Ceremonies can be somber or festive. They can mark the passage of time, celebrate people, places, significant events in the life of individuals or historical episodes. As Judy Atkinson, a wise Aboriginal scholar has written in her wonderfully engaging book, Trauma Trails: Recreating Songlines, the purpose of ceremony is “uniting hearts and establishing order”. Ceremonies may also involve, often quite subtly, the transformation of the person, initiating them into new cycles, perspectives, connections. On a larger scale this may also mean the transformation of communities.
The relationship between ceremony and community has been especially visible in places where ceremonies were banned through colonial occupation and religious intolerance. For the Blackfoot, prohibited to leave the boundaries of the reservations ascribed to them on their own territory, they were banned from visiting their own sacred sites and holding ceremony for more than a century. For the Quechua, it is only during the last few years that ceremonies are once again allowed to be held in the places created by their ancestors, used freely hundreds of years ago for this purpose of connecting to place and to the cycles of the earth, moon and sun.
Within each place we have visited so far along this journey, we have listened to the importance of ceremony of past and present. We have also experienced and participated in many ceremonies that have enabled our bodies (hearts and minds) to become more fully immersed in the places we are visiting, to connect more deeply with the people we are meeting and the land beneath our feet.
We had not expected that ceremonies would be such an important ingredient in enlivened learning and in transforming identities. We want to explore this dimension of ceremony over subsequent posts. As a way of beginning, this post describes a ceremony in Cusco, Peru. We write this through both of our experiences. Each of us have unique experiences of the same event. The significance of ceremony is collectively yet uniquely felt, bringing us closer to each other and also to each of ourselves.
The pictures in this posting are not our own. They are from other sources on the internet as indicated on each photo. We did not bring our camera into the ceremony. The experience, rather is imprinted quite strongly in our minds and hearts.
It is the 20th of December, the day before the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year here. We walk up the winding path from the edges of Cusco towards the temples of Saqsaywaman on the steep hills above the city. Our steps are dimly lit by the overcast night sky. We see no one along the way until we meet a family of four, waiting to by the edge of the site of the ruins equipped with bags of offerings and blankets. We introduce ourselves and they invite us to join them as they make their way into the site.
We were invited here by Elena Pardo, the Quechua education activist from CEPROSI, one of the smaller organizations associated with Pratec. In our conversation she mentioned other activities she is involved in beside her work on the rejuvenation of Quechua culture in the education system. This entails working with a number of Quechua groups and organizations to revive Quechua ceremonies related to the Quechua Calendar and in the places that were important to these communities. Saqsaywaman was such a site in Incan times and we are here to join others in greeting the new cycle of the sun.
We arrive with the family in a natural grassy amphitheater and walk around a semicircle of some thirty Quechua persons clad in colorful ponchos and hats. The group faces East and on the ground are blankets covered with offerings of drink, foods, leaves and incense. Our sense of foreignness is soon dissipated as we are warmly greeted. The night grew colder and sitting on plastic sheets we were offered blankets.
Over the course of the next few hours we sang, instruments were played and we walked around the ruins in a line with the masters of ceremony offering incantations at various points around the site. Unable to resist the cold and damp of the evening we retired to bed promising to return in a few hours before the sun came up.
I feel apprehension climbing the steep path leading up to the ruins of Saqsaywaman. I am not clear if the tenseness I feel through my body, particularly the bottom of my stomach, is due to us sneaking onto the site after hours, the possibility of us encountering a gang of thieves as we had been warned, meeting a group of people for the first time during a spiritual ceremony and/or the lack of certainty I feel about whether we were genuinely invited (I could not communicate directly with Elena due to language constraints). Perhaps it is a combination of all of these.
The path climbs more and more steeply. The dim light blurs the sharp edges of the stones placed beneath our feet. Suddenly, on our left, mammoth stones come into view, in the shape of high walls. I stop to admire the beauty in their carefully planned (at the time), yet not fully understood irregularity. Peru, especially Cusco, has experienced many earthquakes over the past several hundred years. These stones, many of which are at leas twice my height and width have remained intact through all earthquakes. There is nothing gluing them together. They rest together like a perfectly fit glove.
The moonlight and the dim electric lights create a glow around the interlocking giant stones. I am in awe. It is my first time into these ruins. My anxiety lessens. I feel a gathering resolve amidst the excitement to be attending a ceremony in such a spiritual place. My nervousness drifts into the thinning clouds resting in the silvery moonlit sky.
