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USC ANTH 372, Part 1: The Inca Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Taytacha Qoyllur Rit’i

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(This is Part 1 of a series of articles concerning “ANTH 372: Interpretation of Myth and Narrative”, a course I took at USC in Fall 2014. This essay is a short paper we were asked to submit, that analyzes the relationships between myth and ritual, using a case study. Read Part 2: Inkarri, Consciousness and Resistance in Colonial and Contemporary Peru)

The festival of Qoyllur Rit’i is an annual Inca pilgrimage that occurs around during the time of Corpus Christi, in late May or early June. The festival attracts several pilgrims, mostly from the peasant communities of villages surrounding Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas [1]. The pilgrimage consists of several journeys undertaken by the population to the shrine of Lord Qoyllur Ri’ti and of Virgen de Fatima, located at the mountains of Colquepunku and Sinakara in the regions close to Cusco.

The rituals involved in the festival have a distinct pagan atmosphere, and draws interest especially from academics, due to its simultaneous sponsorship by the Catholic Church [3]. Being the largest indigenous pilgrimage of the western hemisphere¹, understanding Qoyllur Rit’i gives several insights into Andean culture and how Catholic flavours are applied to a pre-Columbian ritual, thus creating a relevant phenomenon in the modern Americas.

This short paper briefly states the official Catholic mythology and the pre-Columbian origins of the festival. We also devote a section to understanding the ritual and the inherent dualism and structure in Andean society and culture. Some modern and alternate interpretations of the rituals are mentioned in Section 4, after which, we conclude with an examination of the future of the festival.

1: History and Catholic Officiation

The official Catholic version of the story of Lord Qoyllur Rit’i (Quechua: Taytacha Qoyllur Rit’i), from the church records of Ocongate, is as follows [2]. In 1780, an Indian boy named Mariano Mayta used to watch over his father’s herd of llamas and alpacas on the slopes of the mountain Colquepunku. One day, to escape his brother’s bullying, he wandered into the snowfields of the mountain, where he found a mestizo boy, called Manuel. They became good friends and Manuel provided Mariano with food so that he did not have to return home for provisions. When Mariano’s father found out, he went looking for his son and was surprised to find his herd had miraculously increased. As a reward, he sent Mariano to Cusco to get new clothes. The boy asked permission to buy some for Manuel as his friend wore the same outfit everyday. His father agreed, so Mariano asked Manuel for a sample of his clothes to buy the same kind of material in Cusco.

Upon examination at Cusco, the sample turned out be a fine canonical cloth. When the matter reached the ears of the bishop of Cusco, he ordered an expedition to inquire the sacrilege. On June 12, 1783, the commission ascended Colquepunku with Mariano and found Manuel near a rock, shining with a bright light. Blinded, they retreated only to come back later with a larger party, on June 23, 1783. In their second try they were able to reach Manuel despite the intense light. However, on touching him, he became a tayanka bush (Baccharis odorata) with the body of an agonizing Christ hanging from it. Mariano, thinking they had harmed his friend, fell dead on the spot. He was buried under the rock where Manuel had last appeared.

The tayanka tree was sent to Spain, requested by King Charles III. As it was never returned, the natives of Ocongate protested, forcing the local priest to order a replica, which became known as Lord of Tayankani (Quechua: Taytacha Tayakani). However, the rock under which Mariano was said to be buried attracted a great number of Indian devotees. Religious authorities ordered the painting of an image of a crucified Christ on the rock. This image became known as Lord Qoyllur Rit’i (Quechua for “Lord of Star Snow”).  To this day, the replica image of Lord Tayankani is kept in Ocongate, and the image of Lord Qoyllur Rit’i is taken back to Mawallani.

The key point in the above narrative is, that while Catholics saw Christ in Manuel, the natives placed emphasis on the rock [2]. We thereby obtain some hints, even from the veiled Catholic versions of the story, that the festival could have a pre-Columbian significance, as rock, snow and the geography in general was sacred to the Andes and played critical roles in the Andean cosmology [7].

To a large extent the Catholic myth is very similar to several myths of Latin America, and especially the Andes. They involve the isolation of a peasant, usually on top of hill, eventually resulting in the sighting of Christ or the Virgin [3]. An example, is the San Juan Diego myth that resulted in the holiest of sites in Latin America, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City [1]. The commonalities suggest that all such Catholic myths may have a more indigenous background.

