Each year, hundreds of thousands of people – locals and foreigners alike – flock to Cusco, Peru, for Inti Raymi, one of the biggest annual festivals in South America. A solstice celebration of ancient Incan origin, it survived colonial Spain’s attempt to stifle it in the 16th century to become the grandest traditional display of Inca culture that still flourishes in living colour today.
A Pre-colonial Custom
Before the arrival of Spaniards in Cusco, the Incas worshipped the sun as their main deity and source of life; the Incas, they believed, were the children of the Sun God. Each June 22 (the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere), the Incas would therefore summon the Sun God through a festival that came to be called Inti Raymi. On this day of the winter solstice – when the sun is at its furthest distance from the equator – the Incas invoked the sun deity, pleading for him to come closer again lest he lose himself in the deep dark universe. They prayed for a good harvest and protection against famine and hunger.
Tawantinsuyo is the Quechua term for the Cusco region. It is derived from tawa, meaning ‘four’, inti, meaning ‘sun’, and suyo, which means ‘side.’ In Inca times, Cusco was the four-sided sun empire. Only the royal family, priests and other influential people were allowed to inhabit the sacred city, but depending on the merits of a few ordinary citizens, some of the latter were permitted to enter its walls on June 22nd to take part in the religious festival celebrated on what is today Cusco’s Plaza de Armas.
At the height of the Inca Empire, around 50,000 people from outside the city would gather, bearing gifts and offerings to present to the Inca elite. In order to participate, they needed to have fasted for nine days. This was followed by nine days of great banquets and feasting on roasted meats and corn loaves. Chicha de jora (fermented corn drink) ran like rivers of laughter, and participants would chew coca leaves, so as to not get too drunk.
Spanish Suppression and 20th Century Restoration
In the early 16th century, the vast Inca Empire began to crumble. From 1524-1526, a smallpox epidemic brought to Central America by the Spanish wiped out huge numbers of natives, including both the ruler and his heir. Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his brothers then invaded in 1532, seeking gold and riches. Over the next several decades, the Spanish quashed native uprisings and established Cusco as the seat of their Spanish colony. Catholicism was declared the official faith and the annual Inti Raymi festival became a source of tension. Finally, in 1572 Viceroy Toledo forbade what the Spanish considered a pagan celebration.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that this lost Inca rite was restored. In 1944, Faustino Espinoza Navarro, founding member of the Peruvian Academy of the Quechua Language, brought Inti Raymi back to life. He salvaged texts from the Royal Commentaries, written by Garcilaso de la Vega in 1612, and studied fragments dealing with the ancient Inti Raymi ceremony. He created the first play based on it. “I wrote the script for 600 actors and had the privilege of playing the first Inca, a role I assumed with great pride for 14 years consecutively,” said Espinoza. Nowadays, the ceremony is actually celebrated every June 24th, both in the city of Cusco and in indigenous communities all over Peru.
The Inti Raymi Festival Today
Today in Cusco, several days of street parties and processions surround the Inti Raymi festival. On June 24th itself, the ceremony is an all-day affair involving hundreds of costumed actors recreating this ancient rite.
It all starts at 9am, when the Inti Churin (son of the sun) suddenly appears, emerging from the most important shrine – the Koricancha. He extends an invitation to the people to attend the ceremony that ends nine hours later at Sacsayhuaman, the archaeological complex about two kilometres north of Cusco.
The Inti Churin is then carried on a litter by a troupe of bearers to the city’s main plaza, the Plaza de Armas, where 100 musicians announce his arrival on pututos (seashell horns). In their midst are more extravagantly costumed banner carriers. These are all followed by a group of women using branches of cedroncillo, a leafy native plant, to sweep away evil spirits. Leading the latter group are about 30 Nustakunas, or chosen women, who scatter the yellow flowers of the retama plant. Thirty more women tote wicker baskets of fruit and edible tubers, as well as idols and golden amulets. During this grand procession, everyone dances to the music of the pututo, the quena and drums that seem to reverberate through the ground.
On the main plaza, the Inti Churin descends from his litter and symbolically urges everyone to work together for the prosperity of the people. The dancers then leap into motion, performing for everyone while the Inti Churin returns to his litter and his bearers carry him to the Sacsayhuaman ruins, which are packed with people.
At the ruins, he again steps off his litter, but this time climbs to the Ushnu or altar. He is accompanied by his court: Auqui (his son), Willaq Uma (the highest priest), Kallpa Rikuq (the prime minister), four Waminkas (generals from the empire), four Amauta Kuna (scholars) and two Kamari (temple guards). When they have found their places, the Inti Churin holds his arms toward the sun. Speaking in Quechua, he sings a hymn: “Powerful sun of eternal happiness, warm source, beginning of life, almighty father of all that is created, here we are to celebrate you!”
Sacrifice and Prophecy
Meanwhile, one by one, the Nustakunas (chosen women) and warriors gathers to represent the four sides of the empire. The Inti Churin makes a toast with chicha and offers up a llama in a convincing reenactment of a sacrifice. He raises his bloody hand with the animal’s heart in it and the high priest foretells the future through the animal’s innards: “The fat, the blood, the heart and the lungs say that there will be an invasion of enemy people!”
The high priest and the military general then descend from the Ushnu carrying lighted torches, which they use to light small heaps of straw. After studying the tongues of fire, smoke and the embers, the prophecies and wisdom continue: “The empire will achieve prosperity. There are reserves of many riches, but man finds wellbeing through his labor. He must not be lazy, much less a liar or a thief!”
Finally, all the Incas take communion with maize flour and blood from the sacrificed llama. The ceremony now nears its end as the sunbeams fall more obliquely and shadows lengthen. The afternoon bids goodbye to all, as does the Inti Churin and his court, making way for the dancers from Cusco’s community who have arrived with their own bands. People mix with dancers and tourists take pictures of each other in this wonderful cultural setting.