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The Children of the Sacred Lake

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Map of the Lake Titicaca area.
As you cross the vast Altiplano, the high altitude plane that stretches between Peru and Bolivia, few mountains or trees can be seen. It's just miles and miles of red, dry earth. On the train from Cuzco, I found the Altiplano very beautiful, but was starting to wonder if it ever changed. I like the desert and all, but some variation would be nice. Finally, we came to the end of the line and approached a deep, cool blue oasis... the magnificent Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is South America's largest lake and one of the highest navigable lakes in the world, sitting at over 11,000 feet above sea level!

It's easy to see why many cultures have considered Lake Titicaca to be sacred for thousands of years, calling her Mama Qota, or the Sacred Mother. Pre-Incan cultures like the Uros, the Pukaras, the Kollas and the Lupacas had made their homes on and around the lake. Considering themselves to be the Children of the Sacred Lake, they worshipped their Mama Qota, for she provided them with abundant fish and birds to eat. In the evening, she gave them the heat she had stored from the sun all day, allowing them to sow potatoes, quinua, beans, and fodder for their llamas and alpacas. This sacred lake is a beautiful blue wonder amidst the harsh dry expanse of the Altiplano. Monica went off to some of the many islands in the lake while I stayed on shore and had the chance to see some of the ruins left behind by some of the other Children of the Sacred Lake.

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Lake Titicaca -- South America's largest lake!
Here in the northeastern shores of Lake Titicaca, the Pukara culture established themselves 1500 years before Christ. The Tiwanaku culture then arrived on the scene around 400 AD, followed by the Aymara speaking Kolla and Lupaca cultures in 1200 AD. Aymara was the language of the people before the Incas conquered the area in 1445 AD, and while most of the indigenous peoples north and east of Lake Titicaca in Peru still speak the Incan Quechua language, most of the indigenous peoples south and west of the Lake in Bolivia still speak the pre-Incan Aymara language. Around the lake itself, a confusing mix of Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara can be heard. I visited Sillustani, an ancient sacred site that has been used as a place of worship, burial, and sacrifice for thousands of years. About 20 miles inland from Lake Titicaca, Sillustani sits high on the shores of the beautiful Umayo lagoon, whose salty waters are said to be the result of the tears of the Princess Ururi, who had lost her love. The Pukara culture first established the hilltop as a sacred burial site, and each conquering culture since (until the Spaniards arrived) continued the practice.

The main role of the special site was to worship the Mallku (deceased chiefs), with the construction of great chullpas (tombs). The ruins on the hilltop of Sillustani consist of tombs that were constructed during different time periods. The Pukara and the Tiwanaku built stone tunnels and underground tombs. The Kollas tombs were more advanced, and they built large, cylindrical, above ground chullpas out of large grey stones from the area. The designs and techniques in stone carving and polishing had become even more innovative by the time of the Incas. The chullpas of the Incas are incredible structures of perfectly fitted stones that create enormous, smooth cylinder buildings with intricate carvings and entranceways. Some of the stones used are of a different color, indicating that they were brought from great distances to this sacred site.

A local of Lake Titicaca showing off his gorgeous hat.
The Incas, the Kollas and even the cultures preceding them believed that the spirit of a deceased person was everlasting and would continue in life in other places -- kind of like reincarnation. This was why they built these elaborate tombs for important men in their society to insure a safe journey into this other world. They would mummify the body using muña, an aromatic herb that grows in the area, and bury it in the tomb with things that would be needed during the journey. The Kollas always buried the person with a plate and spoon, while it was Inca tradition to include riches, like gold, clothing, and jewelry. Food and drink and other needed objects were also left next to the corpse. Often, the women and the servants of the important person would also be sacrificed to accompany their master to the next life -- I hope they packed enough food for everyone!

Unfortunately, most of the chullpas have deteriorated due to looting and the passage of time. I guess the Spanish and other gravediggers since those times didn't believe that the mummies really needed all that gold to make it to the otherworld! Sillustani is still an important sacred site for the local people. All the chullpas were built facing the northeast, coinciding with the directions where the sun and the winds carrying the rains come from. Here, the inhabitants continue to invoke the spirits to ensure that there are abundant supplies of fish and that the rains come so their food stocks don't diminish. The Children of the Sacred Lake have not forgotten to worship their Mama Qota.


Monica - Waterworld, or the Floating People of the Lake
Kevin - Banished or Delivered?
Abeja - What Next? A Roller Coaster to the Temple of the Moon?
Shawn - Coca and the Environment
Team - Coca: Modern Vice or Traditional Power?
Making A Difference - Save the Redwood Forests (and the Coho Salmon, and the Spotted Owl, and All of Us)!!!

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