Situated at dizzying heights in the arid Altiplano region of Bolivia is a mining town home to one of the most famous festivals in all of South America.
Each year on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, the usually sleepy Oruro comes alive, hosting the world renowned Carnival. The unique festival features spectacular folk dances, extravagant costumes, beautiful crafts, lively music, and up to 20 hours of continuous partying.
A party like no other, Oruro Carnival is Bolivia’s most sought after tourist attraction, drawing crowds of up to 400,000 people annually. Whilst the festival is celebrated throughout most of the country, Oruro is without doubt the most popular, offering a memorable experience for all those involved.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Bolivia at this time of year, Oruro Carnival is one fiesta not to be missed!
HISTORY OF ORURO CARNIVAL
Long before Spanish settlement, the ancient town of Uru Uru (the pre-hispanic name for Oruro) was a religious destination for the Aymara and Quechua people of the Andes. Locals would worship Andean deities, praying for protection and giving thanks to Pachamama. The Uru people also revered their gods by celebrating Ito; the religious festival from which Carnival is thought to have originated.
In 1606 the Spanish founded today’s Oruro using the land, already being mined by the Indigenous population, as a base for obtaining the rich minerals in the surrounding hills. In conjunction with their land being taken away, the locals were used as laborers for the Europeans who encroached on their religion with the introduction of Christianity.
From the get-go, Spanish priests tried to ban the Uru Uru rituals and traditions. Not wanting to renounce their beliefs, the Indians observed their traditions under the guise of Catholic rituals in order to keep their new overseers happy. The catholic priests frowned upon this, but tolerated it in order to convert the Aymara and Quechua people to their religion.
In a further attempt to convert the locals to Christianity, priests encouraged the Indians to perform their traditional dances and music in line with Catholic holidays as well as transform their festivals into Catholic rituals; a prime example being the festival of Ito.By the mid 18th century, Andean rituals had morphed into Catholic observances, giving birth to the religious celebration we know today as Oruro Carnival.
After Bolivia gained its independence from Spain in 1825, Oruro’s aristocracy distanced themselves from the Indigenous population, each group holding their own Carnival celebrations. With the rise of socialism in the 1940s, the upper class came to see the Indigenous culture and lifestyle as the the ideal model for a well established society. Seen as a matter of national pride, Oruro’s upper and middle class began to form their own dance groups based on the traditions of the Andean culture.
Today, Carnival is a complex interlacing of Catholic ideals and ancient pagan expression, reflecting the diverse aspects of Oruro’s rich cultural history.
MEANING OF CARNIVAL
Using a mix of dance, music and costume, Carnival not only tells the story of how the Spaniards conquered the Aymara and Quechua people of Bolivia, but celebrates good versus evil along with Oruro’s rich cultural identity.
The world Carnival is derived from the Spnaish word carne levare, which means “take away the meat”. This is in reference to Lent, the 40-day period in which devout Catholics abstain from consuming meat in the lead up to Easter. Since a reported 90% of Bolivians call themselves Catholic, the word was used to signify Carnival; the 10 day festival leading up to Lent.
In Oruro, locals believe Carnival commemorates a miraculous event that occurred in the early days of the town. Story has it that the Virgin of Candelaria took pity on a thief by helping him reach his home near the silver mine of Oruro. When the miners discovered the man’s body at the base of the mine, there was an image of the Virgin hung over his head.
The story is believed to have been concocted by the Spaniards in order to convince the Indians that they needed to dedicate a church to the Virgin. The ever religious Indians followed the recommendations of the Spanish by painting a mural of the Virgin Mary and worshiping her in a 3 day festival held the same dates as the Indigenous celebration of “Anata”.
Since the miraculous event, Oruro Carnival has been observed in honour of the Virgen de la Candelaria or Virgen del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft) and the Sanctuaria del Socavon (Church of the Mineshaft) is where the carnival’s most important events are held.
The dances of Oruro Carnival are based on the legend of Virgin del Socavon, combined with the ancient Uru tale of Huari and the struggle of Archangel San Miguel against the Devil and the seven deadly sins.
THE ICONS OF CARNIVAL
Carnival sees a blending of Catholic and Indian rituals, mixing the Virgin and Devil teachings of the Catholic religion with the Indian ideas of Pachamama and Tio Supay.
El Tio, the most recognised icon of Carnival, is a malevolent character who transforms into the Devil for Carnival. Known as the Uncle or God of the mountains, indigenous miners believe El Tio is the owner of the mine’s minerals and the overseer of their safety. In the hope he won’t get angry for taking his precious metals, during carnival, miners dance and leave gifts of beer, food, cigarettes and coca for El Tio.
Pachamama is the Earth Mother who the Indigenous people believe is a giving and benevolent goddess much like the Virgin de la Candelaria.
Other notable icons in Carnival include the following:
- Archangel San Miguel
- Spanish Conquisadors
- Tobas warriors symbolising the victors of the Inca Empire
- Caporales represening the overseers who gained a reputation for their cruel treatment of Indian and slave laborers
- Morenos representing the Africans who were enslaved by the Spanish back in the 1600s.
- Kallawayas representing doctors of the Inca empire
- Llameradas representing the pre-Columbian story of the llama herders who danced to maintain control of their herds