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Machu Picchu Guide - Andean Traditions

       
Inca society was a strictly hierarchical one with the emperor, known as Sapa Inca, firmly at the top. Considered a god by his people, he was believed to be descended from the sun and was both a religious and political leader, controlling the priesthood and the military. His wife, the coya, would also have been of high status and was associated with the moon.

There are at least two different Inca creation myths. The first has it that the primordial Inca, Manco Capac, arose from the depths of Lake Titicaca and travelled underground with his three brothers and their sister-wives, emerging somewhere near Cusco. The brothers either turned to stone or grew wings and flew away. Meanwhile, Manco pushed his golden staff into the soft soil of the valley only for it to be swallowed up. He took this as a sign from his father the sun that the valley was fertile and so stayed, naming the place Qosqo, the navel of the earth.

In the second version, the god Viracocha ruled over a nefarious people who, one day angered him so deeply, that he rose up out of Lake Titicaca and turned them all to stone, replacing them with the moon, the sun and humanity. He dispatched the new race to the four corners of the earth, sending the Incas to Cusco.

Thus Cusco became the capital of the Inca empire, its ornate temples and palaces peopled by the royal family and the noble classes. The majority of the population though were farmers and herdsmen, cultivating prized crops such as maize and potatoes and breeding llamas for their wool. Woven cloth, as well as being a valuable commodity that could be traded, was used to signify rank. Even today, the people of the Andes maintain the oldest unbroken weaving tradition anywhere in the world.

Quechua became the language of government and the number of people speaking the highland tongue now is thought to be at least as many as it was at the time of their ancestors. Isolation and remoteness have been the key to the survival of many Andean traditions. People still believe, for example, that sacred places known as huacas – usually a geographical feature such as a mountain or a rock – are inhabited by apus or spirits. These spirits were thought to have an impact on everyday life and it continues to be common practice to make regular offerings of coca leaves and chicha to the Apus and in particular to Pachamama, mother earth. After the Conquest, the Spanish believed such places to be possessed by the devil and took to destroying them. Mountains were especially venerated by the Incas as they were seen as the source of rain and therefore of life.

Because the Inca emperor was thought to be descended from the sun, the state religion was very much concerned with solar worship, hence the great Inti Raymi festivities that take place in Cusco around the June solstice. After the death of a ruler, his body would be embalmed but stay in his palace to be revered as an ancestral god. It wasn’t unheard of for his mummy to sit in on council sessions and, during major ceremonies, he would be paraded around town before being placed on a sacred dais, or usno, and ritually fed while offerings were burnt on an altar beside him.

As the magnificence of Machu Picchu can testify, the Incas’ stonemasonry skills were second to none. Modern-day scholars are still unable to fathom all of the techniques used in constructing such architectural marvels as the fortress at Sacsayhuaman, nor do they know quite how the enormous blocks of stone would have been transported from the quarries. It’s thought that the masons would tirelessly chip away at a block with a hammer made from a harder stone until the shape needed for it to fit side by side with its neighbouring block was achieved.

The Incas were also renowned for a skill of a very different nature – trepanation. This crude but effective form of surgery involved drilling a hole in the skull to release pressure on the brain, usually in the event of a battle injury where stone clubs often inflicted serious damage.

Trepanation is of course no longer practised but other Andean customs that are a legacy of the Incas have remained intact for centuries. As farmers in the Sacred Valley revitalise the land of their ancestors in order to provide for the next generation, the past looks set to continue well into the future.

   

www.machupicchuperu.info  Text Copyright Anne Noon. Photos Copyright Mike Weston. All rights reserved 2007-2010

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