The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part I: The Sacred Rock, Titikala

Tenth in a series about Bolivia

Isla del Sol in silhouette as seen from a boat on Lake Titicaca. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Inca Legends and History

Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), a Bolivian island in Lake Titicaca, is a place steeped in myth.  Though the Inca had no written language, Incan legends recorded by Spanish chroniclers tell of the Sun emerging from a rock on the island.  Depending on the legend, Manqu Qhapaq (Manco Cápac), the legendary first Inca, either emerged on Isla del Sol or from a cave elsewhere.  The rock and surrounding area became a pilgrimage destination for the Inca.

By no means were the Inca the earliest settlers on Isla del Sol.  Indeed, their control of the region was comparatively brief, probably lasting a century or less.  In their book Ritual and Pilgrimage in the Ancient Andes: The Islands of the Sun and the Moon, Brian S. Bauer and Charles Stanish write that carbon dating indicates the earliest known human settlements on the island might be as much as 4,000 years old.  Circa 650 AD, the island came under the control of Tiwanaku, an early empire that had collapsed by 1200 AD or so.  Post-Tiwanaku, Aymara kingdoms (possibly but not definitely the descendants of the peoples who made the Tiwanaku empire) controlled the Lake Titicaca Basin.  Through a combination of war and diplomacy, these polities were incorporated into the rapidly-expanding Incan empire sometime in the mid-15th century.

I was curious about why the Inca would have origin legends about an area that had only recently come into their empire.  In his book Ancient Inca, Alan L. Kolata offers an explanation:

“Well after the city of Tiwanaku fell into ruins in the mid-twelfth century, the Inca still considered it and the nearby islands of Lake Titicaca among the most sacred locales in their realm, attesting to the enduring cultural prestige of Tiwanaku in Andean religious belief and practices. […] Inca rulers appear to have made a particular effort to identify themselves with Tiwanaku and Lake Titicaca as wellsprings of religious and ideological identity.”

Orientation to the Sanctuary

View of the Sanctuary taken from the beginning of the trail (really an Incan road) to Yumani. The trail from Challapampa enters the picture frame at lower right and continues to the Chincana site at upper left. At center is an Incan wall located west of the Sacred Rock. The Sacred Rock is at center right and there is a modern ceremonial table at left (with people gathered around). At upper left, Tikani Ridge, where two towers stood. During the winter solstice, sunset was between the two towers as seen from the front of the Sacred Rock.

This installment will focus on the Sacred Rock located on the north side of what Bauer and Stanish refer to as the Sanctuary.  The next post will focus on other notable archaeological sites of the surrounding area, especially Chincana, the most substantial ruin in the Sanctuary.

The Sacred Rock, Titikala

The Sacred Rock

The Sacred Rock, Titikala (sometimes written as Titi Qala) is described by Bauer and Stanish as “a large exposed strata of reddish sandstone” 5.5 m or 18′ tall (on the plaza side) and 80 m or 262.5′ long.  Though the etymology of the name Titikala is disputed (see below), Lake Titicaca is definitely named after the rock.  In some older texts, Isla del Sol is referred to as the Island of Titicaca as well.

Bauer and Stanish quote Spanish writer Bernabé Cobo, in his 1653 work Historia del Nuevo Mundo as describing the rock’s significance to the Inca (or at least what their descendants related to him decades later):

“The shrine of the Sun, which was on the Island of Titicaca, was a large solid crag. The reason it was consecrated to the Sun and worshiped can be traced to a ridiculous story. It is said that in this province the people of ancient times tell of being without light from the heavens for many days, and all of the local inhabitants were astonished, confused and frightened to have total darkness for such a long time. Finally, the people of the Island of Titicaca saw the Sun come up one morning out of that crag with extraordinary radiance. For this reason they believed that the true dwelling place of the Sun was that crag, or at least that the crag was the most delightful thing in the world for the Sun.”

According to the work of another 17th century writer who Bauer and Stanish cite, Alonso Ramos Gavilán, the Inca may have covered the rock face on the plaza side with gold and silver, while the back side of the rock was covered in cloth of the highest quality.  Offerings of chicha (corn beer) were poured onto the rock or a basin in front of it.  Bauer and Stanish report that “our excavations found the remains of a stone canal, which drained the offerings away from the Sacred Rock.”

