Last night, I watched an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” on CNN. Mr. Bourdain commented that, “Sometimes you have to leave home to find your home.” For me, that’s certainly true. Although I’m still searching for my home, I find pieces of it in the most unexpected places.
Lake Titicaca, the home of sun god Inti, is the sacred birthplace of the Incan Empire. Incans viewed Cusco, Peru as the belly button of the universe. According to Incan legend, Inti sent his children, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, on a journey to spread civilization and religion to the primitive people and establish the Incan Empire in Cusco. Ancient Sapa Inca Pachacuti is credited with transforming the small kingdom of Cusco into a vast empire.
Cusco was built on layers of ancient structures that date back to the indigenous Killke people, who inhabited the region from 900 to 1200 AD. Now designated as the Historic Capital of Peru by the Constitution of Peru, Cusco became the capital of the Incan Empire dating from the 13th century to 1533 when Spanish explorers invaded the city. It’s the oldest continuously inhabited city in the western hemisphere, and in 1983, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As we visited the numerous Incan sacred sites around Cusco, our tour group witnessed the battle scars and learned about the loss of what was, at one time, a great people. The stories are not so different than the ones we Americans have heard about our own North American indigenous peoples.
Cusco became the center of Spanish colonization from which they spread Christianity throughout the Andean culture. The Spanish intentionally desecrated Incan holy sites to force the Incas to submit to Spanish rule. Inca temples were turned into Catholic churches, and the surviving Incas were obliged to become Roman Catholics.
In the heart of Cusco, Qurikancha (Temple of the Sun) was the most important religious site of the Incas. Legend says that its walls and floors were once lined with gold. It featured a golden disc studded with precious jewels that represented Inti, the Inca sun god. The Spanish stripped the temple of its wealth and destroyed much of the complex. On its foundation, they built the Convent of Santo Domingo.
You can visit the partial ruins of the inner temple that remain and study the brilliant Incan architecture. A replica of the golden disc is on display. Though there is no longer any real gold there, the original granite foundation walls are still intact, even after enduring major earthquakes.
Astronomy played a key role in Incan culture. They worshipped many of the heavenly bodies, most importantly the sun. The Incas tracked its movement through the sky, especially during sunrise and sunset, using strategically-placed pillars and other structures. You can see an excellent example of this at Qurikancha in a series of aligned windows that captured the sun’s rays.
In 1539, the Spanish built the Iglesia del Triunfo on the foundation of the Palace of Viracocha Inca. It was the first Christian church to be built in Cusco. The adjacent main basilica, Cathedral of Santo Domingo (known as Cusco Cathedral), opened in 1654. It was constructed from the stones of Sacsayhuaman, an Incan holy site and fortress. In 1983, the cathedral was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition to being the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco, the cathedral, with its carved wood main altar covered with gold leaf, houses archaeological artifacts and a collection of over 400 paintings by local Colonial artists from the Cusqueña (Cusco) School.
Though today’s Peruvians are largely Roman Catholic, many of the Andean traditions have woven their way into the fabric of local Spanish culture. For example, the art collection in the cathedral features the famous Marcos Zapata painting of The Last Supper in which a guinea pig is displayed on the supper table, surrounded by Jesus and his Disciples. You’ll also see a distinctly Andean portrait of the Virgin Mary in which a river runs along the hem of her mountain-shaped skirt that links her to the Incan goddess Pachamama (Mother Earth).
The cathedral is located on the historic Plaza de Armas, known as “Square of the Warrior.” This is where Spanish leader Francisco Pizarro declared his conquest over Cusco and where Incan resistance leader Tupac Amaru II lost his life.
Before we explored the cathedral, our guide Adriel let us explore the plaza for a while. I sat down on a bench and watched people. Because this is a popular tourist area, there are many vendors who wander about and try to sell trinkets and shoe shine services to the tourists. They were very persistent and reluctant to take no for an answer. I tried to be polite, but I was an easy target on that bench.
