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.



Walking to the Mountain, Dancing at the Shrines: An Andean Pilgrimage

Zoila Mendoza, an anthropologist and the chair of the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, is also the producer of a documentary recorded in the high Andes of Peru. “The Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i: The Walk Experience,” first released in February 2015, has won five honors, including a 2016 International Gold Award for Documentary and Short International Movie Awards, held in Jakarta earlier this month.

Pilgrims from Pomacanchi nearing a pass, on the walk to Qoyllur Rit'i (source: Z. Mendoza)
Pilgrims from Pomacanchi nearing a pass, on the walk to Qoyllur Rit’i (source: Z. Mendoza)

Mendoza’s film provides a detailed view of the largest pilgrimage in the Andes. Each spring, about 50,000 people, many of them indigenous Quechua, travel to the sanctuary of the Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i in the Cusco region of Peru, located at 4,800 meters above sea level at the foot of a glacier. At this site, they perform ritual dances and pay homage to the miraculous image of Christ on a rock and to the mountain itself, the glacier-covered Qollqepunku. Mendoza accompanied villagers from the community of Pomacanchi on three different annual pilgrimages, as they walked the 135 kilometers from their home village to the sanctuary. This journey takes three days and two nights, and leads them over four high passes. Her video shows the continuous music of flute and drums that accompanies the entire pilgrimage, as well as the dances in Pomacanchi, at points on the path to the shrine, and at the shrine itself.

The film documents the integration of sounds, sight and movement that together compose the pilgrimage experience. With its close-up view of a group of pilgrims, showing the heavy loads they carry on the journey and the long hours of vigorous dancing, it conveys the depth of their devotion of the pilgrims to the saints and mountains. In an email interview, Mendoza discussed the production of her documentary with GlacierHub.

Zoila Mendoza at the head of the line of pilgrims, walking from Pomacanchi to Qoyllur Rit'i (source: Z. Mendoza)
Zoila Mendoza at the head of the line of pilgrims, walking from Pomacanchi to Qoyllur Rit’i (source: Z. Mendoza)

GlacierHub: Though many people who have described the pilgrimage of Qoyllur Rit’i emphasize the importance of dance, you have subtitled your film “The walk experience.” Why do you place such importance on walking? What relations do you see between walking and dancing?

Zoila Mendoza: This was a result of my experience with the people of Pomacanchi, for whom doing the walk itself was the most important aspect of the whole pilgrimage. Walking has been the way of travel for Andeans for millennia, the same word is used in Quechua for “walking” and “traveling”: puriy. Even today, with the available motorized vehicles, many Quechua-speaking people in the countryside still spend several hours a day walking to go to their fields, herding their animals, etc. As I argue at length in my articles, the walk to Qoyllur Rit’i is carried out with the incessant music of flute and drum so, even at moments of rest and of introspection, the music is always there. There is a tune for walking and one for worshiping and saluting. The walk has also a choreography since it has to be done in a single file with the icons and flags in front and the music in the back. The whole musical walk can be considered a “dance” to the sanctuary.


Pilgrims kneeling at Qoyllur Rit'i, with Qollqepunku glacier in the background (source: Z. Mendoza)
Pilgrims kneeling at Qoyllur Rit’i, with Qollqepunku glacier in the background (source: Z. Mendoza)

GH: Your film depicts other bodily movements in addition to walking and dancing. In particular, you show the importance of two other bodily gestures: carrying heavy items, such as rocks and pottery icons that represent chapels, and kneeling in front of sacred sites or along paths. What do these gestures represent?

ZM: The participants use the same gestures to salute and pay homage to the sacred images and to the mountains. Carrying rocks uphill and unloading them is a way to kinesthetically level or flatten the ground (pampachay in Quechua) in order to heal any possible unevenness that might have emerged between the humans and the higher powers that are the saints, the Christ figures, and other sacred images and the mountains. They kneel and pray to both the images and the mountains. They do all of this always with music as an accompaniment.


