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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Creating Centres of Cosmology with Stone and Sand

Presented at the 4th Annual Symposium of The Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality, Isla Mujeres, Mexico, 2012

Heart of the continent, centre of cosmology. What does it take to grasp the meaning of such an incomprehensible landscape? While intellectual inquiry and analysis provide a foundation for ‘left-brain’ understanding, research has its limits, bound by perspectives demanding ‘objectivity’. A workshop on Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan, provided a provocative format to cultivate profound introspection into the nature of cosmological form and space by physically moving stone and sand on the beach to create artistic ‘subjective’ visions of sacred landscape.

What mind occupied these landscapes? – I’d ask
sketching, making things of stone, learning to be in this place ---

Brought to my knees by the glory of sacred landscape, how to formulate what I don’t understand? I find clues by becoming quiet to cultivate clarity, becoming sensitive to landscapes’ formation and meaning. Constructing things with stone and sand, wondering if I simulate ways that people inhabit landscape and devise ideas of cosmological origin and identity. I configure a relationship with it, negotiating a willingness to explore, to become naked.

Likewise, this workshop was simply about going to the beach on Isla Mujeres, assessing available resources and building landscapes of stone and sand, individually or in teams, in the allotted hour. The presence and/or absence of materials provided portals to question how the reproductive operations of nature contribute to ideas of cosmology and participants’ mutual relationship to these processes.

For grounding, we reviewed six signs of sacred landscape as a design procedure, and discussed two distinct precedents of physical geographies and corresponding constructions of form and space that interpret their cradles of origin. Enabling both objective discussion and subjective artistry of cosmological imagery guided our making things of stone and sand, potentially revealing fundamentals of making sacred landscapes.

Landscape precedent one: Three thousand years ago people settled the shores, foothills and open plains of Lake Titicaca, largest lake in the Andes altiplano. The lake’s immense size and depth provided moisture and warmth unavailable to the rest of the region. Fertile waters and lands for farming, pasture and natural resources enabled opportunities for exchange of goods with people of other ecological zones.

Because of its unusual qualities, setting and configuration, Lake Titicaca came to be identified with Andean Genesis. If the Andes formed the spine of South America, Lake Titicaca was the Heart, axis mundi connecting Heaven and Earth, with the continental mass pointing to this freshwater body of water 3800 metres above sea level. From Isla del Sol bursting above this sacred lake, Creator Viracocha emerged to organize the universe, mediating between dualities of celestial and natural patterns, tangible features and qualities of landscape: the movements of sun, moon and stars, day and night, winter and summer; male principles of height, dryness, aggression, activity; and female principles of depth, wetness, fertility, passivity.

Even the Incas traced its origins to Lake Titicaca and its dynastic heritage to Tiwanaku’s ancient kings, emulating its physical symbols of power.

Making things of stone and sand, learning to be in this place a thousand years later, shamans reconstructed a centre of cosmology at the city of Tiwanaku in an auspicious location between Lake Titicaca and their revered snow-capped Mount Illimani. The natural space of Lake Titicaca and the constructed form of Tiwanaku together became known as taypiqala, Aymara for, “Stone in the Centre.” A surrounding moat produced an island, the heart of the centre. Architecture expressed cosmic order, axis mundi between heaven and earth in cardinal directions. The terraces surrounding the sunken courtyards linked human and nature, maintaining balance and harmony. The Akapana pyramid, half an Andean cross of seven terraces, evoked sacred mountains of Isla del Sol. The Gateway of the Sun faced east to the rising sun and Mount Illimani.

Here, landforms came alive: undulating topography, granite and sandstone outcrops, ridges and valleys, lands and waters dancing the Great Salsa to Pachamama’s orchestrations.

Landscape precedent two: Mount Kailas in remote Western Tibet, holiest of mountains, is sanctuary to deities of Hindu, Buddhist, Bon-po and Jain. Early Indus Valley travelers discovered Mt. Kailas rising high above the Tibetan Plateau. Travelers discovered that the holy mountain was the source of South Asia’s four major rivers. They thought it to be Mount Meru, cosmological centre of the classic single, circular world system: four continents and intermediate continents, celestial rivers flowing to cardinal directions, concentric mountain ranges and seas, and the chakravala, the outer circular wall.

Making things of stone and sand, learning to be in this place a thousand years later, King Trisong Detsen and Guru Padmasambhava directed the re-construction of a cosmological mandala in the exquisite, auspicious and fertile Samye Valley – landscape and monastery complementary expressions of the Pure Land. They perfectly aligned the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery according to geomantic principles. Within the centre of the chakravala wall, its four cardinal gates in the cardinal directions and 1008 chortens mounted on the tops of the walls, is the Utse Rigsum Tsuklakang, mind of the Buddha and embodiment of Mount Meru. Surrounding the centre temple are four Ling Temples of the Four Continents in cardinal directions, Ling-tren temples of the sub-continents, four Self-Originating Chortens of Intermediate Directions, and Sun and Moon Temples. Samye as translated is ‘unimaginable’.

Summarily, the workshop – reviewing design procedure and precedents; making things of stone and sand on the beach, creating visions of sacred landscape, learning to be in this place (Isla Mujeres)– provided grounds for cultivating ideas of cosmological origin and identity when visiting Chichen Itza in the coming days – the mind that occupies this landscape.

Workshop preparation notes

Moving stone and sand on the beach to make a vision of sacred landscape was inspired by a basic awareness of geologic, cultural and spiritual forces. In turn, our makings helped us better understand the pronounced and subtle energies of Isla Mujeres’ land, waters and skies. Most Isla Mujeres beach rock is coral washed ashore from surrounding reefs, so we built where safely possible and logistically practical on easily walkable beaches for gathering near-by stones.

The entire Yucatan is underlain by limestone deposited from 23.8 to 1.8 million years ago, subsequently woven with underground systems of caves, caverns and water channels. Isla Mujeres may have been severed from the mainland by the collapsing web of underground limestone caverns during impact of the Chicxulub asteroid in the north Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs. At Isla Mujeres, the spiritual energy of Isla Mujeres is produced and regenerated through powers of Ix Chel, a.k.a. Lady Rainbow –Mother Goddess – Womb of Creation – Cave of Life. Ix Chel may have severed Isla Mujeres from the mainland to provide a haven where her children wouldn’t face sacrifice.

Accordingly, the Mayan three-tiered spiritual system focuses on the Underworld. Chichen Itza means ‘at the mouth of the well of the Itzas’, referring to the large sacred Cenote (sinkhole) – portal to the underworld and the subterranean waters, caverns and caves. This landscape is their sacred world axis, their centre of cosmology; their place of origin, transformation and renewal; where power is created, stored and used; where people emerged and were sacrificed.

Centres of cosmology and constructed expressions at Samye, Tiwanaku, and Chichen Itza generally accord with cardinal directions, solar, lunar, cosmic and planetary events. Ix Chel suggested building something more fluid as a non-geometric feminine expression. There also was the brilliant Venus – Jupiter conjunction on March 15, 2012; Venus had played major wartime roles in Mayan society; connotations quite different from the present.

What mind occupies these landscapes? – I’d ask
 sketching, making things of stone, learning to be in this place ---