Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Living Inca Town of Ollantaytambo

                                                                   by Jim Goodman

Ollantaytambo and Pinkuylluna Mountain
    North of Cusco, the pre-colonial capital of the Inca Empire, the Urubamba River flows through a stretch of the Andes Mountains, from Machu Picchu to Pisac, that once constituted the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  Today it is one of the major tourist attractions in Peru, featuring magnificent scenery, the ruins of ancient fortresses and temples and spectacular terraces clinging to the sides of steep mountain slopes.  The most popular site in this valley, embodying all these characteristics, is of course the World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu.  The rest of the valley tourists usually cover in a separate day’s excursion.
mother and child, Ollantaytambo
    For all its stunning beauty and intrinsic interest, though, Machu Picchu is a ruin, a vestige of history, uninhabited for centuries.  About 45 km downriver, however, lies the vibrant town of Ollantaytambo, home to over 10,000 residents, most of them Quechua-speaking descendants of the people who founded the town hundreds of years ago.  At an altitude of 2800 meters, it lies along the Patacancha River near its confluence with the Urubamba, in between the two mountains Tamboqhasa and Pinkuylluna.  The original checkerboard grid of straight streets in between these mountains is intact and many of the houses are a few hundred years old.  Their occupants no longer celebrate the old Inca festivals, for they converted to Christianity after the Spanish conquest, but in most aspects, their material life differs little from the days of the Inca Empire.  They also still dress in traditional style, with colorful skirts, hats and ponchos that enhance the atmosphere of any stroll around the vicinity.
    The town was an important Inca religious center and boasts several archaeological attractions.  Besides its collection of temple and fortress ruins, ancient terraces and stone streets, Ollantaytambo is the site of a sculpture unique to the Inca realm—a carved head of the god Wiracocha, 140 meters high, on the cliffs of Pinkuylluna Mountain.
taking a break in the town square
  In Inca mythology Wiracocha is both the Creator God and a Culture Hero who introduced the people to language, songs and seeds, taught them which plants were edible, which medicinal and which poisonous, as well as how to make clothing and other useful knowledge.  At Ollantaytambo he gave the people his staff, on which was inscribed all this knowledge.  In return, the people carved his image high up the cliff of Pinkuylluna.
    Only the head is really sculpted.   But the shape of the mound above it suggests the burden the god always carried with him on his travels around the world.  The brow is wrinkled in a way that suggests both admonishment and
the face of Wiracocha
watchfulness.  The eye stays in shadow even as the sunrays hit the rest of the face until about 2:30 in the afternoon, when the light hits the eye and Wiracocha “wakes up.”  He has a long nose and ears and a full beard.  On the top of his head he wears the hat of an Inca astronomer-priest—round with a cylindrical protrusion at each corner.  Equally high up on another slope behind this image is Wiracocha’s temple.   On the summer solstice day the first light to peep through the mountains strikes first the hat and then the temple.
     On Tamboqhasa, the other mountain flanking the Patacancha River, ancient stone terraces climb up from the base to a spur housing temple ruins and a former fortress.  In a landscape dominated by mountains and little relatively flat, alluvial land for farming, stone terraces extended the area for cultivation and kept the valleys free from the danger of landslides.  Builders cut stones of different sizes and angles and fitted them together to produce the best possible structures for both water retention and drainage systems. 
    In the beds of these terraces they first laid a layer of pounded gravel, then a layer of sand and afterwards filled it with topsoil carried up from the valley.  This prevented waterlogged soil from expanding and bursting the retaining walls.  The stones in these retaining walls heated up during the day and then, during the cool nights, transmitted this heat to the soil.  This kept the plant roots warm even when the temperatures plunged to frosty levels.  Farmers generally used them to grow corn, potatoes and quinoa, a cereal grain.
terraces of the Astral Llama on Tamboqhasa Mountain
    But if the terraces didn’t yield the expected amount of these crops then the farmers first planted some corn.  When the corn stalks started getting tall they planted beans, which grew around the stalks.  The bean plants also enriched the soil by adding nitrogen to it.  Finally, in the open spaces left, they planted squash, which kept the soil moist and more or less weed-free.  The Inca stone terraces (other fine examples are at Machu Picchu and Pisac) enabled the Urubamba Valley to become a major food producer for the Inca Empire.
    They also had cosmological significance.  Terraces were not just built wherever it was physically feasible.  Probably under the direction of the local priest-astronomers, farmers constructed terraces and laid out their cities on that part of the terrain that resembled a certain animal or constellation.  In Ollantaytambo’s case, the terraced area of the lower slope of Tamboqhasa represents the Astral Llama.  Viewed across the valley from the slope of Pinkuylluna, it does have that shape, with the head of the animal to the left, where the ruins of the Astral Llama’s shrine stand. 
the main residential area
    This practice of ordering the terraces along lines resembling sacred concepts extended to the residential area as well.  With its parallel streets spaced evenly apart, urban Ollantaytambo was to resemble an ear of corn, the area’s most important crop.  The town itself, along with its farms on the alluvial fan between the bases of the two mountains and the Urubamba River, is laid out like the constellation of the Tree of Life, with the trunk being the narrow part between the two mountains.  This was also the case with Pisac, where the terraces, temples and fortress were on a mountain supposedly resembling the condor, and of Machu Picchu, where the settled part was shaped like a caiman, a South American alligator, and the mountain behind it was a crouching puma.
