Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Chullpas of Sillustani, Peru

For our final day in the Puno area, we take a break from the beauty of Lake Titicaca to get off the beaten track and visit one of the archaeological gems of the altiplano, Sillustani, a pre-Incan burial ground on the shores of Lake Umayo. The ruins which are thought to be about 900 years old aren’t Incan but Colla who were part of the Pukara culture, an Aymara-speaking war faring tribe that buried its nobility with food and their belongings in funerary towers called chullpas. They were eventually conquered by the Inca in the 15th century but they left behind the tombs, the only vestiges of the Colla people. Leaving Puno driving north, the high-altitude plains of southern Peru are a gently rolling sea of low grasses, simple homesteads, sheep, alpaca, vicuna and broad vistas that seem to stretch on forever. Some of the very simple stone homesteads looked interesting and we thought maybe we could stop at one on the way back and check it out, offering the family a little money for their time and inconvenience. Then, after a quick turn in the road towers spring up from the broad slope of a hill. The Chullpas of Sillustani. While chullpas are not unique to Sillustani and are found across the altiplano scattered from Peru in the north down through Bolivia and into Chile, this site is considered to be the best and most preserved example of them. We slowly make our way down a dirt trail towards the main entrance to the ruins. The descendents of the Aymara who built the chullpas still live in Sillustani and assist in the management of their ancestor’s tombs. In fact all the people we met during our time here appeared to be indigenous. After giving Winston a long walk through a nearby meadow, the alpaca were curious of him and at one point there was a distinct “stare-down” between him and what appeared to be a female with a young baby before Winston turned away and concentrated on something else. Never mess with a mom and her baby! We then made the car as shady and cool as possible before leaving him to nap and for us to climb the hill leading to the tombs. The Sillustani burial site is an amazing complex made up by huge cylindrical tombs, scattered up, across and down a hillside. The architecture of the site is often considered more complex than typical Incan architecture. In contrast with the Inca, who used stones of varying shapes, the Colla used even, rectangular edges, although some during the 15th century were redressed with Inca stone work. It is also one of the very few places where there are so many different kinds of chullpas. The wide variety of building styles at Sillustani includes towers made of cut and uncut stone, some that are covered with adobe, and both square and round foundations. The only openings to the buildings face east, where it was believed the Sun was reborn by Mother Earth each day and some of the tombs also have various animal shapes and icons carved into the exterior. The insides of the tombs were built to hold entire groups of people, most likely extended families of the Aymara. Each body was placed in the fetal position and accompanied by food such as llama and guinea pig, plus clay pots and other useful tools for daily life. Most mummy bundles indicate burial in a fetal position and although the bodies were not intentionally mummified, due to the dry environment created by the closed tomb, many survived for centuries. Unfortunately no bodies remain there today, most were grave robbed centuries ago and those recovered from the site are housed in a museum nearby. What the chullpas meant to the people who built them remains debatable. Some researchers think they served to mark a group's territory or announce its prestige to neighbors. In the case of Sillustani, archaeologists believe it was a burial and pilgrimage site for the Aymara over hundreds of years, making it a sacred place where relatives journeyed to visit their ancestors in their tower homes. The site is beautiful set on a peninsula that juts into Lake Umayo, a small offshoot of Lake Titicaca, so it is easy to see why this theory may hold some truth. Given the high elevation to start with, the slow and tortuous climb up the hill to the chullpas was as breathtaking as the views from the top. Lake Umayo glistens in the afternoon sun, herds of vicuna and alpaca graze and the lake is amass with a variety of birds including three different species of flamingo. On the way back to the main road we stopped at one of the homesteads belonging to a family with two young children. They cheerfully posed with us for photographs and showed us around their simple home. Their primary activities are weaving textiles, growing potatoes and raising guinea pigs (cuy), which they explained are served on special occasions for the Peruvians. They also owned a guanaco which was extremely tame, a llama for milk, and several alpaca and an alpaca/vicuna mixto from which they both used and sold the wool. The man had a weaving machine and he showed us how he hand wove small rugs from alpaca. We bought one from him since they would not accept any money from us. On the drive back to Puno, we commented yet again on about the friendliness of the people and the simple yet seemingly rewarding lifestyle they maintain. Yet another lesson in simplicity for us.

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