The doors and interior walls of Qorikancha were once covered in gold to pay tribute to the Inca sun god.
Question: Where on earth did people worship a little boy who had other people’s vital organs in his belly?
Answer: Qorikancha, the Inca Sun Temple
In the oldest part of Cusco, a 16th-century Spanish church rises atop stonework that looks—and is—much stronger than the rest of the construction. These mighty building blocks are the foundations of a temple built to venerate Inti, the Inca sun god. In its heyday, “the golden enclosure” was the epicenter of the Inca religious world.
On the premise that gold was the sun’s sweat, the temple was quite literally coated in the stuff. The massive doors, the interior walls, dozens of statues, and countless ceremonial objects were robed in thick hammered sheets of the precious metal—30,000 pounds of it. Amid all this splendor, perhaps the most important was Punchao, the golden boy of the Incas. This isn’t a metaphoric description of popularity; Punchao was a heavy gold statue of Inti as a child. Like a real boy, his belly housed organs; but in this case, they belonged to other people. As Inca leaders died, their vital organs were cremated and the ashes stuffed into Punchao along with their predecessors.
Like any boy, Punchao was seen as needing fresh air, so priests paraded the statue out of the temple and into the sunlight every day, returning him and his stomach full of royals to his chambers at night to rest. They weren’t alone: the complex also contained the mummies of seven prominent Incas, their desiccated bodies jazzed up with jewels, masks, and scepters.
Unfortunately, as Robert Frost wrote, nothing gold can stay. The era of afterlife glory was doomed by colonialism. First, the walls were stripped to pay a ransom to the Spanish who captured the Inca ruler Atahualpa. Then, once the Incas had lost power, the Spanish demolished what they could of the temple, and built their own church on the old foundations. Earthquakes have since damaged that church several times, but the Inca base has remained as solid as the day the original sun-worshippers laid it.
Know Your Inca Gods: Five More Deities with Temples at Qorikancha
- You may not realize that you’ve heard of Viracocha, the creator god, but Incas also called him Kon-Tiki, immortalized by the famous raft of Thor Heyerdahl (who set out to prove South Americans had crossed the seas to Polynesia). Associated with the ocean, Viracocha created the universe and its celestial bodies, and launched time by commanding the sun to cross the sky. His anger created thunderbolts and his tears, naturally, were the rain.
- Mama Quilla, the goddess of the moon, was said to be the wife of Inti, and she was the one to determine the rhythms of Inca life—from menstrual cycles to months and festival dates. Just as gold was Inti’s thing, silver was hers, and it was said to be produced only by her tears.
- Ch'aska-Qoyllur was the hippie chick of the family. The goddess of Venus, her name means “shaggy star,” implying that she had long hair. (Some say this suggests the Incas, like the Aztecs, associated Venus with comets.) The lovely morning and evening star, she was said to protect maidens and spawn the blooming of flowers. As deities go, she was clearly a lover, not a fighter.
- No such thing can be said of Illapa, God of Thunder. Some of his associations were positive: The celestial weather man was said to keep the Milky Way in a jug which he poured out to create rain to water the crops, and he provided good weather when in the mood. But he also carried a club and stones, and punished the earth with storms, sometimes to teach a lesson and sometimes just on a whim.
- Don’t assume that just because K’yuchi is the Rainbow God, the deity is cheery and bright. Though K'uychi is connected to fertility, which was much desired, he also brought infertility, which was feared. His rainbows were believed to be serpents that could cause abdominal pain and vomiting, and if they entered your lower body, the suffering was intense. To this day, some Inca descendants won’t urinate if there is a rainbow in the sky, for fear of k’uychi onqoy: “rainbow sickness.”
Uncover the ancient history of the Incas on O.A.T.’s Machu Picchu & the Galápagos adventure.