Between the Years in the Andes

Between the years in the Andes: Celebrations in June and August

Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz

Each June and August people in the Andean countries, especially Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina, celebrate the arrival of the new native or ancestral year. The fact that this happens in two different months may show a lack of coherence, although rather it seems to point to the flexibility of those who consider themselves or are ‘indigenous’ peoples: not only do the kind of celebrations reveal much about the countries’ cultures, but also about the varied usage these festivals are put to.

Looking back, we find a celebration of the new year in the 1,200-pages illustrated book, The First Chronicle and New Government, written by the indigenous author Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala around the beginning of the 17th century (El sitio de Guaman Poma, in the month of June people rest from the earlier harvest, offerings are made, and the well-organised Inca state carries out its tax review:

This is the modest festival of the Ynti Raymi and much was spent on it and they made offerings to the Sun. And they interred the so-called Capac Ocha sacrifice … And in this mentioned month in the whole kingdom the governor, Tocricoc, or the judges, Michoc, made an account of the Indians of each household, of what they had in terms of goods and food. (P. 247 [249], translation from the Spanish by SDS; illustration p. 248 [250] –

Considering that in pre-Spanish times the month seemed to have started around each third week, it does not surprise that this major festival of the new year in Peru is now also celebrated at the same time: the so-called Inti Raymi, the Sun Festival. On the 24 of June Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital, becomes a huge tourist spectacle (“Inti Raymi, fiesta del Sol”, This ‘Inca festival’ was recreated by Peruvians in the 1940s in order to highlight their imperial history and the importance of the farming traditions.

In Bolivia, especially with the election of the popular or populist (depending on the point of view) president Evo Morales a few years ago, much emphasis has been placed on the coincidence of the Andean and Amazonian new years, as is shown in an email greeting we received on 20 of June this year from friends in a city:

It is a particular satisfaction for me to congratulate our family and friends who relate themselves with the activities of my wonderful country of Bolivia. I extend my most sincere congratulations at the occasion of 5,519 years of the Andean and Amazonian Year. Last year, the 21st of June was declared a holiday, celebrating with different rituals and awaiting  ̶  according to the constellations  ̶  the meeting of the puma and the tiger. I identify myself with these postulates, which are derived from our ancestral roots, independent of political and ideological positions and criteria. (Transl. from Spanish by SDS.)

The most festive occasion in Bolivia, in a way a counterpoint to the Inca Cuzco Inti Raymi, is the celebration of an event at one of Bolivia’s most famous archaeological sites, Tiahuanaco, where the president and his followers meet in order to emphasise the political aspect of the date and place: it is said that the calculation of the year as the “return of the sun” is as old as the foundation of Tiahuanaco, a culture which is now ‘politically’ considered to be the original archaeological precursor of modern Bolivia.

The fact that this year the recently elected Peruvian president Ollanta Humala (who is feared or expected to act in ways similar to those of Chávez and Morales) was invited, but did not attend, is open to speculation, but certainly highlights the political character of the event (“Celebran año 5519 de la Cultura Andina …”,

But there is more. The beginning of August is also an extremely important occasion (which happens to co-occur almost together with the mid-August festival of the Assumption of the Virgin).

In southern Peru farmers in particular worship the Earth Mother, or female principle of life:

When the sun comes out, they go out to look for inkaychus [specially formed and powerful little stones for the fertility of different kinds of animals], to see which stone may be alive, which rock may be alive or which spring. … On that day the plain is alive. Everything at all is alive. The Pachamamas are alive as well. This is why Pachamama gives inkaychus as gifts to people who have luck. (R. Gow & B. Condori, Kay Pacha, Cuzco 1976 [:15], translation from the Quechua by SDS.)

These are the days when Pachamama needs to rest and must not be worked on, as it is the time before the tilling of the soil begins, when she starts providing people’s sustenance. Complex burnt offerings are given to her. In a similar way city-dwellers show respect for Pachamama offering her incense. Here again we enter a new year, this time an agricultural one. (“Madre Pachamama: madre que nutre …”,; A. Ma. Mariscotti de Görlitz, Pachamama Santa Tierra, Berlin 1978: 117).

The popular descriptions indicate what to some of us may sound like a slightly ‘esoteric’ or, at best, a ‘re-invented’ tradition. But it is important to note that these dates show the new year is as manifold as Andean (or human) society in general: ‘religion’ cannot be clearly separated from ‘politics’ or ‘tourism’, although the motives vary according to what is most important to the agents and audience. This tends to be a sense of cultural identity (during the rest of life often fragmented or absent), the creation of income, a worldwide consciousness of the existence of the Andes, and the connection with those family members who have emigrated to other continents.

Last, but not least, it is of vital importance to celebrate and witness the ‘communion’ with politicians and deities  ̶  both may be said to be powerful helpers. All this reflects the multiplicity and complexity of 20th and 21st century societies through the Andean celebration of the new year.


July 2011