Last year on Inti Raymi, or Summer Solstice, my friends and I joined a thousand others at a nearby waterfall for a midnight ritual cleansing of our negative spirits. Standing under the moon in the frigid waters of Peguche Waterfall was exhilarating and set into motion a whole year of positive adventures and well-being. (See my Blog Post dated July 13, 2018. You can access this post eventually by repeatedly tapping “Older Posts” at the bottom of this screen.) This year, I opted for a different kind of ceremony in the nearby artisan pueblo of San Clemente. A fellow University Professor, Ernesto Muñoz, invited me as his guest and I brought a couple friends along as well.
Inti Raymi is the Incan holiday celebrated throughout the Andes to give thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for the bounties of their harvest. It is celebrated with solemn ceremonies, offerings, festive parades, music, dance and always, food. The pueblo of San Clemente is composed of primarily indigenous families who work together in a cooperative to keep their traditions alive for the next generation. Four times a year, on the equinoxes and solstices, they perform Pachamanka. This is a ritual of connecting the celestial world, the human world, and the Earth while cooking food in the ground for the community to share. This is the story of my experience.
We arrived to the small clearing among the hills soon after 9am. A large bonfire was blazing and a man was already standing barefoot in a large hole, or pit. The pile of dirt at his side revealed the progress of his morning’s work. While he dug, the women carried in baskets of food and started preparations. Choclo (corn) was partially shucked, col (cabbage), potatoes (papas), camotes (sweet potatoes) and plátanos (bananas) were washed, a salad was prepared, and portions of pollo (chicken) were wrapped in banana leaves and tied with a string.
This is actually harder than it looks. It took quite a few packets
before my chicken didn't ooze out the corners.
Fresh habas, or lima beans, were contained in this canvas sheet and cooked in the shell.
At the same time, other men were making exact measurements on the ground, creating a sort of alter between the bonfire and the large hole. We were told not to cross this line.
After some time, the man who was digging, squatted down in the hole, and since the top of the hole measured to the height of his shoulders, he determined it was deep enough. Then, he wet the sides with water, which collected at the bottom of the pit. Next, the ladies handed him herbs and flower petals to line the bottom of the pit in the shape of the Andean Calendar, a four quadrant circle representing the agricultural year. It was explained to us that the Andean Calendar is much older than the Incan Calendar and that its colors each represent a season. Yellow is the time of planting and growth in the months of June, July and August. Red is the color of the hot, dry season in September, October and November. Blue is the color of the rainy season when plants get their nourishment during December, January and February. Finally, green is the color for the new growth that occurs after the rains in March, April and May. Interestingly enough, the red and blue parts of the calendar are considered feminine times of the year where plants are growing and being nurtured with the rains. The green and yellow months of the year are considered masculine. In this way, the calendar connects femininity and masculinity with the heavens and earth. Additionally, the tips of the cross represent the two solstices and the two equinoxes. If you think of a diagram of the Earth’s path around the sun, the locations of Earth at each of the solstices and equinoxes form the four cardinal directions. For these Indigenous who live at the Equator, north is actually represented at the bottom of a map or flag, and the directions of east and west are of primary importance since that is the direction the sun moves across our sky.
At this point, the bonfire was dismantled and the steaming hot rocks were ready to be placed into the hole. Samir Salgado, a visiting archeologist, explained that in this ceremony, the fire represents the celestial world. Specific lava rocks had been selected and are used year after year in this ritual to represent our grandparents, or ancestors, who came from the Earth. They were placed in the fire early that morning and their presence in this ritual will cook the food that will nourish us. As each rock was removed from the fire, the ashes were dusted from the them. Then, the rocks were carried along the alter to the hole. The span of distance between the fire and the hole represents our time in the human world on Earth. Finally, the hole is in the Earth. It specifically represents the womb that produces life, which in this scenario, is represented by the food that nourishes our bodies. In this way, heaven, humans and Earth are connected.
|This is Mike, a former Peace Corps Volunteer, and his daughter Kate, |
helping dust the ashes from the rocks in this ritual.
When the pit was full, we were each given a branch of an aromatic herb. We were asked to contemplate a wish or offer a prayer before tossing the branch onto the food. In this way, the food in the hole gave us sustenance spiritually, as well as physically. To form a lid, they folded the tops of the banana leaves over the hole. Finally, a canvas tarp was placed on top and the original dirt from the hole was shoveled onto the tarp.
|Here is my colleague and friend Ernesto, helping place the tarp over the cooking food.|
|Flower petals were lovingly placed in a spiral on the mound.|
At about this time, local musicians showed up and a dance circle was initiated to pound down the soil and form a seal for the steam. I threw off my shoes and joined the circle. Dancing in the sprinkling rain, with mud squishing between my toes, I gave thanks to Pachamama for all the beautiful blessings and nourishment she has given me this past year and I asked her for another year of inner peace, exploration, and connectedness with all that I am living. It was a really beautiful moment.
As the dancing wound down, Samir gave a short lecture on the symbolism of the Andean calendar. He created a makeshift model of the equinoxes and solstices marked by Earth’s journey around the sun, and he discussed the patterns of shadows the sun makes throughout the year. In the northern hemisphere, we equate the Summer Solstice with the longest day of the year. But here, at the Equator, it is the day when the growing shadows reverse themselves because the sun is at its most northern point and will now start its journey back south. The people in this area have a lot to celebrate during Inti Raymi: the harvest, the new plantings, and the returning of the life-giving sun.
|In addition to the flag featuring the Andean agricultural calendar, they also hung |
the rainbow flag of the Ecuadorian Indigenous people.
By now 90 minutes had passed and a discussion ensued as to whether or not the food was cooked. The general consensus was that since it had been raining on and off all morning, we needed to give it more time. 20 minutes later, Samir started to dig up the dirt to test its temperature and smell its odor. Sure enough, the soil smelled wonderful. And then, just as the rain started to pour, the process of unlayering began. First the dirt was removed, then the tarp. When the banana leaves were pulled back, the steam billowed. With small cloths and leaves to protect their hands, each piece of food was pulled from the pit, piled in baskets and placed on a dining mat.
|The pineapple was sliced and our feast was served with bowls of ahi (salsa) |
and five different types of fresh juice.
When all the food was assembled, Susana Ipiales, the President of this community, filled a plate full and used it as an offering of thanks to Pachamama. Then, as their guests, we were given the first plates of food to enjoy.
|Pictured in this photo are baskets of habas, packets of pollo, a pot of plátanos, camotes, papas and choclo |
with some queso freso cheese.
Thank you Pachamama for the food you have provided. And thank you to the
Community of San Clemente for opening their hearts to share this beautiful tradition with us.