Peru’s archaeological capital is the setting for one of the country’s most magnificent religious festivities
The lavish celebrations held in Cusco to mark Corpus Christi, a moveable Catholic feast day held each year nine weeks after Holy Week, are unmatched anywhere else in Peru. This year, the celebrations begin on June 11th. If you are lucky enough to travel to Peru on this date, you shouldn’t miss this extraordinary annual event.
These traditional Catholic rites involve the removal of carved images of virgins and saints from their respective parish churches throughout the city, so that they can be carried on elaborate litters around Cusco’s main square in a procession viewed by thousands of local people.
Corpus Christi in Cusco would appear to be a purely Catholic celebration, a living reminder after more than four centuries of how indigenous beliefs were supplanted by the new faith brought from Europe. However, in his famous chronicle the first historian of the Americas, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, tells us of how the Spanish adapted their own rites to the customs of the Incas. The new rulers of Peru understood that the most effective method for evangelizing indigenous people was to encourage them to identify with the new religion.
Long before the Spanish conquest, each year the Incas would carry in procession the mummified remains of their long line of dead emperors. These funerary bundles were taken from the palaces that had been the rulers’ homes during their reign, and which functioned as their mausoleums after death. The Incas’ mummies were processed around the great main square, known as Haukaypata, on the site of modern Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, amid scenes of deep reverence, and the procession was followed by many days of enthusiastic feasting and drinking.
While retaining all the traditions of the Catholic faith, Cusco’s Corpus Christi fiesta is also imbued with the spirit of those Pre-Columbian indigenous rituals. Once the images of the saints and virgins have been carried through the city’s streets and the main square, and have been housed temporarily in the cathedral alongside the carved image of Christ, the historic center of Cusco is given over to unbridled celebration, centered around Plaza San Francisco, where drinking and eating in the open air continuing until late into the night.
Corpus Christi is celebrated for nine days in Cusco, culminating with the solemn veneration by the city’s faithful of the cathedral’s famous statue of Christ, as it is carried through the narrow streets of Cusco’s historic center.
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