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Image Blog Post Inti Raymi: the Peruvian festival honouring the Inca Sun god

Inti Raymi: the Peruvian festival honouring the Inca Sun god

The Inti Raymi is an Inca religious ceremony in honour of the Sun divinity. Inti is the word for ‘sun’, so Inti Raymi means ‘sun festival’ in Quechua, the ancient language of Tawantinsuyo, the Inca Empire.

The festival is held every year on June 24th, around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year for the Inca (who live south of the Equator, therefore with inverted seasons compared to the northern emisphere).

The first chronicles of the Inti Raymi were left by Garcilaso de la Vega, a 16th-century poet whose nickname was ‘El Inca’, as he was born from a conquistador and an Incan princess.

Garcilaso tells us that the festival was first started in 1412 by the famous chief Pachacuti. He was the ninth Sapa Inca of the Kingdom of Cuzco, whose conquests expanded the Inca dominion to nearly the whole of western South America. His power was such that it is believed the famous site of Machu Picchu was built as an estate for him.

Pachacuti created the Inti Raymi to celebrate the new year in the Andes, but also to reinforce the belief in the mythical origin of the Incas. It lasted over nine days of colorful dances and processions in the main square of the city of Cusco, known then as the Haukaypata. The ceremonies also included animal sacrifices, to give thanks to Pachamama (the Mother Earth goddess) so that she would allow good crops for the coming year.

But things changed with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, who after a while banned this event, seeing it as a pagan ceremony which offended their Catholic faith. The last Inti Raymi celebrated in front of the Inca Emperor was in 1535.

Today, though, the Inti Raymi is celebrated again, if only as a symbolic reenactment - and mainly as a tourist attraction. In 1944 a reconstruction ceremony was directed by Faustino Espinoza Navarro and indigenous actors, and since then it’s become once again one of the biggest festivals in the Andes.

The event travels from the centre of Cuzco to the ancient site of Saqsayhuaman. It starts in the morning on the large open square in front of the Korikancha, the Inca Temple of the Sun, when the Sapa Inca opens the festivities invoking praise to Inti.

He is then carried on a golden throne to the ancient fortress of Saqsayhuaman, in the hills above Cuzco - an archeological site around three kilometers away from the Korokancha, which allows thousands of spectators to position themselves all over the surrounding hills in order to catch a glimpse of the ceremony.

Throughout the short journey, the Sapa Inca is followed by a procession of high priests, officials of the court, and nobles, all elaborately dressed and adorned with silver and gold ornaments, according to their rank. After them, come musicians, dancers, virgins, and representatives from various parts of the Empire, following the procession with music and dances, and carrying effigies of the Serpent, the Puma and the Condor – which symbolise the underworld, the earthen world and the celestial world.

Once in Saqsayhuman, the final part of the reenactment is played out: more prayers and speeches are delivered in Quechua, as the crowd awaits the mock-sacrifice of a white llama in honour of Pachamama.

As the sun disappears beneath the horizon at dusk, bonfires spark up and the procession makes its way back to Cuzco. A new year has begun.