Inti Raymi, the Sun Festival

Inti Raymi, the Sun Festival

Inti Raymi in Peru is a ceremony of sun worship, and it is the second largest festival in South America. It is a public holiday celebrated each year on 24 June, and the most massive ceremony takes place in Cusco, the archaeological capital of Peru. Inti Raymi is a magnificent celebration, with traditional music, fiery dances, colorful performances, and sharing food.

History and traditions

Since ancient times, solstices have been considered sacred and mystical, and in Incan culture. The shortest day of the year in terms of time between sunrise and sunset, the winter solstice at the end of June marks the middle of winter in the summer hemisphere, and after it, the hours of light begin to lengthen again. That is why the solstice is associated with Inti, the sun god and the most revered deity in the Inca religious pantheon.

Inti Raymi translates from Quechua language as “the Sun Festival”. It was the most celebrated event in Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, during the times of its prosperity from the 12th century until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. 

The Inti Raymi holiday took place in the Haukaypata, or the main plaza of the city. The festival ran for nine days and culminated in the colorful ceremony on the day of the solstice, symbolizing the mythical origins of the nation. Among the festivities were dances, processions, demonstrations of military prowess of the Inca army, and numerous sacrifices, both animal and human, to ensure a good harvest season.

As the name suggests, the holiday is a celebration of Inti, the sun god. He was considered the great ancestor of the Tawantinsuyu (that’s what the Inca people called themselves) and their divine protector. He was idolized by the Inca farmers, whose crops depended on the sunlight he was believed to give. Sapa Inca, the paramount leader of the Empire, was considered the human embodiment of Inti, and this substantiated his authority.

The first written records of the celebrations date back to 1412, and the last one, with the presence of the Inca Emperor, was held in 1535. After that, Spanish conquistadors brought a Catholic church that prohibited the holiday as it was considered pagan.

The modern celebration is linked to the name of Faustino Espinoza Navarro, a Peruvian writer and actor. In 1944, for the first time since 1535, he resurrected Inti Raymi with the help of local actors and artists. Their spectacular show included processions, colorful costumes, music concerts, dances, and Inca food tasting. The celebration certainly made an impression, so the tradition was returned. The dates, however, were switched: the last day of the holiday now falls on the 24th of June, instead of the winter solstice on the 21st June — it coincides with the Christian St. John's Day.

What is Inti Raymi like today?

Inti Raymi keeps its reputation even now. It is the second largest festival in South America after the Rio Festival. This ancient Peruvian fest is a unique opportunity to see the traditional ceremony of the revived Inca culture.

The biggest celebration in Cusco is a major tourist attraction. The easiest way to get to Cusco is by plane from Lima – it takes a bit over an hour. 

On 24th June, the city center is closed to traffic to let the crowds pass in a festive procession, which first gathers at Santo Domingo Church at Qurikancha. The procession heads out to Sacsayhuamán, a historic citadel 2 km from Cusco and 3700 m above sea level, carrying Sapa Inca on his golden throne  a replica of a real one. The merry crowd passes the flower-adorned streets with the sounds of music and traditional dances. Women walk ahead of the procession, sweeping the ground as a symbol of exorcising evil spirits. At Sacsayhuamán, there is a ceremonial sacrifice of a white llama – today it is fake, of course, but pretty convincing  and Inca priests read the future. With the ancient temple as the backdrop, the festival troupe tells the story of the times long gone. 

During the nine days of the holiday, all over Peru there are fairs, street performances, traditional food stalls, and different exhibitions. A trip to Peru in June is like a second Christmas in one year  this one is more exotic, however.

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