Revolting as it is to modern sensibilities, it should be mentioned that according to Bauer and Stanish, occasionally children may have been sacrificed at the Sacred Rock as well.  In “Mountains and the Sacred Landscape of the Inka” (an essay in The Great Inca Road: Engineering an Empire), Christian Vitry writes that this ceremony, known as as Capacocha, “took place on mountains, islands, and other sanctuaries”.  It appears that it was somewhat less frequently practiced by the Inca than groups like the Aztec.  Vitry explains that for the Inca, “Human offerings were made only in the most important places and on special occasions”.

In Inca times, this side of the rock may have been covered in gold and possibly silver.  Juan claimed the inverted triangle shape at left represented a face

Our guide Juan said the Sacred Rock was the shape of a puma, and a number of websites I came across said the same thing.  Personally I don’t see the resemblance.  Bauer and Stanish don’t even mention this notion, which I suspect may be a modern myth.  It should be noted that in the Aymara language, “titi” means puma.  According to Paul R. Steele in his Handbook of Inca Mythology, the “puma is associated with prosperity” as well as “the theme of transition and sovereignty”.

Tour guides describe a sort of trinity of Incan animals of condor, puma, and serpent which they say represent each of the three “pachas” (usually translated as “worlds”) in Incan mythology.  Similarly, Steele writes that “Condors can be grouped, symbolically, with felines [not just pumas but jaguars and possibly foxes] and serpents, which were associated with Ukhu Pacha, the inner world of birth and death and, in general, fertility.”  Connecting the Sacred Rock with a mythological animal makes a good story for tourists, even if the chroniclers appear to have only mentioned the site with regard to its solar significance.

Etymology of Titicaca (or Titikala…)

Everyone seems to agree that the lake is named after the rock.  The real question is what the rock was originally named (and what it meant).  As is frequently the case, name origins are not always as straightforward as they seem.  In Lake Titicaca: Legend, Myth and Science, Stanish discusses a number of possible etymologies.  In the cat corner, there’s Weston La Barre’s etymology that Titicaca was originally Titiq’aq’a, which is supposed to mean (and I am not making this up) “gray discolored, lead-colored puma”.  There’s also the notion that Titicaca is a corruption of “Thakhsi Cala” which is translated as “piedra fundamental” (cornerstone) in a 17th century Aymara dictionary by Ludovico Bertonio.

Finally, there’s the idea that “titi” is another word, a homophone or false cognate that doesn’t refer to pumas at all.  Stanish writes:

“A second hypothesis, favored by linguists, is the most commonly accepted one: that the word titi is the indigenous word for ‘sun.’ This could have been an Aymara word, or perhaps even Pukina or early Quechua. Pukina was a widespread language in the sixteen century that mysteriously disappeared within three generations of Spanish rule. Cala, of course, is ‘rock,’ giving us the more common name Rock of the Sun. Using the same logic, the name of the most sacred place in the lake was transposed to the name of the lake itself.”

In the foreground is the Incan wall with niches located on the west end of the plaza. Take a look at what look like two piles of rock or rubble on the ridge at the center top of the photograph. I don’t think I noticed them at the time of my visit, but Bauer and Stanish said that they’re the remnants of two towers that marked where the sun would set during the Winter Solstace

Sunsets During the Solstices

According to Stanish, Tikani Ridge (located to the west of the Sanctuary) features the remnants of two towers.  From the area in the plaza near the Sacred Rock, during sunset during the winter solstice in June, the Sun sinks between the two towers.  From the same spot, sunset during the summer solstice in December falls between hills on Isla Chuyu offshore.

Only the highest ranked Inca would have been able to view the sunsets from this spot.  Cobo wrote that even after making such a long journey from Cusco, common pilgrims would only have been able to view the Sacred Rock from Intipuncu, (“Sun Door”, or gateway to the Sanctuary).  Stanish writes that it is possible that lower ranked pilgrims would have been able to view the summer solstice sunset from what archaeologists suggest could be a viewing platform located along the same sight line as the special spot, although it is by no means certain.

During the summer solstice, the sun sets between the hills on Isla Chuyu as viewed from the area near the Sacred Rock. In this photo taken at the nearby Chincana site, the island is visible offshore beyond the bay.

