IMAGINE an Olympic hockey player striving to get the first goal in an international game if his success meant not a gold medal but the forfeiture of his head.
It sounds strange, but in the culture of the Totonacs in the Veracruz region of Mexico, that's exactly what happened at the end of their ball games played centuries ago.
Bearing a name that means Place of Thunder, El Tajin is a Mayan ruin located in the state of Veracruz, 13 kilometres from the small northern town of Papantla de Contla close to the Gulf of Mexico. Construction started on this architectural treasure in the first century and continued through to the 13th century when Chichimec warriors invaded and decimated the city. El Tajin was eventually abandoned, the city swallowed by the jungle.
For hundreds of years El Tajin's pyramids, temples, ball courts and plazas spread out over 200 hectares, lay dormant beneath the jungle canopy. Rediscovered in 1785, and partially exposed in the early 20th century by archeologist Jose Garcia Payon, this ancient city now lives again.
Although a large part of El Tajin still lies buried beneath rampant vegetation, it's a fascinating tourist destination. Acknowledging its importance, UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site.
Among El Tajin's pyramids is the beautifully restored Pyramid of the Niches. Once in an advanced state of collapse, it is now without doubt El Tajin's most impressive building. The 365 alcoves hollowed out from the face of this stepped structure are thought to represent the 365 days of our own solar calendar. Six terraces lead up to its summit, upon which a temple once stood.
In centuries past, El Tajin's ceremonial centre, a clearing of about one kilometre square, was a trading place for the Totonac people. In those times, because there was no currency per se, vanilla, xocolat (chocolate), corn and beans were used for bartering. Indigenous to Mexico, vanilla was considered by the Totonacs to be a gift from the gods. The Vanilla Orchid is now considered sacred, symbolizing love and happiness.
Up until 1427, when the Aztecs moved into the area, vanilla's most important use to the remaining Totonacs was its fragrance and medicinal qualities. Vanilla's popularity reached new heights when the Aztecs devised a culinary use for the black bean, mixing vanilla with chocolate and using it as a celebratory drink.
Emperor Montezuma, it is said, honoured the arrival of the Spanish in 1519 by inviting Hernando Cortez and his Spanish conquistadores to partake of this special drink. It was a highly prized tribute reserved for important personages alone. On his return to Spain, Cortez's discovery was introduced to the elite in Europe, where it was used as a flavouring for tobacco -- another Mexican import -- and later touted as an aphrodisiac.
While wandering among the pyramids on a steamy afternoon in November, I was intrigued by the stone carvings on walls that have stood for close to 800 years. Bloodletting and gruesome rituals -- as depicted by the carvings -- were common in those distant times. These carvings and many others are still visible, but there is a very real fear that acid rain is wreaking havoc on the walls of El Tajin. It's been said that if a solution to the problem is not found soon, in a decade the carvings may no longer exist.
Those depicting the ball courts are of particular interest, since they are believed to have been the training ground for young warriors. In games that resembled our present-day basketball, the goal was to be the first to place the ball, weighing up to four kilograms, through a hoop at the end of the court. Passing this weighty object back and forth was done with the thrust of shoulder, hip, chest, elbows or knees -- no hands allowed.
But unlike our professional basketball game where the winning team is lauded and rewarded substantially, the best performer in this ancient Mayan test of skill was not feted, but summarily executed -- his head offered as a gift to the Gods. "It is most important," said our guide "that the gods receive only the best."
A stroll through the marketplace alongside El Tajin is a shopper's dream. Mexicans in the traditional dress of the Totonacs sell vanilla beans, embroidered blouses, jewelry, brightly painted pottery, and shawls in the brilliant colours of red, orange and yellow most often seen in Mexico.
Upon entering the cultural centre, Totonac women perform a ceremony of cleansing by "beating" visitors across the shoulders, on arms and back, with delicately perfumed abaca plants. Fragrant, sacred smoke is brushed towards each new entrant.
A facet of the Totonac culture that held me enthralled on our visit to the cultural centre was the Dance of the Voladores (those who fly). As I watched, four young boys aged between seven and 14 and their leader, a musician called the Caporal, took part in an ancient ritual of ceremonial flight from the top of a 18-metre-high pole. This ritual was performed as far back as 200 years before the arrival of the first Europeans.
The group, dressed in white shirts, embroidered and beaded shawls, red trousers and flower-bedecked red caps, scaled the pole to its summit. On a raised 10-inch wide plinth on the very top of the pole, the Caporal executed an intricate dance as he played on his flute and drum. There was no rope securing him, nor safety net should he fall.
Surrounding the Caporal, the boys balanced on a flimsy wooden frame. When the dance was over it was the signal for the boys to topple backwards. Hanging upside down, each on the end of a rope, they gradually descended to the ground in a gentle circular motion around the pole.
For those interested in ancient civilizations, as well as the mystery of a Mayan city built in the first century and buried in the jungle for hundreds of years, a visit to El Tajin, Mexico's most important architectural discovery, will not disappoint.