Lost Civilizations & Penitent Traditions: The Mayan Riviera Culture Of The Life & Death Festival [Los Muertos] – Feature
The inference revolving around the Life & Death Festival in Riviera Maya in Mexico culminating with Day Of The Dead sometimes takes on mythical proportions. But, in actuality, the texture of its intensity is a very personal journey made relevant through the structure of family. Whether sending good wishes to the netherworld or offering up aspects of loved ones’ earthbound existence on their quest in the next life, the balance becomes one of faith versus tradition.
The basis of course begins in the ancient personifications of life and death. In the Riviera Maya and wrapping around in the Yucatan Peninsula, the remaining and unearthed structures of Mayan Pyramids plus the always looming fact of the asteroid impact which supposedly landed offshore and brought an end to the Age Of Dinosaurs brings an almost ethereal structure into the personifications of the culture and its legacy of this region.
The most intrinsic structure to begin with lies within the reverent structure of Ek Balam which was only uncovered in the mid-1980s. Its striking near-vertical stairs, which lead at the halfway point to the King’s Quarters, offers an inherent view of the way rulers perceived this arena in the heyday times of this world.
Climbing the various structures gives one a sense of scope that is perhaps lost on some of the smaller or more subsidiary villages. From the viewpoints of these various temples, the intention of a civilization begins to take shape in a real and intrinsic way.
Aided by the local guide who himself, as a student, follows the actual possibilities of what happened here in terms of social ritual, paints an interesting picture of the interactions of these ancient tribes. Some might be contained as true. Others not. It is a matter of perspective.
The story entrusted speaks of a Grand King who enthralls in celebrations unmatched in this ancient world but settled problems in an overtly vicious but sensible way. The society at that time was probably looking for the next big trend. Much like modern day where information flows like water, these people were the trendsetters of the ancient world like the Egyptians and the Romans. Celebrations were had. New experiences across all thoughts were explored. Games were created to titilate the Royal Court.
The game inferred here highlighted around the aspect of the Lords Of Death. Like many ancient wars and most modern ones, life and death was decided in a game of chance. This one, according to myth, and later performed in part in Coba, is a game with similarities to soccer and basketball but played with a much heavier instrument. The point apparently was to get the ball through a circular opening on either side of a tilted court. Kingdoms were decided on the winner. Losers were beheaded. While these suggestions of thought may paint this intention barbaric, it solved many problems and perhaps allowed the civilization to flourish. No great race ever accomplished anything without a little bloodshed mixed with brain power.
Ek Balam’s court and idealism rings true because the inherent structure and visual representation of the actual community and the impressiveness of the structures which point to an intently advance civilization for its time.
Certain villages in the area burgeoned while others used their actual location as cover and shielding. As in most times, there is both predator and prey balanced in a somewhat fragile existence where art, pleasure and survival very much work hand-in-hand.
Coba, moving south along the Eastern side of the Yucatan, paints a picture more of jungle existence where the idea of knowing your way through the maze of forest makes for adequate cover. Again life and death hide in the balance. With a central lake only miles away much like the sea, an untrained or unknown visitor could get lost for days,
In the modern setting after walking to similar game field and witnessing a vulture-occupied temple (which bodes with temptations of the underworld simply because of the bird’s nature), a vivacious ride with rented bikes at full speed through the forest trails provided the adequate adrenalin rush before coming upon Nohoch Mul Temple which reigns with the texture of an altar over the land, a lone rope bidding the wanton climber to its pinnacle.
The death of a loved one always lingers in the mind. With the structure inherent of making their resting place a home of sanctuary, the most intrinsic element is at times reflecting certain elements of life through death.
The best place to start in essence with this is an actual cemetery. Within the city limits of Playa del Carmen such as graveyard exists and, as the darkening hour approaches, the sounds of mariachi bands echo against the concrete slabs as dogs wander and candles flicker in wanton harmony.
The visions of blending lights exist mostly above ground as the flowers emblazon themselves in white. Some slabs stand adorned. Other lie simply bare with a single petal as the light beckons with solace in an otherworldly comfort.
This kind of homage to those past also extends within All Saints Day through the home where the interaction becomes even intimately more personal.
At a private home where the dogs ran past trails with abandon, flowers and candles pave the way down a rocky path towards an altar where candles, food and the requisite sangria give penitence to a family member recently passed whose memory lurks in the hearts and minds of adults and children alike.
This kind of penitence combined with a lively idea of celebrating those passed embraces all who are around. It waxes almost poetic as the temples of the ancient Mayans simmer only a mile away from this homemade altar at Muyil offering intentions to the Gods in much the same way.
Other ways beyond the obvious do exist in the realm of Day Of The Dead for those given to a more esoteric approach which always embraces the mortal part of life and religion as well as the distinction of adventure.
Xcaret, a cultural park of sorts on the Riviera Maya, embraces the Life & Death vision with a similar penchant. However unlike the scares and gore which populate the American vision of this time of year in the States, this part of Mexico uses the idea as a connecting tool for community, friends and loved ones.
Whether journeying up and down a winding hill populated with fake adorned graves that relay the inherent nature of their namesakes (which are based mostly on real people), this vision of the celebration gives locals and tourists alike the basis of the festival without venturing too deep into history or the macabre.
Some elements such as the booming choir of a mass performed below the mountain of gravestones as the incense cinders offers a bit of the religious connotation and structure that provide the backbone of these celebrations.
One of the more interesting elements at Xcaret to watch the theatrical recreation of a long dead Victorian-age Mexican woman replete in skeleton face reliving the idea of her life and death as dolls and long silent typewriters betray tales of her mysterious existence.
With cool, comfortable rooms, pool bars intent with Miami Vice cocktails, martini socials and the requisite Mezcal nightcap, the energy intentions belied a sense of purpose.
Later as the twilight begins to fall at Coba, the final offering to the dead on the apex of All Soul’s Day continues unabated as local villagers wrap chicken in a packing of cornmeal to be buried in the ground around piping hot embers. This envisions a ritual of beholding while tribesmen painted with Mayan symbols chant as the sun disappears into darkness.
The realization of the darkness becomes apparent as a Mayan troupe recreates, within a 200 foot deep mountainside crevice, the feeling of the life long dead through a theatrical presentation of the earlier described game. The Mayans are a civilization past that is kept alive by the respect and vision of their long left decedents keeping the artisan concepts of those who came before them.
The Life & Death Festival, whether perceived in a towering vision of the Mayan temples, intimate houses of the locals who offer gifts to those who have passed, cemeteries where the voices of the dead speak in silence and even with the more tourist-based XCaret where all ages can experience aspects of this cultural milestone, shows the inherent respect and cultural significance that remembering the world after offers to those of us living.