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The Snow Star Festival

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The air whips your face, your lungs ache in the thin air, and with little help from the oxygen pack slung across your back, you struggle up the rocky mountain path. Behind you, throngs of pilgrims push forward, forcing you onward and upward. Your destination: the Snow Star Festival which takes place five-miles into the Andes Mountains and 15,000 feet above sea level, in the Sinakara Valley.

In this May 23, 2016 photo, pilgrims wait for the start of a procession to the Sanctuary of the Lord of the Qoyllur Rit’i, as part of the the syncretic festival of the same name, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region. Tens of thousands of pilgrims crowd into the Andean valley, with dancers in multi-layered skirts and musicians with drums and flutes performing non-stop for the three-day festival. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The event holds both significance to the local pagan population and the rather recently converted Christians. The native people see it has a celebration of the natural might of the glacier and the mountains themselves, while also believing that the reappearance of the Pailedes star cluster signifies the return of order to the region. For the Catholics, the holiday began in 1780s when a suspicious picture of Jesus appeared on a rocky outcropping in the valley after the death of a young shepherd boy; obviously, God was at work here. The festival was Christianized in the 1780s but it still maintains much of its original character. One can find wooden crosses and other religious memorabilia scattered all across the plain.

In this May 24, 2016 photo, men dressed as mythical half-man, half-bear creatures called "Ukukus", descend the Qullqip'unqu mountain glacier carrying a cross on the last day of the syncretic festival Qoyllur Rit’i, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region. The ukukus also used to cut away blocks of ice from the glacier to bring down to share with the community in the belief that the melted held magical healing powers, but no longer noting a decline in the size of the glaciers because of warming trends. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In a world filled with divisions and disunity, the Snow Star Festival of Peru reminds us of the harmony and fellowship of mankind. The entirety of the cultural mosaic of Peru is represented here. The cultural and religious groups are able to coexist happily. It’s amazing that in a particularly tense religious climate, two groups with very different foci can come together and share the same camp for a three-day magnificent celebration.

In this May 23, 2016 photo, pilgrims rest at the base of the Qullqip'unqu mountain, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region, during the Qoyllur Rit’i festival, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star. The gathering is held every year shortly before the Christian feast of Corpus Christi and draws as many as 100,000 people to the Quispicanchis province. It also coincides with the reappearance of the star cluster Pleiades in the Southern Hemisphere, signaling the harvest season. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The Snow Star Festival is one of the largest of its kind, and attracts tens of thousands of Peruvians yearly. The people are organized into 500 geographic nations, each with its own individual identity and traditions, united by the common festivity. Families journey by foot to the valley, grandparents and children alike, carrying everything they will need on horseback, from cooking materials and food to bedding and tents. For some the walk takes several days, as they are coming from miles away. The valley quickly takes on the appearance of a refugee village with houses, restaurants and other buildings springing up out of colorful tarps and poles. Vendors walk through the camp selling goods from hats to tarps.

In this May 23, 2016 photo, a Quechua woman waits for a religious procession to file past so she can cross the road, during the second day of the syncretic festival Qoyllur Rit’i, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region. The festival coincides with the reappearance of the star cluster Pleiades in the Southern Hemisphere, signaling the harvest season. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A central church anchors the sprawling village, and the church remains mobbed throughout the festival as people enter it to pay homage. A line of worshippers snakes throughout the encampment as people wait hours to enter the church. For the entirety of the three-day festival, music can be heard echoing throughout the valley from the central square. The hundreds of nations take turns dancing to the music, and with no schedule, they police themselves peacefully, handing over  the space to a new group with their own costumes, dance moves and customs.main_900-3

After thousands of years, the “Ukukus” remain a central part of the event. Although the event has taken on numerous Catholic aspects, this pagan tradition would not budge. Hundreds of men dressed as mythical half-bear-half-men ascend to the top of a surrounding mountain on both nights of the festival. They stand on the glacier all night to converse with the gods; in the past, they have brought back sacred blocks of ice from the glacier to the people in the camp below. Today, however, the fast shrinking of the glacier has scared the festival goers and forced them to refrain from this tradition.

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The derivation and the definition of the festival are greatly debated and two ideas have triumphed: the Christian tradition and the indigenous tradition. Both have remained today. As Paula Sadock put it in a particularly interesting New York Times article, “Andean people worshiped the earth and the mountains in this spot long before they were converted by their Christian conquerors. So the festival offers a uniquely Andean trinity, combining worship of the Apus (mountain gods), Pachamama (the earth mother) and Jesus with no apparent sense of contradiction.”

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The power of the valley can unite people from all walks of life, religious background and cultural upbringing. There is something special about the land itself. The festival is not only divided into religious factions, but also into regional cultural groups called nations. As many as 500 nations send delegations to the event. The great diversity of the festival has the potential to create a tense environment, but impressively this is not the case.

All the pictures were taken from an Atlantic Article 

The title picture was taken from a New York Times Article