An Andean Form of Knowledge

Zoila S. Mendoza

Film by Zoila S. Mendoza made on pilgrimage with the K’achampa troupe from Pomanchani, Cuzco region, Peru.

Toward an Andean Form of Knowledge

Why have people of the Andes chosen festivals, music, and dance as powerful forms of social action throughout history? This simple question has driven my research for nearly four decades, and I believe that the key to proposing some answers to it lies in understanding a long-standing and predominant form of knowledge that has existed in the region for millennia. A project that I started in 2006 has helped me approach at least a partial understanding of such a form of knowledge which, I argue, is widespread in the region though certainly not exclusive to it. This research has focused on the experiences of the pilgrims to the sanctuary of the Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i (Lord of the Shiny Snow) or Taytacha Qoyllur Rit’i (Dear Father of the Shiny Snow).(1) The Taytacha is an image of crucified Christ on a huge rock, now sheltered by a church at the foot of a glacier. This project led me into a focus on the sensory modes of knowledge acquisition which, while applicable to any area of study of society and history, is of most importance when trying to understand rituals or any other public performative practices. This pilgrimage combines long-standing Andean principles and practices with those brought into the tradition by Catholicism, as mountains and rocks have been considered powerful animated entities in the Andean world since pre-Columbian times.

The Pilgrimage

One of the main reasons I elected to take part and learn about the pilgrimage to the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i was because the principal and traditional way to participate in it is through music and dance. The story of the origin of the worship to the Taytacha emphasizes that music and dance are the prime ways for humans and superior forces to interact in a reciprocal and productive way. Held between the end of May and the beginning of June, it is the largest pilgrimage in the Peruvian Andes, with perhaps as many as 100,000 pilgrims from across the whole Andean region reaching the sanctuary every year. While the site of the sanctuary might have been a place of local ritual practices for centuries, it only started to have a regional importance by the 1930s. The sanctuary is considered the highest in the world, located at nearly 16,000 feet right below the Qollquepunku (silver door) glacier in Ocongate, Cuzco, Peru. The traditional form was to walk from the pilgrim’s place of residence to the sanctuary, but today probably fewer than one percent of the participants do that. The vast majority take buses and trucks to the town of Mawallani, Ocongate, from where they only have to ascend eight kilometers on foot.

I was fortunate enough to participate (in 2006, 2008, 2010) in the last three pilgrimages made on foot by the dance troupes of the community of Pomacanchi, Acomayo, where I learned important lessons about the predominant form of knowledge in the Andes. For the people of Pomacanchi the walk lasted three days and two nights, along eighty-five miles, up and down mountains, accompanied by the incessant music of flutes and drums. After another two and a half days and two nights at the site, where they performed their ritual dances and participated in a continuous musical experience, these Quechua-speaking pilgrims went back to their town, and the site was left deserted. Formerly, only the return to the town was by truck, but since 2011 the pilgrims from Pomacanchi also travel to Mawallani by truck.

The Centrality of a Sensory Approach

Any study of public celebrations, rituals, and other religious practices needs to start from a thorough understanding of how the senses are organized in that society. I propose that at the core of the predominant form of knowledge in the Andes has long been the unity of hearing, sight, and felt bodily movement (kinesthesia). This unity is essential for Andeans to learn and remember. Furthermore, kinesthesia seems to be a crucial sense that shapes and organizes the other two. Clearly, this form of knowledge is not exclusive of the Andean region, and may be similar in other places where the centrality of public performative practices is apparent.

Besides learning about this form of knowledge by participating in the pilgrimage to Qoyllur Rit’i with the people of Pomacanchi on three occasions and living in the community for various periods over the course of six years, an important element in my learning was to converse with them in their native language, Quechua (the largest Native American language alive today, with 8 to 12 million speakers). This was essential to capture many dimensions of their experience, which can only be fully understood in their language. I also learned key dimensions by paying close attention to Quechua oral tradition from pre-Hispanic times until today. Andean oral tradition emphasizes the constant movement across the landscape in the form of exploration or, very frequently, as a chase or persecution. This is clearly the case in the story of the origin of the shrine of Qoyllur Rit’i, where a final chase ends in the apparition of the Taytacha on the rock. This story also emphasizes the centrality of music and dance in mediating the encounter of the two central characters of the story, the boy Jesus and a local Quechua-speaking shepherd boy.

Through all festive occasions Andeans learn and remember many relevant concept-feelings. I use this compound term to emphasize that thought and feeling are always together and that we need to avoid the body/mind dichotomy that has plagued the humanities and the social sciences for too long.(2) For example, one important concept/feeling is that of pampachay, which has been translated under a Catholic evangelizing light as “forgiveness.” However, during the pilgrimage, through a series of actions accompanied by music we learn that pampachay is actually an Indigenous concept of leveling that entails a process of reciprocity that can only be accomplished if one completes a duty publicly.

Music is essential for the walk to the sanctuary, and during all the days that this ritual lasts, it mediates the important encounters that take place from beginning to end. (Watch, listen to the video above, made on pilgrimage.) When talking to the participants about the importance of music for the pilgrimage, they expressed that without music “it would be like not going at all,” “they would walk like dammed souls (condenados),” “they would be disoriented (thama), “they would walk like the blind (nawsa), and like the deaf (upa).” There are two melodies that are constantly played by the groups’ musicians, the Chakiri Wayri and the Alawaru. The first, which is used for all movement to and within the sanctuary area, recreates the encounter of the two central characters of the origin story, as it is said that they played and danced to this tune when they met and the shepherd boy’s flocks miraculously grew. This melody is associated with happiness, vitality, and rebirth. The second is played during times of introspection, salutation, and praying while kneeling, and it is associated with respect, reciprocity, leveling, and connection with superior forces.

Returning to the initial question, I argue that Andeans have chosen festivals, music, and dance as powerful forms of social action throughout history because these practices work mainly through a predominant for of knowledge and memory that privileges the unity or intrinsic relationship between the visual, the auditory and the kinesthetic (felt body movement). While this predominant form of knowledge does not change radically, these practices will continue to be central in Andean societies.