Andean people believed that like a tree, their lives meant nothing without their roots. In this framework of thinking, the worshiping of the mummified bodies of their ancestors was essential to their lives and their livelihood. After all, it was the Mallquis, or ancestors, who were the ones making sure that the reproduction of the livestock, the health of their people and the production of the agricultural fields were prosperous.
One can imagine the faces of horror and disbelief of the Spanish Catholic priests when they learned that the Inca paraded these bodies around the main square of Cusco. The Spanish historical accounts are quite clear at describing their reaction to such practices, called the extirpation of idolatries by their authors. It was a time in which the Spaniards banned all Andean religious rituals by killing and torturing the ones who practiced them and destroying every form of such religious beliefs.
It is not difficult to imagine the desperation of the Inca people to finding an ideal way of preserving these traditions under such persecution and destruction. Some Inca people went to extreme lengths of sacrifice to save at least the content of their beliefs, if not the form. We can hardly imagine the cataclysmic effect that such events must have had on the minds of the Andean people and how they then related to their ancestors or Mallquis.
But in the midst of chaos and destruction, hope flourished in the minds and hearts of these people when they saw in the Spanish religious practices an opportunity to save their beliefs and a great chance to pass them onto the next generations.
The beginning of the religious syncretism between the Catholic beliefs and the Andean ones was inevitable. Slowly, the Incan people understood that in including the traditional and cultural aspects of their Andean religious practices into these newly imposed Catholic rituals, the continuation of their religious traditions would have a chance to survive.
And this is what we see in the traditional celebrations of the Corpus Christi nowadays, when thousands of Andean people, some of them direct descendants of the Inca kings themselves, celebrate a Christian holiday, parading Catholic saints while performing an ancient celebration to their dead people.
The Andean death mummies of the ancestors are no longer part of the rituals. Instead, the Catholic saints play the role of the Mallquis; on the surface, they are the ones receiving the reverence of the people. But the celebration, the dances, the music, the food and the calendar itself which coincides with the other Andean rituals like the pilgrimage of the Snow Star Mountain, or Qoyllur Ri’ti.
During the Corpus Christi celebration, groups of people from different neighborhoods of Cusco carry statues of Catholic saints, similar to the way Inca royal families did six centuries ago.
The traditional food for this particular date is a type of cold trail mix of different Andean products, called Chiri Uchu. It was used as traveler’s food because it does not need to be refrigerated. Chiri Uchu is the perfect food for this festivity, as people who walk many miles from different areas of Cusco area need to feed themselves without taking too many breaks for cooking along the way. It contains roasted corn and roasted guinea pigs, corn bread and llama jerky amongst other Andean products.
Traditional food is another example of how threatened cultural symbols can survive violence and disruption while preserving within it part of the soul and the history of the people who ate it.
Though a Catholic feast, Corpus Christi, spectators attending the event in Cusco will be able to see the worshipping of the Mallquis or Andean ancestors: a celebration of the continuation of life as it was and is still conceived in the Andean world.
Miguel is a Peruvian professional tour guide from Cusco for almost 20 years. He is the co-founder of Evolution Treks Peru a worker-owned travel company based in Cusco.
Cover photo: karlnorling/Flickr
This article was originally published in 2017.