The Inti Raymi Festival is one of the rare delights that you can experience on a Peru holiday if you happen to be there around the time of the winter solstice (June 24th).
Enthusiasts of South American culture and Inca history take great pride in participating in this festival at least once if they can because it brings the ancient traditions back to life. It is also a testament worth witnessing to a great civilization before our time.
The Origins Of The Inti Raymi
The Incas were known for being obsessed with their yearly crop cycle which is why their religious ritualistic practices were often tied to practical concerns. The sun god Inti was one of the major gods in their mythology who was believed to control any number of key natural occurrences.
The Incas named Cuzco as the ‘City of the Sun’ and the Inti Raymi festival was one of its most sacred and important events. Unlike many of the rituals and ceremonies amongst the Incas that were reserved mostly for the elite and the nobility, this festival was a grand and inclusive celebration to pay homage to the sun.
The reason why it was held during the winter solstice is that the Incas always feared that the sun god may become angry before the summer. This would be perceived as a bad omen and would affect their food security throughout the year.
They believed that if the sun god was not given his due recognition it could also turn their fertile lands barren plunging the population into famine. The celebration also paid homage to Pachamama or ‘Mother Earth’ as she was responsible for the fertility of the land while Inti regulated the elements and the natural cycles.
Modern Day Participation
The Inti Raymi festival is just as magical and applicable in these modern times as it was nearly 500 years ago. Many of the practices and rituals are also unchanged and tourists can partake for the experience of a lifetime.
The Beginning Of The Ceremony
On the actual day, a ceremony enacted by prior chosen actors is carried out with the main characters being Sapa Inca (sun god Inti) and Mama Ocllo (mother earth). These roles are the most vital in the entire ceremony and hence the most sought after.
The Sun King makes his voice bold and addresses the people with a prepared declaration about the power and generosity of the sun. He is then whisked away by pallbearers on the scene that place him in a chariot to take him to the temple of Sacsayhuaman.
The pallbearers will dress in masks (typically woven by hand) as a mean of banishing evil from the ceremony. Other actors are placed at the site of the temple to play the part of the nobility, visitors and priests. As the chariot progresses, the path of the Sun King will be laden with flowers and sweet-smelling plants.
Once Inti reaches Sacsayhuaman a sacrificial offering awaits as a means of appeasing him and asking him to bestow the people with a good harvest. Three key spiritual animals are represented (that were crucial in Inca mythology) namely the condor, the snake and the puma. These three animals are also played by actors and their presence is important for what the next step dictates.
The snake is a representative of the underworld where the dead go, the condor speaks about the heavens and their wonders and the puma is a sign of strength in one’s life here on Earth.
In this modern day interpretation of the original Inti Raymi tradition (which would have required a living sacrifice) a fake llama is presented who is then sacrificed. The heart of the animal is then held up to the skies and shown to Mama Ocllo as a means of expressing devotion to these two deities.
Inti then narrates the future of the coming crop cycle using the llama’s blood. Of course in the modern day festival, no real animals are killed and real blood is not used. As a final step of the ceremony, the Sun king returns with his wife to Cuzco on the same path of flowers and herbs, waving to the people.
Facts About the Olden Inti Raymi Festival
Although Sacsayhuaman is believed to be a stone fortress made primarily for military purposes, it does have religious significance as well. 500 years ago when the Sun King used to make his way to the fortress, his chariot would consist of nothing less than roughly 60 kilograms of gold.
The speeches of the Inti Raymi festival have historically been spoken in Quechua which is one of three main languages in all of Peru. Even Inti Raymi means ‘Festival of the Sun’ in this native tongue.
The Inti Raymi ceremony dates back to 1412 although it faced a severe disruption a century later when the Spanish invaded. They discouraged all activities they didn’t understand that were otherwise pivotal for the Inca culture and civilization.
Modern Day Significance Of The Festival
The festival offers the younger generation an interactive chance to learn about Inca beliefs and history. Even the conversation around the official ceremony also pertains to historical linkages and stories and it can be very educational for those that attend.
Furthermore, the festival has Peruvian music and dances for everyone to enjoy so it promises a good time. There is delicious local food available as well although it is recommended to purchase a seat to watch the ceremony as it can easily stretch to five hours or more.
If you are in the area for a spiritual Peru tour then attending this festival can be vastly enlightening and can provide a good base for visiting more of the Inca sacred sites.
How Best To View The Ceremony As A Tourist
If you are in the area you will want a good spot to view the festivities and an ideal one is to get a table at the Plaza De Armas. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants there and you can watch the ceremony with a drink or a snack. Bear in mind however that the actual day tends to draw crowds so you may want to book a table before time.
The second best way is to go to the source and find yourself a spot at Sacsayhuaman. If you are following a tour guide or group, then this is something they can arrange for you ahead of time as well. If you completely forget to book then you can be one of the first to arrive at the surrounding parks at 8 am in the morning. Since it will be a long day take sunscreen, water and trail mix.
Many people think they can just join in the festival at a moment’s notice but this almost never works out as throngs of people attend and it is hard to find a place even to stand.
It is worthwhile to note that the two weeks before the winter solstice, all hotels in the area see an influx of guests and bookings. It can be hard to find a place to stay in the proximity of the festival so it is best to prepare a couple of months in advance.