Inti Raymi Festival: Peru's cultural treat
The world-famous Inti Raymi is the Peruvian annual festival of the Sun – an epic nine-day extravaganza full of skirt swirling, hat tossing, feasting and tradition. Dating back more than 500 years, the festival is the most anticipated event in Cuzco’s calendar. Theresa Loftus, one of our tour managers, was there to experience the festival recently. We asked her to share her account of this cultural extravaganza...
For days the streets of Cuzco had been full of Incas who had travelled from all corners of Peru and the Inca Empire. Yesterday we had witnessed the most amazingly colourful and chaotic procession of more than a hundred dancing groups twirling, dipping and swaying their way along the High street and into the Main Square before spilling out into every alley and ginnel of the town centre; old and young, men, women, and children all proudly sporting their national dress.
Casting off the shackles of their daily life, they danced, never fading or tiring in their enthusiasm. Skirts swirling and hats being tossed; music, song and dance resonated from every corner of the town. Their immense pride and pleasure kept them going until long into the night.
But today was to be the culmination of the feast and celebrations - the ceremony of The Sun God. We could hardly wait. The morning was cold and crisp as we waited for the ceremony to begin. Overlooking Qorikancha - (The Temple of The Sun) from the third floor of a hotel gave us a bird’s eye view of the terraces where we knew the dancers would be arriving.
The upper terraces soon filled with musicians and dancers while below the warriors representing all descendants of the Inca Empire arrived to welcome Pachacutec, believed to be the son of the Sun God himself. Soon the air was alive with music and dance, natives dressed in the costume specific to their area. Normal citizens in daily life, but today transformed into warriors and worshippers of Inti. – The Sun God.
Group by group they pledged allegiance and beseeched Inti to appear. Instead they got the Sun Princess, carried aloft on a sedan chair, preceded by attendants and guards, a golden canopy held high over her head. She was greeted by more music and dance but the sound of the Conch shell silenced everyone for it heralded the arrival of the Pachacutec - Inca warrior and representative of the Sun God. Dressed in the style of an Inca chief and wearing a tunic of gold, he stood arms outstretched, embracing and paying homage to the Sun and then, turning to the crowds, he allowed his subjects to worship him.
Next, guided by the High Priest, he read the Coca Leaves to see if the celebrations would find favour with the Sun God. Approval and blessings were given and then the whole party set off for Sacsaywaman, the Inca fortress which stands 2kms above the city. By the time we arrived at the fortress the cold of the morning had given way to warmth and the sun was beaming down, with the few clouds providing little respite from the burning rays.
We, the mainly foreign spectators, sat in tiered rows of plastic seats, cameras at the ready. Below us was the flat parade ground of Sacsaywaman, and above that the higher zig zag terraces - magnificent structures of original Inca architecture. Backdropped against the blue of the sky and brilliant bright light found only at high altitude it was like a film set that had been painted on.
The hundreds of local people, many proudly attired in their national dress had been gathering since before dawn and had assembled packed tightly on the surrounding hills, climbing to the highest viewpoints to witness the spectacle.
A sense of anticipation easily offset any whiff of impatience; for today they would see the Sun God and get his blessings for the year to come. In the centre of the parade ground stood a large platform which was to be the altar, and a large caldron. To the right of the parade ground was an animal pen inside which were several llama which were to be a part of the ceremony.
After a seemingly endless wait (we lacked the patience of the locals!) dancers began to arrive from the city and gather outside the ruins. The excitement was building as more and more performers could be seen getting into their groups. They were the same soldiers and dancers who had been at Qorikancha, they had escorted Pachacutec to the main square and now waited for him to be carried the 2kms uphill to the parade ground of Sacsaywaman.
The High Priest ascended to the top of the platform and raised his arms for silence. We all obeyed. In a voice that boomed across the plaza and echoed back again, he greeted the people of Cusco, every descendant of the Inca and all spectators to the sacred site. He declared the imminent arrival of the Pachacutec and told us all to prepare ourselves for his arrival.
The sounds of the conch shell broke the silence, this time reverberating round the mountains, informed us of the imminent arrival of Pachacutec. Suddenly dancers filled the terraces, each group as brightly dressed as the next; wearing Inca robes that showed they hailed from every region of Peru. Some robes were simple, some splendid, some adorned with feathers, some bejewelled, some decorated with shells, others resembled armour. Some dancers carried baskets, other weapons. Some were warriors, other musicians but each fitted exactly into a kaleidoscope of colour and worship. They danced and sang and led the way for Pachacutec. The High Priest, arms outstretched asked them all if they, as Incas, were united as a single force and ready to show gratitude to the Sun God.
In one voice came the response “Long Live Pachacutec” “Long Live the Inca” “Long Live the people of Cuzco”. Thus invited, the great Pachacutec entered the arena, majestic and regal, his golden robes reflecting the rays of the sun. He ascended to the altar and raised his spear aloft. As if as one the dancers bowed down, not a single one remained standing.
After praising the Sun God Pachacutec asked the High Priest for a report on the Inca nation. The High Priest told him that there had been a lightning strike and some regions did not have enough rain. Offerings and sacrifices would need to be made.
Chica - corn beer was blessed and offered and a sacred flame was lit in the caldron. This apparently did not satisfy the God because Pachacutec called for a llama to be sacrificed and its heart and blood offered as well. Silence fell over the arena and suddenly small clouds started to gather and formed over the altar – the atmosphere changed and a sense of dread and anticipation prevailed.
Fortunately only a mock sacrifice is carried out these days and the priests were dispatched to the pen to “kill” the chosen creature. Returning with the “carcass” wrapped in a robe, Pachacutec offered its heart and blood to the Sun God. The High Priest examined the sacrifice. To the relief of us all, the heart and blood were pronounced not only acceptable but perfect by the Sun God, and harvests and fortunes were guaranteed for the next year. The collective tensions were released and the joy was tangible.
Pachacutec climbed to the highest part of the platform and raised his hands to the sky. It was as if the Gods had breathed on him. The clouds dispersed, rays of sun caught his golden robe and a dazzling beam was send back to the sky. For that one moment of time, Pachacutec, usually a civil servant, morphing into the spirit of his ancestors, actually became the Sun God. He was ablaze with light as the sun reflected on his magnificent robes and, as he turned to face the crowd he was surrounded by a dazzling halo. His subjects bowed low in awe and worship. Not a sound was heard from anyone.
Turning to his people he called for music, dancing and feasting. He blessed everyone and decreed the celebrations go on long into the night in all corners of the Inca Empire. The blessed Chica was poured for all his subjects, fortification for the dancing ahead.
Needing no further bidding the musicians struck up a tune and everyone chanted “Long Live the Incas”. The singing and dancing started again with renewed vigour; this time the subjects were no longer alone but joined by the ghosts of the vanished empire, their ties to their ancestors strengthened and woven anew. Proud, proud Incas every last one.
We made our way back down through the throngs to the town where other celebrations were going on; more music, dancing and costumes. Hundreds of photos had been taken but we all knew that none would have captured the spiritual energies we had witnessed on this very special day. Many felt that we too had been given the blessing of the Sun God in the memories which would last long after the feasting had stopped.
Experience Inti Raymi for yourself on a special departure of our 'Footsteps of the Incas' tour.
Nicola considers herself very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit a number of places around the world and these experiences usually involve searching for as many kinds of wildlife as possible. Recent highlights include penguins in Antarctica, bears and whales in Canada and Alaska and sea otters in California - but there are always more animals to search for.
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