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Cusco: A Parade of Festivals

Qoyllur Rit'i
Renzo Ucelli



Qoyllur Rit'i
Heinz Plenge


Qoyllur Rit'i
Heinz Plenge

At certain times of year Cusco seems an endless round of festivals, parades and parties. Exploding rockets shatter the dawn calm almost daily, little groups of devotees wend their way around town bearing icons from some local church or chapel, and on the big occasions the streets are choked with revelers through the night. Here are some of the main events:

Easter Week
The most moving and public part of this festival takes place on the Monday before Good Friday, when Cusco's prime religious symbol, the Lord of the Earthquakes, is taken from the cathedral and carried through the streets. Also known as the Dark Christ, because the figure is very dark-skinned, this life-sized Crucifix is borne through the streets of the old center on a massive silver pedestal. The procession culminates in an emotional farewell from the multitude gathered in the Plaza de Armas, as the Dark Christ returns to the cathedral to the deafening accompaniment of sirens from the fire trucks of the local Volunteer Fire Department.

Qoyllur Rit'i
Until about twenty years ago this festival was modest, and belonged almost entirely to campesinos from the hinterland east of Cusco. But this is a cult on the rise, and today it seems that every town and village in the region sends a troupe or two of dancers to the bleak valley at 4,600 ms./15,090 ft. where the festival is held.

It takes place on the moveable feast of Trinity Sunday, through the following Tuesday, usually in late May or early June. Its location is the Sinakara valley, high above the village of Mawayani in the province of Quispicanchis. Qoyllur Rit'i means "Snow Star", or "Shining Snow", depending on which Quechua expert you talk to - a puzzling name, reminiscent of the cult's pre-Columbian origins. Today the festival is overlayed with Christian meanings, and is said to have begun with a miraculous apparition of the Savior in the late 18th century.

The overwhelming first impression of this fiesta is chaos, discomfort and confusion. Literally thousands of dancers and hundreds of bands mill about the valley slopes, the air is filled with noise and smoke, and thunderous gunpowder charges shake the earth day and night. To reach the valley you must walk or ride a horse 8 kms. from the highway. At night the cold is brutal and by day the sun of high altitude burns like a laser.

Why do they come? Because the Lord of Qoyllur Rit'i is powerful. Many are asking him for earthly blessings - trucks, houses, jobs - while others want marriage partners, or success with college studies. Many want redress in some personal grievance; Christ is a god of Justice in the Andean version of Christianity. And since the ice-clad mountains that loom over the valley are also the seat of healing power, many have come hoping to be cured of an illness.

There is discipline behind the outward appearance of chaos. Dance groups become orderly once they reach the Christian sanctuary, and Qoyllur Rit'i is one of the few Cusco festivals where drunkenness is frowned on. Punishment for this is dealt out by members of a large band of dancers known as Ukukus or Pablos, who dress in wool masks and shaggy tunics, and loosely represent Andean bears.

Water from the mountain ice is considered sacred medicine, and one of the duties of the Ukukus is to conduct a vigil in the bitter pre-dawn cold of the glaciers, and then bring ice down to those waiting below.

Corpus Cristi
Also a moveable feast, Corpus comes on the heels of Qoyllur Rit'i, the following Thursday. In Cusco it is a massive festival, in which provincial saints are brought from their respective churches in a great parade through the old center, which culminates in a gathering of these holy icons at the cathedral. There they spend seven nights in the company of the Dark Christ, conducting their mysterious business and being recharged with sacred power. Anthropologists suspect that the form of this festival is derived from an Inca ritual in which the mummies of the Inca emperors were paraded about the imperial city and gathered in the presence of the living Inca.
After the procession, an altogether more secular event, sponsored by various breweries, takes place in the streets. Thousands gather at numerous food stalls to drink beer and dine on "chiri-uchu", a traditional dish served only at Corpus Cristi.

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Issue 11 Page 06
Updated, 2003
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