Part One of a series by Raghbir Jin
When people hear about the Incan empire, usually the first thing that comes to mind is the stone city of Machu Picchu nestled high in the Perú’s Andean mountain range. Sadly, this is often the only thing that comes to mind.
The sanctuary of Machu Picchu, built around 1400 A.D., exemplifies the extraordinary craftsmanship and architecture of the time and remains one of the leading tourist destinations on the continent at 858,000 visitors per year.But the region’s last and greatest native empire has left a far grander legacy on South America’s western coast than this one city.
Originating from the area around Andahuaylas and Machu Picchu early in the 13th century A.D., the Quechua-speaking Incas used their architectural prowess to erect megalithic stone temples and places of worship in their cities out of respect to Inti, the god of the sun. Objects of worship and importance were plated in gold to mimic the sun’s sheen and colour.
They planned and constructed entire towns at once, many surrounded by intricate terrace systems for farming. They sculpted an efficient network of roads and paths through the landscapes, dotted with “tambos,” relay stations for their armies and “chasqui” messengers.
Their profound respect for nature played a part in almost every aspect of their lives. The sun, moon and mountains were seen as gods. Pumas and condors were considered sacred animals and their shapes were replicated in everything from textiles to rock outlines in walls. They bred dogs and created hybrid plants.
By the 1490s, the empire had spread to south-western Columbia in the north and past Santiago and Talca, Chile in the south; east into the Bolivian rainforest and west to the Pacific coast. But the arrival of the Spanish in 1526 brought the beginning of the end for the Incas. Half of a century of conquest ended with the execution of the last Incan emperor in 1572.
During this time, the Spanish forced an end to the Incan religion and many of their traditions. They destroyed a majority of the native palaces and temples, later using the base walls to construct Catholic cathedrals. And though they kept much of the Incan infrastructure in many towns and cities, they often took down buildings and rebuilt in their colonial style.
This fusion of cultures has given the western strip of South America a unique atmosphere that clearly reflects these layers of culture and history.
Against the botanist’s dream backdrop of the South American wilderness, cities and towns are a fusion of Incan and Spanish architecture. In cities, westernized attire is common-place, but the indigenous peoples still speak the native languages and wear the colourful pre-colonial style clothing in many places. Landscapes are peppered with stone ruins from the land’s former inhabitants.
After the countries reclaimed their independence from the Spanish, many traditional Incan festivals such as Inti Raymi on Winter Solstice, were re-started. During these festivals, with locals clad in the indigenous attire and performing ancient dances, entire communities seem to jump back hundreds of years to the times of their ancestors.
Many of the Incan pathways still exist or have been rediscovered, too, though they’re no longer used for transportation but for nature tourism and enjoyment. The most popular is the Inca trail, a four-day hike through the sub-tropical highlands from Cusco to Machu Picchu in Perú which sees more than 75,000 travellers every year.
This six-part series will take take you to the area that covers the old empire to give a detailed look at the culture, the nature and what remains of the Inca’s influence today.