You will find the chakana everywhere in Peru: on jewelry, carved out in archaeological sites (like Machu Picchu or Chan Chan), in textiles, pottery and paintings. But what does it truly mean? Experts are still puzzling over it.
At the heart of the chakana symbol is a circular hole which is said to represent the city of Cusco: the capital of the Inca Empire and navel of the Incan world. Surrounding this circle are four corners, ridged with three steps each. Each of these corners is believed to have a meaning, although there is disagreement as to what these meanings are.
The significance of one of those corners is generally agreed upon. Each of the three steps of one corner is meant to represent one of the three worlds of the Inca belief system. This includes 1) the lower or underworld, Uqhu Pacha, represented by the snake; 2) the middle world, that of the humans, called Kay Pacha and represented by the puma; 3) and finally the upper world of the gods, Hanan Pacha, represented by the condor.
These three animals, along with the chakana, are consistently represented in Inca architecture and artwork. When a person dies and the soul goes to the underworld, it was believed that the puma would descend to collect it and bring it to the condor, who would then take it to the upper world.
The other corners are, believed by some, to represent the values of the Inca culture. For example, one corner may represent love (munay), knowledge (yachay) and work (llankay). There are also the values that were set out by the empire such as respect or obligation to parents, to the Inca ruler and to the gods. One corner may also serve as a type of three commandments: do not lie, steal or be lazy.
Other possible interpretations are that the 12 corners of the chakana represent the 12 months that the Incas used for their yearly calendar. Also, the four main arms of the cross may represent the Southern Cross constellation which was important to the Incas. Those arms also stand for the four provinces surrounding Cusco.
Although these are some of the most common meanings attributed to the symbol, there are others who consider it to be far more mystical in origin. These people believe that the symbol has mathematical and geometrical significance, holding within it the key to the Inca understanding of the secret of life.
Whatever the actual significance of each point on the cross, there is no doubt that it held great meaning and importance for the Quechua people. It can be found in archaeological sites all over Peru and is still used today in many of the handcrafts made by indigenous people. The symbol continues to be sacred for many.
Most museums dealing with Inca history will have representations or (occasionally) actual chakana artifacts. One of the best museums of Inca history is the Museo Inka, just off Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. Arrange a visit as part of your trip.
Cover photo: F Delventhal/Flickr
This article has been updated from its original publication on August 10, 2011.