Christopher Columbus’ landing in the so-called New World during October of 1492 would irreversibly change the course of history. Unfortunately, for many of the indigenous populations of the Americas, the future was bleak. Once thriving empires would be crippled by foreign diseases and conquerors, and the native way of life was greatly altered by missionaries whose good intentions often led them to condemn preexisting traditions.
One of the most notable victims of the influx of European influence throughout Central and South America was the Inca. A wealthy and powerful civilization, the Inca Empire quickly became the target of conquistadors seeking New-World riches. As the Inca eventually fell under foreign rule, they were forced to abandon much of their traditional culture. This was especially true of those practices related to their polytheistic religion, which worshiped the sun as a supreme power. The practice of some of the most important Inca festivals in honor of the sun god (who was referred to as Inti) were entirely stopped by the middle of the sixteenth century.
One such festival, however, has undergone a relatively recent revival. Beginning in 1944, Peruvians began elaborate reenactments of Inti Raymi (the Festival of the Sun). Performers in traditional Inca clothing carry out the historic festival for growing numbers of tourists, exhibiting the most important aspects of what was originally a nine day celebration over a much shorter period of time. Held annually on the winter solstice, the recreation of Inti Raymi brings historical accounts of the most important Inca festival to life, offering a window into the distant past.
Inti Raymi served a variety of purposes for the Inca. It was a time of relaxation and jubilation for an industrious people, allowing them to enjoy the fruits of their labors. The festival was also an important religious time, when animals were sacrificed to gain the favor of the sun god and ensure a successful harvest. Perhaps most important for modern performers, however, is the symbolic nature of many of the festival’s elements. Dances and other public displays conveyed the story of the Inca’s rise to power and a variety of other native legends. Early records have preserved these tales, allowing re-enactors to accurately convey Inca history and culture.
The site of these reenactments also offers an important look at the Inca. Sacsayhuamán, an imposing fortress built from massive stones, is a testament to the resources and capabilities of the once powerful empire. Boulders were cut to size and then hauled (by hundreds of men with lengths of rope) to the hilltop where the fortress was to be constructed. Workers then precisely carved the stones to fit into place. The structure provides an appropriate backdrop to modern renditions of Inti Raymi, juxtaposing the cultural and physical remnants of the Inca Empire.
The annual performance of Inti Raymi has become popular for its historical accuracy. However, lesser-known versions of the festival may be more closely linked to the original. In difficult-to-reach areas of the Andes mountains, Inca traditions were often preserved. Even when missionaries reached the most remote communities and converted them, many held to their roots. Inti Raymi and other native celebrations were often tied to religious holidays, but the customs were largely unaltered and remain so today.