Guardians of the largest empire ever to sweep across the Americas, the origins of the Inca are shrouded in myth and magic. Believed to have been created by the Sun God, the Inca race rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca to create an empire that, at its peak, stretched from the banks of the Rio Maule in central Chile to encompass most of present-day Ecuador, Peru, western Bolivia, northern Chile and north-west Argentina; a dominion of some 980,000 square kilometres.
The sun therefore, as you might imagine, played a huge part in Incan culture. It was the giver of life and the sun god, Inti, ranked second only to the great spirit, Viracocha, the God of Civilisation himself. No surprise then that, in ancient times, Inti Raymi was one of the most important festivals in the Incan calendar. It was held at the winter solstice, when the sun was at its farthest point from the earth and the thought of famine and the swift return of the sun’s life-giving rays were uppermost in the minds of the people. It was a time of sacrifice, feasting and pagan ritual.
With the Spanish conquest though the ritual was banned by the Catholic Church and the last royal Inti Raymi was held in 1535. For the next 400 years the celebrations went underground, until they were revived again in 1944, since when, it has been held every year since. Celebrated on the 24 June, today the festival has grown to become the second largest in South America, taking on the role of a pageant with hundreds of actors playing the main characters and the streets of Cusco filled with street fairs, dancing and music.
Beginning in Qoricancha, on the site of the former sun temple, the pageant winds its way along flower strewn avenues, passing into the Plaza de Armas and up towards the ancient fortress of Sacsayhuamán, where the elaborately dressed nobles and high priests perform the ancient rituals and sacrifices in front of crowds of thousands of onlookers. The sacrificial lamas of old have been replaced with something a little less gruesome, as have the reading of the auguries from their bloody entrails, but the visual spectacular still evokes something of the majesty of the ceremony of old and, as the pageant retraces its steps back into the city, the new year begins with the Inca bestowing the sun’s blessing on the citizens of Cusco, after which, the celebrations can begin in earnest!
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