Water, Fertility, War, and Carnival in Cusco

A cork pops and foam and sizzle explode into society. That is Carnaval in the Andes. In Each city it is different, containing different sequences of events and even different events. Another common trait of urban carnival is that it reached it height of public celebration yesterday, only to break out again after lent.

Yes, this is one strong characteristic of Carnival in the Andes. though guided by the Catholic calendar it does not seemed governed by Lent beginning this Wednesday but rather follows its own logic.


Though both indigenous and Catholic, Carnival carries within itself references to the Church’s sequence of feasts, though that seems weak in Cusco. Ash Wednesday will come and go and next Sunday the eighth day of Carnival will be celebrated despite being in the heart of Lent.

The embedded reference to Lent allowed for Christian Carnival to be declared carnivalesque and a time of social inversion. These are not descriptive of Cusco’s carnival. It does celebrate a ritual battle, but it is social order throughout and fertility that seem its guiding tropes.

At the heart of Carnival here and in La Paz, is what the Aymara call a ch’alla, a blessing with liquid. Rossell’s notes that before Carnival was banned in Chile, it was the chaya, the play with water that gave it its local name.

This took over yesterday, the height of Carnival. While earlier days emphasized the relationship of co-godparenthood (compadres / comadres) that makes the society work, or neighborhoods and couples as their component through the yunza tree, on Sunday, all hell broke lose as boys and girls, youths who are not yet married though they might soon reach that age, war against each other all day long with cans of foam, water guns, water balloons, colored flours, and so on. This is a ritual battle like many others that break out in Andean ritual where the unmarried boys and unmarried girls match up as blocks to fight and flirt. Hence they create society as the birth rate goes up nine months from now.

Playing with water in the plaza of Cusco
Playing with water in the plaza of Cusco

This is Carnival in Cusco, puqllay as it is called in Quechua or play, and anata in Aymara. It is neither completely Christian nor Indigenous, but maintains deep roots in the Andean past.

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