A Traditional Incan Ceremony for Pacha Mama


Her Hips Don’t Lie

A beautiful green humming bird hangs off a fuchsia stem, the lights are coming on all over the hills and a fire still smokes in the garden of Healing House - the dying embers of an indigenous Incan ceremony to honour mother earth. 

The feminine shapes of the continent have been inspiring poets from Chilean Love Master Pablo Neruda to El Gabo (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) to Shakira. But its not the tiny Colombian hip shaking temptress that is worshipped in these parts. Here there is only one woman to rule them all.  She lives in the Andes and her name is Pacha Mama (the Peruvian cosmic Mother Earth goddess.) 

Its only a short walk from San Blas,the arty ‘hood in Cusco where I’m staying to her domain. Steep steps rise ever upward towards Cristo Blanco; the white statue of  Christ  on the hillside that overlooks the town;  the surrounding Incan ruins of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced appropriately, Sexy Woman)  and the gentle rise and fall of the surrounding fields. 

The mountains of the Andes are extraordinary: soft, undulating waves of palest green that loom high into tall slopes only to drop away again in pleats and folds. 

So far i’ve explored her generous curves via horseback  (on a “trusty steed” ironically named Peregrino - Gunpowder) and even attempted to rock climb one of her many faces. I’ve sat on the grass, with my woollen alpaca socks off, soil under my soles, cradled in bird song and the lazy humming of bees, outstretched and embraced in the comforting folds of Mother Earth’s arms. 

The Q’ero People

Earlier today under a bright blue sky and fierce mountain sun, the residents and staff of Healing House run by Nicky, have been joined by three indigenous Que’ro people from an inidenous tribe in the Andes. They have come down from the hills into Cusco today to share with us a ceremony where we will offer up a “Despacho” or gift, to Pacha Mama.

The Q’ero people live in one of the most remote regions of the Andes up to altitudes of 4500m in small, humble one room dwellings without access to electricity or running water. 

Their mythology states that they are the direct descendants of Inca Priests living before the colonisation by Spain. Their story speaks of a premonition of the invasion and a forthcoming dark age. They sent representatives from their tribes far away into the mountains to preserve the wisdom of the Incan way of life.

The Incan Empire was eventually defeated by Spanish conquistadors who built Catholic churches on sacred Incan sites but somewhere in the cool, dark hills of the Andes the mystical Qe’ro people lived on, passing down from generation to generation the magical rituals and their reverence for their cosmic goddess Pacha Mama (mother earth) and a whole host of other mountain spirits - the Apus. 

Juan and his brother have been invited here to host one of their sacred ceremony to Pacha Mama.  Decked out in brilliantly bright pink, red and black woven garments, they are joined by wife and 4 year old daughter Senticka who are clad in traditional female Quechan dress  of big, bunched skirts and brown felt hats.

A Despacho Gift

We sit in a semi circle and lay out our own sacred objects and ornaments to be blessed as part of the ceremony.  I take off the necklace i’m wearing, a gold plated tantric star representing the divine masculine and feminine.

This concept or yin and yang is present in the Quechan traditions too and the masculine and feminine here will be represented by offerings of red and white carnations whose petals are carefully laid out along with along with llama fat (a sacred animal to the Q’ero communities) coca leaves, incense, money, sweets, some candy in the shape of ears of corn (another valuable commodity) money and even some pink wafer biscuits. 

 “Despacho” is quite simply and literally a gift for Pacha Mama that will contain wishes for abundance and prosperity along with all of our own individual wishes and blessings. Juan places all of the items in an intricately laid out pattern onto sunflower patterned wrapping paper along with two ribbons, one red and one white that represent our path in life. Grain with raisins on top is also placed into the offering, representing negative energy with the sweetness felt when the heavy energy is displaced. The Q’ero believe that we can offer up all of our heavy energy to Pacha Mama. She’s a sturdy broad. She can take it. 

Juan and his brother cleanse their hands with Aqua di Florida, a scent made out of flowers and alcohol and popular in Shamanic ceremonies. The bottle is passed around along with a bag of coca leaves, we take six each and whisper our wishes into them.  One by one we then go up and kneel in front of the Qu’eros whilst they bless us, taking our leaves and blowing blessings through them onto our bowed head, chanting in Quechan. When they have finished our leaves are also carefully placed in the gift wrap along the ribbons.

