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When COVID-19 Quarantines Ancestral Andean Rituals

In Cusco, the old capital of the Inca Empire located in the Peruvian Andes, June is a month of celebration. Although Catholicism is the majority religion in Peru, indigenous and other communities have continued holding Inca rituals to honor the Earth, the sun, and the region’s glacier-capped mountains. In 2020, Cusco will celebrate these ancestral traditions virtually due to COVID-19. Staying true to the hashtag #LaMagiaDeCuscoEnCasa (Cusco’s magic at home), the municipality has planned a wide range of virtual activities. These include Tik Tok competitions in traditional costumes, guides to making a local festive dish, chiriuchu, at home, and a roundtable with international participants like GlacierHub’s editor-in-chief Ben Orlove.

Though recognizing Christ, the Virgin Mary, and numerous saints, many Peruvians also commemorate local and natural deities. These include the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Apus, which include sacred glacier capped-peaks that protect villages in the region. Andean celebrations like the Qoyllur Rit’i festival and the Catholic Corpus Christi celebrations lead up to the most important ceremony, called Inti Raymi. It honors the sun and occurs on June 24th to celebrate the winter solstice of the Southern Hemisphere.

Cusco’s mayor, Ricardo Valderrama Fernández, introducing virtual festivities
Cusco’s mayor, Ricardo Valderrama Fernández, introducing virtual festivities (Source: Empresa Municipal de Festejo del Cusco)

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the newly elected mayor of Cusco, Ricardo Valderrama Fernández, an anthropologist, reaffirmed the importance of celebrating the city’s Inca roots. “We are inheritors of a culture that has resisted and overcome difficulties and tragedies. We will not feel sorry about ourselves,” he said in a speech introducing the virtual festivities on May 24th.

Like any important social event in Inca culture, festivities started with a ceremony of offerings to the Pachamama and the sacred Apus. “It is tradition to give some kind of payment to mark the beginning of a social event, whether it is huge or as minimal as building a house,” Zoila Mendoza, an anthropologist in the Department of Native American studies at the University of California Davis, explained to GlacierHub. On June 1st, a reduced number of participants including the mayor gave offerings to Mother Earth to renovate the pact between the people of the region with nature. This year, the event, which was broadcasted on TV, presented a special request. Between masks and social distancing, the reduced number of participants asked the deities to put an end to COVID-19.

Apu Ausangate
Apu Ausangate. A reduced number of participants were authorized to hike up to the glacier on June 7. Source: Stefanos Nikologianis

After the ceremony of offerings came the festival of Qoyllur Rit’i, or “shiny snow” in Quechua. This five-day long celebration begins with a pilgrimage. Participants reach the sanctuary at the foothills of Mount Sinakara, which is located some 90 kilometers (56 miles) east of Cusco. Ukukus, costumed dancers who represent mythological Andean beings, then hike another six hours up on the glacier. They pay respect to a cross placed 1,700 meters (5,500 feet) high on the sacred Apu Ausangate.

Qoyllur Rit’i typically attracts 100,000 participants, the majority Indigenous peasants from the Cusco region, with many others from all over Peru and abroad. Held on June 6-10, this year’s festival was the first in decades without a large celebration. “Only a few dispersed groups participated. They were able to hold a closed-door mass,” Carmen Escalante, an anthropologist at the Universidad San Antonio Abad del Cusco, told GlacierHub. Qoyllur Rit’i, like many other virtual celebrations, was broadcasted by Cusco’s municipal TV station.

This year, the festivities honoring the sun, Earth, and mountains will be either virtual or retransmitted on TV and social media
This year, the festivities honoring the sun, Earth, and mountains will be either virtual or retransmitted on TV and social media. (Source: Agencia Peruana de Noticias)

With the help of technology, Cusco can maintain its traditions amidst COVID-19. However, “broadcasting Inti Raymi on TV is not a revolution,” Richard Burger, an Andean archeologist at Yale, explained to GlacierHub. Such celebrations have long been showcased as they have grown into major tourist attractions. In the 1940s, centuries after the Catholic church officially suppressed Indigenous religions in 1572, a new interest in representing Inca rituals arose. “First, they created the Cusco day and then the Cusco week. Then, perhaps around the 1970s, it turned into a whole month,” Zoila Mendoza told GlacierHub. “It aimed to be as big as Seville’s Easter Week,” she added. Most festivities attract thousands of local and international tourists today.

Although this push is incentivized by economic interest, “tourists help legitimize Inca rituals” according to Richard Burger. These ceremonies are known to be historically accurate and are a way for Cusqueños to proudly affirm their Inca ancestry. They propose a definition of Peruvian identity that is much more connected to its Inca roots than in Lima, which has lost much of its connection to Quechua language and Indigenous traditions.

The Peruvian government is currently examining a motion to move the Ministry of Culture from Lima to Cusco. “This would recognize our country’s roots and would be a huge force for Indigenous communities,” Lucy Salazar, a Peruvian anthropologist at Yale, told GlacierHub. Such actions, combined with holding the festivities in spite of the pandemic, emphasize that Andean communities continue to deeply esteem the Earth and glacier-covered peaks.

COVID-19 has revealed that tradition can help people cope with a crisis. In Peru, it has encouraged a fuller awareness of the nation’s cultural roots in the highlands of the Andes.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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