The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 5, 2012

Seismic Town, Antigua

If you find yourself in Antigua Guatemala and a bunch of kids yell, "Maximon, Maximon!" and run away from you, do not be embarrassed. Most likely it's because you are dark-skinned, wearing a jaunty hat, smoking a cigarette, and sporting a large moustache. In the highlands of Guatemala, Maximon is part-God, part-Devil, reviled by most people and worshipped by others. It is no insult to be likened to him, I think, but the wife, long-time wannabe Antigueno and fanatic collector of Mayan stories, disagrees.

"This is a colonial town", she says, "which really means that it was born in savagery. Pedro Alvarado founded Antigua to be the capital of Spanish Central America, but before doing so, he ravaged the Mayans and sacked their towns. The Mayans were so terrified by Alvarado that they decided he must be a god. The clerics in Alvarado's entourage awed them with their tales of Biblical fire and brimstone, so they associated him with Judas and came up with the mustachioed, cigarette-smoking deity they called Maximon."

Antigua is one of the treasures of the colonial period, a gracious and relaxed town reminiscent of Spain, complete with baroque cathedrals, haciendas, and manicured parks and lawns. Today it is deemed a World Heritage site, and nobody is prouder of this fact than the locals. In a strange twist of irony, most of them are descendants of the very same Mayans who were enslaved by Alvarado.

This attribution of divine powers to Alvarado, however, did not suffice to save the city he founded. Surrounded by active volcanoes, each one of which spits fire and ash into the sky daily, inflaming the clouds and blotting out the stars, Antigua is a seismic calamity zone. Temblors levelled it century after century till the Spaniards, in despair, abandoned it. Antigua gradually lost its shimmer and was reduced to ruin.

More recently, though, its architectural and historical value has been recognised, and renovations have begun. This has been a long venture, disrupted by Guatemala's bloody civil war. The country has only recently gotten out of thirty-six years of strife which wrecked the economy and destroyed countless lives. These days, tourism is on the rebound here and Antigua is poised to take full advantage of it. The wife tells me that the country was plunged into war when the US intervened to remove a democratically elected leader in 1960. The Americans were worried by his socialist leanings. "The Americans are a big source of tourist revenue nowadays. Now, if only they can get the Spaniards to return!" she says, grinning impishly.

Semana Santa

The week culminating in Easter is a time of joyous celebration in most Catholic countries. This is probably the best time to visit Central America as well. In Antigua, the interplay of pagan customs and Christian belief makes for some lovely tableaux. In every village across the region, people make preparations for the procession of the Cross. Thousands gather to re-enact the last week of Christ's life. Palm fronds decorate the streets, and, daily, the Cross from Antigua's La Merced Church is carried through the town and the local villages. Armour-clad Roman soldiers charge through the streets on Good Friday demanding the execution of Jesus. On Easter Sunday, the procession of the Resurrection winds up the festivities. Men seeking penance carry large floats called
andas bearing life-size statues of Jesus. These weigh almost 8000 pounds, so the penitents take turns shouldering the burden. It's a march accompanied by a solemn drum, and as a sign of one's devotion, one must become part of a brotherhood.

Traffic grinds to a crawl around Antigua days before the Holy Week. I am amazed to see elaborate designs on the roads reminiscent of rangoli. These are called
alfombras (carpets). They are signs of devotion and faith, and stencils for the designs are made in December of the previous year. The villagers use vegetables, fruits, tinted sand, flowers and flour to create these patterns directly on the cobblestoned roads in front of their houses. The alfombras begin to appear just in time to mark out the route of the next day's procession.

It is said that to lead a truly Christian life, one must study. The locals here are mostly illiterate, so these
andas and alfombras become vessels of God's word. Through the attention to detail and the beauty of the presentations, the message of the Divine enters the hearts of the viewers.

Jaded moments

Guatemala has deposits of some of the finest jades in the world, and from pre-Columbian times the Mayans have created exquisite works of art with them. Antiguenos realise that these classical handicrafts and skills are worth preserving, and encourage visitors not to leave without acquiring their very own jade souvenir. Showrooms abound in town with local artists busy in workshops at the back, creating reproductions of Mayan sculpture and some lovely original works.

Jorge, a local gemologist, proudly shows me around his store. He hands me a remarkable green-black carving, flecked with gold, whorls and streaks and dots. "This is among the rarest of jades", he says. There are three faces of Mayan gods embedded in the stone, each - like Brahma's - looking in a different direction. It's a spectacular piece of craftsmanship. I heft it in my hand. The stone is cold and heavy. The detail is impressive: sleepy eyes, frowning brows, aquiline noses. Jorge's eyes light up with pleasure. "We call this jade Galactic Gold - see how it resembles a starry sky?" he says.

The ancient Mayans had a unique conception of beauty. They shaped their babies' heads with wooden boards to give them long foreheads, slanting backwards. They dangled little balls in front of the infants' faces to make them cross-eyed. Of course, nobody looks that way anymore. But preserved to this day in the jade - with high regal foreheads and squinty eyes - are their Gods, more beautiful by far than any mortal.

So far and yet so close

"No other Indians in Antigua, eh?", I say to the wife. She laughs. "You've been looking in the wrong places", she says, pointing at a row of trucks parked in the street in front of us. I am puzzled. Then I see the magic words embossed on the tyres, and I laugh too.

"Modi Continental", the words read. "Made in India".

(Written for and rejected by Outlook, 2001. "The Travel Diary pipeline is full", quoth Mr Vinod Mehta. Reblogged to air it out. Last outing: 22/03/2007.)


Chou said...


Chou said...

Sorry, 03/05/2012???

Fëanor said...

No need to apologise, my dear fellow.

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