Musicians from Pomacanchi at Qoyllur Rit'i (source: Z. Mendoza)
Musicians from Pomacanchi at Qoyllur Rit’i (source: Z. Mendoza)

GH: In your discussion, you emphasize that the pilgrimage combines beliefs in pre-Columbian mountain spirits and in Catholic saints. Do the people of Pomacanchi see these as separate beliefs, or as one set of beliefs? And are their participants’ own understandings of these beliefs changing?

ZM: This question addresses a very important issue that emerges when scholars and non-scholars bring up when they address Andean festivals. They always want to separate the pre-Columbian and the Catholic components. But in my 30 plus years of studying festivals, I have never run into a situation where the participants see those beliefs as separate. Sometimes they are forced to make that distinction because of the questions posed to them or because of outside repression that seeks to remove elements deemed primitive or pagan. In my case I had to put it in the documentary because I know it would be a question that many viewers would be asking in their heads. The participants’ own understandings of the beliefs are always changing. New stories come along, new practices are brought in, new names and new logics are integrated into the system.


GH: The majority of the pilgrims travel from the village to the sanctuary, with only the Ukukus—the men wearing bear costumes—continuing up to the glacier itself. Do the Ukukus perform particular rituals during the walk to the sanctuary? Do they sing in falsetto only on the climb to the glacier, or at other points as well?

ZM: During the walk, the main role of the Ukukus is that of guarding the order and the good behavior of the pilgrims. They also take on the role of the main helpers for the procuring of water and other elements for cooking during the trip. In my experience with Pomacanchi people, some of the most knowledgeable members of the group were the Ukukus who tended to be the more experienced having done the trip the most times. During the walk they did not perform different rituals than the rest and did not speak or sing in falsetto. I have only heard falsetto at the sanctuary.


Dancers in Pomacanchi before their departure on the pilgrimage (source: Z. Mendoa)
Dancers in Pomacanchi before their departure on the pilgrimage (source: Z. Mendoza)

GH: In recent years, the ukukus have stopped the practice of taking ice from the glacier. Do the ukukus, and other pilgrims from Pomacanchi, comment on this change? Do they harvest other kinds of ice at Qoyllur Rit’i, such as frozen stream or pond water? 

ZM: Many of the rituals and practices that seem to be important for other participants in the festival do not seem as important for the people of Pomacanchi, even though they still take the crosses up to the glacier and then bring them back the next day with the rest of the groups, there did not seem to be much expectation about this part of the ritual. This might have changed since the bringing down of the ice ceased around 2004, and I have only traveled with them since 2006 when the ban was already established. But I did not see people interested in taking melted ice or water from the streams that come down, as I have seen people from other places do. They are also not interested in the large procession at the principal shrine, which takes place on the main day of the pilgrimage. Instead of participating, they pack up to go during that time. Finally, they have never taken part in the so-called 24-hour pilgrimage that takes place the last day and night of the celebration when the groups carry the image of the Lord of Tayankani, closely associated with the miraculous image of Christ, to the town of Ocongate and perform important rituals at sunrise.


GH: A number of sources on Qoyllur Rit’i comment on the changes in the pilgrimage that have been brought about by global warming, particularly the shifts in climbing to the glacier. But other factors are also transforming the pilgrimage: the expansion of roads in the region, indigenous movements in Peru, the growth of tourism that brings foreigners to the pilgrimage. What future do you see for Qoyllur Rit’i?

ZM: Change has been a constant in this pilgrimage from the beginning, different factors have made it the biggest of the Andean region. At least one scholar, with whom I agree, Guillermo Salas Carreño, has argued that in fact the apparition and cult to the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i started only in the 1930s and not at the end of the eighteenth century as was widely believed. He suggests that it was stimulated by local conflicts and later fueled by nativist movements. Roads, tourism, and indigenous and other current movements (e.g. movements to stop the government contracts with the mining companies) only make the pilgrimage more important and better known. As I state at the end of the documentary, since people in the Andes place great importance on the integration of kinesthetic, visual and auditory experiences in their everyday lives and other cultural practices, rituals such as Qoyllur Rit’i will continue to play a central role in their lives.


A DVD of this film is available at a discount to GlacierHub readers.
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