Juan continues to bless the package, chanting in Quechan and ringing two clear bells and splashing more Aqua di Florida over our sacred objects which are also blessed.  Once the final chants and blessings have been made we take back our objects before the gift for Pacha Mama is wrapped up in different coloured cotton string that represents the rainbow, a sacred national emblem of the Cusquenans. 

After the ceremony is complete the Despacho is unwrapped onto a fire and then burnt.  It is considered rude to watch the fire while it burns so instead the Q’ero sell us some of their wares, fine alpaca hats that feel authentically wrought and are decorated with condors, closely woven bags and bracelets. Apparently we only discover after if the Apu have granted our blessings. Here’s hoping.

How precious and sacred our access to mother nature is. How unconscious we are in our treatment of her throughout so much of the world. 

The myth continues that the Q’ero people would receive a sign when the time was right to come back down from the hills and share their wisdom and ceremonies with the people.

That sign came in the 1950s but at a time when the world feels at crisis point and warfare, terrorism, death and disaster seem to be escalating at a terrifying pace perhaps more and more of us need to be sharing the worship, reverence and gratitude that the Qu’ero people feel for mother nature and our dear planet, before it is too late. 

An appropriate thought for International Women's Day! 



Valentine's Day in Cusco and the Meaning of Love (that's all)

Give Love...

In the side streets of Cusco a strange, vibrating energy is building. The street sellers have moved from touting tamales and ears of corn to red gladioli and heart shaped candy. The jewellery and painting people are out in full force: 

“Hola Mami, necklace for you? Not now? Maybe later, later??”

It is Valentine’s Day - called El Dia del Amore y La Amistad in Peru. The Day of Love and Friendship. I like the inclusion of the latter. As this year i’m distinctly and very happily without the former. The day also marks the start of Carneval so there are children running around with threatening looking barbie pink water pistols and teenagers chucking flour bombs. 

No one knows quite how long this phenomenon will last, although most agree it goes on longer than it should and gringos would be wise to wear waterproofs.

Love is something i’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Who doesn’t. Most of the time. But mainly because for the latter half of 2014 I decided to try and get this whole “self love” thing under the belt. 

Oh I thought I had this licked ages ago but yet another relationship where I fell for flattery instead of consistency and  words instead of action, and gradually relinquished my own boundaries and needs came at an age and a stage which left my self esteem in shards. 

One minute he was taking me on romantic weekends away, the next he was pulling away.  His words were amazing yet his actions told me i came somewhere between the unopened post and his weekly shop on his list of priorities.  I’d say, his morning coffee but i have a feeling that that  probably had the edge. Every time I withdrew, he came close. Words are the best friends of people like him and as I gradually realise… myself too. For those where the intimacy of, the commitment of action, has us running for the hills. 

But that’s what i grew up with. Words. Not action. Those three little words were wheeled out easy enough but always (and still do) come with conditions attached. I love you meant I need you, I want your attention, I reward you for doing something for me. They and any affection or attention that came with it was withdrawn in a sulky, obstinate haze when my needs, wants and feelings tried to take centre stage. 

The Stars and the Shadows Between

Incan astrology at Qori Qancha Sun Temple, Cusco, Peru

The Incans were great astrologers. They based their calendar around the moon and studied the starry froth of the Milky Way (which they called the heavenly river) for signs of rain.

Qori Qancha  - the temple to their Sun God Inti, on the  Avenida del Sol, was the heart of their worship before Spanish Conquistadors took their land and tried to suppress their faith by constructing the Santa Dominga Catholic Church atop.

It’s still one of my favourite places to visit. The lower levels are built around a cool courtyard with a mix of Incan stones and Catholic paintings. The upper levels shows the great gold plate they positioned in honour of Inti the Sun God and paintings that depict their study of the stars. 

As well as joining the dots of the stars to create shapes like The Plough they also worshipped the darkness between, forming shapes from the shadows between the pin points of light. 

Its a strange form of astrology, between the stars they see a serpent, llama and even a toad. 

It takes an entirely different perspective to come from seeing the light to the dark around the edges, a total refocusing of the lens.

Shining Light 

I didn’t want another heart break to stuff me up inside but somehow it did.  I wilted. I was frustrated at myself for not having listened to my instincts, the small, still voice within. I was angry at not standing up for my boundaries. I knew everything I should have done but didn’t. I shoulded myself within an inch of my life and I was so busy shoulding myself about what I should have done differently I didn’t have the focus or perspective to question why i’d behaved the way I had. 

