less than 20,000 people. Seven hours away by road from the Peruvian capital of Lima, this town has a permanent place on the world tourism calendar because of these ancient lines. Curious travellers and visiting academics are the mainstay of Nazca, the reason why a fleet of small aircraft lines up 20 minutes away from town at dawn every day, waiting for aerial charters that last 30-45 minutes. The pilots speak a smattering of English, Spanish and rely on a generous share of gesticulation to communicate their wonder at the lines—which, remarkably, seems as genuine as ours.
Part of the reason, of course, is that the lines are almost as good as new. Because of the incredibly dry and relatively non-windy climate (it rains for an average of 20 minutes a year in this region), the Nazca drawings have remained as their creators had intended till early this year, when unusual rains washed off the nearby Pan-American Highway and deposited inches of sand on top of three fingers of a hand geoglyph (the correct archaeological term for the drawings). However, Maria Cecilia Bakula, director of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Cusco, told me in August that the damage was not significant and had almost been cleared up.
A National Geographic documentary we saw before boarding the plane takes as pragmatic a view of the drawings themselves. It suggests that the miles-long straight lines—all of which point, coincidentally or otherwise, to a mountain that is a water source, and the path of the sun—are “open, two-dimensional temples”, without columns, walls or roofs. If the line is the nave, the mountain or the sun’s location on the horizon is the altar, serving to guide the people as they bring ceremonial offerings for their divine benefactor. Think of it as a rudimentary GPS (global positioning system).
A very sophisticated form of that guiding tool would be necessary today to get to Nazca, on Peru’s southern coast, as access lies through sand dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see. The town itself has precious little on offer: An evening tour of the Museo Antonini pretty much sums up the extent of its charms. Exhibits include ceramics, pottery, stone tools, textiles, trophy heads, shell necklaces, human skulls, mummies, all of which have been excavated from the region since 1982, when the government began excavating the plateau between the Nazca and Ingenio rivers. Just in case one is not impressed by the Nazca lines, the museum displays sketches of ancient underground aqueducts. Some of them, museum director Giuseppe Orefeci told me, were still in working order and were used by farmers to irrigate the pampas.
On our way back to Lima, a historian friend from Trinity College, Dublin, began ruminating on one fascinating commonality among ancient civilizations of the region: All of them had built cities that revealed their true shape high above, from the sky. Cusco, for instance, looks like a jaguar to the airborne, and Machu Picchu resembles a vulture. As anyone who has spent an hour playing with Google Earth will confirm, the bird’s eye is a fascinating perspective, revealing colours, patterns and geographical features never grasped from the ground.
All of this has caused some to wonder if the Nazcan civilization actually breached the final frontier. Did they know how to fly? The jury’s still out on that, but standing there, in the strange mythical landscape that nurtured these unfathomable artists and scientists, the wonder is as real as their legacy.
Trip planner / Nazca
Apply for a tourist visa at the consulate in Delhi. It costs Rs1,450 and requires up to two weeks for processing. The website www.embassyperuindia.in is
rudimentary, but you can call them at 011-26141154 for information. Lima is best connected from India through Europe via British Airways, Lufthansa and Virgin. Round-trip fares ex-Mumbai and Delhi upwards of Rs72,000. There are no domestic flights between Lima and
Graphics: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
Nazca, so be prepared to spend 7 hours in a luxury bus (fares around $60, around Rs3,000). Or hire a cab for $225-275 for two days.
I stayed at the three-star Hotel Oro Viejo (www.hoteloroviejo.net); singles for upwards of $45. Casa Andina (www.casa-andina.com) is part of a chain, with singles between $60 and $85. The five-star Hotel Cantayo (www.hotelcantayo.com/eng/el_hotel.html) is an old converted hacienda with doubles upwards of $130.
Jo in a charter flight (costs between $80 and $125) to see the Nazca lines. I flew with Aero Condor, which was very good; www.aerocondor.com.pe/en/home.php. The other must-sees of the Paracas-Nazca culture include the Cantalloc aqueduct, 4km away on the
Puquio-Cusco road and the most popular of the 30-odd surviving such features. The “breathers” in these canals allowed their users to control and clean the water. A 20-minute drive away are Cahuachi and Estaqueria, a newly unearthed religious site of large plazas, adobe pyramids and open burial grounds, where excavated mummies are kept as unprotected as they must have been thousands of years ago! It’s fascinating to see thousands of graves, with skulls, skeletons, broken pieces of pottery, bits of shrouds and even lengths of unbleached bridal hair.
Keep in mind: It is impossible to use any currency, Peruvian or American (commonly accepted), that’s even slightly damaged. Additionally, beware of counterfeit currency. The fakes are very hard to tell apart from genuine currency. If you have the slightest doubt, seek a local’s help