By: Elliot Williams
Walking through the streets of Cochabamba on the first Friday of any month, one is struck by a pungent aroma wafting through the air and trails of smoke sneaking out the doors of small stores. This is the scent of the Bolivian ritual of the Q’owa(koh-wah), and a reminder of one of the ways in which many Bolivians still hold fast to ancient traditions.
The ritual takes its name from a plant commonly found in the Bolivian altiplano. As the q’owa plant is burned, the smoke carries its incense-like smell through the air. Cultural practices like the Q’owa ritual trace the historical roots of the Quechua and Aymara peoples from centuries ago to the present day.Similar ceremonies are still observed, especially in the western highlands and valleys.
In the countryside, where this tradition originated, the Q’owa is a communal practice to give thanks to the Pachamama (Mother Earth). As Andean cultural expert Enrique Rocha indicates: “All that we need we obtain in our surroundings… from the earth where the Pachamama resides.”
The Q’owa, then, is a way to ask for balance and harmony in the earth, between the land and the community, and among people. It is offered in hope of a good harvest or to remedy problems and maintain equilibrium with crops. The Q’owa is also performed as a blessing for important occasions in life – from the construction of a new home to the start of a wedding ceremony.
The celebration of the Q’owa is also a popular tradition in some Bolivian cities. In Cochabamba’s vast 30 square-block open market, La Cancha, women fill long rows of stalls selling small collections of charms made of sugar. Each unique charm stands for some distinct hope – love, good health, safe travels, achievement in school, and success in business. They will eventually be burned during the Q’owa atop small metal stands resembling tiny barbecues.
A full Q’owa ceremony begins with people chewing coca leaves together, to symbolize the harmony between all those present. The ritualist who guides the ceremony calls forth the Pachamama, Inti, and Killa (the Earth, Sun, and Moon), and other protective spirits to join in. When the fire is hot enough,the charms, along with items such as handfuls of quinoa and other local grains, seeds, eggs, and llama wool are added. With a smell like powerful incense, the q’owa plant is a necessary ingredient. Rocha also points to its restorative qualities: “It is an Andean mint, an aromatic element…the fragrance of this herb when burned purifies the atmosphere just like mint tea purifies our body.”
Before long, the smoke of the fire and scent of the q’owa plant fill the air. During the ch’alla, the final stage of the Q’owa,each person pours alcohol on the four corners surrounding the fire. These corners represent the north, south, east, and west of the Andean territory and a further connection to the land. While a typical Q’owa in the city may end here, a full celebration to inaugurate a new home or office continues on with traditional music and dance well into the night.
Above all, the Q’owa is about bringing people together. According to Rocha, it is “not a process of adoration or idolatryto the divinities, but a relationship of reciprocity with all the elements of nature.” The objects burned symbolize this reciprocity with the Pachamama and the community. The fire itself is a representation of the remaking of the world. It is a return to the beginning or birth, without any negativity and with everything in equilibrium.
Although there is great variation in the practices of the Q’owa, the ritual maintains the same essence: it is a complementary process between the people and the Pachamama; a continuation and strengthening of the relationship of respect that has existed since the beginning of time. For Enrique Rocha, “[the Q’owa] is an ayni (reciprocal obligation) that [we] receive and have to give, a process that never ends.”