The critical voice in my head came at me with cudgel and claw. Overnight my mind became one of the most hostile places to live on the planet, worse than any Rio favela or Mongolian desert plain. And there was no escape. What were these dark pockets of sadness, and anger and vulnerability that had so far stayed hidden, I was so intent on revelling in the starlight of work accolades, friendship or the beamed light from a beau.  

I never really “got” what people meant when they said shine a light on your darkest parts as that illumination will dissolve the fear.  What does that actually mean?  In practice?

It was a simple realisation in the end.  The light is love. Shining the light on those dark parts of ourselves we would deny is accepting and loving all of ourselves exactly as we are. If I can 

accept the strange and dark places within me, then a number of miraculous things happen.

Afraid of the dark

I can recognise with self compassion that those feelings of loneliness, anxiety, sadness, depression, anger, shame, are in all of us to varying degrees.I become less judgemental of others too. I see instead, our own shared suffering as human beings and feel more connected to the whole.  

I think we’re all afraid of the dark to some degree. To expose ourselves to possible rejection or abandonment for who we really are. But it was finally by exploring those dark bursts that led me to pull back the curtain from the Wizard of Oz and see the scared, lonely, anxious little girl who had been calling the shots in so many areas of my life up until now. Instead of scolding and shaming her further I  started to learn to give myself what was missing before. To learn how to take action and lovingly parent those parts of myself with care and from accepting my feelings came a growing sense of trust in my own ability to know what is best for myself. 

Because as fanciful as Valentine’s day is and as romantic as the very best words are, love isn’t words. It is action. A lot of action that was missing from my life and actions that I needed to learn from scratch. 

Love in Action sign, taken at Findhorn, Scotland.

Love in Action

Love is support. A willingness to stand by and for myself when i’m struggling or working something out without judgement and with compassion. 

It is protection, it is taking right action to remove myself from people, places or things that would hurt me. It is saying NO.  I will no longer accept this behaviour from you. It is leaving that  and those which makes me feel bad and moving towards that and those who make me feel good.

It is a compassion, a willingness to put aside judgement and embrace the dark and the light, to remove labels  and see us all as human beings suffering , in pain and in joy as we struggle through life on our own journey with our own baggage and our shit and say that’s ok. This doesn’t make me less than or better than anyone else. This doesn’t make anyone else better or less than me. 

  • It is celebration and praise. It is saying i did this and I did this well.Well done me! and 
  • it is acknowledgement, and recognition for effort and even more importantly, simply just for being.
  • It is action through honouring. To say I listen to myself. I hear myself and my feelings and opinions count. I accept them as they are and validate them as is without trying to change them, alter them, ignore them ore renegotiate them to make others happy. I’m going to take the best action to get my needs met and have my voice heard. 
  • It is contribution:  It is saying here I am and this is what I am and what I have to give. It is valuable and worthwhile for the world.  
  • It is courage - whole hearted living and a commitment to vulnerability in the moment in spite of those who  may try and tear me down. To get up again and say there are still those out there that would like me to be courageous, to be me.For me i’ll be me, for them i’ll be me. It is sharing and learning to be intimate by sharing my inner world with those that I deem safe because I believe i’m worthy and deserving of being seen, whole, imperfect and loveable. 
  • It is soothing, nurturing, affectionate and caring. Its offering a hug or a cuddle or holding someone’s hand just because. It is allowing someone to comfort me or to ask for help and support and to not need to give anything back because I believe right in that moment that I am worthy and deserving of receiving their love.
  • It is absolute congruence and support to stand by what I feel, think and then do in spite of what others might think because my opinions and what I believe counts. I am valuable and my needs matter and I will do my best to get them met. I will speak my truth and allow it to be heard. 
  • As my first month in Cusco comes to an end so to does my reading companion for the first month The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and what better sentiment to express the unravelling into the dark and awareness of the light i’ve found: 

“Just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of colour across the sky - so the space where I exist… is exactly this middle distance; where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”

I hold myself in compassion and do not judge the shape or darkness of my shadow, I recognise that it outlines my brightness, its what gives me depth and sensitivity, vulnerability and courage.

Maybe those Incans were onto something after all….for me too, it feels like just the beginning of the journey into love. 

Happy Valentine’s Day One and All.