Water Has Deep Meaning in Cuzco

Inca Cuzco was like an Island, a city between the Saphi and Tullumayu rivers. Though you can’t see them today, they are still there under streets and buildings. Water was key to its religion and its existence and it is a significant challenge for contemporary Cuzco. This World Day of Water reminds us to pay attention to water in Cuzco.

Soon Cuzco will enter a time of transition. The rains will diminish and then cease as the dry season takes over the sky and land for about half a year. This alternation of halves, one rainy and wet and one dry, sunny, and laden with frost, locates a concern with water in the natural world Cuzco occupies. This was significant to the Incas and to the city’s contemporary people.

Water would pour from the sky and go into the ground, from which water could also pour out in puquios (poo-key-ohs), or springs. Their world also seemed surrounded by water from the ocean on the west to Lake Titicaca in the highlands and the massive rivers of the east.

Water could destroy in massive floods yet it also gave life to the fields and people. This complex ambiguity and people’s concern with finding and maintaining balance through ayni, reciprocity, led to a focus on water.

A Mermaid Spouting Water in the Plaza de Armas of Cuzco
A Mermaid Spouting Water in the Plaza de Armas of Cuzco

The Incas would engineer water’s flow and bring attention to its movement in the cosmos as well as its appearance from out of the earth. Puquios, springs, are seen as places of origin. From some of them Viracocha, the sacred hero or great god, was said to have brought local people from the inner world through them.

Cuzco has a sacred puquio to this day in one of its most sacred places, the Cathedral. Today is located behind and unassuming altar to the back and right of the massive building, almost as if insignificant. Up until recent decades it was open and people would take water from there for family ritual. Now the Church has closed it as part of an attempt to shift focus from the spring and its water to Christ, especially the Christ they call Unupunku, the water door. The iconography of this figure of Jesus is of him bent under his heavy cross. For the people of Cuzco, according to Abraham Valencia Espinoza, this figure looks as if he were arising out of the water, giving more meaning to his altar being a Water Gate.

Hydraulic Engineering in Tipon
Hydraulic Engineering in Tipon

Near this Christ is the patron of Cuzco, another figure of Jesus called the Lord of Temblors. Soon he will exit the Cathedral to make his annual jaunt through the city. When he goes out it often rains. But in any case he will be covered by offerings of red flowers that only appear in the rainy season and which, because of the scarlet color remind one of the flowing liquid of the body, blood. Valencia Espinoza argues that the Lord of Temblors is connected to the world within and hence to water and the rainy season, as well as earthquakes and temblors which also stem from the underground.

Outside of Cuzco, at the shrine of Tambo Machay you can see Inca engineering of water to make it appear from the earth as if magic in a small valley, a spring for ritual and functional needs.

The Spanish also brought a culture that paid attention to water. They came from a desert and water had importance both as a need for life, but also as a spiritual metaphor reminding one of paradise. As a result most of the plazas of Cuzco have fountains and pools of water, as do the patios of Cuzco’s colonial homes.

A Fountain in a Colonial Mansion
A Fountain in a Colonial Mansion

Contemporary Cuzco faces many concerns with water because of its growing population. Its growth makes drainage and the provision of potable water a problem. In addition, climate change is making the tropical glaciers recede generating a concern for whether what is already a scarce resource will become a serious difficulty. Many argue water will become scarcer into the future as a result of global warming.

The city often suffers from gaps in the supply of potable water. You may not notice this in your hotels, because of the large tanks for storage of water most hotels have. But if you reside in the city you know that the call “no hay agua”, there is no water, is far too common an experience for local people.

On this World Day of Water, when people lift a beer, hear a speech, or have some soup or chicha, they are participating in rituals of water’s flow. It is always wise to remember to share your drink with the earth. Traditionally, people give the first drops of beer or chicha to the earth in recognition and return of how it shares with us.

Cuzco will move forward into the future and today marks a day of planning and discussion of this important resource. In Cuzco, of course, it is far more than a resource, it is a basis of the cosmos and has great spiritual significance.

The Pool and Fountain in the Plaza of Santa Catalina, Cuzco
The Pool and Fountain in the Plaza of Santa Catalina, Cuzco

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