The Virgin of Candlemas (Candelaria) Feast Honored by UNESCO

Puno, Peru breaks into sound and movement when its Patronal feast day, the 2nd of February and Day of the Virgin of the Candlemas, arrives. In Spanish it is called the Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria. Despite international concern, UNESCO named it this week to the list of Intangible Human Heritage, a major recognition and accomplishment.

The fiesta is considered one of the most important national and Catholic events in Southern Peru. Delegations from all Puno’s provinces come to participate, as do numerous pilgrims and tourists from throughout Peru. It is famous for its celebration of the folk dance and music of the altiplano, including its iconic manifestations of the Diabalada, the Morenada, Caporales, and more.

Controversy erupted around the nomination since musicians from neighboring Bolivia are key to the celebration and Bolivia claims the mentioned folklore to be national symbols. Furthermore a similar massive festivity takes place in nearby Copacabana, Bolivia on the same date also in honor of the Virgin of Candlemas although she is also known in this case as the Virgin of Copacabana.

It is a custom of long standing around Lake Titicaca, shared between the two countries, for musical groups from one nation to appear and perform in festivities of the other, just as musical groups from one community perform in festivities of a different one. These routes of cultural migration and sharing are part of a deep Andean culture of interchange and encounter of neighbors that only difficultly fits into the current contours of the two nation states which spilt the region and claim the culture for national ends.

Here is what Peru submitted to UNESCO as a description of this scintillating and emotionally intense event.

Summary Description:

The Festivity of Virgen de la Candelaria takes place at the city of Puno (southern Peru) during the first two weeks of February, being February the 2nd its central date. It involves several activities of profound religious, festive and cultural character, with significant elements deriving from the combination of Catholic evangelization processes and religious beliefs of Pre-Hispanic origin. Nine days before the central day there is a preparatory period during which several masses are celebrated. Then, during the dawn of February the 1st, a daybreak mass is celebrated, and during the afternoon an ancient ceremony of annunciation is carried out, consisting in the gathering, transport and burning of bushes (qhapos) as a manner of purification.

On the central day of the festivity, a liturgical act takes place throughout the morning and then a religious procession in which the image of the Virgin is carried in a platform along the streets of Puno, and is accompanied at all times with traditional music and dances. During the following days, the Regional Federation of Folklore and Culture of Puno organizes two contests of traditional dances where around 170 groups with approximately a total of 40 000 dancers and musicians from all the region display their best abilities trying to outdo each other.
The festivity ends when the devotees go to worship the Virgin at her sanctuary, and there is a concert of musical bands, groups of panpipe players, and masses of farewell.

Bearers and Practitioners:

The bearers and practitioners of the element are the rural and urban inhabitants of the Puno Region. They are comprised by two ethnic groups, the Quechua and the Aymara, who preserve their culture by means of their language, worldview, technologies, music and dances. Nowadays, most of the rural inhabitants participate in the festivities on their communities.

The devotees who belong to the Diocese of Puno are also bearers and practitioners who organize the liturgical events. They have a brotherhood that watches over the objects of value that worshipers have donated to the Virgin.

Apart from the aforementioned, there is the Regional Federation of Folklore and Culture of Puno, which represents the dance groups participating in the festivity and has the role of promoting and disseminating the regional variety of aboriginal and mestizo music and dances. This Federation is made up by bearers and practitioners of the traditional dances of the region.

The Federation of Embroidering and Mask-making Artists of the Puno Region, which represents the traditional artisans of the region, are also bearers and practitioners of the element, because the garments they produce are filled with elements of a particular symbology, are made with distinct technologies, all of which expresses a unique worldview. The Federation aims at preserving the traditional ways to produce the garments, as well as to ensure recognition for the artisans who produce them.

The Regional Federation of Musical Bands of Puno, which represents the musicians who perform in the festivity, is also bearer and practitioner of the element.

Transmission of Knowledge and Skills:

The Festivity of Virgen de la Candelaria of Puno has three main aspects which are transmitted as follows:

a) The religious devotion, which has increased throughout time to the point of becoming one of the most important religious manifestations of Peru and of the Americas. Religious faith is transmitted and internalized since very early age, due to the custom of attending in family groups to the festivity.

b) Music and dance, as basic expressive forms in the Andean culture by means of which ritual, religion and the affirmation of peoples’ cultural identity are manifested. Prior to the festivity, the dance groups rehearse in every district of the region and in all of the city neighborhoods. These traditional gatherings are an occasion for egalitarian, intercultural and intergeneration community coexistence as values that children, youngsters and adults observe and recreate. Pre-Hispanic musical instruments, together with European ones, are played in the dances performed to celebrate the Virgin.

c) The artisanal confection of garments for the groups of dancers in the festivity is another space in which traditional knowledge, techniques, designs and symbols are preserved and transmitted from generation to generation, as youngsters learn these traditions from their elders in their workshops.

Social and Cultural Functions and Meanings:

The complexity and richness of the cultural expressions that are encompassed by the festivity of Virgen de la Candelaria have contributed to make it one of the main symbols of regional identity.

The Catholic elements are part of the structure of the festivity, and there exists a relationship with symbolic elements belonging to the Andean worldview. Since its beginnings, the festivity coincides with ritual offerings to “Pachamama”, mother earth for the Andean people, and a symbol of protection and main source of prosperity for the Andean world mentality.

The festivity takes place in the rain season, when the soil is at is highest productive capacity. This relation between the date of the festivity and the productive agriculture and livestock cycle explains the deep connection that the Virgin has with the rural and indigenous populations. These elements heighten the importance of the festivity by attaining diverse symbolic nuances which enriches it.

The performance of so called “autochthonous” dances has become a space of recognition of the communities which take part in the festivity and which present festive dances that identify them.

The festivity also confers a sense of cultural continuity to the population. Many inhabitants of Puno who have migrated to other places return to their communities and to the city to participate in preparatory gatherings or in dance rehearsals.

Some dance groups welcome national and foreign visitors who are interested in experiencing the festivity, transforming these meetings in spaces for intercultural concurrence, without loosing the religious meaning that characterizes it.

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