Anyone who’s visited the Andes understands the power of the sun. It beats without mercy, turning tourists’ necks red and setting the agrarian surroundings ablaze in a glorious golden glow. When it disappears, temperatures drop drastically and the surrounding mountains lean in menacingly, their shadows sending a chill across the valley.
For a society that survived off domestic agriculture in a harsh region, it’s no wonder the Incas worshiped natural element as supernatural beings. And even less surprising that the sun—Inti—held a prominent place in the divine pecking order.
Inca emperors, called the Sapa Incas, ruled the Empire with divine right. The Sapa Inca was both a political and religious leader but, more importantly, also the supposed descendent of Inti. This allowed the royal family to rule unchallenged—until invaded by nonbelieving outsiders.
The Incas venerated Inti through offerings and sacrifice. The most important temple in the Inca Empire was the Temple of the Sun, called Qorikancha. Its walls were covered in gold and only elite priests were permitted to enter. Gold wasn’t used as a currency, only as decoration and offerings for the gods. Fittingly, one of the most important festivals in the Inca Empire was Inti Raymi.
Historic records suggest Sapo Inca Pachacuti started the annual Inti Raymi celebration on the Winter Solstice to honor Inti and ask that he provide good weather for successful crops. The earliest written account of this ceremony comes from a Quechan-speaking priest who witnessed the Inti Raymi festival that took place in 1535 under the rule of Manco Inca:
“The Inca opened the sacrifices and they lasted for eight days. Thanks were given to the sun for the past harvest and prayers were made for the crop to come... Magnificently robed orejones wearing rich silver cloaks and tunics with brightly-shining circlets and medallions of fine gold on their heads… formed up in pairs… in a sort of procession… and waited for the sun to rise.
"As soon as the sunrise began they started to chant in splendid harmony and unison… they stayed there, chanting, from the time the sun rose until it has completely set… Throughout this time, great offerings were being made. On a platform on which there was a tree, there were Indians doing nothing but throwing meats into a great fire and burning them up. At another place, the Inca ordered llamas to be thrown for the poorer common Incas to grab, and this caused great sport…
"There were many other ceremonies and sacrifices. It is sufficient to say that when the sun was about to set in the evening the Indians showed great sadness at its departure, in their chants and expression…”
-Cristobal de Molina
After eight days, the Sapo Inca would then break the ground with a plow made of gold, along with other royal members. This was meant to inspire a fruitful harvest. However, Manco Inca, ruling as the “puppet king” under Spanish power when Cristobal de Molina observed the festival, used a regular plow, as all the gold had been taken by the Spanish. Eventually, Europeans forbid the practice of any indigenous religion, and Inti Raymi disappeared from the calendar.
Though the 1535 Inti Raymi was the last to be overseen by a Sapa Inca (later that year the “puppet king” would lead a full-fledged rebellion again the Spanish occupiers) it trickled on until 1572 when the celebration was officially banded by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo. Like many traditional practices in Peru, veneration of Inti did not disappear. Instead, ancient customs were adjusted to mimic the Catholic faith, creating and odd blend of blend of beliefs unique to South America. In isolated villages locals continued to pray for winter to end and for the upcoming harvest to be fruitful.
In 1940s, Peruvian scholars began to push for renewed interest in indigenous history, culture, and rights. The country had an overtly racist and socio-economically divided country, with lighter-skinned city-dwelling citizens continuing to dominate in Peru, often at the expensive of indigenous Andean societies. As part of the push to get Peruvians to embrace their Inca heritage, scholars Faustino Espinoza Navarro and Humberto Vidal Unda studied the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega. They used his historical writing to create a Quechan script for a historical reenactment of Inti Raymi. In 1944 the first “modern-day” Inti Raymi took place.
Today the Inti Raymi celebrations are a mixture of play-acting, cultural remembrance, and tourist entertainment—for both domestic and foreign visitors. Travelers hoping to experience an authentic ancient ceremony should skip Inti Raymi and check out Qoyllur Rit’I instead, as the Festival of the Sun is more akin to a carnival than a sacred observance.
In 2012, nearly 30,000 people came out in Cuzco to watch the Inti Raymi procession, which is held every year on June 24. The elaborate procession starts at the Sun Temple of Qorikancha, passes through the Plaza de Armas, and continues to the Sacsayhuaman complex on the outskirts of the city. The procession is free to watch, but the decorative and lengthy performance inside Sacsayhuaman, which last year included nearly 800 actors, requires an entrance ticket. Unfortunately and with a bit of irony, the high price of these tickets makes attendance economically impossible for many locals.
Those who plan to attend should be aware that late June is the high of Peru’s tourist season, so tickets and hotels should be booked months in advance.
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Thanks to Fred Lam for the title image of this blog.