June is special for Cusco and its people. The city’s energy – referred to as engaging by the visitors – appears to be stronger during this time. The streets seem alive full of multicolored flags, the sky bluer, and locals and tourists gathered in the Main Square happier.
Cusco’s exceptional magic dates back hundreds of years to the time of the Incas. This season was just as special for them because it marked the beginning of one of their most important celebrations, bringing together the highest authorities and the people around a single purpose: to thank the gods for all the favors. That is what Inti Raymi is about, the festival of the sun.
June represents the arrival of the winter solstice in South America, a season that today we prefer to spend warmly dressed. But for the Incas, it was time to celebrate the benefits of Mother Earth: harvest time. The days are usually sunny, and the land is ready to start being worked again, waiting for a new rainy season in the last months of the year.
In addition to its agricultural importance, the winter solstice was also considered the beginning of the new solar cycle. Every June 21, the sun was reborn, and the Incas celebrated it in a big way, with rituals that lasted several days and put Cusco in the center of all eyes.
According to chroniclers, the Inti Raymi was established by Pachacutec in the fifteenth century. Of the four main festivities held in the Tahuantinsuyo or Inca empire, the Inti Raymi was the most important since it was dedicated to the sun, the highest god for the Incas.
The Inti Raymi had such a compelling religious connotation that many attendees undertook long fasts to purify their body and soul before participating in the celebration. The festivities could last up to 15 days and gathered in Cusco the nobility and high-ranked personalities from every corner of the empire.
Together with the leaders, hundreds of pilgrims also went to Cusco to thank the Sun God and ask for the new year that was starting to be favorable for their people. They arrived with offerings to the rhythm of their traditional songs and dancing in honor of Inti.
Initially, the Inti Raymi took place in Huacaypata, the current Main Square of the city. Everyone gathered around the ushnu – the ceremonial platform – where the Inca led the worship. After finishing the act, the nobility moved to the Coricancha to honor the sun in a private ceremony.
The Inti Raymi was held every year until the arrival of the Spanish. In 1572, Viceroy Francisco de Toledo prohibited the festivity as it was considered pagan, but that did not prevent the local people from continuing with the rite in their communities clandestinely.
It was not until the 1940s that cultural entities from Cusco decided it was time to revalue their Inca past with a top-of-the-line celebration in honor of the city. At that time, June 24 was established already as the Peasant’s Day nationwide, just a few days after the winter solstice. What better occasion to remember and applaud their cultural heritage!
Based on the descriptions of the Inti Raymi made by various chroniclers such as the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the actor and writer Faustino Espinoza put together the script for the ceremony representation. In 1944, the first staging took place in the streets of Cusco, and the tradition remains to this day.
Unlike the original celebration, the current Inti Raymi takes place in three stages. It begins in the Coricancha – the temple of the sun – with the Sun’s invocation made by the Inca, the priests, and the nobles. Musicians, dancers, and the Inca’s army gather in the outer garden.
Then, the entire cast heads towards the Main Square. Along the way, women dressed in traditional clothes throw flower petals marking the path where the Inca will pass loaded on his litter. Once in the square, the “encounter of two worlds” takes place: the Inca meets with Cusco’s Mayor, representing the link between the present and the past of a culture that remains alive in the city.
The central part of the Inti Raymi happens in the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, where the High Priest waits for the Inca’s arrival to begin the religious ceremony. In this place are presented the toast in honor of the sun, the sacrifice of llamas, and the lighting of the new fire. The dancers of the four suyos (Inca regions) perform their acts to thank Inti.
Inti Raymi and Corpus Christi (religious festival of Catholicism) are the most representative celebrations of the jubilee month, but not the only ones. Lots of other activities happen in June, such as concerts, gastronomic and craft fairs, parades of typical dances and allegories, and much more. An opportunity to get to know the most traditional facet of Cusco, a city that never ceases to amaze.