Inti Raymi, The Peruvian Festival Of The Sun
If you happen to be in Cusco and you happen upon Inti Raymi, The Peruvian Festival Of The Sun, it will in all probability be among the most defining and memorable moments of your journey through Peru or indeed South America. Inti Raymi is celebrated to some extent by indigenous communities in many parts of what was once the Inca Empire but it is around Cusco, the ancient Incan capital, where the tradition has best survived and indeed thrived, in spite of, or maybe even because of, the enormous importance of the area to Peru’s tourism industry.
Inti was, and indeed still is, the Incan Sun God, usually seen as the second most important figure in Incan religious tradition behind Viracocha the God of Civilization. He is usually represented as a human face inside a golden sun disc, versions of which appear on both the Argentinean and Uruguayan flags, and an original enormous golden disc of which was stolen out of Cusco by the conquistadores, sent to Europe and never seen since.
Much of the knowledge we have of Inti Raymi, and indeed Incan traditions generally, comes from the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega. He described how Sapa Inca Pachacuti, leader of the Empire in what is thought to be around the 12th century and possible founder of the city of Cusco, created Inti Raymi to mark the new year around the time of the winter solstice.
For the Incas it became the most important period of the year and though the exact traditions of the festival are a source of debate it is believed that traditionally worshippers would begin Inti Raymi with a day of animal sacrifices and a three day fast, from food, from fire and warmth and from sexual intercourse. For six more days then there would be feasting on a grand scale, with June 24th being the centre point of the festival.
In Cusco the Inti Raymi of today you will see today has its origins in the revival of the ceremonies that started back in 1944. These were basically reconstructions of the originals based on the works of Garcilaso De La Vega. Despite this though they are still a hugely evocative and powerful sight.
In the modern festival the day of June 24th begins with a procession from Koricancha square, in central Cusco, the location, it is believed, of the original temple of the sun. A representation of Sapa Inca is carried along on an enormous throne on a 2 kilometer journey to the fortress town of Sacsayhuamán.
Various representations of dignitaries of the Empire follow behind, military leaders, priests and various officials dressed in colourful costumes and robes. There is music and prayers. Upon reaching Sacsayhuamán the Sapa make speeches, prays to Inti, and, in a theatrical highlight, sacrifices a llama, ripping its heart out and holding it up to the crowd. In a modern twist though, today’s version doesn’t feature a real llama, only a fairly realistic model that the foreign tourists doubtless much prefer. And luckily enough so far Inti, the giver of life, doesn’t seem to have noticed. As night falls fires are lit all around the fortress and the long march back to Cusco begins, where there will be music, dancing and feasting throughout the night.