Paying homage to the sun in Peru

00Paying homage to the sun in Peru
The emperor addresses his people in triumph as Inti Raymi draws to an end.
Inti Raymi - the annual Festival of the Sun - is a spectacular way of saying Happy New Year

Jeremy Ferguson
Special to the Star

Every June 24, Peru's pre-Columbian past springs to life for Inti Raymi, Inca Festival of the Sun. It's the most spectacular historical pageant in South America. Ask Bill Gates or actress Cameron Diaz, who were among last year's throng of international guests.

Inti Raymi recreates the celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the beginning of the Sun God's new cycle: Happy Inca New Year.
It was also the day the Sapa Inca – the emperor – took stock of his vast domain and assembled his people to pray to the sun.

"The Incas were sophisticated astronomers and understood the concept of solstice," says Roxanna Abrill, curator of Cuzco’s Inca Museum. "They didn’t have the wheel, but they could predict the sun’s exact movements for a year to come."

Unfolding at the battleground and fortress of Saqsayhuaman, where the Incas suffered one of their greatest defeats at the hands of the conquistadors in 1536, it’s an eye-popper.

A cast of 500 performs for an audience of thousands seated in the ruins and scattered atop surrounding hills. The drama plays out in Quecha, the original language of the Incas.

Although the major portion of Inti Raymi is at Saqsayhuaman, the spectacle begins in the morning at Cuzco’s Santa Domingo church, built atop the original Temple of the Sun. It’s a haunting sight, with hundreds of costumed Incas pouring from the church portals like ghosts. Just be prepared to stake out a place on the street at 6 a.m.

"Inti Raymi was the most important festival of the year," says Abrill. "There were 16 million people in the Empire. All the governors were invited. They brought treasure, musicians and dancers from all the regions. It was an amazing spectacle.

"A black llama was sacrificed by the high priest. Its still-beating heart divined the state of the year to come. When the governors went home, they were worshipped simply because they’d been to Inti Raymi."

Although banned by the Catholic Church as a pagan ceremony, Inti Raymi was revived in 1944.

"It was for local people then, processions and dance for the descendents of the Incas," says Abrill. "Now it’s the biggest tourist event of the year. Cuzquenos are proud the world want to come here and see our traditions."

But there’s also a downside to the sudden influx of moneyed foreigners and investors. Tourists, for instance, can afford the $75 U.S. admission to Inti Raymi, but locals wind up watching from distant hills or not being able to attend at all. They’re too poor to afford their own history.