Text by Stephen Light, photos by Walter H. Wust/Mylene D’Auriol/Lorena Tord
(LIP-jl) — For 362 days of the year nothing really happens in Paucartambo, a quiet colonial backwater set amidst imposing scenery at the confluence of the Mapacho and Qenqo Mayo rivers, some three hours by dusty, narrow road from Cuzco.
Then, for three days each year, from the 15th to the 17th of July, the town fills to overflowing with the thousands of visitors who come to watch it play host to one of South America’s most vibrant and fascinating fiestas.
The Spanish introduced the custom of paying homage to the Virgin of Carmen in all their colonies, and festivals were held in her honor throughout the Americas.
But in the Andes, where all religious celebrations reflect the centuries-old struggle between Christianity and pre-Columbian pantheism, the Virgin is no longer just the mother of God, she is also Mother Earth, or Pachamama, and the sixteen groups of beautifully costumed dancers who participate in the festivities at Paucartambo interpret a tangle of historical events, folktales and legends, each group contributing to what is essentially a three-day narrative.
The fiesta begins on the 15th July with the entrance of all the dance groups, or comparsas, all magnificently masked and costumed in accordance with their respective customs and traditions. They approach the church dancing, while the Capaq Qolla and Capaq Negro dancers enter the temple singing to briefly salute the Virgin.
Meanwhile, behind the comparsas, the entire population of the town gathers quietly, forming itself into a pious mass that processes along the main street bearing candles, flowers and other offerings.
Later that evening a riotous firework display is held in the main square, during which the Capaq Qolla, the Chunchos and the Saqras dance wildly, leaping through the flames of the many bonfires set around the plaza, their masks lit like some medieval vision of hell. At around midnight, in an emotional gathering, all the comparsas meet again – this time without their elaborate costumes – to solemnly serenade the Virgin in front of the closed doors of the church.
Very early on the morning of the 16th, the central day of the festivities, the townspeople return to the plaza after attending mass to receive the gifts of fruit, handicrafts and toys rained down upon them by the majordomos of each comparsa.
That afternoon, amid an air of excited expectation that runs through the waiting crowd in whispered conjecture, the Virgin, beautifully adorned and escorted by the Capaq Chuncho, is finally taken from her resting place beside the main altar of the church to be carried through the teeming streets and squares of Paucartambo at the head of all the dance groups in their multi-colored costumes, while each band plays the distinctive music exclusive to its comparsa, creating a riot of sound that reverberates against the surrounding mountains.
Meanwhile, high above the procession, the devilish Saqras seem to defy gravity as they harangue the Virgin by jumping from balcony to balcony, even scaling the rooftops in their efforts to seduce her and crying out all the while as if in pain as they try to avoid her impassive, glassy stare.