The Grotto’s discovery in 1835 came as a complete surprise to the people of Margate; it had never been marked on any map and there had been no tales of its construction told around the town. But James Newlove could clearly see the commercial potential of his find and he immediately set about preparations to open the Grotto up to the public. The first paying customers descended the chalk stairway in 1837 and debate has raged about the Grotto’s origins ever since: for every expert who believes it to be an ancient temple, there’s someone else convinced it was the meeting place for a secret sect; for every ardent pagan, there’s a Regency folly-monger ready to spoil their fun. At first glance the Grotto’s design only adds to the confusion, with humble cockles, whelks, mussels and oysters creating a swirling profusion of patterns and symbols. There are trees of life, phalluses, gods, goddesses and something that looks very like an altar. The most recent findings point to the Grotto functioning as a sun temple, the sun entering the Dome (which extends up to ground level, with a small circular opening) just before the Spring Equinox, forming a dramatic alignment at midday on the Summer Solstice and departing just after the Autumn Equinox, thus indicating the fertile season. The research continues! However, there’s only one fact about the Grotto that is indisputable: that it is a unique work of art that should be valued and preserved, whatever its age or origins.
A blogger who has visited it says it is: visually stunning and this overlayed by their fantastic line in mythography; suggesting at the same time that the mystical symbolism rendered on the walls in the grotto links it to everything from a pagan worship site, a masonic temple and even drags Dan Brown’s weary Knights Templar into the picture (damn busy chaps they were). Their descriptions of the lavish shell patterns on the wall are lush and stunning – “…we see Phallic signs, a Fountain, ears of wheat, a palm branch, the ram’s horns, the snake panel, various winged solar discs, many flowers and other signs” [The Shell Grotto of Margate – An ancient underground shell Temple (no date)]
Last night Borders Books in Brighton hosted the launch party for ‘Sacred Places’ which has just been published by Quercus. Here’s the text of the brief talk I gave to introduce the book:
The Pure Land itself is near… Truly, is anything missing now? Nirvana is right here, before our eyes, This very place is the Lotus Land, This very body, the Buddha Hakuin’s Song of Zazen
This is the quotation that opens the book and it goes right to the heart of the book’s purpose – to help us appreciate the awe, the mystery that exists in Place – everywhere in fact, but somehow mysteriously, more accessibly in some places rather than others, which we then call ‘Sacred Places’.
In considering Sacred Places, we find that geography and human history meet, and often the story of the individuals who have discovered, created, or interacted with these places turns out to be as fascinating as the place itself. Let me give you some examples:
It’s 1994 and Mr Chauvet and a few friends are caving in SW France. They pause for a break in a rather uninteresting shallow cave, and one of them notices a faint draught coming from the rear of the cave wall. They pick away at it and they become the first humans for millennia to stumble their way into a 500 metre cave system filled with paintings 15,000 years older than the famous Lascaux paintings.
Let’s go further back in time, two years to 1992, and you’re with the Italian police with a stick of dynamite in your hand. You are raiding a temple complex that has been built in secret in the Valchiusella Valley over a 14 year period, and your police chief has threatened to blow it up if the builders don’t reveal the secret stairway that leads from the antechamber to the complex of temples beneath. Once inside you are dazzled to find halls filled with mirrors and crystals and the largest Tiffany ceilings in the world.
But once you bring human beings into any equation of course you have not only creativity and eccentricity, but also both tragedy and hopefulness.
A lot of books on sacred sites focus only their attractive features, but we do them a disservice if we ignore the political and environmental issues that surround many of them.
Let me tell you perhaps the saddest story related to a site in the book, then to cheer you up one of the most hopeful, and I’ll finish with a glimpse into a site that has provoked perhaps the most eccentric activity of all.
In the Sierra Nevada of northern Colombia a group of indigenous inhabitants, which include the Kogi, managed to flee the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century, to carry on their way of living undisturbed. In the 1980s they started to notice that the glaciers were melting and they decided to break their silence to warn the world of the environmental dangers they believed could render the world infertile. A BBC producer Alan Ereira visited them and wrote a book and made a documentary that was aired in 1990 entitled ‘From the Heart of the World – The Elder Brothers’ Warning’. In it he conveyed their stark message: ‘The Kogi make no predictions. They say only that if we do not change, they truly believe the world will die. It will cease to be fertile.’ Well we all know what has happened since 1990, and although as a result of the publicity given to the Kogi’s message 67,000 acres of their traditional lands have been brought into collective ownership and cleaned up, the reality is that the area is now a zone of conflict between the military and guerrilla fighters, drug cartels continue their activities there and the glaciers have almost completely disappeared. As Ereira gloomily says: ‘There is no hidden world any more.’