I began to notice how one person in my tour group dealt with this constant assault. He waved them away as though he was swatting at flies. Honestly, I thought his dismissive attitude was rude and had to review my own conduct to be sure I wasn’t doing the same. These people were trying to make an honest living and probably having to support families. It’s hard work being on your feet all day and especially difficult dealing with rude tourists.
Although tourism has helped create jobs, unemployment in Peru is high and poverty widespread at a level of 30.2%. Poor education in rural areas, lack of clean water, sanitation and health care add to the problem. Recent years have witnessed the growth of tourism in Peru, particularly in pilgrimages to the many Incan holy sites by tourists who are searching for a spiritual awakening. I suppose I’m one of those people.
On our first morning in Cusco, a small group of us gathered in a hotel meeting room with Adriel and an Inca shaman from the mountains. He was a small man, under 5 feet tall, dressed in a beige poncho and a colorful Peruvian knit cap. Since he didn’t speak any English, Adriel translated for us and narrated the sacred ritual that we had come to participate in.
The Inca people are the keepers of ancient knowledge. They worship Pachamama (Mother Earth), a goddess who presided over fertility, planting and harvesting, and is now viewed as nature herself. After the Incas were conquered by the Spanish and forced to convert to Catholicism, the Virgin Mary came to be closely associated with Pachamama.
Sacred rituals are held to make offerings to Pachamama and the sacred mountain protectors in hopes of restoring balance with the natural forces of our Earth. In ancient times, they also made animal and human sacrifices to this goddess. Shamans still perform these ritual offerings today, though I’m sure no sacrifices take place. During the ceremony, they chew coca leaves and sometimes ingest Ayahuasca, a hallucinogen, to put them in a trance or altered state that presumably gives them access to the spirit world.
To my knowledge, our shaman at the hotel did not ingest any Ayahuasca, but he did chew coca leaves. First, he sat on the floor and laid out a colorful cloth before him. Then he chanted in Quechua, the native Inca language, and placed meaningful items on the cloth. These items were the offerings to Pachamama. Interestingly, there are shaman stores around Cusco where they purchase ritual kits that contain these items.
The shaman gave each of us three coca leaves to hold. My mind started spinning as I wondered if I was supposed to chew them or take them home and try to get them through U.S. Customs. But these leaves were not for us to keep, nor chew. One at a time, we approached the shaman on our knees and gave him our coca leaves. He placed them on the offering cloth and then he blessed each of us.
After the blessing, the shaman wrapped the cloth up in a bundle. Each of us stood before him to be cleansed. As he chanted, he tapped us with the bundle all over our heads and bodies, as though he was dusting a bookshelf. Then we were asked to blow on the bundle three times. He dusted again, said a few more words in Quechua, and gave each of us a warm hug. I could feel his strong energy. It felt good. Adriel, who is also a shaman, followed with hugs. His energy was even stronger. I noticed that something let go in me.
When I’d gotten up that morning, I had a mild headache and a stiff neck. After the ceremony, I realized that those pains had all but vanished. Another woman in our group had a migraine headache that morning. She said it disappeared during the ceremony. Since then, I’ve felt an emotional clarity I haven’t felt in a long time. Was it a placebo effect? Maybe, but who cares. I felt better.
It’s believed the Incan rituals to Pachamama help participants connect or align themselves with the natural world that sustains them. Certainly we need this kind of deep connection in order to be healthy. Modern human society is out of balance, with all the wars, mass shootings and stabbings. We’ve poisoned our soil, air and water, and our Earth — our home — shows alarming signs of decline. The Hopi Indians have a term for this imbalance, koyaanisqatsi, meaning unbalanced life.
There seems to be more urgency now around humans finding balance. Indeed, our very survival as human children of Pachamama depends on restoring the balance with the natural forces of the Earth. It calls for a change, a new way of life.
Although our need for spiritual journeys may be spurred by the end of times theories made popular by the Mayans, the Incans don’t believe in an end of times, but rather, a new beginning. They say that when the glaciers on the Andes melt, the Incan kings will return to save the world. Interestingly, as we drove into Cusco after our return from Machu Picchu, Adriel pointed out the glacier on the mountain top above the city. He observed that it’s melting at an accelerated rate.