Chaya in La Rioja
Today's festival of the Chaya has deep roots, like many other South American festive events celebrated in February, in ancient, pre-Hispanic harvest celebrations: an expression of community joyfulness as well as a way to thank nature for its resources and bounty. After European conquest and colonization, and forced imposition of Christian socio-cultural hegemony, these celebrations fell under the Carnival umbrella (e.g. in northern Argentina, in Colombia, in northern Chile, in northern Peru...). Present-day festivities, nevertheless, retain many of their original values and significance often disguised by other names.
The Chaya of La Rioja (north-western Argentina) is usually associated with Carnival (there are correlations in dates and certain similarities in the activities), however, locals point out that there are many differences between them both. In its origins, the festival marked the end of the harvest season (corn and carob bean) and the arrival of the first rain after a dry, hot summer.
There are several theories on the origin of the term "chaya". It might derive from the Quechua term chayaq, "the one who arrives" (from the verb chayay, "to arrive"), what, according to the Argentine ethnographer Samuel Lafone Quevedo, would refer to the arrival of the Carnestolendas. But it also might have its roots in the verb ch'allay, "to sprinkle, spray [water]", a typically Andean way of showing gratitude, which would have continue down to the present in the form of flour and water games.
The Chaya –which attracts many visitors from across the country every year– is celebrated in many different villages of the province of La Rioja in February, though the main events take place during Carnival days. As well as in the villages, celebrations are held in the different neighbourhoods that make up big cities. The houses of the residents whose involvement in and support for the festival is widely known and greatly appreciated became the epicentre of the fun for a few days. People of all ages play with water, flour and paint (starch and scented water in the old days) and wear leaves and small bunches of basil (the symbol of the festival) attached to the hats or clothes; they sing and dance coplas and vidalas to the beat of the cajas (drums), and eat tasty local dishes and (adults) local wines (famous all over the country).
Celebrations usually begin with the classic "unburial of the Pujllay", an event that takes place in many other parts of the festive Andean geography. Also called Pucllay or Pusllay (from Quechua puqllay, "to play", "game"), it is a rag puppet the size of a person (probably of Spanish origins), poorly dressed, with a caja (drum) in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, who presides –sat or stood– over the celebrations. His fate is to be burnt at the end of the Chaya, usually on the Resurrection Sunday (also name "Pujllay's Sunday"), though in the old days (and even today in some parts of northern Argentina, especially in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, province of Jujuy) his fate was to be buried, rather than burnt.
One of the most expected moments of the Chaya is the "topamiento" (encounter). Among the people who wish to become "cumpas" (abbreviated plural of "compadre", literally "co-father") or "cumas" (abbreviated plural of "comadre", literally "co-mother") two persons are chosen for this ritual – whose date is not fixed to a particular day of the calendar, and whose pattern may vary from place to place. Then, it is time to find a spacious place for the "topamiento" to take place and to proceed to embellish it with arches, flowers, balloons and pennants; a stage may also be improvised for live performances. In the afternoon, compadres and comadres accompanied by their escorts made their way to this place all wearing small bunches of basil and carrying bags of flour. Fifty metres before they encounter each other, compadres and/or comadres begin to sing vidalas, and as they dance they get close and exchange wreaths of baked dough or flowers. Immediately afterwards, they invite each other to drink wine or aloja, and the rest of participants throw water, flour and streamers at one another singing and dancing to the beat of the coplas and the cajas (drums). At the same time bread babies known as "guaguas" are given away among the group.
The people of La Rioja (known as riojanos) say that the Chaya "makes everybody equal". Indeed, under a white mask of flour everyone looks the same, what serves to loosen social restraints and allows people to jump, sing, dance, drink... For a few days, everybody put the hardships aside. It is said that the Chaya lasts "until the body can no longer take it". As celebrations come to an end with the Pujllay being burnt, ordinary life is back for everybody. They will have to wait until next year to "set free the devil inside".
Article. "La chaya riojana", in Nuestras Raíces [es].
Article. "La Chaya, con acento riojano", by Guido Piotrkowski. In Página/12 [es].
Article. "Chaya riojana: Un Carnaval diferente", in Turismo La Rioja [es].
Article. "La fiesta de la Chaya en La Rioja", in Varieté [es].
Article. "El Pujllay", by Fernando M. Justo. In La Coplera [es].
Article. "En los topamientos de la Chaya todos son iguales bajo la harina", by Télam [es].
Blog. "La Rioja chayera" [es].
Picture 01. Popular dance and flour game during the Chaya riojana.
Picture 02. Flour games 01.
Picture 03. Flour games 02.
Picture 04. The aftermath of the flour games.
Picture 05. Chaya and Pujllay.
Picture 06. The burning of the Pujllay.
Video 01. Documentary film "Chaya de Chilecito" part 01 [es].
Video 02. Documentary film "Chaya de Chilecito" part 02 [es].
Video 03. Coplas sung during the Chaya riojana.
Video 04. The Chaya riojana, according to musician Pino Romero.