Let’s move from hopelessness to hope. The community who tunnelled away in secret in Valchiusella in Italy through the 1980s has now grown into a confederation of 30 small communities who are moving towards becoming self-sufficient in energy. They run their own schools and currency, grow their own food, and are involved in reforestation projects. In 2005 they won a United Nations award as a model of excellence for sustainable communities. Their exotic temples act as a spiritual focus for their work, which includes offering healing and meditation classes.
Finally – the site that has provoked the most eccentricity. This has to be Palenque in Mexico. This Mayan city flourished from the 4th to the 8th century, and although a dozen temples have now been discovered, much of the city still remains buried in the jungle. As one visitor described it: “Surrounded by lush tropical forest and jungle, this site has a serene, mystical atmosphere. From the moment you enter, you feel engulfed by a sense of history, timelessness and awe.” It was here that the self-styled Count Maximilien de Waldeck lived on top of one of the temple ziggurats for 2 years before returning to France to produce a lavish tome, which reproduced his drawings of the site and publicised his theory that the temples were built by one of the lost tribes of Israel. The count was also fascinated by erotic art and loved women. He died in his eighties when he spotted a beautiful woman walking along the Champs Elysee. He decided to chase after her and sadly keeled over in the attempt.
A century before the eccentric count published his book, a Spanish visitor claimed he had found a lost city of Atlantis there, and a century after, the infamous Erich von Daniken published his book ‘Chariots of the Gods?’ which suggested that the sarcophagus lid of king Pacal, that lies at the heart of the site in the Temple of Inscriptions, depicted a spaceman who had come to land to help build the city. Incredibly, even recently, von Daniken was able to raise millions of dollars to create a ‘Mystery Park’ in Switzerland that ran for three years before closing in 2006 and that included a replica sarcophagus lid as a central attraction. A leading member of the Swiss Academy of Sciences called it a ‘Cultural Chernobyl.’
As well as recounting stories of eccentricity, and looking at some of the problems that surround many of these sites, above all I hope that the book will act as an inspiration to engage in an activity which has sometimes been derided but which I think needs to be reinstated as not only worthwhile but indeed ethically and spiritually laudable. I’m talking about armchair travel. It’s cheaper than more mundane methods of travel, more environmentally-friendly, and perhaps in this way we can even emulate those great mystics of the Himalayas who, while deep in meditation, are said to be able to visit whatever spot on earth they wish. Hopefully in a small way this book can act as an aid to such an activity.
I opened this talk with the quotation that begins the book, so I’ll end with its closing quotation which comes from one of the most inspiring spiritual travel books ever written – Lama Anagarika’s ‘The Way of the White Clouds’:
Who can put into words the immensity of space? Who can put into words a landscape that breathes this immensity? – where vast blue lakes, set in emerald-green pastures and golden foothills, are seen against a distant range of snow mountains, in the centre of which rises the dazzling dome of Kailas, the ‘Jewel of the Snows’, as the Tibetans call the holy mountain. Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds
It was good to see so many friends at the launch, but I’m worried by the effect that simply holding the book seems to be having on some of them:
Kevin Redpath, a friend who is a film-maker and who has just set up his own business advising companies on online video delivery, tells me that soon we will be seeing high quality videos delivered with no delay to our screens, and this will of course increase the demise of normal television as increasingly we can choose what we want to watch and when.
As I was researching the Sacred Places book, which will be published next April, I discovered I could visit virtually every site I was writing about via youtube and google video. Many of these clips were just home movie style, but some were outstanding.
If you have an hour to spare, make a cup of tea and watch this. It’s got Robert Redford reading the commentary and is about Chaco Canyon in the US which has the most extraordinary ancient solstice and equinox calculator. If Kevin is right one day soon we’ll be able to watch a crystal clear version of this. For the moment we have to make do with some blur. But at least we can brush up on our Polish while we watch…(If you want to see it full-screen you can at googlevideo.com search for The Mystery of Chaco Canyon).