Inti Raimy

Cotacachi, situated about 2 hours drive in the north of Quito, is a sleepy small town, with a majority indigenous population. In June 2016 I visited the Inti Raimy festival in Cotacachi for the first time, in order to begin this ongoing project, documenting the festivals meaning for local indigenous identity and pride, and to learn more about the social functions of the violence that tends to erupt during the festival.

Hills surrounding Cotacachi

The Inti Raimy festival is traditionally held around June 21, in unison with summer solstice and coinciding with the harvest season. The tradition of the festival stems from the Incan Empire, during which times, Inti, the god of the sun was of the highest importance, superior to all other deities and being worshipped enthusiastically. The Inti Raymi was the biggest, most important, spectacular and magnificent festivity in honour of the sun and involved blood sacrifices and much drinking and dancing.

In Ecuador, the festivity of Inti Raimy only reemerged during the early 1990’s. Whilst initially the Spanish Colonial regime had replaced the indigenous festivity with their Catholic celebration of San Pedro, in 1990 a group of indigenous activist decided to reappropriate the date, and separated themselves from the festivities of San Pedro in order to create their own festivity in the name of Inti Raimy. During that period, Indigenous people increasingly voiced demands to retake control of their own cultural expressions, and the re-instalment of the festival was part of the process of recuperating their history.

Today, the Inti Raimy festival is one of the most important indigenous festivals for The Ecuadorian Kichwa people. It is a time to thank Pachamama for the harvest and to certify and demonstrate indigenous pride and strength. Whilst in most communities, Inti Raimy is a time for celebration and joy, the picture looks slightly different in Cotacachi, where during the ‘toma de la plaza’, the encounter of antagonistic groups in the central square, is known to lead to violent clashes.

On the night prior to the main festivity, people gather in their villages and move around from house to house to perform the San Juanito dance in the courtyards. The dance is conducted with groups stomping around in circles, first in a clockwise, then anticlockwise fashion, in adherence to the commands given by the leader. During the San Juanito dance alcohol is flowing, and it is known, that couples responsibilities of fidelity becomes slightly lessened during this night.

Participants of the San Juanito ritual continuing until the morning

On the following morning, men from the surrounding communities begin marching towards Cotacachi. Most participants cary weapons such as whips, stones and sometimes guns. Some apply paint to their faces or wear masks. Two leaders, one at the front and one at the back will ensure the group stays together, anyone departing from the group will be whipped.

Police accompany the crowds, as they march into the main square of Cotacachi
Participants approaching the main square

Upon arriving at the center of town, each group will march around the main plaza, stopping to dance the San Juanito dance at every one of the it's four corners.

Two leaders at the front of the group are insuring that the group keeps together
Participant slashing his whipp

Within the festival, nature has a particular position. Rituals are being held at sacred places and there are many representations of saints, animals and nature spirits in the dances and costumes. For many, one of the main aspects defining their indigenous identity, rather than their language, clothing or physical features, is their close contact and special relationship with the earth, and the festival has been described as a time of dialogue between the indigenous population and pachamama.

Traditional Andean music is also of major spiritual significance and plays an important role within the festival; many said that it made them feel particularly connected to their roots.

Young boy playing his melodica

As the festival is connected with the agricultural calendar and takes place around the harvest season, traditional foods, such as potatoes, corn, beans, guinea pig, chicken, beef and pork are consumed throughout the festival.

Local stall owners are selling traditional food

Within the realm of the festival, many commented, that wearing traditional clothing played an important role in asserting their indigenous identity. Whilst throughout the rest of the year, particularly many of the young men preferred to wear modern clothing, on this date, wearing traditional clothing emphasised the celebration of indigenous pride. Thus, men would dance in leather or fur chaps, often accompanied by large pointy hats or traditional masks or face paint and the women wear blouses, decorated with bright embroideries together with special hats made only for the celebration.

Female participants wearing traditional clothing

Currently, there’s a divide amongst the indigenous villages surrounding Cotacachi into two antagonistic groups. The first faction is called hanan (upper) and the second Urin (lower). As the day progresses, and the level of alcohol increases, so does the level of hostility and violence between these two groups.

Members of the two different groups slashing each other with their whipps

Whilst in 2016 the police presence was big, and was relatively successful at keeping the violence in the main square at bay, in the past they have had to use tear gas in order to suppress the unfolding chaos, and many rivals would sneer away from the crowds in order to continue fighting in more quiet corners. The fights, which often end in serious injuries and in 2001 resulted in the death of a 19 year old boy, are seen as a way to give offerings in blood to pachamama. The shedding of blood is said to be important to ensure a good harvest in the following year, if no blood is spilt, next years harvest would be poor. It has even been reported, that some, in their trancelike state, after hours of dancing, chanting and drinking, would leave themselves exposed to being struck by rocks.

Participants exposing their whips, preparing themselves for the ensuing clashes

Despite the risk, many men would join the celebration accompanied by their sons and It is not uncommon that young kids would bravely join the clashes. The fightings during the Inti Raimy festival is a unique ritual amongst Cotacachi indigenous Ecuadorians, and their willingness to join the fights, in order to ensure a good harvest in the following year is a clear signal of their fearlessness, and their deservingness of respect.

Young boy joins the fightings
Created By
Hanna Fichte
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