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3. The Corpus Christy Procession: the Catholic syncretic version of the Andean day of the dead.
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 Incan people paraded these bodies around the main square of Cusco. The Spanish historical accounts are quite clear at describing their reaction to such practices, which is a dark and sinister episode called the extirpation of idolatries by their authors. It was a time in which the Spaniards banned every single Andean religious ritual by killing and torturing the ones who practiced them and destroying every form of such religious beliefs.
(Photo: Imperio de Los Incas)
It is not difficult to imagine the desperation and the thinking that the Incan people put into finding an ideal way of preserving these traditions under such persecution and destruction. Some Incan people went to extreme lengths of sacrifice to save at least the content of their beliefs, if not the form. Today, it is barely understood the disruption of 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 same 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, inadvertently and without a conscious effort, 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 to the Snow Star Mountain or Qoilluriti, remain undoubtedly Andean.
(Photo: Imperio de Los Incas)
During the Corpus Christy celebration, the different groupings of people carrying a different statue of a Catholic saint representing different neighborhoods in Cusco, just like the Incan royal families did six centuries ago, is a big part of what remains from the Andean day of the dead.
Same thing happens with the other cultural elements of this festivity such as the tantric music heard at Qoilloritti and the Ukuku. The Ukuku, mimicking the Andean spectacled bear, carry pieces of ice that they bring from the glacier, symbolically watering the soil underneath them to make it more fertile.
Finally, the traditional food for this particular date is none other than a cold trail mix of different Andean products called Chiri Uchu; which is a travelers food, that 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.
In synthesis, no matter what people watch in the Corpus Christi celebration, they can see in the background, the worshipping of the Mallquis or Andean ancestors, the continuation of life as it was and is still conceived in the Andean world.
- Dates: June 15th, 2017
- Location: Cusco City
- Weather: Warm during the day 23C and Cold at night, 40F 3C
What to do to get the most out of it
- Follow one of the processions from one of their neighborhoods to have a more local experience
- The San Sebastian and San Jeronimo processions are the ones where most participants are Quechua speakers, descendants of the ancient Incan royal families
- Eat Chiri Uchu in one of the stands at the main square of Cusco.
Miguel is a Peruvian professional tour guide from Cusco, he has been leading tours throughout Peru for almost 20 years. Graduated from the Antonio Lorena Institute School of Tourism in Cusco, Peru, he has a vast knowledge of the rich cultural and ecological diversity of his beautiful country. Miguel specializes in leading tours to the Inca Trail and other alternative routes to Machu Picchu, such as the Choquequirao and Salkantay treks. Since 2003, he has traveled to the US and other countries to lecture about cultural appropriation and sustainable tourism. Miguel is a strong advocate of ecotourism and science. He values the role that tourists play in the development and protection of sensitive cultures and ecosystems and dedicates his work to raise the awareness of such players with the aim of furthering such a powerful tool. Also, he is the co-founder of Evolution Treks Peru a worker-owned travel company based in Cusco.