A few months before he discovered the famed Ice Maiden in 1995, Johan Reinhard explored the region near Colquepunku only to discover several Andean structures that were temporary resting areas offering a well-lit panoramic view for pilgrims approaching the mountain [6]. These, of course, were abandoned after the Spanish conquest, and the processions now approach the mountain from the shadows, suggesting that early Spanish-era natives avoided the watchful eyes of their colonists, so that a pre-Columbian ritual may continue.

The history of the Andes offers more insight into the official version. In 1780, the Tupac Amaru (claiming to be a descendant of the last Inca king) rebellion of the natives against the loyalists to the crown, was primarily motivated by a temporary Andean revival. The severe betrayal resulted in many executions by 1783. Not so surprisingly, the miracle occurred in the same year, a clear indication that the ritual needed to be masked with a Catholic version, to avoid further uprisings [3].

2: A Pre-Columbian Origin

The participants in the ritual that make the trek to Qoyllur Rit’i come primarily from two divisions in the Cusco region, Paucartambo (with a capital of the same name) and Quispicanchis, who have their capital at Ocongate [2]. The two regions are reminiscent of an ethnic divide between the agriculturist Quechua and the merchant Aymara. This has some relation to the Spanish era division of Indian versus Mestizo. Accordingly, the geographies of the two sets of villages come to be separated symbolically as mountain versus valley, highland versus jungle etc., reflecting the geographies of the respective townships.

In the rituals of the pilgrimage, these divides are primarily signaled by the use of dance. Each set of villages sends dancers who have specific functions en route the pilgrimage. Three main dance forms are observed. The first style, the ukuku represents a trickster man-bear whose leads the procession and whose main function is to retrieve the holy water from Lord Qoyllur Rit’i and pass it on to the peasants, who use it for medicinal purposes. The second dancer, is the qhapaq qolla, who is primarily Aymara, representing well-to-do merchants who visit the Quechua. The third are the ch’unchos, representing the uncivilized Indians living in the jungle, who the Incas believed were former (“primitive”) versions of themselves, banished by the Sun God Inti. They are classified variously. All three dances have their own musical repertoire that use different instruments and are deliberately made dissonant and chaotic to each other. The reason for this will be examined in a later section.

The ritual itself involves the pilgrims accumulating on Sinakara and staying overnight for many days. A mass takes place on an evening, after which the divisions Paucartambo and Quispicanchis each lay out their plans to visit the glacier [2]. The next day, the official Catholic myth is recited and the ritual reaches a climax into the evening when the procession, led by the respective ukukus reach the glacier to pay homage to the Taytacha at the dawn of sunlight (they retrieve a cross that had been placed well before). Here, they carve out chunks of the snow, and bring it back to the pilgrims. The shrine of Lord Qoyllur Rit’i is then taken to Ocongate (the entire troupe is usually always dancing throughout the 25 km journey) where it is now handed over and replaced by that of Lord Tayankani [2]. A “pilgrimage within a pilgrimage” takes place at Ocongate, where after a series of dances and recitations, all the dancers who were apparently out of synchronization, suddenly change to a common tune and zigzag each other in a massive spectacle of unison. The shrine of Lord Tayankani is then entered and the festivities begin with markets and feasts being setup in anticipation of Corpus Christi².

There are three questions that are not fully addressed by the official Catholic version [3]. Firstly, why should the festival be held at the time of Corpus Christi. Second, why should the ceremonies be held on the mountains Colquepunku and Sinakara (thereby indicating a pagan association). Finally, why is the rock as important as the Christ that adorns it.

From various sources, it is evident that the celebration honours the arrival of the Pleiades, which appear over Cusco in the beginning of June [3]. The Pleiades were important to the Incas who determined the health of their crops based on their time of arrival. Corpus Christi was also celebrated in the 1600s by the Incas by the name Oncoymita which means ”feast of the Pleiades”. Since Corpus Christi is a moveable holiday around the same time, it fit well into the agriculturist calendar of the Quechuas.

