Today indigenous Inca throughout the Peruvian Andes celebrate Inti Raymi, the winter solstice. I spend a certain amount of energy twice a year reminding people in the northern hemisphere that the southern hemisphere exists too, and that for us the June solstice is the shortest day of the year, harbinger of winter. Inti Raymi is an ancient celebration of the sun god Inti, and is one of four major Inca seasonal festivals. The pre-conquest ceremonies were described by Garcilaso de la Vega in Comentarios Reales de los Incas (Royal Chronicles of the Incas), published in Lisbon in 1609.
Garcilasco de la Vega was in a unique position to document the traditions of the Inca because he was born in the Inca capital, Cusco, of a Spanish aristocratic conquistador, and a royal Incan mother. He was illegitimate and so lived with his mother, Palla Chimpu Ocllo (baptized as Isabel Suárez Chimpu Ocllo), for the first 10 years of his life. She was the daughter of Túpac Huallpa and a granddaughter of the powerful Inca (ruler) Tupac Yupanqui. Garcilasco was, thus, a native speaker of both Quechua and Spanish, and grew up hearing about the traditions of the Inca from his mother. When his father died, Garcilasco received an inheritance, and relocated to Spain at the age of 21 where he received a first rate Spanish education.
Garcilasco’s depictions of Inca life are invaluable, although highly colored. He describes the Inca as a peaceful, loving people who are well-fed and happy. There is no mention in his writings of the Inca practices of slavery and human sacrifice (and little about warfare except the wars with the Spanish). It is not clear whether he deliberately avoided these subjects or whether he simply did not know about them. Certainly the commentaries are as accurate as can be expected given that he filtered his childhood memories through his Spanish heritage. Comentarios Reales de los Incas was banned in Spain following the anti-colonial uprising of Tupac Amaru II, because it was perceived to be dangerous. It was not published again in Spanish until 1918, and was not published in English in complete form until 1961. So, in the midst of our winter solstice revels let us also celebrate yet another unsung giant. I am a great fan of anyone whose works are banned.
Inti Raymi has often been described as a ritual to ensure the return of the sun by people with little or no knowledge of Garsilasco’s writings, nor of basic anthropological theory. Contemporary, “scientific” Westerners have the bad habit of seeing ancient winter solstice ceremonies as magical superstition, practiced because they feared the sun would disappear if they did not make prayerful appeals. This is ignorant nonsense. The Inca were excellent astronomers and understood the movements of the sun (and moon) very well. Inti Raymi was a joyous celebration of the life giving power of the sun and its god Inti.
The rituals of Inti Raymi fell into abeyance in post-colonial times, but were revived in 1944 in Cusco and the nearby historic site Sacsayhuaman, Inca temple to the sun. The modern festival lasts one day only (today) in Sacsayhuaman, but goes on for an entire week in Cusco. We do not know the precise date of the original Inca rituals, even though they survived briefly into colonial times. The conquistadores as part of their enforced Christianization of the Inca set the date of midsummer activities as 24 June, the Spanish midsummer. The modern celebration can be seen in the photos above. The original celebration was a two week affair. First there were three days of fasting when no fires were lit, and sex was forbidden. This period was followed by nine days of feasting and drinking. The first day, which is what is now recreated, involved massive parades of soldiers in full war gear accompanying the Inca who delivered speeches to the sun and to the sacred coca leaf.
Inti Raymi was attended by people from across the Incan empire who brought foods representative of their native regions. These were all eaten together as symbolic of the unity of the empire. Nowadays this festal dish is recreated in plates of chiriuchu which can be bought from street vendors throughout Cusco during the festival. There is no real recipe. It has base of corn with chopped guinea pig meat, llama or alpaca jerky, and sausage on top of that (sometimes with chicken as well). Next comes white cheese from the neighboring highlands, torreja (a crisp omelet with corn flour, compis potatoes, yellow squash, onion greens, and local spices). This mélange is all topped with seaweed and fish eggs from the coast, with a garnish of rocoto pepper at the apex. Good luck finding the ingredients to make this at home. Just go to Cusco and enjoy it there. It is a huge plate of food because it is meant to be shared.
I have struggled with finding a recipe suitable for the day because all indigenous Incan dishes have since been heavily influenced by Spanish ingredients and techniques (as well as well meaning foodies). Here is a recipe of mine that does not do too much violence to traditional methods and ingredients. Its base is the grain quinoa (pronounced KEEN-owah) which is becoming increasingly popular in the West because of its high protein content. It can be found at health food stores and large supermarkets. To cook it, rinse it thoroughly in cold water, then simmer it for about 15 minutes using 2 parts water to one part grain. I am giving proportions in my recipe here rather than specific measurements just to be a bit more traditional and to give the cook some scope for variation. This type of salad is often served throughout Latin America as a side dish accompanying grilled meats.
2 parts cooked quinoa
1 part cooked corn kernels
1 part cooked beans (black or pink add some color)
1 chopped tomato per 2 parts quinoa
2 chopped green onions per tomato
chopped cilantro to taste
chopped hot pepper to taste
fresh lemon juice to taste
Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl, and chill well before serving. (Well, what did you expect!).