Qoyllur Rit’i: Changing Tradition Due to Glacial Melt

Each year, during the southern hemisphere’s winter solstice, thousands of pilgrims gather from Peru and Bolivia to celebrate Qoyllur Rit’i, an indigenous ritual containing elements of both Andean and Christian religious cultures.

Festival Site of Qoyllur Rit’i in Cuzco, Peru, 2013 (Source: Eric Lafforgue/Flickr).

A recent article published in E&E News offers new insight on retreat of Qollqepunku Glacier and explains how specific traditions of Qoyllur Rit’i are changing in response to temperature increase and glacial melt. The article highlights recent legislative restrictions as well as changing values of Andean people. 

A Brief History of Qoyllur Rit’i

Qoyllur Rit’i is Peru’s greatest pagan-Christian festival, which intertwines the two religious cultures. Traditionally, during the festival, pilgrims process to the top of Mount Sinakara wearing colorful costumes, carrying flags and crosses, and playing musical instruments.

A young Peruvian girl during Qoyllur Rit’i, 2013 (Source: Eric Lafforgue/Flickr).

The journey covers around 18.6 miles spatially, and the glacial peak reaches over 3 miles in elevation. During the festival, pilgrims stop at a small church where they lay drawings and figurines.

Ukukus, individuals wearing shaggy alpaca robes and masks, journey to the peak of the mountain in the night, chop off large chunks of ice, and carry the ice back down. This practice has been forbidden in recent years. 

Some believe that the act of carrying the ice is penance for their sins; others think the meltwater from the ice possesses medicinal properties and can cure ailments.

By completing this ritual, pilgrims believe that apus, the spirits of the mountains, will bestow blessings and fulfill aspirations.

Implications of Glacial Melt

Qoyllur Rit’i is based on beliefs that the glacier is awake and responsive and that Mother Earth and apus protect and provide for its people, but as the glacier recedes, the Peruvian government has set restrictions on the tradition.

Pilgrims kneeling at Qoyllur Rit’i, with Qollqepunku Glacier in the background (Source: Zoila Mendoza)

“One of the most important parts of the ritual at the sanctuary had been forbidden because of the glacial melt,” Zoila Mendoza, professor at the University of California, Davis and an attendee of Qoyllur Rit’i, told GlacierHub. “This was, the bringing of chunks of ice from the top of the glacier to be taken by pilgrims back to their towns which was the final step to other secret rituals that happened on the ice. The prohibition went into effect around 2002.”

Ukukus can no longer bring back ice or water from the glacier, and many pilgrims no longer travel up the mountain and instead, watch from dry land.

“More drastically, as of this year, the rituals at the snow peak have been stopped for the same reason of the melting,” Mendoza said. “I know that the pilgrims have been very disturbed that the rituals relating to climbing to the ice and coming down with ice cannot continue to exist breaking an important cycle in the whole celebration, a celebration that has to do with fertility and well-being for the whole Cusco region.”

Ukukus celebrating at high elevations (Source: Manuel Medir)

Beliefs regarding Qoyllur Rit’i are also shifting. As the snow peak melts, locals conclude that the deities are losing their powers.

“Eventually Andean religion may erode and these legends may become meaningless,” claims Inge Bolin, research associate at Vancouver Island University.