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Living ghosts of the Incas


The huaconada, ritual dance of Mito (Peru), Inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010.
© S. Mujica

Pipes of Pan, drums, reed flutes, whistles and strange-looking harp -- all give out lilting tunes and rhythms (above) as peoples of the high plateaux of Bolivian and Peru celebrate the New Year.   

by Alfred Métraux

When today descendants of the Incas celebrate the New Year it is an experience one cannot easily forget. From every village and hamlet high up in the Andean Cordillera down to the fringe of the tropical forest the Indians of Bolivia and Peru welcome the day with great merry making. These festivities, however, are but a faint echo of the sumptuous ceremonies of the Imperial Inca Empire of the past. Those which took place in the holy city of Cuzco, capital of "the four corners of the world," have been vividly described by Garcilaso de la Vega, the 16th century chronicler, who was him self of Inca descent.

Attended by the Emperor and all the provincial governors, a complex ritual, called Intiraymi, was held in June to open a new cycle of festivities and work. It was marked by ceremonies of revival and purification characteristic of man's constant attempt to express in symbols the pendulum swing from death to resurrection.

What remains of all these sacrifices, processions and dances? Very little. Four centuries of wretchedness and decadence, however, have not entirely effaced the old customs. And the New Year, now fixed at January 1, is one of the occasions when the ghosts of ancient traditions emerge from the mists of past history. The day no longer marks the opening of the religious year, and it has lost its seasonal implications. But it is of political importance, for on that day the hilakata, alcades and campos (local leaders) who have replaced the ancient Inca officials are installed in office.

Although nominated by the owners of the haciendas (ranches) or by the authorities in the Andean republics, these mandones, or leaders, are chosen by the Indians themselves in a series of discussions and negotiations to which white men are not admitted. The ceremony of their installation has both religious and secular features, and is imbued with a grave dignity which may equally well be Spanish or Indian in origin. 

On January 11954, 1 was in the Peruvian village of Juli, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which occupies an outstanding place in the annals of Spanish-American religious art. A huge crowd of Indians packed the principal church, with its gilded baroque mouldings and repellent or blood-stained statues. The impassive, stern-faced hilakata, wearing red woollen caps and ample red ponchos, stood in a double row, each holding his staff of office a magnificent silver-knobbed cane, handed down from one chief to the next since Spanish colonial times. In the half-light of the church rose the heart-rending sadness of Aymara Indian chants, accompanied by the beating of drums and the plaintive notes of Pan pipes.

Masked men in spangled coats

Groups of masked men were dancing in the streets. Some of them wore jaguar masks, others were decked with condor's wings symbols of some long-forgotten divinities combined with the wigs and spangled coats of 17th century Spain.

That day, I encountered, a strange procession which suddenly arrived outside the Yunguyo church where the Indian authorities were attending mass. It was led by a horseman, whose wife rode a little way behind him. Both were reeling drunk, swaying dangerously in the saddle, and would inevitably have fallen to the ground if their companions had not struggled to keep them in place. Other horsemen, accompanied by musicians, rode merrily into view and vanished, one after another, into the surrounding houses from which issued the sound of flutes and the rolling of drums. These were the new officials, taking up their duties.

The parade would not have particularly impressed me, but for their remarkable get-up. Their hats and waistcoats were made of pastry, they wore rings of bread round their necks and arms, and similar rings were hung about their clothes. Bread is a delicacy for the Indians, so it was as though the hilakata and alcades had dressed up as Sugarplum Fairies. Their appetizing appearance in the literal sense of the words at once reminded me of the designs on many of the vases found in ancient Peruvian tombs. These depict dancers decked, not with rolls of bread, but with various kinds of fruits and vegetables. Archaeologists believe that these scenes illustrate fertility rites an interpretation that would seem to apply to the strange dress of the mandones, who display these symbols of prosperity to convince the spectators that bread will be plentiful during their terms of office and that the year that is beginning will be a happy one.

