Sunday, March 7, 2010

Building blocks of civilisation

The Kathmandu Post on Saturday
Photo: Buddha K.
MAR 05 -
As a world heritage site and a major cultural jewel of the U.K., Stonehenge is place of extraordinary importance for historical, mystical and aesthetic reasons. It is a thing of beauty and a thread that ties us with the past, however distant it may seem. At least 800,000 visitors come to see the site every year. Located near the intersection of the two highways in the grassy fields of Wiltshire County in the Salisbury plains of England, it consists of a circular ditch surrounding an inner circle of stones. There are plans to reroute the intruding highway to restore the ambience surrounding the monument in the run-up to the preparations for the 2012 London Olympics.

Along with the Stonehenge in nearby Averbury and a series of burial mounds, the region appears to be a part of a prehistoric time capsule with secrets waiting to be unlocked. Although the site in Averbury have been pillaged for stone chips for construction, visitors can still enter the circles to share a similar experience with people entering these hallowed ground millenniums ago.

UNESCO, the United Nations body responsible for preserving heritage globally (in conjunction with national authorities), describes Stonehenge as “one of the most impressive prehistoric megalithic monuments in the world on account of the sheer size of its megaliths, the sophistication of its concentric plan and architectural design...”

My first reaction on seeing the site was that of disappointment and even guilt—of having spent a fortune to see a pile of stones. The site isn’t as impressive in reality, as it appears in the pictures. Hyper-reality is perhaps always more mystical and conveys a degree of profoundness than reality does. But what appears to be a betrayal of expectations at first glance soon turns into an overwhelming sense of belonging and continuity. These are not just stones or any stones. The mortals who built them did so without the impressive heavy-lifting technology of the modern era, and whose purpose remains a mystery.

There are many theories about the origin and the purpose of the Stonehenge, some of which seem ludicrous. Many offshoots of new age movements have sprung up with supernatural explanations to boot. Though no known religion of that time exists, later religious groups like druids believe that it is a sacred site for both healing and worship.

This is where I let my thoughts to wander off in a direction that science and modernity would not easily permit. I wonder if these mere mortals—barely a notch up from the ‘barbarism’ of the Stone Age—were really capable of what stands proud even today, affirming some eternal idea. Could there be more to these relics that remains hidden from our understanding? I wonder if our faith in linear evolution of human civilisation militates against our ability to comprehend what these sites have to tell us about our past.

A colossal irony of our modern times is that we think we know everything there is to know. We are confident of our civilisation, but at the same time increasing insecurity and uncertainty seem to be hallmarks of our age. At least, the ages before us believed in certain truths and had a certain moral compass. What we believe today is clear, and perhaps easier to articulate things the other way round: the list of things we don’t believe in.

We think that we are the best that there has ever been in terms of human civilisation—a linear civilisation understanding. Any civilisation before ours was at best primitive who by fluke achieved monuments like pyramids or Tiahuanacu (also called Tiwanaku in Bolivia believed to be about 1,700 years old), so the mainstream thinking goes. There are many other anomalies of the past which mainstream history and archaeology brushes aside as mere flukes. Hence any suggestion of alternative thesis to history as we have been told raises eyebrows.

But coming back to Stonehenge, there are five theories that have been proposed. Many archaeologists have concluded that the site is a burial ground and have unearthed evidence in support of their claim, but not everyone agrees that it had only one purpose. Given the enormity of the site and the work that has gone into building it, it is likely that the site served multiple functions. New age groups see the site as a place of healing, while others insist that it was an astronomical observatory. Others see it as a place of worship.

The stones are aligned almost precisely with the sunrise on the summer solstice, and many gather for prayer during solstices. But some have gone a step further and have linked the site to extra-terrestrials. There have been many ‘reported cases of UFO sightings.’ As the theory goes, aliens helped build the site. Such theories are bound to arise when the nearest source of the bluestones that the henge consists of is in the Prescelly Mountains in Wales, about 300 km away; and when the largest stone weighs as much as 26 tonnes.

Stonehenge has kept a vigil over the earth for over 5,000 years and despite efforts to understand them, their true purpose eludes us. Nonetheless, it continues to inspire different ideas among different people—some of which are as equally fantastic and far-fetched as the monuments themselves.