A Ritual to Honor Mountains in a Peruvian Village

Chicón mountain seen from village (source: Ben Orlove).

The residents of four Quechua villages in the Chicón valley in highland Peru performed a complex ritual on August 6 this year, as they have done for years, as a means of making offerings to Pachamama, the earth mother, understood as the source of vitality for humans and other beings. Such offerings, made at this time of year in other villages across the Andes, serve to renew the ties that link the villages with the spirits.

At this time, the villagers also speak to the mountain deities or apus. They directly face each mountain to which they speak and make a series of ritual gestures toward the mountain, a way of recognizing its power and requesting its benevolence for the coming year. The offerings express the villagers’ hope that the mountains will provide good rains and abundant streams to water their fields, so that they will have plentiful harvests.

These events are usually closed to outsiders, but in this case, some were invited by the guilds within the villages that manage the irrigation canals. They invited the staff of an NGO and a Swiss bilateral aid agency that run projects there, as well as some researchers from the regional university who work with them. This invitation was also extended to me and several other researchers who had attended a climate change conference in the nearby city of Cusco earlier that month.

Traveling to the Village

Woman walking from the village towards the site of the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

We gathered before dawn in a square in Cusco, some distance from the city center, and boarded a bus that took us over a pass and down to the Río Urubamba. We took a road that followed that river to its confluence with the Río Chicón, a smaller river which descends, in its length of 8 kilometers, over 2500 meters from glacier summits to the Río Urubamba.

Our bus turned up the Chicón valley, passing through fields, orchards and small clusters of low adobe houses, until we came to the final, highest village, where the road became too narrow and rocky for the bus to traverse. We were then ferried further in cars and pick-up trucks through a higher zone of rocky pastures and scattered trees. The Chicón valley narrowed as we advanced. Along the way we saw many villagers making the same journey, some also by car, others on motorcycles or on foot.

Villagers and visitors assembling at Occoruro Pampa for the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

The road came to a rise, from which the place where the ritual would be held came into view, Occoruro Pampa, a broad expanse about 10 hectares in area. Hemmed in by steep slopes, it was the last piece of flat land in the valley before the rugged terrain that leads up to the glaciers. For most of the year, this area would be empty, or have at most a herder or two with their cows or sheep. But by late morning, when I arrived, a couple of hundred people had assembled there, about a third of the entire population of the valley. They were standing in groups, waiting, as one of the Swiss explained to me, for someone who was missing, a representative of a guild that manages one of the irrigation canals in the valley. The leaders from the other canal guilds had already arrived, but the offerings to the earth, and the prayers to the mountains, could not be made until all those who receive water were present to take part.

After some minutes, this man arrived (or, according to some, his chief assistant arrived). The entire group then walked to the upper end of Occoruro Pampa. As we crossed it, I noticed many rocks and some large boulders. These had been carried down from higher up in a glacier lake outburst flood in 2010, which also damaged fields lower down. This event brought a number of relief projects to Chicón—a process which touched off complex, sometimes tense, negotiations between NGOs, government agencies, and the communities, and which contributed to the strong presence of researchers and NGOs in the area at present.

Performing the Rituals

Community members watching the preparation of the ritual offering (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

When we reached the top of Occoruro Pampa, the villagers and visitors formed a large circle around the specialists who would carry out the ritual, known in Spanish as a pago a la tierra, a payment to the earth, and in Quechua as a haywarisqa, an offering. (Some people also refer to the ritual by the term anqusu, which is more common in regions further west.)

The president of the Chicón peasant community gave a short speech in Spanish, welcoming the visitors and telling the whole group of the importance of carrying this ritual out year after year to assure the well-being of all. He urged people to not leave any trash behind, since pollution was a sign of disrespect to the mountains, and could make the glacial ice shrink even faster.

