|THE EYES OF THE CORPUS CHRISTI
"At four o'clock in the afternoon, the main square is filled to bursting; the chicha has been served generously amongst the crowds, and one can see the large clay jars under the altars. From Mr. C. balcony we have a perfect view. The sounds of the square drift up in a wave of odd confusion; guttural Quechua conversation and drunken shouts nearly drown out the fantasy-like music of Indian flutes and drums. Over all this noise, suddenly the Cathedral bells begin to peal. A few minutes later, when all the bells are tolling altogether, we can see the procession is forming. To the shouts of 'They're coming! They're coming!' the Indian women fall to their knees, while the children anxiously crane their heads to catch a glimpse of the saints."
This peculiar blend of pagan orgy and Catholic ceremony described above is the Corpus Christi procession in Cusco as seen at the start of the century by Anglican missionary Geraldine Guiness. It is a testimony in which, together with the description of the festival and Corpus Christi procession, we find the surprise and indignation of a Christian who cannot understand that song, dance and drunkenness can be manifestations of faith. "What a disgrace," wrote this shocked witness, "that the Christian Church should lend the name of the Savior to this licentious festival!"
Historian Raul Porras Barrenechea, who included this testimony in his Anthology of Cusco, wrote off to miss Guiness' "myopic, beatific and aggressive secularism" her incapacity to understand the religious essence and artistic expressions of the Corpus Christi in Cusco. In defense of this traveler, we should add that not even the most impartial and well-prepared observer would be capable of understanding at first glance all the shades and complexities of a festival which condenses the spirit of a people whose roots draw from two sources: Andean and Hispanic.
But in order to go beyond the mere appearance and the colorful world of Corpus Christi in Cusco, we could do worse than to look at the festival through the eyes o various personalities who were captivated by it.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A HISTORIAN
Those who have shuffled through old documents have learned that just a few years after Francisco Pizarro rode into Cusco, the Spaniards began to celebrate in all its pomp and splendor the festival in honor of the Holy Sacrament known all over the world as Corpus Christi.
It was possibly a native chronicler, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a man who heard tales from his Inca relatives, who has the first to note -without saying so, of course- that the way the Indians celebrated Corpus Christi was very similar to how they celebrated their festivals and rites before the Spaniards arrived.
The truth, according to most historians, is that Corpus Christi turned into a sort of continuation of the Inca festivals. Moreover, as it was a festival that was celebrated between May and June, 60 days after the resurrection of Easter Sunday. It coincided with the high point of the Inca ceremonial calendar, the months when work was finished in the fields, and prayers were offered up to the Sun gods and the Incas' ancestors.
A historian would also admit to the pre-Hispanic roots of many other manifestations of Corpus Christi in Cusco. The old custom of taking the Virgin of Bethlehem into sunshine before dressing her up for the Corpus Christi festival, and the similar custom of doing so with other images from church of Saint Christopher during Corpus Christi in the parish, undoubtedly dates back to the Inca festival known as q'ochakuy, which basically involved taking the mummified bodies of their ancestors out into the sunshine.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A BELIEVER
Each of the 15 saints and virgins that gather in the Cusco's Cathedral for the Corpus Christi procession has its court of the faithful who bear it special devotion. For these believers, activities to do with Corpus Christi practically go on all year-long, and start up, as in the case of the Virgin of Bethlehem, with the arrival of the Magi in the firsts days of January.
The most revered ambition of a believer is to be honored with the post of mayordomo for one of the sacred images, which means he will have to organize the festival and cover the expenses which it involves.
Days before Corpus Christi, the mayordomo and his backers deck out the saints and virgins in all their finery, which includes finely embroidered robes and gold and silver jewelry. The festival itself gets off the ground when Pentecostal Sunday, 11 days before Corpus Christi, the Virgin of Bethlehem leaves her church and is carried shoulder high by the faithful to the church of Santa Clara.
On Wednesday, the day before the high point of the festival, images from many churches, some of them several miles out from town, start wending their way to Santa Clara, the meeting point for saints and virgins. From here around midday, the procession of the entry of Corpus Christi starts up.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A TOURIST
On Thursday, from early hours of the morning, tens of thousands of Cusco residents gather in the main square to watch the procession. Tourists lucky enough to be in town also find a place.
What will they see? First, at around midday, under a blinding sun which blazes out of a clear blue sky, the crowds will watch the procession of an impressive silver carriage, a veritable silversmith's masterpiece, topped by a chalice decorated with the image of the Holy Sacrament. Then, when the carriage and the ecclesiastical authorities return to the Cathedral, it will be the turn of the saints and virgins.
After this lively procession, which combines dazzling colors with the Andeans' highly mundane way of living out their faith, the tourists, following the locals, can stroll over to Plateros street to eat the in-demand chiriuchu and buy fruit from the more temperate valleys that are only sold here on this occasion. And if the general atmosphere is contagious, the tourist will also try his hand at chicha or corn beer, and will probably not get back to his lodging until late night, after celebrating Corpus Christi in Cusco as tradition dictates.