25 June 2011

Inti Raymi

‘This day is the great celebration. We must all rejoice. Our hearts come alive with joy, inspired by a pure air. Oh my sun! Oh my sun! Shine on us now, oh my sun! Oh my sun! Oh my sun! Send us now your warmth and let the chill disappear. Oh my sun! Oh my sun!

So sing all the performers in this re-enactment of the Inca mid-winter solstice celebration, immediately after the sun appears over the horizon – well, that’s when they’re supposed to sing it but, these days, this part of the ceremony actually takes place at about 2pm.

Every 24 June since 1944, a theatrical representation of the Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) has been held at Saqsaywaman, the Incan archaeological site 310m above Cusco. These days, it is the second largest festival in South America and attracts visitors from all over Peru, South America and the rest of the world. Today, Lynn and I and thousands of others climbed the steep streets and even steeper steps to watch the festival and welcome back the sun.

This was the culmination of a week of events and festivities in Cusco, from dancing in the streets, to parades of floats, street fairs and eating. We skipped the first parts of the day’s ceremonial events, which began with a salute to the sun by the actor playing the Inca emperor, at Qorikancha, the square in front of the Santo Domingo church which was constructed on top of the ancient Temple of the Sun. Next, the Inca emperor was carried on his replica golden throne, in a procession to the Plaza de Armas where the coca rite took place – chewing of the sacred leaves, more invocations to the sun, much vigorous dancing.


The procession then proceeded to the ancient fortress of Saqsaywaman. All the performers in the sacred rituals – the Inca emperor, the high priests, the court officials, nobles and soldiers of the imperial army – were dressed in colourful and elaborate costumes. At Saqsaywaman, in front of the huge waiting crowds, the emperor climbed to the sacred altar where all could see him. There were speeches by the emperor, the priests and representatives of the Suyos: the Snake for the world below, the Puma for life on earth, and the Condor for the upper world of the gods. There were energetic dances by the various troupes who accompanied the procession. There was much chanting, like that above, to welcome back the sun.

In a very realistic stage act, a llama was sacrificed and the high priest paraded around the sacred altar holding aloft the bloody heart in honour of Pachamama, the earth mother. Apparently, this is done to ensure the fertility of the earth which, in combination with the light and warmth from the sun, provides a bountiful crop. The priests also read the blood stains to predict the future of the Inca empire. I wonder if they foresaw the coming of the Spanish?

In the rite of the sacred fire, stacks of straw were set on fire and the celebrants danced around them to honour Tawantinsuty or the Empire of the Four Wind Directions, and in the rite of Sankhu, the emperor, his priests and officials sampled a ritual food made of maize paste and the blood of the sacrificed llama. The ceremonies finished with everyone dancing in jubilation – and those of us with numb bums and cramping leg muscles from sitting for several hours, finally able to stand up.

It was an incredibly colourful celebration. Equally interesting was the crowd, squashed together on every available piece of ground, eating the picnic lunches they had brought along or the food they bought from the various vendors constantly jostling through the crowds, chatting to family and friends. We made friends with some young Peruvians sitting next to us – 17-year-old Christopher kept trying out his English on us, and they insisted on taking photos of each other with us before we left.


It was this big!
Also interesting were the poisonous spiders! After we’d been sitting on our scrubby, dusty hillside for about 30 minutes, we noticed the girls in front of us jump up in alarm, quickly brush down their clothes, and chatter excitedly to each other while looking around the area where they’d been sitting. Eventually, they sat back down. Another 30 minutes later, I noticed a rather large spider run up the tshirt of a guy near us, over his backpack and down onto the ground again. Not long after this, the two women to my left started talking and pointing at something on the ground – presumably the spider had resurfaced. But this time, I asked the woman closest to me what it was. She replied in rapid Spanish, then, realising I didn’t understand, mimed a spider with her fingers, jabbed one finger into my leg, then slid the finger across her throat. The message was obvious – this little critter was poisonous! Luckily, he wasn’t feeling hungry today – or maybe the sun god had listened to the prayers of the emperor and his priests and brought good luck to us all!