Coca leaves and other items laid out for placement in a bowl, in advance of its ritual interment (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

It soon became clear that there would be two offerings made, rather than just one. The first soon got underway as a man in a poncho knelt down, spread out a cloth, and opened a box containing many items wrapped up in paper bundles. He placed a clay bowl on the cloth and began to prepare small fan-like arrays of coca leaves, each containing exactly three leaves. These arrays, called k’intu in Quechua, are used in other rituals as well. An assistant, standing to his side, reached down—quite impatiently, I thought—to adjust a few of the k’intu. Other people distributed coca leaves to the people in the group; some took leaves to chew, and many formed k’intu of their own.

A community member distributing coca leaves to participants in the ritual (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

The leader held a fan of three leaves in front of him and blew on it. He recited in Quechua the names of eight or nine apus, the high mountain peaks of the region, blowing on the k’intu in the direction of each as he spoke its name. The first two which he mentioned were Salkantay and Ausangate; though Ausangate is 100 meters higher than Salkantay, it is not quite as important cosmologically. He continued through some lesser regional peaks, before getting to the local mountains, several of them at the headwaters of the valley. Having completed the list of mountains above us, he then recited the names of over twenty springs in the valley, all below us in elevation, and then began a prayer which requested for the streams to be full with water, and for rain to be plentiful, to assure good harvests. He spoke at length in a slow, loud, sonorous tone, urging the spirits not to forget the people, to be generous to them, and to assure them a year of abundance.

Arranging fans of coca leaves (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

He placed a piece of bread in the dish and then set four k’intu around it. Many people in the group came up, each blowing on their own set of leaves and handing it to the ritual specialist or his assistant. These eventually covered the bread. The specialist then placed additional items on top, starting with yellow maize kernels, which he called qori, gold. The final item was a dried starfish, all the way from the Pacific Ocean. He sprinkled flower petals, red and yellow and white, over the whole assemblage. He then turned to a pit which had recently been dug, about 50 cm across and 75 cm deep. He poured two liquids into the pit, first wine and then the locally brewed maize beer. He carefully set the plate in the bottom of the pit, along with a tiny jug and another small object, and covered them up with earth. He sprinkled petals over the surface, and his offering was complete.

Ritual specialist starting to assemble the offering (source: Richard Garcia Mira/Facebook).

The second offering was to be burned, rather than buried, so a larger pit was dug for it, and firewood and dried cow dung were assembled as fuel. Though these offerings are usually prepared by a single practitioner, sometimes with an assistant, as in the first, the second one featured both a male and a female practitioner, and it was the woman who conducted the preparation of the offering. She set a large paper square on one cloth atop a larger cloth, and held this paper down with four stones, one in each corner. This was a larger offering, layers of different kinds of maize, round colored candies, as well as other items; when it was complete, it formed a large mound. She placed brightly colored ribbons, each descending from the top of the mound in a different direction.

While she was assembling this offering, her male counterpart gave a long address in Quechua, combining the prayers to the spirits with commentary. He opened by emphasizing the seriousness of the ritual, and stressing that it was true, not at all a game. He stated that the whole ritual comes from God, offering a version of the Trinity which included, as is standard, God the Father and God the Son, but which contained as the third figure the Mother of God, rather than the more canonical Holy Spirit. However, he explained, the apus are the owners of the water and so it is to them that requests must be made. His list of apus was not in as precise a sequence from regional to local as in the first ritual, but he spoke with great feeling, apologizing to the apus whose names he had omitted. He requested that the apus whom he might have forgotten entirely not to be angry.

Ritual specialist preparing the offering, with a second ritual specialist (in poncho) next to her, and community members watching (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

One by one he asked the apus, in somewhat varying terms, to watch for us, to send water, to send rain, to cause us to eat, to allow us to work. He evoked the earlier generations who knew better than present-day people how to make offerings, and he stressed the responsibility of the current generation of elders to pass their knowledge on. This knowledge must be raised up, and these offerings must be improved and made more beautiful, year by year. (This emphasis made sense to me after one of the Swiss researchers explained that these rituals had been neglected for many years. They were restored in 2007 by villagers who were concerned about the deteriorating environment that they saw around them.)

As he spoke, a group of five musicians began to play, not the more contemporary brass instruments that are popular in many village festivals but flutes and drums, older instruments that date back many generations. With this accompaniment, he closed his prayers with exhortations to the assembly: they must not look at each other enviously, nor hate each other, nor strike each other. Discord and violence offend the apus, he suggested, while harmony encourages their generosity, and might even help bring the glacial ice back.

