Cusco – Inca Splendour (2009)

Cusco – Inca Splendour (2009)

The little girl selling alpaca scarves and painted calabashes is insistent that I buy at least one. She does not know I am good at fobbing off persuasive salespersons. But she has tricks up her sleeve. She asks me where I am from. India? She breaks into a Bollywood jig right there. This is followed by Chhaiya chhaiya sung in a Spanish accent. As I give in and delve into my wallet for a few Soles, I marvel at the enormous distance Bollywood has travelled — across the globe to Cusco in the Andean heights of Peru.

I realise the full extent of Bollywood’s reach when I meet Dr Srinivasa, the charge d’affairs at the Indian embassy in Lima. He assures me Peruvians are up-to-date on Bollywood releases and gossip. When Deepika Padukone visited Lima recently, crowds thronged the streets to catch a glimpse of her. When Aishwarya Rai came to shoot at Machu Picchu some months ago, the Indian embassy and the Peruvian police had a tough time steering her safe passage through Lima airport.

A one-hour flight from Lima lands you in this beautiful town tucked away in the mountains. Qosco, before its corruption to Cusco by the Spanish Conquistadores, meant “navel” in Quechua language. It was considered the navel of the earth not long ago when the Inca dynasty made it the capital of a vast and sprawling kingdom extending all the way to what is today Argentina and Chile. Perched at a height of 11,000 feet above sea level, Cusco may no longer be the navel of Latin America, much less the planet, but it certainly is the jewel of the Andes. The town reminds me of Leh in Ladakh, only much prettier with traditional structures, manicured parks and a gorgeous town square — Plaza de Armas. It is ringed by stylish boutiques, bars and eateries guaranteed to burn a hole in your pocket. After all, Cusco is a World Heritage Site trampled by a million pairs of tourist feet every year.

What you see today is largely a Spanish Catholic town: magnificent churches sporting baroque facades, Dominican and Franciscan cloisters painted over with frescoes. But look carefully and you can spot the sly hand of a Quechua artist painting Mother Mary with the face of Pachamama, the mother goddess of Quechuas.

Cusco’s Spanish origins go back to no more than 450 odd years and the Spanish mask sits rather uneasily on the original Inca architecture. Inca palaces and temples were razed to the ground when Fransisco Pizarro and his rag-tag army of 100-odd men rode into Cusco on their horses,animals which the Incas had never seen before. Pizarro’s men were armed with blunderbusses, something that must have also frightened the Inca warriors adept at shooting poison arrows, but unfamiliar with gunpowder. The Inca soldiers surrendered to the enemy, prompting Pizarro to mindlessly plunder and destroy what must have been a glorious native civilisation. Like the sacking of Carthage by Romans, the destruction of the mighty Inca Empire by Pizarro’s goons must rank as one of history’s great tragedies.

Pizarro not only sacked the palaces paved with glittering gold, but even demanded a shipload of gold and silver to take away to Spain. The Incas never considered gold precious; they could mine as much as they wanted and their cities were awash with the yellow metal. So they ordered more gold to be brought on the backs of llamas. Before the llamas could reach Cusco, Pizarro murdered the Inca king Atahualpa.

Even now, after centuries, Quechua anger and animosity towards their Spanish colonisers seethes under the surface and comes out quite clearly when our Quechua guide explains to us the town’s history. He is at pains to point out that Quechua religion and culture survive intact under the mask of Catholicism. While on a tour of the exquisite Christian murals in the Dominican priory, he explains that this was built on the original Inca sun temple where the sun’s rays fell on the altar during the summer solstice. He points out that the priory crumbled during the devastating earthquake of 1950, exposing the sub-structure which had been designed by Inca kings to survive earthquakes. What we see today is the reconstructed Dominican priory. One gets the impression that Cusco of today is struggling to shed its Spanish garb and rediscover its Inca heritage.

I make my way to the Inca ruins scattered all around Cusco. The Sacsahuaman fortress is the largest; only its external wall survives. It was built with massive stones quarried from nearby hills and locked without the use of mortar, similar to what the ancient Egyptians did when they built their pyramids. As we stroll through the ruins, the skies open up and send down shafts of water. There’s nowhere to shelter, and even as you begin to curse yourself for not bringing an umbrella, Quechua entrepreneurship comes to the rescue — plastic ponchos for five Soles each.

We are shown Inca aquaducts, a complex system of underground channels that carried spring water and acted as filtration plants to bring clear drinking water to the people. The Incas were adept at building bridges and practised music and traditional medicine. Some scientists believe that they practised blood transfusion because all Incas shared the same blood group. The only thing that the civilization seemed to lack was a scripted language. But the Incas also indulged in human sacrifice, especially of virgin girls to appease the gods for a good harvest. The altar and the slab on which once flowed the blood of young girls sends shivers down your spine.
I stroll through the streets of Cusco, admiring Quechua women in traditional dresses and characteristic twin plaits. Like women everywhere, they seem to do everything, herd llamas, sell colourful corn, hawk trinkets for tourists and even mix drinks in bars. Most visitors to Peru head straight to Machu Pichhu, halting at Cusco only to catch the train to Aguas Calientes. But I am glad I decided to linger.

(Published in Indian Express dated Jan 3, 2010)

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