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Handbook of Inca Mythology

Paul R. Steele & Catherine J. Allen,


2004
ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California

(Pag. 263) VILCANOTA RIVER


South-Central Highland River and the Name of Temple Located at Its Source The
Vilcanota is one of two rivers that rise at the continental divide where the two mountain
ranges running the broad length of the Peruvian Andes come together. This is about
halfway between the Titicaca basin and Cuzco. While the Desaguadero or Pucara River
drains southeast into Lake Titicaca, the Vilcanota flows northwest toward Cuzco.
Passing close to Cuzco, it flows though the Yucay Valley, more familiar to tourists as
the Sacred Valley. Passing beneath Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu, the
Vilcanota is also known as the Urubamba River and later becomes the Ucayali, one of
the Maran tributaries that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. For the Incas, Ollantaytambo
marked a boundary that separated the Incas and their closest allies from the non-Inca
world of the dense jungle beyond. Today, road travel is still not possible beyond this
point. Tourists for Machu Picchu rely on the train or the long hike.
The Vilcanota and Desaguadero, which flow in opposite directions, symbolize separate
and opposing ecological and cosmological zones. The Desaguadero flows into an inland
ocean, while the Vilcanota eventually descends into the forested jungle. The latter also
traversed the Inca heartland. The source of the Vilcanota River is also called Vilcanota
and was described as the site of a temple. In the nineteenth century, the American
traveler Ephraim George Squier looked in vain for templelike structures. Recent
suggestions have focused on lines of chullpas, stone funerary edifices that may have
marked this sacred location. The other name for the Vilcanota temple site is La Raya,
the (dividing) line. Before the arrival of the Incas, this location was close to the
boundary, if not an official dividing line, between Wari and Tiahuanaco spheres of
control. The idea of a dividing line drawn across the world is found in the geographical
division of the Inca state by the Inca king Huayna Capac. As myth, this is found in
Huarochir tradition when the deity Cuniraya Viracocha agreed with Huayna Capac to
draw a line across the world. The myth cycle of antagonism and confrontation between
the Quechuas to the north and the Collas to the south is often situated at La Raya.
The chroniclers described the site Vilcanota or La Raya as the place where the sun was
born and the place where rituals to the sun were performed. Cristbal de Molina
described ceremonies performed each year during the (Pag. 264) month of Inti Raymi
(Feast of the Sun), around the June solstice, by the priests called Tarpuntays. The priests
journeyed from the hill Huanacauri, traversing the ridges. Returning from Vilcanota,
they followed the river course, which passed by a number of named stations, a journey
that also echoed the course taken by the creator deity, Viracocha, from
Titicaca/Tiahuanaco. These stations included the promontories Quispicancha (crystal
enclosure) and Intihuatana (sun observatory), which suggests astronomical observations
(of the first rays of crystal light) that identified and celebrated the rebirth or regeneration
of the weak sun at the solstice.

From Pisac, the Urubamba River Valley, better known in its upper course as the
Vilcanota. (Photo courtesy of Paul Steele)
Urton suggests that the ideology of regeneration or renewal should be understood in
more universal terms that referred to the creation of the natural world and the origin of
the universe. The Vilcanota River is intimately linked to the sun, whose diurnal path
mirrors the flow of the Vilcanota. During the night the sun is thought to travel back to
the east underground or through a subterranean tunnel that runs directly beneath the
Vilcanota River. At night the sun is believed to drink up the waters of the sea or lake
that circles the earth. Thus in the rainy season, when the Vilcanota River is swollen, the
sun is also considered to be fattened from all the water it is drinking. The Vilcanota
River is also equated to the Milky Way, the Chaska mayu, the celestial river whose
move-(Pag. 265)-ment in the night sky is thought to match that of the Vilcanota on
earth. Thus the Vilcanota is thought to perform an integral role in the recycling of water
throughout the universe. Urton suggests that the ritual pilgrimage needs to be
understood in these cosmic terms. The annual journey of the Inca priests referred to the
actions of Viracocha, who came down the river and who was responsible for the
creation and origin of the universe (1981).
See also Cacha; Constellations; Huanacauri; Huari; Huayna Capac; Pilgrimage; Sun;
Titicaca, Lake; Tunupa; Viracocha
Suggested Reading
Squier, Ephraim George. 1877. Peru: Incidents of Travel and Explorations in the Land
of the Incas. New York: Harper.
Urton, Gary. 1981. At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky: An Andean Cosmology.
Latin American Monographs, series 55. Austin: University of Texas Press.