At the heart of Bolivia, perched among the arid mountains of Norte de Potosi, the bus travels a hanging cliff. With the bus packed, I sit on the floor alongside the driver, listening to him tell me about my destination and the Tinkus in Macha.
“Two years ago, they left no one take pictures after an American had been injured,” the driver said. “Be careful with alcohol, people become crazy. “
His words were not reassuring. From behind, a man handed me a glass.
“Gringito, Salud!” He offered.
Unable to refuse, I grabbed the white liquid and poured a little bit on the ground, as is customary. To not do so would have been an offense. The act is a symbol of sacrifice to the Pacha Mama (mother earth), especially at this time of offerings - a time where alcohol and violence are the symbols of fertility.
The Tinkus (“meeting” in the Quechua language) are ritualistic battles, a kind of Andean boxing, that takes place in the region of Norte de Potosi and their origin lies in a traditional pre-Columbian indigenous belief, attached to the Pacha Mama.
Tinkus are times of gathering for different opposing communities, called the Alasaya (heights, mountain) and the Majasaya (bottom, valleys) and they roughly correspond to dates of Christian festivities. Moreover, the venues where these rites take place coincide with the old colonial towns, established by the Spanish to maintain control and catechize the indigenous population. The confrontation with bare hands is both an outlet and a selflessness meant to unite Alasaya and Majasaya, for return to the earth
The origin of the Tinku is attributed to the population of Macha, in the province Chayanta. This town is also now considered the capital of Tinkus and it is here that the most famous rituals take place - and the most violent, too.
On the eve of the fighting, in the neighboring town of Macha, Macha Marka, all the men of the community gather on the sacred hill of the town, the location of the “Tata Cruz” (Quechua adaptation of the Christian cross). They drink chicha, a fermented drink made from corn, and sacrifice an animal - usually a llama - to gain strength and courage for the battles to come.
At the sound of Julas-Jula (war songs played on traditional Andean panpipes), the day of Tinku begins and the communal troop makes the long journey to the colonial town, ready for the battles ahead. Their goal, however, is not to win. Although deaths are not infrequent, the intent of battle is not destruction, but the fight to live. And it is from these “oppositions” - these opposing forces, that blood is of the essence. For it is through the spilling of blood - “offerings to the Earth” - that fertility, bountiful harvests and prosperity are best insured.
Amid this ritual role-play tensions run high, often exacerbated by heavy bouts of drinking. The fight is usually man-to-man, but women and children occasionally join in, too. Sometimes two or more communities clash in stone-throwing confrontation. In recent years, however, police intervene in such cases and tear-gas is used to disperse crowds when things become too unruly.
In social and environmental terms, the Tinku represents a system of regulation - a blend of native Andean and colonial Catholic beliefs that serves to hold an ancient culture, intact.
After taking a large gulp of chicha, I handed back the glass, accompanied by a cigarette. Happily, the man took the cigarette and broke it - throwing the smallest half at his feet.
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