19 Jul, 2011 | Nina Triado
It took me a while to find the location, but after asking many people I made my way up to El Alto where I was told I could find a ch’alla. However, not knowing exactly what I was looking for, or what a ch’alla actually looked like, the search was a struggle. Soon after a short walk around one of the streets, the smell of incense and fire came alive. Stalls lined the street one after another, each housing a bench and a small fire. An elderly woman was sitting by one of the fires with a man holding a silver bowl over her head, performing the blessing in Aymara. A man called me over from a few stalls away. After I had squeezed myself onto his bench, he explained to me about the ritual being performed at the adjacent stall. The bowl contained coca leaves, fruits and confetti – a traditional mix of items which are used to perform a ch’alla. By lighting the bowl on fire the man was able to save her from El Tio and cure her physical health.
Generally speaking: to the faithful a ch’alla is seen as a blessing to the Pachamama, through which believers strengthen their relationship with her. Nevertheless, beyond this common cause, practices vary so widely that it is near impossible for us to identify a single definition of a ch’alla. Aymara tradition dictates one rite, other cultures another, and practices not only vary between town and countryside, but also among neighbourhoods. My informant explained the matter from his perspective: an Aymara man from a neighbourhood in El Alto.
In this man’s neighbourhood many people receive a ch’alla every second weekend. However, others believe it should only be practiced during important events such as Carnival. Essentialy, performing ch’alla usually involves spilling some liquid, usually alcohol, on the ground as an offering to the Pachamama. The noun “ch’alla” is originally Aymara, although it has been hispanised to create the verb “challar”, “to bless”. This verbal blend of Spanish and Aymara well characterises the blurring of religious traditions in Bolivia: ch’alla is not a Christian ritual, nevertheless, many Christian Bolivians still practice this ancient Andean rite, emblematic of the syncretism that pervades this diverse country.
The sound of bells began to ring. I looked back over to the stall and saw the man holding a bell in his right hand jingling it first around the lady’s head, and then on her body. The man explained that this noise was to scare away the evil spirit. He continued to tell me that many Aymara people partake in this form of ch’alla as often as once every two weeks in order to keep them away from any danger and to bring luck in their lives.
This ritual also varies from the city to the country-side. Within the city, ch’allas include decorating one’s property or car with coloured streamers and sprinkling alcohol, golden grains, daisy petals and candies all around it. In the countryside however, the ch’allas could include covering the earth with flower petals and burying a pot with cooked potatoes, cigarettes, coca leaves and alcohol to feed the Pachamama. Each ch’alla however has the same motive, a blessing to the Pachamama.
Whatever the cause for the ch’alla rites, they are more commonly practiced in smaller communities than large urban centres. Potosi is an especially interesting example, because the ch’alla takes on a significance specific to the mining community’s environment: it is performed to protect them from El Tio. The miners believe they work under the guidance of this familiar devil, whom they both respect and fear. El Tio must be ‘fed’ and satisfied in order to ensure their working conditions are safe. Twice a year, on three consecutive Saturdays, each mining group sacrifices a llama – in hopes of feeding the hunger of El Tio. Within the mines, each of the 48 mining groups have built thousands of ‘Tios’ out of mud and rocks – and have decorated them with gloves, miners boots, coca leaves, streamers and confetti. They are seen as the ‘observers’ of the mines and are most significant during the ch’alla ritual and festivity time. After the killing of the llama, a man who feels brave enough to face El Tio must nominate himself to run in and splatter llama blood over the statue. The ritual is completed with the celebrations involving wine drinking, coca leaf chewing, and swigging 96% strength alcohol.
The ch’alla ritual is indicative of Bolivian identity; it incorporates both Hispanic and Aymara traditions and through its varied forms of practice embodies a truly Bolivian diversity . But ultimately it is not the details of practice, but the act of blessing itself that generates the common relationship that believers have with the Pachamama.