24 Mar, 2015 | Ali Macleod

Culture and Social issues

Hidden in the witches´ market , burnt offerings bring fortune and well-being in Bolivia´s traditional mesas

Money in La Paz can buy you large houses in the Zona Sur, 8 courses of Michelin-star-quality food at 'Gustu' and luxury hummers to transport yourself around the city. But perhaps the most intangible thing that people spend money on here is good fortune. If this is what you seek, then the best place to start your search is the 'Mercado de las Brujas', where traditional mesas can be created and bought.

The mesa is a collection of objects laid out next to one another on a surface and then burnt in order to praise the Andean goddess of Mother Earth, 'Pachamama'. Usually, it includes 5 types of objects: sugary products, a mixture of herbs known as 'Koa', coloured paper and dyed wool. However, the most important component of a mesa is either a llama, alpaca or vicuña foetus, the last of which can cost up to 300 Bolivianos or $50.

"The standard price for a whole mesa is 200-400 Bolivianos or $30-60," says Simon, a man I met at the Mercado Brujas, who has been working there since he was a young boy. "But the more objects you wish to have, the more expensive the mesa will be."

Different mesas hold different significance. White mesas symbolise health and good fortune, whilst colourful mesas symbolise material assets such as houses, businesses and money. Some companies are willing to purchase the latter to bless new constructions or business deals, requesting large bespoke mesas.

“If you don't pay thanks before a construction,” says Doña Natalia, a yatiri who occupies Esquina Jimenez, “then the building may collapse or a worker may die." To avoid such risks companies purchase mesas at a high price between 800-1000 Bolivianos or $115-145, to honor ´Pachamama´.

´Pachamama' is the representation of the natural Earth and by revering her one can expect health, luck, forgiveness, blessings and release of all bad spirits. The mesa is burnt and placed in the earth so that Pachamama´ can receive it. According to Doña Natalia, "The intention is to pay respect to the Earth, in order to receive better crops and a larger harvest." Pachamama is the highest divinity because she influences fertility and abundance, which affect agriculture and therefore, all life.

The origin of this tradition is ancestral, starting with indigenous peoples of the Andes. Although the use of mesas has become somewhat popular among tourists, it is originally central to indigenous identity. "It is a connection between the spiritual realm and the physical world of Earth," Simon explains. "Inspired by cosmology, the ritual calls energies from the stars to grant luck and good health."

Photo: Nick Somers


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