Customs, Travel

The Power and Complexity of Inti Raymi in Cuzco

Carrying the Ceremonial Qero in Inti Raymi 2013 (Photo: Brayan Coraza Morveli)

The sun shines. After days of cold, cloudy skies, the sun broke through and claimed the sky today. How appropriate! It is Inti Raymi, the great festival of the sun, the time when it begins anew its climb into the sky after vanquishing cold and dark.

For many parts of the Andes, though not so much in Cuzco, this is the Day of San Juan (St. John), when people light bonfires, especially with old and unneeded things. They stay awake all night cultivating the bon fire so that when the sun rises, they have accompanied it and fortified it on its way to climb more strongly into the sky. The night of St. John is called, in La Paz, Bolivia “the coldest night of the year”, whether it is or not according to the formal reckoning of meteorologists.

The Inca Queen (Qoya) in Inti Raymi 2013 (Photo: Brayan Coraza Morveli)
The Inca Queen (Qoya) in Inti Raymi 2013 (Photo: Brayan Coraza Morveli)

Of course, today according to scientists is just scant three days after the solstice, the formal weakest point of the sun in its ostensible path through the southern sky. With the growth of a re-vitalized movement of indigenous people, who now call South America Abya Yala, a new (old) celebration has been born called Mosoj Wata in Quechua or Machaka Marka in Aymara. People celebrate during the night and await the first rays of the new sun to celebrate in a re-created indigenous fashion.

The seeming contradiction of new and old marks all three of these celebrations that occur almost at the same time. And, in fairness we should add a fourth, Corpus Christi, which falls close to the solstice and took on in the early colonies, in Cuzco, much of the original Inca Sun Feast of the season.

These are new, because they re-imagine an Inca past in different historical moments, claim parts of it, and connect it with important concerns of contemporary times, whether those were the early colonial period or the more recent twentieth century. The Inca past is divided and claimed by many different groups and parties. It is politicised and yet ever real and powerful.

The Inca in Inti Raymi 2013 (Photo: Brayan Coraza Morveli)
The Inca in Inti Raymi 2013 (Photo: Brayan Coraza Morveli)

Nothing is as grand as when, on a cloudy Inti Raymi in Cuzco, the Inca stretches his hand to the sky from Cuzco’s ceremonial center, its ancient and modern Haucaypata / Main Square. Just as his hand reached its highest point, the sun broke through, as if the Inca had brought the celestial orb back to its chilled and dark people. They began murmuring and ended very excited at this magic moment that seemed to sear the ancient Inca past with the present, no matter all the intervening new moments in which it was reworked and changed.

The re-imagining is nevertheless important. The official story of Inti Raymi which takes the form of a massive pageant with three stages: the Qori Kancha (ancient temple  of the Sun), the Haucaypata, and Saqsayhuaman (the temple-fortress above the city), begins in fact with official forgetting. Despite the historical continuities between Inti Raymi and Corpus Christi, the city’s elites, in the 1940s needed to imagine a forgetting. They needed to return their memory back to a past that is unknowable directly and find something that could have been forgotten, to enhance their own claims as an elite and their dreams for their city and its place in a modern Peru.

For this imagining, Cuzco’s favorite son, born in the 16th century, shortly after the conquest, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, provided an opening. Long after he left Peru for Spain where he spent almost his entire adult life developing a military career, he wrote his memories of life in immediate post-conquest Cuzco. He was frustrated at what he felt were un-truths that were circulating.

Entrance to the Huaca (Photo: Brayan Coraza Morveli)
Entrance to the Huaca (Photo: Brayan Coraza Morveli)

In his long and complex text he described the festivities of Inti Raymi that he has seen, as a child, shortly after his mother, a member of the Inca royal family, and his father, a Spanish nobleman met in the Spanish invasion. Of course, the Incas were already under Spanish domination and control, but Garcilaso’s text provided the basis for recreating his Inti Raymi in the twentieth century.

As a result, though in Quechua and though speaking about the Incas, it is not surprising the pageant is more like a grand Hollywood-imagined ceremony from that decade and the next one. As you listens to the flutes and drums, you hear so many Hollywood images of Native American drumming, all wrong because of the heavy pulse at the beginning of a measure.

Inti raymi and the Crowd on the Plaza (Photo: Brayan Coraza Morveli)
Inti raymi and the Crowd on the Plaza (Photo: Brayan Coraza Morveli)

But when the pututu, the conch shell trumpets, sound calling people’s attention, the pageant, despite all the chairs around the plaza unlike any other event (making this a spectator event par excellence), and the staged procession down the ancient Calle Loreto, the Path of the Sun from the Qori Kancha to today’s Main Square, you can feel the emotion. It is as if the curtain of time had been cut, and the Inca himself and her self were entering to claim their main square again.

Such is the power of this event, which bores and overwhelms all at the same time. Inti Raymi, is Cuzco’s claim to being the capital of Tawantinsuyo, if not Peru, and recreating an indigenous vision for South America, with this city at its heart.

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