The history books said the Spanish had conquered Peru 500 years before, but as I sat on the cold stone steps of a village square on Lake Titicaca, I thought over the last two weeks and how the official history never tells the full story.
When I visited the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in Cuzco at the start of my journey, I stood before a replica of one of the world’s most famous paintings and saw that the details were decidedly different from the original.
In place of the lamb served at the Last Supper in da Vinci’s masterpiece, this Incan version featured a guinea pig. A sacred drink made from purple corn replaced the wine, and Pizarro, betrayer of the Incas, sat in Judas’s spot.
I admired the statue of the Virgin Mary on the cathedral’s main altar, which was there rather than a crucifix because Mary fit in better with the Incan earth goddess, Pachamama.
In the choir section, I saw elaborate figures of nude women, with large breasts and pregnant bellies. These were considered obscene by the Catholic church, but as an important fertility symbol in the indigenous religion, there they were in a Catholic cathedral.
I touched a large stone near the entrance, a remnant of the foundation of an Incan temple destroyed by the Spanish. Local people would touch it as they entered and offer flowers and other gifts. The church leaders didn’t like this and removed the stone, but the outcry among the local Quechua people convinced them to return it.
Why did the church allow so many pre-Christian symbols? My guide explained that it was sometimes a compromise, with local artists allowed to include Incan symbols in exchange for silver and gold, sometimes a protest, with locals resisting the Spanish indoctrination of Catholicism, and sometimes a sort of marketing, with locals more likely to come to church and accept Catholicism if it were blended with their indigenous faith.
This all fit in with a point my Inca Trail guide made during the middle of my trip. He had one parent of Spanish ancestry and one of Quechua ancestry, but he said he grew up with Quechua culture and identifies with it more strongly. Many Peruvians still practice their indigenous religion, and those who converted to Catholicism are often practicing a hybrid religion with their local traditions, symbols, and festivals still prominent.
And, now, in high altitude on Amantani Island, I wanted to burrow down into a pile of blankets and sleep. Some sort of festival was coming, though, and I waited it out. At least the stones were warm, giving off some of the soaked-up setting sun.
Amid the crowd I noticed a few women entering the town square with large bundles of hay strapped to their backs. Soon enough, about 30 women gathered. Some men playing flutes led them around the square, and the women deposited their burdens into piles in front of the crowd.
The women held hands and circled the square, dancing around mounds of hay. Finally, each pile was lit on fire. Flames surged high into the air as the women danced faster and faster. I found out later that this was a pre-Christian sacrificial offering to Pachamama, performed in the sacred month of August each year to ensure a good crop in the upcoming growing season.
On this Sunday in largely Catholic Peru, hundreds gathered in the village square, but there was a heavy padlock on the church’s door, and there was not a cross in sight.
Related post: Hiking the Inca Trail