Udi gently reminds me of time and we walk further. The path flattens and we encounter a group of 4 people closely gathered. They are all female – one child and three adults. They are awaiting further notice as to the exact site of the ceremony. Many minutes later a call comes. We are invited to follow them into the centre of Saqsaywaman, one of the most spiritual sites of the Incas before us and for the Quechua with us.
Walking through tall boulders at first, the view from inside Saqsaywaman becomes more visible as we enter a large empty field-like area. There are chanting sounds, many people are dressed in ponchos and woven hats. I notice many people are barefoot in spite of the cold.
There is a blanket with dried flowers, candles, a couple of large shells and other objects spread across the blanket. One of the large shells is picked up and blown. We are beckoned to come and sit closely to the four women we followed in. They hand us an extra blanket for us to keep warm. I notice we are the only non-Quechua people present, but I feel a strong feeling of inclusiveness amongst all of there together, as human beings, rather than as separate identities.
We walk in a circle several times around the blanket as a large drum beats, keeping our pace. The elder man beating the drum is also carrying the drum. We stop and form a semi-circle around the blanket. An elder Quechua women deliberately approaches each person, waving feathers and slowly blowing incense smoke on each of down our bodies and chanting spiritual wishes. I feel an incredible rush of warmth and strength as she stops briefly in front of me.
We got up at 4am after a couple of hours of sleep and made our way up the hill again. Dawn was starting to break over the surrounding hills of Cusco. Reaching the site again the semicircle had doubled in numbers and we were no longer the only non-Quechua. After more music and incantations people were invited to offer their prayers to the rising sun Inti and to the earth Pachamama – both sources of life. Some spoke and expressed their gratitude in Quechua others in Spanish, offering libations of drink to the earth and to a small fire lit in a clay pot.
The ceremony was concluded with every member of the group hugging everyone else and wishing them well. The master of ceremony, a Quechua Elder, also expressed his gratitude for everyone being there including the non-Quechua, reaffirming our common humanity and the importance of working together to bring renewed spiritual life to the earth in these times of crisis. As we later hugged he addressed me as ‘little brother’.
We walked down the hill with Cusco looming larger with each and our hearts reconnected to something larger than ourselves, and to others, brothers and sisters from these Andean mountains also wanting a better world where we live in more harmony between ourselves and with the web of life that sustains us.
I awaken startled, my heart racing from the shock of the alarm we had set just three hours earlier. Udi and I want to return to the blanket and circle, to join the ceremony once again, up at Saqsaywaman, before the rays of the sun become too pronounced over the horizon. Ev and Pepe join us – the four of us venture back up the steep path to Saqsaywaman.
The haze and rhythm of the last couple of hours during which we were walking around the ruins together, was running through my mind like a slow motion film. After a few hours sitting and walking around the blanket, two of the elder men had started playing Quechua flutes and we formed a sort of queue with each of them at either end, all of us between them. We had walked in silence, with the exclusion of flutes and a drum leading us around the ruins, stopping us at different points to offer prayers of gratitude to ancestors and Pachamama.
As the first rays of sunlight hit the huge Inca stones that morning, we step into the open center of the ruins where we had first followed the four women to, 9 hours earlier. It was around 5am.
This time, there are at least 50 people – possibly twice as many people as we had first encountered. Many non-Quechua people had joined the original group. Everyone is facing us and I feel a bit shy, hoping we are not interrupting too much. As we move closer, we are welcomed with warm smiles and motioned to join the far right side of the semi-circle.
One of the Elder Quechua men I recognise from the evening before walks to a small fire that has been lit in front of the blanket. I can now see the colours of the clothing, the blanket, visibly. He is wearing one of those hats that have a tail on top with an explosion of the bright colours that are woven beneath the exquisite beading that covers the hat. He is still barefoot. This is particularly noticeable with his trousers reaching just past his knees.
One of the elder Quechua women, I assume the same woman who had given each of us blessings the night before, joins him at the fire. They put incense as offering on the fire and toward toward the sun’s rays welcoming the new day, the Solstice.
I am unable to understand much of anything that is spoken, but I feel expressions of love – there are many tears of emotion and warmth from many of the people that approach the fire to offer gratitude to the sun and Pachamama, the Earth. My whole body feels alive, pulsing with energy. I feel a profound sense of gratitude from within the community gathered for the ceremony. It takes root in me. I also feel deeply connected to every single person present and yet I have no idea who they were, where they were from, anything about their stories…