The significance of Colquepunku is related to the Andean concept of apu or the sacred mountain. Apu Colquepunku is one of three (Colquepunku, Qanaqway and Huanucuari) apus that represents the health of people, directly tied to crops and therefore, the Pleiades. The ukuku is a rebellious man-bear that defeats the condenado, a social outcast and criminal that haunts the apu slopes. In doing so, the condenado is delivered and the ukuku is accepted by the community, as it is brave enough to venture into the mountains. Here again, the significance of the apu is readily seen.

The presence of the ch’unchos also suggest a kind of overall civilizing process that occurs during the festival, apart from the general anticipation of health and harvest. The ch’unchos are part of the “old ones” or the naupa machu who were too proud to accept the power of the apus. They were banished at the first dawn of sunlight and cast into stones. However, some escaped into the jungle. Since the shrine is visited at the dawn of light, their presence adds a commemoration of their fights with the apus. The ch’unchos, although less important in comparison to the ukuku and the qhapaq qolla, are usually present in larger numbers with very vivid costumes, representing the moonlight jungle dwellers.

Thirdly, the sacredness of the rock itself is related to the Inca huacas or sacred spots in the geography of the Andes. The Christ of Qoyllur Rit’i and the Virgin Fatima are therefore, attempts to mask Apu Colquepunku and Mama Sinakara.

3: Dualism and Resolution

In Inca mythology, time is divided into world cycles, with each cycle separated from the other by a pachacuti, or the overturning of the world. Within the cycle, there is a binary system of the hanan or “upper” and the hurin or the “lower”. The divisions are relative to themselves; higher elevations are hanan whereas the jungles and lower elevations are hurin. However, the naupa are considered hurin relatively to the dwellers in the mountains, closer to Cusco. On the other hand, from the perspective of the Quechua, the naupa are still hanan compared to the qhapaq qolla, as they originally belong to the mountains, whereas the qhapaq qolla are Aymara, who are physically present in the valleys. Therefore, there is a binary stratification in multiple dimensions, taking hints from both geography and mythology.

The transition between the worlds is represented by a confusion of the hanan and hurin thus resulting in a pachacuti and thereby, a new beginning [3]. The initial dissonance of the various musicians in the pilgrimage, represents the dualism of society; i.e. the ch’unchos and qhapaq qolla being opposed to each other. The confusion that results takes a climax and then resolves in synchrony when all the musicians sing and dance in unison. This represents the pachacuti and the resolution resulting in world order and a new era.

Inca society often consists of various fights and duels called tinkuys [2]. The eventual outcome of these fights is usually sacrifice or exchange of goods and women. While the resolution of the mountain and valley dwellers takes place, simultaneously, the battle between ukuku and condenado both representing beings in a confused state that are either banished for committing pranks and crime respectively, takes place at the apu. The defeat of the condenado in the hands of the ukuku also resolves their confusion (a sort of internal, psychological hanan and hurin within each of them). It is common to see the ukuku being whipped in the procession, in order to prevent his animal nature from offending the site. After the whipping, the ukuku promptly kisses the whip and hugs the whipper, again a resolution.

The ukuku also behave as a mediator between chaos (resulting from the divide) and order (resulting from the resolution). The ukuku a bear-like figure is probably derived from the spectacled bear of the high South American jungles, which is active during dawn. The young man who dances the ukuku speaks with a falsetto thus being a mediator between man and woman. In general the ukuku talks between the community and the apu and the community and the hurin relative to them.

The geographical location of the apu Colquepunku also plays a significant role in the transition from chaos to order. Qoyllur Rit’i lies on the east between the jungle and the snowfields, thus making it an appropriate location for a tinkuy.

4: Modern Interpretations, Further Research

In the early 1500s, a few years before the Spanish invasion, two Inca royal half-brothers, Huascar and Atahualpa fought for the Inca throne, with Huascar being defeated. Since Atahualpa was loyal to the Spanish crown before being executed by them, it is believed that the battle between the two brothers was actually a pachacuti. There is also some evidence that their grandfather, King Topa Inca Yupanqui predicted the arrival of the Spaniards [3]. Atahualpa wished to establish a Viracocha (an apu associated with the end of world cycles) lineage in contradiction with that of Huascar’s Inti lineage. This resulted in killing of all families of the King, and the destruction of a 100 years of ancestral property, thus a pachacuti.

