BOLIVIA : Silence of the Llamas
The Silence of the Llamas
Text and 29 photographs by Eric Pasquier
The Inca earth-goddess Pachamama, she who ensures a good harvest, was always a thirsty deity – for blood. Llama’s blood.
The ancient Inca ceremony of Ch’alla is still practised in the Bolivian Andes and involves a llama sacrifice, llama foetuses and lots of alcohol and cocaine. But instead of requesting a good harvest, today’s llamas are killed to insure the lives of the men who work in the silver mines, where the devil lives. ERIC PASQUIER witnessed a bloody and bizarre ceremony as old as the Bolivian hills.
Sometimes, in some places, it is hard to tell that we are truly living in the 21st Century. This is the case with the annual Bolivian Ch’alla ceremony in honour of the Earth Goddess Pachamama. The Quechas and the Aymaras; two ethnic communities living high in the Andes, are descendants of the Incas and continue to uphold age-old traditions, passed down through generations.
The Ch’alla ceremony takes place the day before another festivity; the feast of the Godly Spirit, or on one of the following two Saturdays. It can even be held as late as the first Saturday of August.
The exact day however, is less important than the location. This year, once again people have gathered at the entrance to the silver mines to celebrate Ch’alla.
The fact that the Ch’alla is now celebrated in front of the silver mines shows how even age-old traditions can be upgraded to suit modern needs. Where in days gone by the locals worked the land, and therefore prayed for a good harvest, now they work in the silver mines and thus pray to the Earth Goddess for plentiful silver reserves and safe mines.
This development result is a curious mix of two worlds, past and present that is perhaps nowhere more apparent than when watching the sacrificial llamas being brought to the altar by a tractor!
The people gathered for the sacrifice, however, do not concern themselves with this odd intermarriage of old and new. They are wondering if there will be enough llama blood this year.
For others, Ch’alla is a good time to do business. Saleswomen display their varied array of festive wares in the hope of enticing any passers-by still not properly equipped for the ceremony.
Dried llama foetuses are selling like hotcakes and the pieces of multicoloured wool used to decorate them are not doing badly either.
These objects are more than curious trinkets; they are worthwhile investments, for as everyone knows, llama foetuses bring good luck.
All Ch’alla ceremonies are essentially alike in that they revolve around the ritual sacrifice of llamas to ensure the goodwill of Pachamama - the Bolivian equivalent of Demeter, the Greek harvest and fertility goddess. Two llamas - one white, one black, are brought to the front. To sedate them, the shaman ‘Yatir’ has fed them some coca leaves and alcohol. The llamas are turned to face the mines before their throats are cut. Women collect the blood in bowls. The strength with which the blood pours out of the gash when the throat is cut determines how good the coming year will be. A strong surge is a good sign and the more blood the better. The women spread blood all over the entrance to the mines, the surrounding houses and even the participants. Gutting the llamas is a job for the men.
The entrails, the heart and the head are buried in the entrance to the mine as an offering to the Goddess. Before they cover the hole, each person sprinkles a little alcohol onto the offerings.
The llama meat is grilled on a charcoal fire and eaten with potatoes and okra cooked in the ashes. Everything must be eaten. Because even the bones cannot be left over, they are thrown in the fire. For extra luck, the fire must be built in front of the mine so that the smoke is blown inside.
During the ceremony, custom dictates that the first sip from each glass must be spat onto the K’hoa, a pile of small symbolic prayer talismans that will be burned in the evening.
While the miners of Quechas honour Pachamama in front of their mine, the Aymaras peasants from La Paz go to the mountains to celebrate Ch’alla.
They point the bleeding llama throat towards the Illimani, the 6,400 metre-high snowy peak that dominates the horizon from La Paz. As they make their wish to Pachamama, each person chooses four coca leaves to put into glasses that are then set on each side of the altar, before being filled with alcohol.
The community’s shaman also takes two dried llama foetuses to the ceremony. They are decorated with multi-coloured serpentines and with gold and silver paper before being steeped in alcohol. But Pachamama is not easily pleased. In order to satisfy this Goddess, a second sacrifice is necessary.
The Aymaras duly comply and get the second llama ready.
Only a few kilometres away is La Paz. With its thriving bustle of cars and trucks whizzing past jumbled office blocks and shops it is a world away from the ancient rites performed on its doorstep by these descendants of the Incas.
They continue to honour the gods they have honoured for centuries but with one foot in the past and one in the present, the Quechas have modernised the ritual to protect their silver miners.
As long as Pachamama gets her fill of llama offerings, I am sure she won’t mind. Some things never change.