Inti Raymi was the most important celebration of the Incan empire. It was celebrated on 24th June each year which marked the winter solstice and honoured the sun god Inti to ensure that the sun would be generous and allow a good crop in the new year. The Spanish banned this celebration in 1572 calling it pagan and contrary to Catholic beliefs.
A theatric recreation took place in 1941 and today the Inti Raymi festival attracts thousands of tourists and Peruvians alike. As the second biggest festival in South America after the Rio Carnival I was quite keen to witness it for myself when the opportunity came.
The festivities started in Quorikancha, the Temple of the Sun, at 9:30 where crowds filled the Avenida del Sol. One by one various groups appeared in front of Quorikancha being called in by conch-blowing Chaskas (the Chaskas were the messengers of the Inca empire). Musicians, dancers, virgins, representatives from various parts of the Empire, including the loin-cloth clad Amazonians, priests and finally the Queen (Mama Ocla) and Sapa Inca himself arrived. Intermixed with music and dances the Inca invoked the sun and pleaded for it to be good to them in the forthcoming year.
Even before the completion of the celebrations at Quorikancha the crowd started making their way up Avenida del Sol to the main square, Plaza de Armas. Good spots were limited and everyone wanted to have front row positions so the crowd moved fast, some even running. As I made my way up the avenue I came across a man completely kitted out in a Spiderman suit! The actors performing in the recreation were not the only ones in costume it seems…
After some confusion, elbowing and shuffling amongst the crowd, the first actors, from a cast of hundreds, appeared on the square. The cortege included sweepers cleaning the streets of evil spirits and flower girls marking a path of petals for the Inca. Effigies of the Serpent, the Puma and the Condor – which symbolise the underworld, the earthen world and the celestial world – were paraded before the Queen’s paladin. Then the hike up to Saksyhuaman, the Incan fort 2kms above Cuzco, started.
Having just returned to Cuzco, a city which sits at 3300m, after a few weeks at sea level, I found myself to be one of many tourists trying to catch my breath as I climbed steep steps heading to the fort while the locals, with their genetically bigger hearts and lungs, raced up the steps. There are stands near the main staging area with seats going for $80+, the rest of us must make do with sitting on the surrounding hills. I walked up a hill in search of a spot to sit with a good view of the staging area. I found a spot with a direct, unobstructed, view. All around Peruvians and foreign tourists looked for a good spot. When the tourism authorities opened up a new part of the hill a mad rush ensued as people scrambled for a good seat. It filled within minutes. Vendors walked by selling popcorn, soft drinks, but also baked cuy – possibly better known as guinea pig – and chicha, a local home-made beer – both morada (made with purple corn) and de quinoa (a local grain).
Finally the Inca’s entourage appeared once again to music and dances and finally the Inca arrived and joined his main priests and heads of the Suyos (the regions the empire was divided into) on a stone platform. After more summons and prayers a white llama was brought to be sacrificed to Pachamama. Though the sacrifice is not visible, the priests surround the llama completely and perform a recreated mock-sacrifice. Even though there are still llama sacrifices made to Pachamama (Mother Earth) throughout the Andes, this event is only a recreated ceremony. To the cheers of the crowd the Inca presents the heart of the llama to Pachamama and the festival winds down.
The day’s festivities finally ended for me 6 hours after they started. As a small memento to this celebration of our celestial star I was left completely sun burnt. I guess 6 hours in the sun at high altitude with no sunscreen will do that to you.
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