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I've just come back from seeing a big Andean theatre production in the ruins at a teeny village called Maukallaqta to the east of Peru - the direction of the land of the dead. No dead as far as I saw, but the production was really lively!

I’ve become friends with Peruvian playwright here in Cusco who is involved in productions of a kind of traditional Andean theatre called Aranwa. This particular event was a staging of the story The Brothers Ayar, one version of the birth of the Tawantinsuyo (Inca empire). My friend directed it with his father, who is evidently a very famous playwright in Peru, and I went for his sake, otherwise I would never have known of such a thing’s happening. But it was gorgeous - 500 people participated, all costumed fantastically, colored smoke, live flute and drums, long rows of young maidens swaying with offerings of palo santo, so much music and dancing, and this amazing bit where a bunch of men in condor costumes flew down a zipline! The play was in Quechua the whole time, but luckily I befriended a girl who shared my car on the way to Maukallaqta and who is from the nearby town, and she translated for me. The Brothers Ayar is this old Incan creation myth (one of the two primary) in which four brothers evidently create the Inca world at what is now the ruins of Maukallaqta. The ruins were really something too, and perfect for theatre; all kind of different levels to act upon, beautiful big doorways, stairways, thatched roofs, and monumental stones.

As the story goes, four young men and their wives appeared from a cave called Tampu Tocco in the region of Pacaritambo; Ayar Manco and his wife Mama Ocllo; Ayar Cachi and Mama Cora; Ayar Uchu and Mama Rahua, and Ayar Auca and his wife Mama Huaco. Looking at the devastated land and the poverty of its people, they decided to go out looking for a better place and with them they took ten ayllus (families), heading southeast. Ayar Cachi was the strongest of the brothers and with every swing of his slingshot he formed a valley or knocked down a mountain, alarming the other brothers with his great power.

Fearful, they convinced him to return to Tampu Tocco in search of gold vases called topacusi and seeds. The brothers followed Ayar Cachi to the cave and then trapped him inside with great rocks, telling him that he would remain there forever. When he heard this, Ayar Cachi screamed so loudly that the earth trembled, breaking mountains in two and making the skies shiver. The brothers then continued on their way until they found in front of them a winged Ayar Cachi posed like a gigantic condor on the top of the Tampu Quiro mountain, who ordered them to found Cusco there. They continued on to the Huanacaure hill, until one day they saw a rainbow whose ends rested on top of the same hill. Ayar Manco told his siblings that it was a good omen and from that hill they would be able to see the place where they would settle. On the way to the hill they found a huaca (temple) and sent Ayar Uchu to destroy it, but when he did so he turned to stone, while asking his siblings to remember him on the Huarochico ceremony. The saddened brothers continued on down to the foot of the hill, near the Cusco valley. Ayar Manco sent Ayar Auca to take possession of the place that they were going to populate. Ayar Auca, who is said to have grown wings, flew to the indicated site and as he landed he turned to stone as well. The only ones left were then Ayar Manco and his wife, who founded Cusco and thus the Inca Empire!

I asked my friend how anyone could know that the birth of the Tawantinsuyo took place at exactly Maukallaqta because the ruins had been lost for centuries, and he replied with confidence, “oral history.” I pressed him, unconvinced, and he pointed to a big hunk of granite coming out from the mountain slop below us. “Because the Inca believed in portals to other worlds,” he explained, “and that rock is one of them.”

This weekend’s play was one of three big theatrical productions that takes place this time of year, the last being Inti Raymi (a huge Incan celebration of the sun), and they are historically held at different ruins that are all atop mountain peaks that line up perfectly straight. The Inti Raymi play will be the third weekend of June at Saqsaywaman, and it’s the biggest party in Cusco all year.

I was reminded on this occasion of how fantastically magical it is living in a world whose culture is still alive and vibrant yet tinged with so much mystery. The mountains to the East are craggy and beautiful and laced with ribbons of gold, the people of this district are earnest and principled, and they are full-throated in their celebrations of their heritage.

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