Journey to the afterworld
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Journey to the afterworld

This megalithic passage tomb is older than the Pyramids, and also as mysterious

travel Updated: Dec 29, 2010 09:55 IST
Kalpana Sunder
Kalpana Sunder

An alien flying saucer? My first glimpse of Newgrange from outside the shuttle bus is magical and otherworldly. Five thousand years ago, settlers raised livestock and grew crops in this fertile valley. They were artful architects and engineers who built mounds, hilltop forts and shrines. 

Newgrange is part of a heritage trail in Ireland, called Bru na Boine, which includes the burial mounds of Knowth, Douth, and the Hill of Tara.

The Newgrange site sits perched on a hill in the Boyne Valley with lush green fields and hills all around. Indeed, quite the green pastures! Granite and sparkling white quartz from as far as the Wicklow and Dundalk Bay were used to create this tomb. It is called a passage tomb because of the long corridor leading to a central burial room. There's a lot of debate about the actual function of these tombs. Were they sacred temples or astronomical observatories? Or a pagan homage to the seasons?

The outer facade is marvellous with white quartz stones punctuated by egg-shaped granite stones and a grass top. This is surrounded by mammoth kerb stones.

We creep into the narrow passage, squeezing ourselves between closely placed rocks. The path goes on a slight incline and then widens into an inner chamber built like a crucifix. The air is chilly and the interiors are mysterious.

Karlos Brady, our articulate guide, shows us three recesses with shallow basins, which must have contained the bodies along with funeral offerings. Many of the stones are decorated with ancient art-symbols like triangles, waves, spirals, lozenges and circles. Apparently, this place has two-thirds of all the known Neolithic carvings and they are similar to aboriginal representations found in other parts of the world. The symbols remain unsolved. Maybe they represent nature or were maps of the afterworld.

The overlapping stones packed with burnt clay and sand form an intricate conical roof. For millennia, the roof has been intact and has kept the inner chamber dry. Archaeologists believe that this construction may have taken more than 40 years. As the average life span then was around thirty years, work must have carried over from one generation to the other!

Newgrange is famous for its winter solstice, when the rays of the sun enter the roof box at the entrance crawl into the passage and fall on the inner chamber, illuminating it. The event lasts just 17 minutes. This is such a great tourist attraction that tickets are sold by a lucky draw! It is now believed that the ancient people viewed the winter solstice as a rebirth, or a passage from darkness into light. Our guide says, "In a moment, I will turn off the lights, if any of you are uncomfortable, let me know." After some minutes of darkness, we see the torch light that he shines creep up into the chamber and light up the inner chamber faintly. It's an unforgettable moment: a flash of insight into an ancient world.

First Published: Dec 29, 2010 09:55 IST