the House of Dawn--Pacaritampu pyramid
    Not all Inca terraces were the big and sturdy, highly visible, stone staircase types that climbed up the flanks of mountains.  A much more subtle arrangement characterized the terraces that made up the pyramid of Pacaritampu--the House of Dawn—on the western part of the fan of alluvial land in front of Ollantaytambo.  It’s not a pyramid in the Egyptian style, or even like the temple-pyramids of the Aztecs and Maya.  In fact, it is only 32 meters high, occupying an area of 150 hectares.   Even when standing on the flat, trapezoidal top of it one would not realize it was a pyramid at all, for its sides appear to be but faintly declining slopes.
the "windows" of Pacaritampu
    The only way to see the entire pyramid and appreciate its design is by ascending high up Yanaqaqa Mountain across the stream south of the pyramid.  Near the summit of Yanaqaqa, where the apus, or mountain spirits, make their abode, where the Andean snow peaks are visible just across the valley, is the observation point known as the Gate of the Sun.  From here the pyramid, lost in the landscape from points further below, seems to dominate its environment.  It was from way up above it here that the original designers planned and supervised its construction. 
the abode of the mountain spirits
   The Incas called the pyramid the House of Dawn because of the special effects of the first light of dawn on certain key days of the year.  Each ridge of the pyramid is aligned with the position of the sun at dawn on the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes.  Along the base on the southern side are two recessed, rectangular niches that represent the “windows” of the temple.  According to Inca religious belief, these symbolized passageways to the secret, the sacred and the spiritual and thus to the very heart of knowledge.  On the winter solstice the first beam of light falls across the southern side of the pyramid and lights up one of these windows, while the rest of the pyramid, and the valley as well, are still swathed in shadow.  On the summer solstice the first beam of sunlight hits the truncated top of Pacaritampu and runs right down the center of the western side.
    The Incas built the House of Dawn here because the site was associated with the mythical founding of the Inca nation.  Thus the ‘dawn’ of the temple’s name also implied the birth of the Inca empire and the “dawn’ of a new era.  The first emperor, Manco Capac, was supposed to have been standing at one of the windows at dawn when he was unexpectedly illuminated by the first sunrays.  He did not establish his capital here, though, but instead moved over the mountains 85 km away and founded the royal city of Cusco.
ruins of the fortress above the town
    For a century or so the Inca realm was limited to the area around Cusco.  In 1440 they won a great victory over the Chanca, their main local rival, and from then on embarked on a course of rapid expansion that in less than a hundred years gave them control over an empire from Quito down the coast halfway into modern Chile.  The Spanish began invading and conquering this territory in the 1530s.  Having captured and killed the Inca emperor the year before, the conquistadores occupied Cusco in 1533 and installed a puppet emperor there, who died soon and was succeeded by the young Manco Inca.  He was initially cooperative, but in a short time soured on the Spanish, fled Cusco and from his new home base in Ollantaytambo in 1536 raised the banner of revolt. 
    Assembling a large army Manco Inca laid siege to Cusco, but could not capture the city.  The Spanish counter-attacked the Inca stronghold above the city and forced Manco Inca to retreat.  But other Inca generals occupied neighboring highland areas and annihilated Spanish relief forces.  Though they failed to capture Lima they were still a formidable force and a grave threat to Spanish control.  So the Spanish decided to try to end the deadlock with a direct assault on Ollantaytambo.  Commanded by Hernando Pizarro, the force comprised 30,000 Indian warriors and 100 Europeans, 30 of them infantry and 70 cavalry.  Manco Inca had about the same number in his army, manly made up of conscript local farmers and a large number of recruits from the Amazon rain forests.
Manco Inca
    He had prepared his defenses well, fortifying the eastern approaches and rechanneling the Urubamba to crisscross the valley and provide extra lines of defense.  The Spanish-led forces thus had to cross streams several times, encountering fierce resistance at each point.  The bulk of Manco Inca’s army confronted the enemy on the terraces of Tamboqhasa.  To hinder the cavalry, the Inca commanders released water from hidden channels to flood the plain.  When the horses got bogged down in the rising water the Inca warriors counter-attacked.  Realizing the peril his forces were now in, Pizarro called off the attack and retreated to Cusco.
    Encouraged by his victory, Mano Inca launched another expedition against Cusco.  But the Spanish ambushed his forces at night.  Shortly after, a large Spanish contingent returned to Cusco from campaigns in Chile and Manco Inca decided Ollantaytambo was too close to Cusco in the new situation and moved west to Vitcos.  Pursued by a Spanish army, he escaped to the even more remote location of Vilacabamba and died shortly afterwards.
    The Spanish took possession of Ollantaytambo and put the entire population to work in the mines.  They did not force them out of the town, nor replace their houses with colonial villas.  But they did not let them farm and so the people stopped using the terraces.  Centuries later, when Peru became independent and the people of Ollantaytambo could go back to agriculture, they did not revive the use of the ancient terraces, but made new farms on valley lands.  The stone terraces still perform their other function, that of preventing landslides.  They also provide a constantly visible reminder of Ollantaytambo’s days of glory, when it was one of the famous jewels of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. 
the main battleground in the Spanish assault on Ollantaytambo
                                                                         * * *



No comments:

Post a Comment