Therefore, it is common to interpret the Spanish arrival as the hurin Spaniards eventually becoming hanan. Since the Spanish did not bother to reinstitute the Viracocha lineage, a new mythology was born, fusing the Viracocha and the Inca, called the Inkarri (Inca + Rey, meaning “king” in Spanish). It is important to see contemporary Andeans in the light of the Viracocha and not the Inti and to this day, Andeans believe in the return of Inkarri.

Qoyllur Rit’i, in the modern sense, is therefore also reinterpreted as a ritual to bring back Viracocha and deliver the Andeans from the perpetual state of chaos, depicted by the disappearance of the Pleiades [3]. A special dance in the ritual, is the Taqi Oncoy or the Dance of the Pleiades, that announces the sighting of the Pleiades. This dance makes no mention of Inti (in spite of the sun being an important part of the Qoyllur Rit’i pilgrimage), thus giving some evidence of the relations to Inkarri.

There have been alternate studies on the pilgrimage. In [4], the author examines the emotional experiences of pilgrims involved in the procession. Often times, pilgrims spend sleepless nights in the cold of the mountains, while performing the various rituals involved [7]. In [5], the author examines miniatures made of pebbles sold and used during the festival as a relation to the ancient Inca script of the kipu, and their abilities to communicate with the apu. Indeed, there still remain many aspects of Qoyllur Rit’i open for understanding and appreciation.

5: Future of Qoyllur Rit’i: Documentation and Relevance

The festivities at Qoyllur Rit’i have undergone several changes in the modern era. Besides technological sophistication of the ritual (i.e. better roads, standardized costumes etc.), there has been a more prominent involvement of the Catholic church; the archbishop of Cusco has in the past blessed the procession, thereby reinforcing Catholic control [2]. Many committees have been formed in recent years to conduct the event in an orderly fashion.

The event has also been a subject of discussion in contemporary issues, for example, cited as being in danger due to global warming and receding glaciers [8]. Several pilgrims note that in earlier days the glacier came down from Sinakara and the procession did not travel that far up the mountains to retrieve the snow [3].

The event is seeing an increasing number of pilgrims every year, and is a subject of documentaries [7]. In conclusion, in spite of hundreds of years of Spanish cultural domination, Qoyllur Rit’i remains an indigenous phenomenon, constantly changing and adapting to the requirements of modern Peru.


¹Although the number of pilgrims has increased from 25000 in 1984 to more than 70000 in recent years, there is no strict statistic to verify the festival as the largest in the western hemisphere. However, several news articles claim so; see for example:

²Further details of the ritual are available in [2], where the author himself admits to brevity. The author also provides some history of the ritual, i.e. certain dangerous, life-threatening aspects have been toned down


[1] V. Revilla, “Qoyllur Rit’i: In search of the lord of the snow star”, Society, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp. 55-59, Mar. 2001.

[2] M.J. Sallnow, “Dual Cosmology and Ethnic Division in an Andean Pilgrimage Cult”, Pilgrimages in Latin America: Contributions to the Study of Anthropology; Greenwood Press, No. 4, pp. 281-306, Feb. 1991.

[3] R. Randall, “Qoyllur Rit’i: An Inca Fiesta of the Pleiades”, Bulletin de l’Institut Francais des Etudes Andines, Vol. 11, No. 1-2, pp. 37-81, 1982.

[4] G.S. Carreño, “The Glacier, the Rock, the Image: Emotional Experience and Semiotic Diversity at the Quylluriti Pilgrimage (Cuzco, Peru)”, Signs and Society, Vol. 2, No. S1, pp. S188-S214, 2014.

[5] C.J. Allen, “When Pebbles Move Mountains: Iconicity and Symbolism in a Quechua Ritual”, Creating Context in Andean Cultures: Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics; Oxford University Press, No. 6, pp. 73-84, Apr. 1997.

[6] J. Reinhard, “The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes”, National Geographic Society, Jun. 2006.

[7] A. Gregg and W. Davis, “Light at the Edge of the World: Sacred Geography of the Andes”, National Geographic Channel, 2006.

[8] C. Ceruti, “Sacred Ice Melting Away: Lessons from the impact of climate change on Andean cultural heritage”, The Journal of Sustainability Education, Feb. 2013.

Written by sushilsub

October 17, 2014 at 11:38 am