Our Cusco history lessons end with the Colourful Festival of the Sun Inti Raymi.
This festival or pageant originates from the Incas who worshipped the sun.
We have timed our trip so that we are here during the Winter Solstice. This means that we get to witness the wonderful celebrations of Corpus Christ and Int Raymi. Local harvests are the driving force behind this majestic pre-Hispanic ceremony which renders homage to the sun.
Many other cultures also celebrate at this time of year. But only here in Cusco, can we experience the dramatic Inti Raymi festival.
The ceremony honours the sun god Inti, and used to involve tying the sun to a hitching post. This prevented the sun from escaping on the shortest day of the year. The only hitching post to survive is in Machu Picchu which was never discovered by the Spanish.
During the Spanish conquest, the Catholic Church worked to destroy all sun tying practises and ceremonies. By 1572, the “pagan festival” had been driven underground.
However, since 1944, a theatrical re-embodiment of the traditional festival has taken place, and this is what we experience today in Cusco.
The central event is acted out on an outdoor stage below the imposing fortress of Sacsayhuamán (pronounced “sexy woman). Sacsayhuamán is 2 km outside the city of Cusco which is easily reached by car or on foot.
We go by car however, the vehicle of choice would really be foot! Our vehicle can barely move due to the throngs of Peruvians on foot.
In this magical setting, step by step, thousands of actors proudly enact a long ceremony giving thanks to the sun god, Inti. The festival evokes the splendid Inca ritual of yore, being carefully scripted by Cusco professors, archaeologists and historians. It is a great honour to be chosen to represent the main historical figures in the re-enactment.
The story goes like this:
The Inca ruler is borne on a royal litter from the Koricancha, or Temple of the Sun, to the Huacaypata, the city’s main square, where he commands the local authorities to govern fairly. Then all the participants set out for Sacsayhuamán, where the ceremony calls for the sacrifice of two llamas, one black and one white.
The llama heart is held aloft to honour Mother Earth (Pachamama) for her involvement with the fertility of the earth in combination with the sun’s warmth and light. Then the llamas’ entrails and fat are handed to a pair of high priests: the first, the Callpa Ricuy, examines the intestines to predict what sort of year lies ahead; while the second priest, the Wupariruj, makes his predictions based on the smoke that wafts up from the burning fat.
The high priests’ predictions are then interpreted by the Willac Umo, the lord high priest, who bears the news to the Inca.
Finally, at sunset, the Inca orders everyone to withdraw from the site, and following the procession back to Cusco, the entire city breaks out into festivities that rage for several days.
There are hundreds of traditional Peruvian musicians and bands lining the streets and the plazas of Cusco and the atmosphere is colourful, joyful, and euphoric.
It is wonderful to be caught up in the ceremony and tradition, the colour, the festivities and the excitement of this great festival that happens every year on June 24.
You can only read so much about Inti Raymi, you really have to BE there to experience the vibrancy of this wonderful human celebration!