March 21, 2014
Last Sunday Tarabuco celebrated Pujllay, a harvest festival that also commemorates the battle of Cumbache in 1816, in which the Tarabuqueños defeated the Spanish and then cut their hearts out and ate them (in fact, there’s a huge full-color statue in the main plaza portraying the deed: the Tarabuqueño warrior holds a bitten heart in one hand, a bloody knife in the other, with blood flowing from his mouth; he’s shouting with joy; his foot is on a Spanish soldier lying on the ground, a hole in his chest, and blood flowing from it).
When we arrive the parade has already started: from a parking lot outside of town, where the minivan lets us off (the roads in town are all closed), over a bridge, past a few grazing horses, and into the colonial streets. Most of the groups are traditional. The men wear round black helmets of a similar shape to what the Spanish once wore; on the backs of their thick wood-soled sandals are huge spurs that jangle when they stomp; on their wide leather ceintures dangle brass bells. The women wear brimmed hats that curl up at the sides into points; their sandals don’t have spurs. The dancers each wear several Tarabuqueño weavings similar to those Santusa makes, with tiny, intricate images of animals. As a whole, the costumes are elaborate, multilayered, and otherworldly. At the center of each group are musicians, who play four- to six-foot-long pipes in harmony; another musician plays a pipe with a cow’s horn on the end, blasting it from time to time out of sync with the rest. The women usually circle around the musicians, and the men around the women, but not always in the same direction; the dance involves reversals. In more modern, younger groups, less elaborately dressed dancers dance to charanga- or accordion-based K’antus music with very high-pitched vocals.
We follow the parade route through the town. In the plaza is a fortune teller with a bird cage. If you pay him a few Bolivianos, he takes a parrakeet from the cage, puts it on his hand, and opens a little drawer; the parakeet picks out a piece of folded paper, and on it is your fortune. Damian, Carlos’s father, is also on the plaza, selling weavings; today, he says, is not a good day for sales, because even though there are more tourists there than any other day of the year, they’re not interested in buying.
We follow the parade to the other side of town, where a large flat area is bordered by a small river that runs through a gorge. There, in the middle, a giant pukhara stands, held up by thick ropes stretching from its corners to metal stakes. A pukhara is a rectangular structure made of three logs, one on each side and one on the top, from which are hung food and drink. This one stands about fifty feet high and fifteen feet wide. At the bottom are large squashes, surmounted by other fruits and vegetables, breads in plastic bags, canned food, wine bottles, Coke and other soft-drink bottles, beer cans, singani bottles, and, near the top, an entire cow carcass, cut in half and hung on either side, and half a pig carcass; all along the sides are hung bags of coca leaves. The dancers circle the pukhara, with the musicians playing close to it, each group taking its turn; in the meantime, other groups of dancers do their own circle dances farther away. Because the whole area is just dirt and because it’s sunny and quite warm, a tremendous amount of dust is kicked up. The dancers fuel themselves with chicha (fresh corn beer) and coca leaves; if they need to use the bathroom they climb down to the river gorges. Each group has a slightly different costume, and prizes are awarded. Of course there are bleachers erected on one side for the officials, judges, and other dignitaries. The place is so crowded it’s very hard to move.
Traditions here are not frozen in time. There’s no re-creation, no tourist pandering; Pujllay is a living tradition, celebrated on different dates in different Tarabuqueño towns, with different sized pukharas, all culminating in the Tarabuco celebration. I’m sure the costumes today are different in many ways from the costumes twenty years ago—after all, the Tarabuqueño weavings have significantly changed. The music of the traditional groups, though, does sound, to my ears, pre-Columbian. The money these people spend on their pukharas and costumes, the energy they put into their dances, are not to attract tourists (though they certainly do), but for religious reasons and to express pride in their heritage. The seriousness of purpose with which the dancers approach Pujllay leaves me awestruck.