How long it takes to travel to Easter Island, I’m asked. 20 years, I smile wistfully and murmur. Eyebrows are raised in astonishment and the noises hush as I narrate my tale of yearning and wanderlust. My fascination with Easter Island goes way back to 1997, when a preteen me stumbled upon ‘पृथ्वीवर माणूस उपराच!’ a Marathi book narrating the mysteries of the Pyramids, Incas and the ancient world. It devoted an entire chapter to the mysterious Moai of Easter Island and the petroglyphs of Bird Man. I persevered with the complex book and was soon fascinated with the fable of mysterious, colossal statues lying scattered all over a tiny, remote Pacific island. I laid my hands on and devoured ‘Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past’, the book behind the Marathi translation. I hoped to visit the most remote inhabited place on earth where ‘tools and statues lay around as if work had been abandoned quite suddenly’. Of all mentioned mysteries, Erich von Daniken’s Easter Island and its alien giants had irrevocably captured my imagination.
With time I sifted the wheat from the chaff and discounted the too fantastic theories of space astronauts sculpting majestic statues on Easter Island, advanced extraterrestrial beings single-handedly moving them to their platforms, the natives drawing and preserving memories of these flying space aliens as ‘Birdmen’ for eternity or Easter island being a visible part of an Atlantis-like island that submerged under the sea. Easter Island, however, has continued to intrigue me with its unanswered questions of what the statues represent and how they were transported over the island. Other questions regarding the Polynesian origin of the natives, their eventual population decline and the cataclysmic events that occurred on Easter Island have interested archeologists, anthropologists and tourists over the years.
The flight to Easter Island is pleasant and landing on the most remote airport so serene that I might be on any other island. Green bare hills, vivid rocky coastlines, grazing wild horses and sweeping vistas of sparkling blue ocean surround me as I traverse Easter Island. Not a single tree mars the view and I’m compelled to remember, this tiny speck of land was once heavily forested. I visit Anakena Beach – a
You may also like
beautiful white sand beach with crystal clear water and swaying palm trees. The palm trees were brought from Tahiti in the 1960s. The fiery red flowers of the coral tree are in full bloom; the coral tree is not endemic to Easter Island and was probably introduced at some point in recent history. Was the large-scale deforestation responsible for the demise of the ancient Rapa Nui civilization? Just like that the questions come flooding back. One can never truly forget the baffling mysteries of Easter Island.
20 years later my fascination has come full circle as I stand in front of the gigantic, scattered, half-buried and half-carved Moai at Rano Raraku on Easter Island. I have previously seen the sunset behind the 5 deteriorated Moai at Tahai, the half a dozen toppled Moai at Vinapu and the breathtaking 15 Moai standing on a platform at Tongariki. I have seen more than 50 Moai since landing on Easter Island 3 days ago but the exotic spell that Easter Island unsuspectingly casts on its visitors is strongest at Rano Raraku. Rano Raraku is the quarry where the Moai were carved, separated from the bedrocks and transported to their platforms. The wide expanse of short, rolling, grassy hillocks that surround the tall, rocky volcanic crater of Rano Raraku would almost be inconspicuous if it weren’t for the hundreds of eerie, crude stone faces protruding at regular intervals. The sheer number of Moai visible at Rano Raraku is bound to overwhelm the most experienced of travelers.
How does it feel to see the Moai in person? As if I’m in the presence of everything that is majestic and mystical. The Moai are atleast 500 years old yet they seem ephemeral – see them while you can! The earliest Moai were rudimentary and small, many are now weathered beyond repair or in complete disarray. The later Moai like the ones at Anakena are larger, more evolved and have well-defined features like nostrils, fingernails, petroglyphs carved onto their backs, inlaid coral eyes and Pukao or topknots. The Moai standing on their platforms paint a surreal picture – it feels strange to imagine the ancient Polynesians leading an isolated existence under the watchful gaze of the Moai. The ones lying in the quarry are even more bizarre. Some are buried up to their shoulders. Their torsos perfectly preserved under the soil, the giant stone faces with severe features enigmatically tower over the visitors. Others are half-carved and still wait patiently on the rocky hill for their carvers who will never return. Why were the incomplete Moai abandoned is another mystery. One unfinished Moai called the ‘El Gigante’ is 69 feet tall; did the natives really think they would be able to move it? Finally what about the carvers themselves? How did their population decline from an estimated 8,000-10,000 to a mere 110 in less than two centuries? One can only imagine what would have passed through the minds of early European explorers who stumbled upon this barren island of less than 200 settlers and four times as many statues.
I walk around a fallen Moai at Rano Raraku; it broke at the neck when toppled and has lain thus since centuries. As I walk on the clearly marked trail, I can’t help but think of the photos that were taken when tourists could see the Moai up close and pose next to them. I hike the outer slopes of the volcano, see the many unfinished statues attached to the rock and slowly make my way towards the inner slopes containing the volcanic lake and the statues on its rim. The guidebook describes various statues on the inner slopes in detail but the Rapa Nui National Park Ranger stops me saying further entry is prohibited. An intense yearning passes through me; so near yet so far. My copy of the guidebook is written about thirteen years ago. I look at S-Boy, walking happily next to me, and I wonder if he realizes what he’s seeing. I wonder what else might have changed by the time S-Boy revisits Easter Island as an adult. The Moai are deteriorating as we speak. The entire island is like an open air museum without a curator. Horses, cows and tourists roam freely while locals want to use their land as they please. Who is to say that the wants of the living Rapa Nui are less important than the vestiges of the dead Rapa Nui?
As I return to the parking lot, still somber and over-whelmed by my thoughts, I once again come face to face with the fallen Moai broken at its neck. This particular Moai doesn’t have the carved coral eyes in its eye-sockets because it never reached a platform but in my eyes it is not blind. Neither is it just a broken stone statue. It is a silent spectator to all the stone-chipping and sculpting that went on in the quarry and to all the tree-felling and statue-transporting that went on over the island. It is a silent spectator to the tribal uprisings and fights, to the diseases that spread with the contact of Westerners, to the dying wails of an entire population and to the sickening thuds of the fallen Moai. But Easter Island is much more than the famous Moai. Easter Island is the birthplace of a civilization that despite its severe isolation made significant advances in statue-building and rock art, developed a unique script called Rongo-Rongo which has remained indecipherable till date and started a unique competitive cult called Birdman. Easter Island is where one comes to pay tribute to the lost civilizations of yesterday, to delve on the exquisite and increasingly fragile relation between man and the environment and to pledge to protect existing civilizations and the pinnacles of their achievements.
Traveling to Easter Island? Dotted Globe has several resources to help you out!