One New Year's Day in the Andes was, I think, among the most exciting in my career as an ethnographer. It was on January 1 just twenty years ago, that I reached the village of the Chipaya Indians. For a number of years I had been longing to visit these Indians, who were known only through a booklet written about them by an amateur archaeologist, M. Posnansky. Its contents were, however, enough to fire the imagination of a student who hoped to specialize in the study of the Andean civilizations.

It revealed that in one of the most remote regions of the Andean plateau, at an altitude of some 13.000 feet, beyond sandy deserts and great lagoons where pink flaming goes congregated, there was a village whose inhabitants seemed to have been forgotten by history and were living now, well into the 20th century, just as they had in the heyday of the Inca Empire. Moreover, they spoke a language different from the Quechua and Aymara tongues which are used almost everywhere in Bolivia.

In more than one sense the Chipayas were chullpa puchu mummified remains. I will not describe my journey across the sand dunes, my slow progress over the desolate plains of the Chipaya territory. The day I arrived within sight of the village, the mirage, frequent at that time of year, had enlarged and multiplied the huts to a point where I seemed to be approaching a strange city beside a great non-existent lake in which strange, jagged mountain peaks were reflected. The promise held out by this optical illusion was nothing; however, compared with the thrill I felt on being surrounded by a group of Chipaya women.

Imagine the stupefaction of an archaeologist on finding himself confronted by mummies who have stripped off their bandages and dressed themselves once more in the clothes of their period. The women surrounding me were dressed exactly like those who had, four centuries earlier, crowded to gaze at the conquistador Almagro when he crossed these same deserts, and they also resembled the dried-up bodies found in burial caves. I was particularly struck by one detail the tinkling of the little bronze figures that dangled from the innumerable plaits in which these women's hair was arranged. I had seen these humble ornaments before in the La Paz museum, among the objects found in the great Indian city of Tiahuanaco, which flourished long before the Incas gained control of the Andean plateau. Like their neighbours, the Aymarás, the Chipayas were holding their New Year festivities that day. I can still see the interior of a round hut in which my friend Mamani, who had just been elected Corregidor (an old Spanish title) was standing behind a low table whereon lay a sheep's head. The Indians men and women alike filed past to do homage to him, stretching out their arms with supplicating gestures. They offered him two goblets, in accordance with Inca etiquette, which requires that any invitation to drink shall be conveyed in this way. Each of them poured a libation of alcohol to the sacrificed animal, and placed an offering of coca leaves before it. Their duty thus fulfilled, they joined the people who were already dancing in the open space separating the two clans.

Mournful songs and Pan pipes

They were led by the outgoing alcalde, who had tied round his body a black and white woollen sling from which little cords hung in skeins, covering him down to the knees. He had stuck flowers in his hat, and from his forehead rose two big leaves, reminiscent of the metal stems that topped the headbands of the Inca chieftains. Waving a white banner and followed by the dancers and flute players, he advanced, stopping at each hut to claim a tribute of chicha (a fermented drink) for himself and his band. In exchange he allowed the host to take over the white banner and direct the movements of the dancers. A fertility rite is, however, associated with these secular rejoicings. On Christmas Eve the women had placed little clay models of lamas and sheep on the altar of the church built by the villagers. On New Year's Day these little figures were given back to them. Handling them with respect, they kissed them and carried them home, convinced that their own animals were thus assured of many offspring.

Far into the night the relentless silence of the Andean plateau was rent by the notes of Pan pipes and the sound of mournful songs; then the voices died away, to be replaced by an oppressive calm. The New Year celebrations were over, and in their dark huts the Indians lay asleep, preparing to resume the monotonous course of their cheerless lives.


Back to the issue Happy New Year around the world, 1955-12

Alfred Métraux

Alfred Métraux, noted anlhropologist, is in charge of "Human Rights" in the Department of Social Sciences of UNESCO. His newest book, Les Incas (Editions du Seuil, Paris) will he published this spring. He is a frequent contributor to the UNESCO Courier.