Stealing Ice from Inca Gods
The Qoyllur Ritt’i Festival of Peru
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Each year, thousands of pilgrims climb the sacred mountain of their ancestors: Mount Sinakara in southern Peru.
They come here to steal pillars of ice from Colquepunku, the Inca Ice God – ice that makes dreams come true and heals all illness – and offer them to Christ, the God of the Conquistadors.
This is Qoyllur Ritt’i: a baroque and mystical pilgrimage in the Andes, timed to coincide with the Pleiades constellation’s reappearance in the Peruvian heavens.
As the fifteen thousand pilgrims climb Mount Sinakara, over 5000 metres in altitude, they seem to move into a world where time no longer means anything.
They have arrived from Cuzco, cradle of the Inca people, as well as from all over Peru and even Bolivia to climb this holy mountain in southern Peru.
As they disappear into the clouds, the crosses they carry on their backs – testimony to a Christianised land – become ghostly reminders of another age. From the Inca Empire, crushed under the heel of the Conquistador invasion in 1533, the pilgrims have borrowed strange, mysterious symbols.
This pilgrimage was first undertaken by the Quechua Indians. Before the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, the Quechas constituted a relatively large ethnic group despite the uniformity imposed by the Inca Empire.
Today, after colonisation and political turbulence, the Quechas have regrouped in the 3000-4000 metre altitude band, and have settled in dispersed rural communities – they despise the westernised culture of Cuzco.
They still speak Quechua, the old language first spread by the Incas who dominated the region from Equatorial Andes to Chile, a century before the Spanish arrived. The Qoyllur Ritt’i pilgrimage is one of the last Quecha rites to have survived the centuries intact. And it’s now becoming more and more popular among non-Quechua Peruvians.
While on this long, hardy pilgrimage, the pilgrims are no longer farmers, citizens or even Indians as we would call them. Here, they are representative of ethnic ‘nations’ which, during this ritual at least, voice their identity again.
The ‘nation’ representatives have arrived here with their own music, dancers in festive costume, and their gods – incarnated in their own patron saints.
The leaders each carry a long staff covered in silver as symbols of their power.
Qoyllur Ritt’i is celebrated over five days at the start of June, during Whitsun.
This is, of course, a Catholic feast, but also an Incan holiday because this is when they celebrate the feast of the Pleiades constellation. Its return to the skies marks the solstice, vital to solar cults the world over. The Christian missionaries, in an effort to wipe out paganism forever, tried to substitute this feast with the Catholic Whitsun, but were not entirely successful.Most of the pilgrimage rites date back from this pagan era. The Ch’unchu dancers represent the tropical forests in the Andean valleys. Some are crowned with peacock feathers; others wear magnificent head-dresses made from the red feathers of a tropical bird. The reason for these outfits is due to the pilgrims’ belief that their pre-Inca ancestors originally came from the Amazon rainforest to settle high in the Andes. The Ch’unchu – which means ‘wild’ in Quechua – therefore represent the first age of man.
The Capac qolla dancers on the other hand, represent the high peaks of the Altiplano – more specifically, the merchants of the Altiplano – thus juxtaposing the wealthy and civilised highlands with the simple and primal lowlands.
Qoyllur Ritt’i is therefore all about straddling time and space – from early to late; from low to high; from chaos to order; from darkness to sunlight. The mix-and-match of different religious influences in this festival seems oddly fitting. The Ch’unchu and Capac qolla dancers sway around each other as if trying to outdo each other, or seduce each other. The crowds sing and dance in unison around them.
The site of Qoyllur Ritt’i is that of a miracle which reputedly took place in 1750. One day, so the legend goes, an Indian shepherd boy became friends with a golden-haired child and, miraculously, the shepherd boy’s flock started multiplying.
When the people wanted to ask the golden child how this had happened, they were struck blind by a flash of light. The shepherd boy’s friend had disappeared. In his place appeared a crucifix: the Christ of Qoyllur Ritt’i. This spot, 5000 metres up as the condor flies, is, therefore, a holy place and the crucifix is still there: Christ is painted on the rocks, which symbolise the pre-Christian Indian gods of rocks, mountains, condors and so on.
Lord Colquepunku is one such god, and it is futile to ask whether Qoyllur Ritt’i celebrates Christ or Colquepunku – the answer is, both. Christ is venerated in the valleys below; Colquepunku is revered high above on the glaciers of Mount Sinakara. Again, Qoyllur Ritt’i is about uniting all temporal and spatial paradoxes.
Lord Colquepunku is the god of the glacier that dominates this mountain, and that claims the lives of at least two or three people every year. If Christ is worshipped in the churches in the valleys below, Colquepunku is worshipped in the form of the cross that the pilgrims plant here, at the summit of Mount Sanakara – the bosom of their Indian god.
At dawn on the third day the glacier is transformed into an al-fresco chapel where the gods are celebrated with much song and dance. The previous night brought with it strange, mythical beings: the Ukuku. Descendants of a man born from the union between a bear and an Indian woman, these Ukuku – faces covered with woollen masks which are embroidered with crosses – are redoubtable warriors. They slash the air with their whips to chase away the living dead – condenados – who haunt the mountain.
They are the only beings capable of stealing the glacier’s ice from Colquepunku – ice which has healing qualities and which must be sacrificed to the gods of the valleys below: Christ. Only the Ukuku are so strong of heart and body that they are willing to risk the wrath of their glacier-god. They must march for a day, cross crevices and bridges made of snow, to detach enormous icicles; and those who fail – those who fall into the crevices of the glacier, reclaimed by Colquepunku – are not mourned: it’s a fair trade, and what else can one expect if one crosses a god?
The descent, once the ice has been harvested, is even more perilous than the ascent. The pilgrims must carry down several tons of ice, to a sanctuary built on the rocks below the snowline. It all puts one in mind of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods.
So the heart of Colquepunku is thus offered to Christ; a strange communion. The Ice of the Incas must be traded for the blood of Christ – a bizarre ritual, which echoes the country’s past, when paganism was sacrificed for Christianity. Next year more Ukuku will die, as Pleiades spins overhead and the glacier god of Peru inches downwards towards the valleys below.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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