The Qoyllur Rit’i festival is one of the oldest indigenous festivals on the planet.
Translated as the Star Snow Festival, Qoyllur Rit’i is a spiritual and religious event, held annually in June, in the Sinakara Valley in the Cusco Region of Peru. Every year, more than 10,000 participants attend the festival strengthening their ties to their ancestors, ancient traditions and cultural connections.
Attending the festival is not for the faint of heart. There are no roads or vehicles to transport you to the festival site. Along with thousands of other committed pilgrims, I walked for six hours, in the high Andes altitude. We kept a steady pace, traversing up and down the sides of mountains and walking through the valley passes. It wasn’t easy. Passing me on the narrow paths were entire families, children, old men and young mothers carrying babies tied in bundles on their backs. Dozens and dozens of horses, laden with contents to construct temporary villages made the trek as well. Dance troupes in full costumes playing instruments and singing effortlessly breezed up the mountain side, elated in spirit.
The festival site is at 4,600 meters or just over 15 thousand feet, & the glacier above, where many of the ceremonies take place, measures almost a full 500 meters higher.
The majestic glacier becomes the crossroads between the earth and the stars, the water and the spirit.
The valley below, stages all other festivities, bustling dance performances, processions, effigies, alters and numerous other ceremonies.
The Qoyllur Rit’i festival has ancient and Colonial roots combined, equally honored in today’s modern festival.
The ancient roots stem from a time before the Incas, where the sacred mountain, Apu Ausungate, was revered as containing the spirit of Viracocha. Legend tells the tale of a white-skinned boy with blond hair resembling the god Viracocha who would frequently appear to the surrounding villagers. Additionally, early pan-Andean traditions focus on the Pleiades constellation, which is also directly related to the wanderings of the mythical god Viracocha.
Later, the Incas who also honored the Pleiades constellation (or the Seven Sisters) noticed the constellation disappears sometime in April or May and reappears in June. The Inca associated the disappearance and the reappearance of this constellation to agricultural abundance, thus the Qoyllur Rit’i festival happens in June, signaling the time of the coming harvest.
Catholic Church Origins
The Colonial version appears to be an adaptation of ancient lore. According to the Church, sometime in 1780, a young indigenous shepherd named Mariano Mayta had a chance meeting with a fair-haired boy called Manuel in the snow-covered Sinakara Valley. The fair-haired boy, dressed in white and shined as a brilliant light.
Mariano Mayta, who looked after his father’s herd on the slopes of Qullqipunku was mistreated by his brother at home, so he often wandered off the snow fields to meet his friend Mario. Manuel would often give Mariano food so he could spend more time with him on the snowy slopes. One day, Mariano’s father was worried about his son and went out to look for the boy. He had found that his heard had increased. As a reward, he gave Mariano some money to buy some new clothes.
Mariano felt guilty his best friend Manuel always wore the same clothes, so he asked his father if he could buy some new clothes for him as well. Mariano’s father approved since he was grateful for the increased number of his heard.
Pleased for himself and his friend, Mariano set out to Cusco to buy a new set of clothes in Cusco. Before leaving, Mariano took a sample of the material from the white garment Manuel always wore with him to Cusco so he could have his new garment sewn with the same fabric
In Cusco, Mariano searched for the matching cloth. To Mariano’s surprise, the fabric that matched his friends garment was a unique cloth and at this time, only used by the Bishop. Mariano approached the Bishop with hopes he could buy more of the material. The surprised Bishop ordered an inquiry on this strange boy in the mountains to find out how he could have possibly acquired the holy material. Manuel became investigation under the direction of the priest of Ocongate.
On June 12, 1783, together the Bishop and his commission went to find Manuel in the mountains. Along with Mariano and his father, the Bishop’s people found Manual in he mountains dressed in his battered white clothes. Only this time, the boy was shining with a bright light. More and more people gathered to so this brilliant light that had become Manual.
Manual’s friend was bewildered too. In the witness of his family and the Bishop, Mariano approached Manuel. Mariano touched his friend and suddenly Manuel was transformed into a tayanka bush with an apparition of Christ.
According to the legend, the event was too much to bear for Mariano, who was feeling anguish that his friend was harmed. Mariano, dropped dead on the spot from grief. The villagers a buried Mariano under rock near the bush where Mariano was last seen.
Word got out about this great transformation. The rock attracted a great deal of devotees who started to light candles before it in honor of Mariano, the shepherd boy. The Church then ordered the image of the crucified Christ to be painted on the rock and this has become known as the Lord of the Qoyllur Rit’i.
This trend has continued through the efforts of the church-sanctioned Roman Catholic brotherhood who, as the shrine’s custodians, dominate the cult, chapel, and processions of sacred images, and who strive to impart an ever stronger Christian appearance to all the proceedings. This ancient and multi-cultural use of the sacred site of Qoyllur Rit’i is a clear example of a pattern found throughout Latin America (and indeed the world): the usurpation of one culture’s sacred spaces by a conquering culture.
Today the festival is participated by “nations”, defined by their geographical regions.Each nation has its own unique ritual costume and dance routine. Also each nation appoints their most honored men to be “Ukukus”, mythical half-man, half-bear creatures. Dressed in black masks and black costumes covered in fringes, they carry whips and act as intermediaries between the people and the gods.
At 3 a.m. before the principal day of the festival, the Ukukus scale the peak of the mountain in the light of the full moon, dancing on glaciers, hoping to bring blessings to their villages for the coming year. Then early the next day marks the main event, where the Ukukus, climb up the glaciers carrying crosses and bringing back blocks of ice that are said to have medicinal properties. This is followed by a Catholic mass in the valley with processions and sermons.
I have been touched by the spirit of Qoyllur Rit’i, its deep ties to this place of power, ancient traditions and meaningful customs.
I am forever changed.
Seeking more information about the festival? This is a great article.
For more information about Lorene who took many of the fabulous photos on this page and in the video, please visit her site at lorenesudamerica.wordpress.com
And, if you’re inspired to go to super-high altitude, you can find out about the Everest Base Camp trek here