A Tour Guide’s Tale Compared to History of the Inca Conquest

Juan said that when the Inca arrived on Isla del Sol, they waged war trying to exterminate the island’s inhabitants.  However, he said, they were unable to do so because of the “power of the rock” and both peoples lived together in peace.

I admit, my first reaction was skeptical amusement, especially as I watched the members of the group proceed to touch the rock (evidently in the hope of some of its power rubbing off on them).  Upon further thought, I found what Juan said interesting in terms of what it said about how the people of Isla del Sol view their history.  An Aymara person conquered by the Inca may have viewed the Inca as being as evil as the Inca later must have viewed the Spanish.  Looking back from a modern perspective, whether a group is seen as victim or victimizer at any point in history depends entirely on one’s point of view.

Modern disgust with the greed and brutality of the conquistadors and a newfound interest in the impressive achievements of the Inca may have caused some people to adapt a somewhat rosy view of the Incan civilization.  But the Inca made many enemies during the aggressive expansion of their empire.  The Inca, weakened by a bloody civil war, found that many of the peoples they’d recently defeated eagerly joined the Spanish when the invasion began.

Leaving aside the role of the Sacred Rock in deciding the conflict, I was curious about whether what Juan said was supported by historical or archaeological evidence.  My research doesn’t mention any particular acts of physical violence by the Inca against the inhabitants of Isla del Sol.  This would not have been out of the question, though; Stanish mentions that at the beginning of their campaign to bring the Lake Titicaca Basin into their empire, a town known as Ayaviri “resisted, and there was a great slaughter of the inhabitants.”  The Inca continued their conquest through a combination of arms and diplomacy.  Even after the Inca conquered the region, the Aymara around Lake Titicaca rebelled against them multiple times.

Yunguyo is a Peruvian town on Lake Titicaca.  Yunguyo lies just west of the Peruvian-Bolivian border and is the first town encountered if traveling west from Copacabana. This is where the residents of Isla del Sol and the surrounding area were reportedly relocated to by the Inca.

If not directly attacked as Juan had indicated, the lot of the Aymara who lived on Isla del Sol was not entirely a happy one under the Inca.  According to Ramos Gavilán, Tupaq Inka Yupanki (Topa Inca Yupanqui), who ruled 1471-1493, expelled the population of Isla del Sol and the Copacabana Peninsula to Yunguyu (Yunguyo), on the Peruvian side of the modern border.  The Inca resettled Isla del Sol and the nearby mainland with colonists from elsewhere in the Inca empire.  (As Rachel put it, the Inca told them “You can live together in peace…somewhere else.”)

This historical account may be supported by the fact that according to Bauer and Stanish, an “archaeological survey of the Island of the Sun reveals evidence of a massive reorganization of island populations at the time of the Inca Conquest”.  They also write that the Inca burned and destroyed whatever was left of the Tiwanaku-era shrine known as Chucaripupata located near the Sacred Rock , as indicated by radiocarbon dating.  It seems clear that the Inca ruthlessly reshaped the order of things on Isla del Sol for their own purposes.

Did the pre-Incan residents expelled by the Inca ever return home to Isla del Sol?  It is possible that their descendants did, given that the modern residents of the island speak Aymara.  Bauer and Stanish write that “the people who live on it today are not direct descendants of the Quechua-speaking Inca peoples, but are most likely related to the aboriginal Aymara inhabitants of the region who lived there prior to the Inca Conquest.”  Whether or not members of the same families came back to Isla del Sol after the upheavals of the Incan and Spanish invasions is anyone’s guess.

Series on Bolivia

Obtaining a Bolivian Tourist Visa

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)

La Paz, Bolivia: Basílica de San Francisco

Mi Teleférico: La Paz, Bolivia’s Aerial Cable Car Network

Stuck in the Snow en Route to Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Bolivia

Across the Altiplano to Lake Titicaca: La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia by Bus

Introduction to Copacabana, Bolivia

Ascending Cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill)

Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

Hiking from Challapampa to the Sanctuary on Isla del Sol

  The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part I: The Sacred Rock, Titikala

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part II: Chincana and Nearby Sites

Hiking from the Sacred Rock to Yumani on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Scenic Tour of Lake Titicaca: Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Peru by Bus


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