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Climate Change Threatens Qoyllur Riti, a Festival That Mixes Catholic and Indigenous Beliefs in Peru

Qoyllur Riti, Cusco, Perú. Imagen en Flickr del usuario Carlos Díaz Huertas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Qoyllur Riti, Cusco, Peru. Image by Flickr by user Carlos Díaz Huertas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Qoyllur Riti or Quyllurit'i is a spiritual and religious festival that has been held annually for hundreds of years on the slopes of the Andean Ausangate mountain, in the Quispicanchi province in the Peruvian department of Cusco. It gathers a great number of believers, organized as delegations, who identify as “nations” and who come from various towns and cities around the region.

However, this festival, so present in the region, is now being threatened by climate change. Snow is important to the festival; according to worshippers, Jesus Christ appeared as a small boy in the area during the 18th century. An image of him painted on a rock is known as the señor de Qoyllur Riti, a phrase in Quechua that means “Lord of the Bright Snow.”

More importantly, the ice in the area is said to have miraculous properties thanks to the appearance of Jesus Christ. Part of the festival includes participants climbing up to glaciers on Colque Punku mountain to collect some of it. But that ice is disappearing as temperatures get warmer.

The damage is so serious that this year marked the last time the Qoyllur Riti festival would gather ice from there, as in less that a year the ice has retreated several meters and now there are only rocks where the magnificent snow used to be.

A blending of beliefs

The Qoyllur Riti festival and sanctuary where the image of Jesus Chris is were listed as Cultural Legacy of the Nation on August 10, 2004. Seven years later, on November 27, 2011, UNESCO inscribed the “Pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Lord of Qoyllurit’i” on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:

It begins fifty-eight days after the Christian celebration of Easter Sunday, when 90,000 people from around Cusco travel to the sanctuary, located in Sinakara hollow. Pilgrims are divided into eight ‘nations’ corresponding to their villages of origin: Paucartambo, Quispicanchi, Canchis, Acomayo, Paruro, Tawantinsuyo, Anta and Urubamba.

The festival is an example of religious syncretism, or the blending of different belief systems — in this case, indigenous and Catholic beliefs. It marks the reemergence of the constellation Pleiades in the sky, something that was celebrated by local Andean people long before the Spanish brought with them the Catholic religion.

The origin of the celebration as it is today is the belief that Jesus Christ appeared there appearance of Jesus Christ. Tour company Turismoi.pe explains:

[el señor de Qoyllur Riti, que significa “Señor de la Nieve Brillante” en quechua] habría aparecido años atrás en forma de niño a otro niño indígena de la zona. Se dice que el Niño Jesús [uno de los modos como se representa a Jesucristo en la región] venía disfrazado de niño pobre y ambos pequeños se hicieron amigos. […] cuando el niño volvió a casa los padres [los] vieron […] vestidos de ricas vestimentas, y viendo la brillantez del Niño Jesús dieron parte al párroco de la localidad quien decidió ir en su búsqueda. La leyenda dice que el Niño Jesús huyó, [pero dejó] su imagen de la roca [desde] la que actualmente se peregrina.

[the Lord of Qoyllur Riti, phrase in Quechua that means “Lord of the Bright Snow”] had appeared years ago as a boy to another local indigenous boy. It is said that it was the Christ Child [one of the ways Jesus Christ is depicted in the region] disguised as a poor boy. Both boys became friends. […] When the boy went back home, his parents saw [both children] with richly embroidered clothes. When they saw the brightness of the Christ Child, they reported him to the local parish priest who went after the boy. According to the legend, Christ Child was able to run away, [but left] his image on the rock [from which] people currently make the pilgrimage.

On Facebook, the page Señor de Qoyllur Rit'i features photos of the festival and explains the blending of beliefs:

Esta celebración es una muestra fidedigna de la “conveniente mezcla” de la cosmovisión andina con elementos del catolicismo introducido por los españoles. En ella se rinde culto a los apus o montañas protectoras, donde viven los wamanis o espíritus tutelares del hombre andino; pero también se venera a Jesucristo, Señor de Qoylluriti y protector de su comarca.

This celebration is a reliable example of the “convenient mixture” of the Andean world view, with elements from Catholicism introduced by the Spaniards. There they worship the apus, or the protective mountains, where wamanis or guardian spirits of the Andean people live; but where they also revere Jesus Christ, Lord of Qoylluriti and protector of their region.

The long and colorful procession

During the festival itself, which takes place near the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi, each village sends a delegation of colorful dancers and pabluchas to the Lord of Qoyllur Riti chapel, located at 4,600 meters (over 15,000 feet) above sea level. The pabluchas are characters in disguise, also quite colorful, in charge of keeping the spirits of the celebration alive through jokes, and also to keep order, paying attention to those who may not feel well, or those who might cause trouble:

Los pabluchas representan alpacas y son los intermediarios entre el Señor de Qoylloriti y los hombres. La subida a la capilla la realizan a las 4 de la mañana por [la montaña] Sinakara arreando a sus animales. […] las personas que participen en la procesión de Nuestra Señora de Fátima tendrán buena suerte en los negocios, vida y futuro. El fin de la procesión tiene lugar en la antigua capital inca del Cusco con las procesiones del Corpus Christi, las calles y plazas están repletas de personas, música y color.

The pabluchas represent alpacas and they are the intermediaries between Lord of Qoyllur Riti and men. They start climbing to the chapel at 4 in the morning through [the] Sinakara [mountain] spurring on their animals […]. The procession ends in the old Inca capital Cusco, with the Corpus Christi procession, streets and squares all filled with people, music and color.

Despite the real threat of climate change, the 2016 celebration, which was held between May 22 and 24, wasn't short of participants.

When syncretism is latent, faith remains.

Cusco religious syncretism. Photos by Adriana Peralta.

Old rite of Lord of Qoyllur Riti leaves snow-covered mountain because of global warming.

Lord of Qoyllur Riti bids farewell to Colque Punku snow-covered mountain because of thawing.

100,000 Peruvians at Qoyllur Riti Cusco. Picture by Sebastián Castañeda.

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