Each year at the winter solstice, hundreds of people participate in a procession in Peru in a mix of Christian tradition and the ancient spirit of the Inca. We joined the procession.
The night falling in Mahuayani was going to be a cold one, and this was the last town before the ascent to the heights of Colquepunku, the great sacred mountain. There are already many people coming from every part to join the procession climbing the hill. The night was full of distant songs and whistles, sounds of people preparing for a celebration. For four hours the procession kept marching up the hill. Suddenly, fireworks thundered and bursts of firecrackers echoed in the valley.
After leaving the flickering lights of Mahuayani behind and climbing several hundred feet, we arrived at a colossal open space amid the mountains. The sound of bands, songs, whistles, crackling bonfires, and voices rose in the wind and welcomed us to Qoyllur Rit’l, (‘Star Snow’), the spiritual and religious festival held annually at the Sinakara Valley in the Cusco Region of Peru.
Hundreds of musicians were playing and the loudspeakers stayed noisy all night long. We could hear an old woman on the speakers thanking the Lord of the Snowy Star, Qoyllur Rit’l, for saving one of her sons from a mudslide in a nearby village. Later, a man took a turn to say that, thanks to his answered prayers, he was able to make the journey up the mountain without his wheelchair. Then, a girl who said she had once been unable to speak, sang out her joy to the winds of the Andes.
In the distance, we could see thousands of people coming out from the smoke of the bonfires and the icy fog emanating from the Colquepunku glacier. They stood out against the bright ice with their banners, multicoloured feathers, whips, drums, noisemakers, and musical instruments. This was definitely the big festival of faith. They moved in circular motions around the great glacial depression like human waves.
As one mamacucha (an affectionate name for old women in Peru), prepared some roast cuy (a guinea pig-like animal), she told us that every town in the region sends its own group of dancers, each with its own costumes, masks, and disguises. The travellers carry their prayers with them, their petitions for good health, for a house of their own, a professional degree, money to buy a truck or simply prayers for their sins to be forgiven.
But how did the tradition of this festival begin? No one seemed to be able to explain it to us, until a group of the faithful delivered a manuscript into our hands. According to the Christian belief, in 1780 or so, a shepherd boy named Marianito Mayta saw Jesus Christ appear on the slopes of Colquepunku. Jesus had taken the form of a sandy-haired boy dressed in silk who accompanied and protected little Mayta during the mountain nights. Near the rock where it is said that Jesus appeared, a large sanctuary was erected.
In this sanctuary is an image of Christ, whom the local people began to call the ‘Lord of Qoyllur Rit’l’. In this way, they incorporated their ancient veneration for the spirits of the glacier into a new kind of indigenous-Catholic worship.
The main character of this great celebration is the ukuku, the Andean bear. According to Quechua mythology, this animal is the way to salvation for the souls of those who have committed a mortal sin or offense. The sinners must fulfil the difficult mission of scaling mountains like Colquepunku wearing heavy, cumbersome clothing and costumes and, as if this were not enough, they also have to bring down blocks of ice. Many wear the costume of the ukuku as they climb. These ‘condemned souls’ can gain entry into heaven either by reaching the top and offering ice to the sacred apu, the spirit of the mountain, or by dying in a sudden attack by the ukuku itself.
The ukuku is also the mediator between health and illness, life and death, good fortune and disaster. The indigenous peoples’ veneration of the Andean bear and the belief in its supernatural powers were not shared by the conquering Spaniards, however. Between the mid eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Andean bears that travelled through immense areas of land in their annual food-hunting migration were pursued by the ‘mestizo’ descendants of the conquistadors. They hunted these defenceless creatures on horseback with lances and lassos all the way back to their dens. When the bears were killed, the hunters drank their blood in the belief that this would give them vitality and make them as strong as the bears themselves.
Hundreds of humans wearing the costume of the ukuku came from all over Peru, Bolivia, and even Ecuador for this climb. They rested during the day and began their precarious climb of the glacier as evening set in. As they made it to the purest and hardest parts of the ice, they cut off large chunks of it with picks and knives. They spent the icy night on the glacier with only the warmth of the small torches and improvised bonfires. Many will come back year after year to the glacier to purge themselves of sins, and they are sure that the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’l will pardon them.
As dawn came, the torches were extinguished and activity began again in the heights. The ukukus carried the chunks of ice on their backs and began their pilgrimage back down. At the same time, those who had spent the hours of darkness near the church began to climb upwards to encourage the bears with joyful shouts. These pilgrims took the ice from the condemned souls, and as they did so, recognized the Andean bear as a link between the world of the living and the spirit world. It is a perfect syncretism of doctrines, Christian faith amalgamated with the earliest ancestral traditions of the Andes.
Days passed and fatigue slowly started to show on the faces of the celebrants and there was also a strange sense of anxiety in air. Soon the fireworks and band began to quieten down and the multitudes packed up their belongings. An immense exodus began then as everyone’s desire was, suddenly, to return to their homes. Peruvian flags guided the slow descent of the thousands pilgrims towards the town of Mahuayani, and from there they departed in long lines of buses and trucks that left a dusty wake behind.
Some of the faithful deposited their icy burden in the cathedral in Cuzco, others in the Temple of Water in Tipon, a few others in Abancay, and so on. In this way, the festival began at Colquepunku but ended all over Peru. Tears were shed and favours petitioned.. Qoyllur Rit’l was finished and would patiently await another night near the winter solstice, next year.