Q’oyllur Riti, Peru’s ancient Star Snow Festival
4 July 2019
Imagine an ancient culture that still today honors and worships a bright star, which metaphysically connects the Milky Way to an imposing glacier, and to the waters that bring life and sustenance to native Andean communities.
Picture a yearly religious pilgrimage that brings thousands devout Quechua people, the descendants of the Incas, to the Sinakara Valley in the high southern Andes, where they hike, make offerings and ask for blessings from the mountain spirits, thereby connecting spiritually to their magnificent land, its mountains and glaciers, and to its star-filled night skies.
Nature itself is holy to the traditional Andean people. It has been written that the sacred places, the mountains, the skies, the streams, the caves and large rocks that Andean people worship do not contain the spirits, but rather are sacred in and of themselves.
And the Q’oyllur Riti, or the Star Snow Festival, is perhaps the deepest expression of the spiritual devotion of native Andean people for the ancient deities of nature, which are everywhere.
They are especially present in the Sinakara Valley, and on the snow-covered heights of nearby Mt. Ausangate, the most important Apu, the mountain deity and protector of life and waters in Peru’s southern Andes.
Another Quechua term for the sacred mountains is Tayakuna, the Fathers.
Sacred glacial streams, stones and caves that serve as shrines and oracles are known as Tirakuna, or huacas. For traditional native Peruvians, the Andes are alive with them.
Southeast of Cusco, the Sinakara Valley’s living cosmology of nature welcomes Andean pilgrims every year around early June, when the Pleiades constellation makes its appearance in the night sky.
Thousands of pilgrims arrive at the nearest town and make an arduous journey on foot to the base of the glaciers.
Saint’s effigies are carried, offerings and prayers are given to the Lord of Q’oyllur Riti at altars along the way, as mighty Mt. Ausangate presides over the arriving pilgrims.
The festival’s grounds become a mass of colors, costumes and of festive humanity. Songs, brass bands and fireworks reverberate on the high slopes, among the many worshippers who dance, sit together in their clan groups, and carry out rituals, as colorful banners fly in the wind.
Notable among the crowd are the ukukus, powerful mythological creatures, born from a bear and a woman. These trickster bears are entrusted with climbing up to the glaciers carrying huge crosses, which are planted in the ice to gather the celestial energy, and then are brought back down after three days, to return later to their towns of origin.
Not many years ago, men carried huge blocks of ice down from the glacier, as symbols of divine energy, fertility and health. Today, as the Andes’ glaciers melt and slowly disappear, this practice is no longer allowed.
Even so, the deep spiritual connection between Peru’s Andean native people and the natural world is renewed every year at the Q’oyllur Riti festival.
The pilgrimage brings hope to families and communities for future fertility, wellbeing and health. At the same time, Q’oyllur Riti honors and preserves the legacy of the glorious Inca past, as it also energizes the continued existence of an ancient cultural identity of immeasurable worth- the traditional Quechua people of today.
Please contact us at andeanlodges.com to visit Peru, and to learn more about its rich, timeless cultural traditions.
(Many thanks and recognition goes to the renowned author and anthropologist Wade Davis, who’s amazing book The Wayfinders greatly inspired and informed this article).