To the sun-worshiping Incas, the rite of Inti Raymi, a tribute to the Sun God Apu Inti Tayta, doubtless marked the most important date on their calendar. The rite used to involve mass sacrifice which was also dedicated to Pachmama, wife of Inti and the goddess of fertility and harvests. No blood is shed in todays re-enactment of the ceremony, and there are comfy chairs for tourists. The event enacts traditions dating back 500 years to the Incan empires heyday, when it was the most important ceremony carried out in the capital, Cusco. It celebrated the Incan New Year and winter solstice, when the sun was furthest from this side of the earth and represented both the beginning of a new cycle and the return of the source of life to the Andes.
A re-enactment of this solstice celebration takes place every year on June 24 in Sacsayhuaman, a hefty stone ruin that, typically, is shrouded in mystery, but was possibly a fortress. More than 150,000 colorfully clad natives and tourists assemble in the morning at the fabled Qorikancha, or Sun Temple, where the lucky actor who is selected to portray Sapa Inca, the emperor, is borne to the hilltop edifice in a golden chariot. Starting from the remains of Qorikancha, the sun temple, the procession winds through streets filled with music, dancing, prayers, scattered flowers, and ladies with brooms sweeping away evil spirits.
Next, the royal entourage moves to the city's main plaza, formerly the Incas' great civic square. After a ceremonial reading of the sacred coca leaf to divine the future of the empire, the Inca proceeds to the massive stone walls and zigzagging ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, a cultural treasure situated on a hilltop outside of town. The honorary Inca delivers his orations in Quechua, the native tongue that is still spoken in Andean highlands. On Sacsayhuaman's broad plaza, a fire is rekindled and a llama ritually "sacrificed" - staged out of consideration for tourists. Sounds of panpipes, drums and blaring horns fill the air. Traditional dancers representing the four corners of the empire dazzle the eye with riotous flashes of red and gold.
After the Spanish conquest, Inti Raymi was changed to coincide with the Catholic feast of St. John the Baptist. The modern re-creation, based on colonial accounts of the sacred rite, began in the 1940s as a way for Andeans to recapture the spirit and values of their ancestors. Today, Inti Raymi is one of the largest pageants in South America, and a source of great cultural pride to Peruvians. The formal spectacle lasts just four or five hours, but for an entire week Cusco radiates renewed life and energy which recalls the glories of its Incan past.