The recent recession of the Qollqepunku glacier has ended an ancient ceremonial practice. Because of the rapid melting of the Qollqepunku glacier, and other glaciers in the region, the Ukuku have stopped taking glacial ice during the annual Qoyllurit’i festival and no longer light traditional candles on the glacier.
Each indigenous community that attends the Qoyllurití festival designates individuals to play the important role of Ukuku. Half man, half bear, the Ukuku exist somewhere between this world and that of the gods. Dressed in black, singing in falsetto rather than speaking, they are often portrayed as tricksters and are tasked with climbing the sacred glacier to dance and carry blocks of ice down for the pilgrims in the valley.
Tens of thousands of men, women and children climb to the Sinakara valley, high above Cusco, Peru in a multiple day celebration of Qoyllurit’i (“star snow”) festival every year in early summer. For many, the journey to the mountain starts weeks before in their local villages and towns where they prepare costumes and supplies for what can be many days of walking to get to the base of the valley.
Fredy Quispe Singona introduces himself as Puma, his given name as a spiritual leader and shaman in the hills and valleys surrounding Cusco, where he was raised. He has been attending the Qoyllurit’i festival for the last 32 years. In fact, he said he was “one of the first little dancers” to attend the event, “before [him] many children went, but not to dance.”
“It is only recently that many people go to the mountain,” he added. “In pre Incan times and in Incan times the festival was not open for everyone, it was only for head leaders of communities and high priests.”
According to Puma, the event 14,000 feet above sea level, “celebrates the return of the seven sisters constellation, the Pleiades. It meant for the Andean people the return of abundance to the planet, abundant life energy and prosperity.”
The return of the Pleiades constellation to the southern night sky also represents a return to order from the two-month period when it disappears from view in April and May, as well as a lunar marker of the new spring harvest and an upcoming new year.
Qoyllurit’i has multiple origin stories, and for many after Spanish colonization the festival took on Christian symbolism.
“[Qoyllurit’i] has become very Catholic, meaning in years before people could have their ceremony with the mountains completely Andean– this was the origins of the festival,” Puma told GlacierHub.
The pilgrimage pays tribute to regional sacred symbols, the Apus (mountain gods), and Pachamama (mother earth), as well as to Christian symbols of the crucifix and Jesus. As in many other traditions in the region, Spanish colonization has blended with ancient ritual to create a hybridization of both. Nonetheless, the ceremony is undoubtedly a celebration of nature. Even the Christian Lord that the event honors according to Christian mythology is named Lord Qoyllurit’i (Star Snow).
“I believe one day we will return to the original meaning of the festival,” said Puma, adding that ultimately during the festival, “people still dance to the sun making a cross, which acknowledges the four directions.”
In the local tradition the four compass directions, South, West, North, and East, hold ceremonial significance and each represent specific features of our world.
People from all over southern Peru and many from other parts of the Andes and the world, come to the festival in order to participate in the event. Each regional group of local pilgrims, called Nations, dress according to their role in the event and to the region they represent. Dance is central to the festivities; continual dance ensures good spirits and warm bodies throughout the celebrations.
Puma said that they “dance 24 hours a day for 7 days and journey to the snow because the festival means snow star, and we connect with our star only if we are pure. We purify ourselves in the snow, that way our soul becames white light again.” He said that the mountain where they dance is known as the silver gateway, a gateway to the stars and specifically to the Pleiades . The Pleiades is a feminine star, and silver represents femininity, so the silver gateway in this case represents the gateway to the Pleiades.
About 10 miles north of Ausangate, a sacred Apu that can be seen from Cusco, the Sinakara valley lays at the base of Mt. Qollqepunku 18,000 feet above sea level. Part of the yearly ritual involves climbing onto the Qollqepunku glacier, an activity that does not come without risks. Some years pilgrims are taken by the mountain, a reality that most locals accept as a natural part of life and balance.
Locals are also beginning to accept the disappearance of the glaciers.
“The glaciers are getting smaller every year and many people worry,” said Puma, adding that this wasn’t only a concern in Qoyllurit’i. “It is everywhere and people are more and more aware. In years before they used to think that it was because of too much heavy energy in the planet, but now people are more aware of global warming. ”
For many of the pilgrims the retreat of the glacier was a sign of great imbalance, a signal that the mountains were saddened by the changes in human activity. The Ukuku stopped collecting ice from the glacier face itself around 2004, and now only take the ice that forms on the surface of ponds during the cold nights at the high elevations.
Ultimately Puma said that what the festival really means to him is that, “life is a pilgrimage, and you are on it for everyone in your family and community. While you could be very busy struggling and suffering, you could dance.”