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Land of winds > Traditions > Festival | Issue 01. Jul.-Aug.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The festival of Qoyllur Rit'i

Quyllur riti
The Qoyllur Rit’i (Qoyllur Riti, Qoyllur Ritti, Qoyllurriti) is a festival celebrated in Cusco, Peru. Its Quechua name used to be translated as “Snow star” (quyllur rit’i) or, more correctly as “Star-snow”. However, its most suitable translation would be quyllu rit’i, “white snow”.
This religious feast takes place in the valley of Sinakara, at the foot of the Qollqepunku (Qullqipunku, Qollqepunko, Colquepunco) snow-capped mountain, in Mawayani jurisdiction (district of Ocongate, Quispicanchi province, in the department of Cusco). Although a number of sources mention the Ausangate snow-capped mountain as the location of this festivity, such mountain rises several kilometres south of the true venue, from where its huge figure can be seen.
The Qoyllur R’iti festival is held annually, during the last week of May or the first of June under the full moon right before the festival of Corpus Christi (60 days after Eastern), and lasts three days. Supposedly, the festivity traces its origins back to an Inca (or pre-Inca) ceremony related to fertility rites. At present, this celebration is significantly influenced by Christianity and the remaining vestiges of the ancient ritual are scarce and fragmentary. In fact, the “Qoyllur Rit’i legend” is Catholic and dates from 1780.
The festival is celebrated in honour of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i, a sculpture of Jesus Christ placed at a chapel in Sinakara, and attracts thousands of pilgrims from the surrounding regions. This is considered the largest indigenous pilgrimage in the Americas and gathers together between 10 and 70 thousand people in tents put up around the chapel at a height of above 6000 metres (19700 ft), among icy peaks right in the middle of the southern autumn.
Pilgrims arrived in groups called “nations”, each of which consists of a good number of travellers for religious reasons, a leader, tens of dancers and musicians and several ukukus (see). When these “nations” arrive at Sinakara they split up into two moieties: the Paucartambos (Quechua farmers from the agricultural regions Paucartambo, Cusco, Calca and Urubanba) and the Quispicanchis (Aymara shepherds from the pastoral regions of Quispicanchi, Acomayo, Canas and Canchis). The former moiety heads for the northwest of the sanctuary while the latter goes to the southeast.
Following a number of processions and religious ceremonies, at the second day’s night it is the dancers’ time to go around the sanctuary. The troupes of dancers can be divided into different categories: qhapaq ch’unchus (covered with feathers as the warriors of the Amazon rainforest), qhapaq qollas (dressed up as the shepherds watching the flocks of llamas of the high plateau), machulas (representing the first humans in the world, hunchbacked and leaning on a walking stick), k’achampas, saqras and ukukus. Qhapaq qollas and ukukus use to take part in ritual fights, beating each other with their whips.
After dancing, the ukukus of all the “nations” climb the high glaciers on mount Qollqepunku (in Quechua, “silver door”) under the light of the full moon and spend the night there. It is said that the Apu Qollqepunku (the protective spirit that inhabits on that summit) is a powerful doctor; therefore, those waters are believed to be medicinal, to heal both the body and the mind, to multiply the seed sown and to fatten the livestock. On the morning of the third day the ukukus come down bringing on their backs and shoulders huge glacier ice blocks. Each ukuku will carry the water from melting ice to their community in order to heal the sick, water the fields and give the livestock to drink.
Nowadays it is not permitted to cut ice from the glaciers. Global warming is melting glaciers in every region of the world and has had a part to play in the disappearance of many cultural elements of Quechua people, such as the plants that provide the substance for dyeing alpaca wool or the potatoes used when a couple gets married. Therefore, one of the ancient components of this festival has disappeared in recent years.
At the same time, a number of borrowings from other celebrations have become part of this feast such as the alasitas fair (where devotees buy miniatures of items they would like to own), stones games, “brass bands” instead of traditional ones, urban and mestizo pilgrims alongside foreign tourists... Even though many original aspects of this festival –music, ritual dances, ukukus’ role, and clothing- still remain the same, the current tourism pressure could vanish some of them in the near future.

Link 01. “El calor disuelve los rituales andinos”. In BBC [es].
Link 02. La cultura quechua de los Andes. In NFLC [es].

Video 01. Interview Qoyllur Riti. In NAPA [es].
Video 02. Qoyllur Riti. In “Tiempo de viaje” [es].
Video 03. “Glacier gods”.
Video 04. Trailer of documentary “Dreams and sacrifices”.
Videos 05 y 06. Trailer of documentary “Señor de Qoyllur Riti”.
Video 07. La peregrinación de Qoyllur Riti [es].

Foto 01. Vicente Revilla’s online photography exhibit on Qoyllur Riti.
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