The Broader Picture: Pilgrimage to the god of ice

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EVERY June, as the southern hemisphere's winter solstice approaches, 15,000 pilgrims from all over Peru and Bolivia gather at Mahuayani, near Cuzco, in southern Peru, to take part in a bizarre pilgrimage. At the appointed hour, they leave the city, marching into the Andes for a day and a night until they have covered 30km and climbed some 5,000m, bringing them to the foot of the sacred Mount Sinakara - also known as Colquepunku, the ice god.

The journey is an arduous one. Many pilgrims chew coca leaves to combat the effects of altitude; all are sustained by a passionate faith - both in the ancient gods of the Incas and in their modern successor, Jesus Christ. The rituals they have come to perform represent a strange syncretism between two religious cultures; none the less, if performed successfully, the pilgrims believe, they can bring all manner of blessings upon themselves and their communities.

The pilgrims come to a halt at the small church of Qoyllur Rit'i, at the feet of whose saints they lay small models (if they are rich) or drawings (if they are poor) of their aspirations for the future: cars, trucks, houses and so on. The saints, they trust, will turn these hopes into reality. That is the Christian half of the ceremony; but the pilgrims must also confront Colquepunku, whose ice, the Incas believed, can make dreams come true.

The pilgrims stay at the church overnight, dancing and singing. Then, at daybreak, strange, phantasmal creatures appear from the mist: the ukukus, members of a secret religious society drawn from local tribes, who serve as intermediaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. Their faces hidden by wool balaclavas embroidered with crosses, their bodies draped in llama hides, they flay the air with whips to chase away the tortured souls that haunt the mountain. Then, while the pilgrims remain near the church, they make the precarious climb to Colquepunku's summit, where they loosen the huge blocks of ice that make up the 'heart' of the ice god. Every year, inevitably, a few lose their lives. They are not mourned; the pilgrims see such accidents as being somehow necessary - equivalent to the human sacrifices of the distant past.

Finally, the frozen heart of Colquepunku is offered to the Christian god of the conquistadores. The survivors bring the blocks of ice - several tons altogether - back down to the church and the pilgrims, some of whom will then carry them all the way back to their villages. Each block can weigh anything up to 30kg; when melted, however, the ice is believed to cure all ills. Some will sell their blocks, for a good price, in the villages of the valley; others attach the blocks to their backs as a form of penance. Either way, the ice may travel many miles before it melts, after which it becomes holy water: the heart of an Inca god transubstantiated until it can be used in a Christian service. And, in both forms, it can bring hope to lives in which hope is a rare commodity. ]

(Photograph omitted)