Village children dancing after the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

The woman specialist wrapped up her offering in a square cloth, as the fire began to burn in the pit. She prepared to take the offering there, but the assembled people moved back down to the middle section of Occoruro Pampa. The dancing had begun. Six boys and six girls in costume performed line dances and circle dances, sometimes holding hands, sometimes holding ribbons, to the delight of the villagers and the guests alike.

The Meal after the Rituals

The food then appeared. One large cloth was filled with an enormous pile of boiled kernels of yellow maize, a kind of hominy, while a second held bread and fruit that the guests had picked up in the market in a town between Cusco and Chicón. Both were very popular with the people in attendance. Some continued the spirit of reverence by lifting a handful of maize kernels and blowing on it towards the mountains, as they had with the k’intu.

Boiled maize kernels, served to the participants after the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

Maize was available in a second form as well, as the home-brewed beer, prepared with local strawberries for flavor and color. Soon, others came around through the crowd with large cloths filled with potatoes that had been roasted in small earth ovens, and others began serving local cheese. The symbolism seemed evident: the maize and potatoes come from the lower sections of the village lands, the cheese from the cows that graze in the upper pastures. Though many farmers now grow cash crops, such as broccoli and carrots for the restaurants of Cusco, and some have even started cultivating roses, their rituals still evoke the traditional subsistence foods, and indicate that agriculture supports the basic needs of the residents, rather than providing them with cash income.

As the villagers ate their meals, I had the chance to speak with the second ritual practitioner, the one who gave the speech about harmony. He is from the village, but had traveled and studied abroad, and had even received a medical degree in Havana. He returned to the village some years ago and became involved in the local rituals that he had seen as a child and then neglected for decades. He now runs a clinic of what he terms “Andean medicine” in a nearby town. The woman who prepared the second offering has also spent time outside the village.

Discussions of the Rituals

Luís Vicuña, a Peruvian sociologist, explained to me that these two had been contracted to prepare the offering by one group of farmers who were associated with irrigation water guilds, ones that date back many decades and that are now supported by the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture. The specialist who performed the first offering, he said, had been brought in by another group that has been seeking to improve domestic water supply, for cooking and cleaning, to the households; these groups are administered directly by the Peruvian cabinet as a whole, rather than forming part of a specific ministry. These rivalries, he thought, were expressed in the delayed start of the ritual, as well as to the presence of two ceremonies, rather than one, as had been the custom for some years.

Apu Chicon (source: BrunoAmaru/Flickr).

Luís and I continued our conversation on the ride back to Cusco, with Luís Mujica, an anthropologist at Peru’s Catholic University, joining in. Was there ever a time when conflict was completely absent in the villages? Researchers had reported disagreements in other villages in Peru over water management. And the multiplicity of projects, of agencies and of NGOs can create rivalries among their supporters. Perhaps the rituals, carried out with such attention to tradition, to well-being and to the watershed itself, can express both unity and division.

I mentioned that Andean rituals are being revived in a number of villages, not only ones like Chicón, confronted with glacier retreat and glacier lake outburst floods, but there must be nonetheless a link with these glacier issues in Chicón. The prayers of the ritual specialists seemed to express genuine feeling, rather than merely being a routine repetition of established formulas. And these feelings seem to be shared by the villagers as well, at least judging by their willingness not merely to attend the rituals but to observe them closely and to participate in them by blowing on k’íntu and on the maize.

As we rode back to Cusco, I reflected on these offerings to the earth and on this evocation of mountain spirits. They are not a simple tradition, one that has remained unbroken and unchanged. Instead, they have a more complex history, one of decline and revival, and one of engagement with environmental and economic change as well. But, despite the shifts in the ways they are carried out, they rest on the deep ties of the villagers to each other, to their mountain-ringed valley and its river, and to the Quechua language that the villagers understand as the only language in which one can address the earth and the mountains.  In a changing world, these ties endure.