Customs, Cuzco Neighborhoods

Near the Solstice Saints Enter Cuzco

The Entrance of Corpus Christi (Wayra)

The sun is near its weakest today in Peru. The Inca kept careful measurements of the sun’s movement and around this time held a month of celebrations, if we are to believe the chronicler Francisco de Molina. These included making sacrifices and offerings to strengthen the sun, all along its course, from its rising over the pass of La Raya–where the Vilcanota Valley ends and the Altiplano, high plateau, begins — to the mountain where T’ika T’ika is behind which the sun would set. They also shared chicha with the sun and would sing and dance.

That was then. Now, Cuzqueños gather for the religious feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. Tomorrow a monstrance will parade through the city, whose name means something that shows. Its purpose is to make visible and present the body of Christ, the host of Holy Communion.

Capac Negro Dancers in Corpus Christi (Wayra)
Capac Negro Dancers in Corpus Christi (Wayra)

This feast was brought to Cuzco in colonial times and took deep root, falling as it tended to, at the time of the great feast of the sun, Inti Raymi, and the solstice. It became one of the most important social events and events of religious devotion in the formerly Inca city and was particularly embraced by the descendants of the Incas, such that it is not beyond the mark to say that this Catholic feast is a continuation of sorts of the Inca festival.

Today, the patron saints of the historical parishes of Cuzco make their entrance into the plaza and then to the Cathedral along with their sponsors (jurkados) and devotees. They will come with bands and processions, sometimes with dancers who express their devotion by dancing.

In Colonial times, according to Carolyn Dean, this feat provided a frame within which Inca dances and hymns could be maintained, even if subjugated to Christian doctrine and to Christian Saints. In fact, the meta-narrative of the feast required a “pagan” presence in order to show the power of Christ.

Sponsors-Jurkados of a Saint in Corpus Christi (Wayra)
Sponsors-Jurkados of a Saint in Corpus Christi (Wayra)

Already people have been preparing for this event for a long time. Indeed the events in the various brotherhoods affiliated with each saint organize the annual calendar, as well as much social life in the neighborhoods of Cuzco. Indeed, if you wish, you can follow their progress on a Facebook page dedicated to Cuzco’s Corpus Christi.

People take their saints very seriously. They have developed over a lifetime, deep, emotional, spiritual, and material (economic) relationships with them. As a result, they tell stories of them.

Today, I am told, the saints and followers of the two neighborhoods of San Sebastian and San Jeronimo will race as they process in dignity, to see who makes it to the Cathedral first. They are they most distant neighborhoods from traditional Cuzco.

Sponsors have also invested lots of money in the preparation of finely brocaded robes for the Saints so that when they enter the street they will be dressed in finery. You will also see masterful altars constructed around the Plaza and elsewhere to receive the Saints in their processions.

Chiriuchu, Special Dish of Corpus Christi (Wayra)
Chiriuchu, Special Dish of Corpus Christi (Wayra)

Food stands have also been set up on the street and park by the Church of San Francisco, a few blocks from the main square. Here you can enjoy the typical food of the festival, the cold ají, or chiriuchu. A mountain of diverse, cold foods it is the festival food par excellence in Cuzco and crowds will throng the stands as people discuss which offers the best chiriuchu.

The sun may not be the point of this festival, at least not directly, but Cuzco processes and celebrates today and tomorrow, something intangible, an idea of the body of Christ, at the same time it celebrates its very visible and tangible saints with feasting, music, processions, and dancing. Corpus Christi is vivid and vital.

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