The Round of Life and Death, Jokes and Ice: Cuzco’s Pabluchas

Pabluchas bound through the streets of Cuzco these days. Their energy and commitment make them stand out in a season when many people form troupes to dance around the plaza in costume. So do their falsetto voices, playfully teasing those who come near. Yet, in the midst of their vitality, the spectre of death haunts their path.

Every year, as the feast and pilgrimage of Qoyllur Rit’i approaches, troupes of pabluchas prepare to climb the high mountain of Sinakara as an act of devotion.

The troupes form part of the different “nations” that go to QoyllurRit’i. They are fraternities, hermandades in Spanish, and each has its own rites of recruitment, “baptism” — initiation, and ongoing maintenance through out the year. Many of them are also part of troupes of Qhapaq Qollas, although they have their own roles and duties.

Boys Learning to Be Pabluchas. (Arnold Fernandez Coraza)
Boys Learning to Be Pabluchas. (Arnold Fernandez Coraza)

On common thing that is said about the Pabluchas is that to be admitted into the troupes men have to put up with a whipping. Les soban, they say.

People say you are “born to be a Pablucha”, although I am told people enter and leave the fraternities. Part of the reason is that, though they have a certain prestige and respect, to be a Pablucha is demanding and can interfere with other activities in life.


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As a result, Pabluchas I have seen are youngish men, at the height of their power and energy. Nevertheless, the troupes do include men of different ages.

They mostly dress as Ukukus, a representation of the offspring of an Andean Bear and a human woman. The Ukukus are a kind of joking and transgressive force, at the same time they are forces of order with their falsetto voices and clowning.

These days you will see troupes of Pabluchas dance through Cuzco, along with the Qhapaq Collas who also go to Qoyllur Rit’i from the city. Suddenly you will here the sound of a band pulsing down the narrow streets and broad walls of the city and ukukus, along with their banner announcing them, appear.

Qhapaq Qolla with Their Pabluchas (Arnold Fernandez Coraza)
Qhapaq Qolla with Their Pabluchas (Arnold Fernandez Coraza)

These days, they along with the pilgrims, climb up the mountain the Sinakara where the rock with the image of Christ is, and further, up to the glacier itself.

It used to be that Pabluchas would bring down blocks of ice, but with global warming and the shrinking of the glacier, that is now prohibited. Nevertheless, the symbolism of that was important in this feast that not only celebrates Christ and the Virgin of Fatima and the play with miniature goods to obtain them and to obtain new social positions and roles, it also celebrates the reappearance of the pleiades, a constellation, in the sky and hence the coming of a new agricultural year. The Ukukus, Pabluchas would bring that water down the mountain in the form of ice as a way of beginning the year.

The Sinakara Glacier the Pabluchas Climb (Arnold Fernandez Coraza)
The Sinakara Glacier the Pabluchas Climb (Arnold Fernandez Coraza)

When the Pabluchas climb up so high on the glacier, one or another will die each year, they say. They will either faint and die from lack of oxygen and exertion or they will fall into one of the crevasses of the glacier and stay their forever, as a gift, a sacrifice to the mountain, the snow, the water, and the rising stars. People tend to understand their relationship with the world as one of reciprocity, ayni. It gives life and as a result also receives gifts of life.

This dualism, life giving and death, is key notion in the Andes. Bruce Mannheim, the eminent linguist and ethnographer of Quechua culture writes that Andean culture is filled with the dualism of joy and loss. They are two sides of the same reality.

The Pabluchas have no idea who will die this year. They only know that as they come together in solidarity, sharing with one another and performing as sacred figures before the people of Cuzco that one of more of them is likely to not return home. Nevertheless, they are filled with the energy, the force and vitality, of their position and dance through the city like live wires breaking and turning in the streets.

That same vigor, their very life force as young men at the peak of energy, is a gift to the earth and cosmos, as well as society. They give it through performing with every ounce of their beings and, possibly, through leaving their lives on the mountain, where the mountain can then give that energy to others to keep society going, houses rising, one story after another, and crops greening and blooming. This is a drama of Qoyllur Rit’i.

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