For many in the Western world, the end of the year is synonymous to peaceful reconciliation. December holidays like Christmas are a cause for celebration and a chance to exchange gifts with loved ones. After all, it’s the culmination of the year. Yet, this idea cannot be more contrary for some. If you’re feeling more grouchy than jolly, don’t forget that you can always participate in the Takanakuy festival while visiting Peru.
A Quechua term, takanakuy translates to “hitting each other.” It is the special ritual of reconciliation celebrated on Christmas Day. It sums up a variety of fights among the communities in the provinces of Chumbivilcas (Cusco) and Antabamba (Apurímac)—a respective 6-hour and 8-hour drive southwest from Cusco’s Main Square. Although mostly men are involved in the fighting, some daring women and children can also join in.
As any other Peruvian ritual, the fighting is accompanied by folkloric dance set to a repetitive beat (huaylía in the case of Takanakuy) and songs sung by the local women. In the municipality of Santo Tomás for example, the ritual is celebrated specifically on Christmas Day, December 25. Hundreds of fighters arrive from the surrounding villages to challenge their opponents and prepare for their final fight while drinking and dancing.
Oddly enough, and against all Western preconceptions, the centuries-old ritual is believed to solve conflict effectively, as it curbs violence through a fight that is accepted and moderated by the community. According to a group of panelists of the Wiener University, who discussed the juridical nature of the ritual (“Takanakuy: Los límites de la cultura y lo Jurídico”), the takanakuy has not only proven to be an effective conflict resolution strategy but a social bonding mechanism that responds proactively to the needs of the community in an area where the State has been traditionally absent.
Violence in the takanakuy is without a doubt the prevalent type of social relation that has survived since pre-Columbian times and has become a pillar for the modern identity of these Andean communities.
The rituals are organized by two patrons (carguyoq), using two images of the baby Jesus (Niño Jesús and Belén) to represent the two fighting groups. Each group is aided by extended family members, comrades and friends. The huaylía, or the musical genre that accompanies the takanakuy, uses repetitive rhythms with lyrics that refer to lost love, estrangement, conflict, violence and honor. They usually mention baby Jesus throughout the chants. There is a particular one that is sung when one of the adversaries falls to the ground after being hit, kicked or hurt with a stone.
During the fight, the community dances, sings and drinks while the adversaries dress up in costumes that resemble colonial themes with Mexican wrestler masks. These disguises represent five different types of fighters: the negro (black), the majeño, the qara capa, the qarawatana and the qara gallo.
The black represent the African slaves and are usually the best fighters. They habitually engage in the ritual completely inebriated with aguardiente, an alcoholic drink made from sugar cane. The majeños represent the merchants of Majes, those who trade the aguardiente in the region; the qara capas embody the insects that eat their crops; the qarawatana resemble local cowboys, dressed in leather chaps (zahones or chaparreras) and an animal carcass worn on their heads. Lastly, the qara gallo symbolize whatever is extravagant and improvised.
According to the historian Victor Laime, the ritual is reminiscent of the times of the great haciendas during the XIX century. A time when the powerful landowners brought African slaves to the region to cultivate crops and work on their land.
This time period was also when the aguardiente trade reached its climax, replacing corn chicha and other local festive beverages. It was a time when spontaneous fights among the peasants could not be addressed by the State but rather through arranged pacts between feuding parts that would happen within the laws of the community during the Christmas festivities. In other words, the Takanakuy.
Cover photo: paniko.cl/Flickr
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