Dedicated to the memory of John Major Jenkins (1964-2017), without whose scholarship and insight this article would not have been possible.
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Funerary towers, or a technology for ‘catching’ returning souls?
If non-natives of the Andes picture a chullpa at all, they most probably picture one of those megalithic circular towers like the ones portrayed above. The truth of the matter is that not all Andean chullpas are built of stone, neither are they necessarily circular. One of the first people from the English speaking world to study Andean archaeology, Ephraim George Squier (1821-1888) came across a rectangular chullpa made of adobe, when he was making his way to Cusco. Similar chullpas to the one Squier encountered exist further south on the Bolivian Altiplano.
Modern archaeologists generally think of the Sillustani chullpas as funerary towers, since they were often found to contain the mummified remains of the Kolla people, who lived in the Titikaka region from before the time of the Incas. In the Aymara language of the Kollas, the towers were actually called uta amaya, which perhaps gives a us a better clue as to their significance. Uta amaya means, ‘houses of the soul’. Far from being simply places where the dead were laid to rest, the chullpas of Sillustani performed a vital function in the lives of the Kolla people and in their Cosmos. Even though Towers of Sillustani housed the bodies of dead ancestors, they really had nothing at all to do with funerals.
Lords and Ladies of Hatun Kolla
Sillustani’s towers were built for the mummies of the royal members of the Kolla tribes. These were the Lords (and Ladies) of Hatun Kolla, who are spoken of with reverence by local people in this part of the Andes even today. For the present day Aymara peoples, the Hatun Kolla are a link to a lost age, when heroes of mythical proportions inhabited cities that are now lost beneath the waters of Titikaka. Strange as it may seem to us, there may be substance to these Aymara legends.
Hitching-posts of the Sun
The chullpas are not the only archaeological curiosity that Sillustani has to offer. Lying close by are two stone circles that go by the name Intihuatana. The name may be familiar to anyone who has visited Machu Picchu, for it is the name of a megalith there, which is thought to be an astronomical clock. The term Intihuatana comes from the Quechua language and translates as ‘hitching post of the sun’.
So why are the stone circles at Sillustani called hitching-posts of the sun? Well, the notion of hitching the sun so that it appears to stand still in the sky is probably a reference to the solstices. For many traditional cultures around the world, these dates in June and December were important for many reasons. For ancient astronomers, who keenly observed the positions of the rising and setting sun, the solstices presented a remarkable phenomenon. The clue to this phenomenon is in the name solstice itself, which translates from Latin as ‘stop-sun’. Although we may casually talk about the sun´s rising in the East, it actually moves its rising point slightly throughout the year each day. The only exceptions to this are the solstices and the days immediately before and after them, when the sun appears in the same place on three consecutive days.
In the Andes, it seems, a stone that marked the position of the sun’s solstice sunrise was thought of as its ‘hitching post´, because it marked its rising position on those days when it appeared to stand still. This is why the stone circles at Sillustani were known as hitching posts of the sun. Just like Stonehenge in Britain – and numerous other stone circles around the world – many of their principal stones marked either the summer or winter solstices, or both.
Some readers may be familiar with the reasons archaeologists give for why solstices were important to many ancient cultures. These were to do with calendars and the need to mark the seasons for agriculture, hunting and gathering. What is not always appreciated is the importance of the solstices in the cosmology and spirituality of many ancient peoples. If we consider this at Sillustani, then we may gain a greater understanding of how the site – both its stone circles and towers – may have functioned as a whole.
I stated earlier that it is probably better to think of the Sillustani towers as ´houses for souls´ rather than funerary towers. After all, this was how the Kolla people saw them. It turns out that during the June (winter) solstice in the Andes, the towers were the scene of a particular shamanistic ceremony. Remember that the towers housed the mummies of the Hatun Kolla, who were the royal members of the tribe and who probably would have been the shamans of former times.
Every June 21st, the Kolla shaman would perform a ceremony that involved the taking of the San Pedro cactus and other sacred plants. The shaman would crawl into the tower through the small entrance at the bottom and would commune with the souls of the departed ancestors, whose mummified bodies were present there with him. My source for this information told me that this was how the shamans received guidance regarding the conduct and governance of the tribe over the months to come.
Curiously, there is a connection between the solstices and the return of the souls of the dead in many different cultures. The Incas – who later came to use Sillustani themselves – held a feast at the December solstice called Capac Raymi, when they ate, drank and made merry alongside the mummies of the departed. It was the solstice, however, that enabled the souls of the ancestors to return to the physical realm. There is a cosmic logic to these strange customs.
The Solstice Gateways
The solstices are also distinctive because they mark the two times in every year when the path of the sun through the sky (known as the ecliptic) crosses that of the Milky Way. Those who have studied ancient cosmologies from around the world have noted that, in numerous traditional systems, the solstices were when souls were thought, either depart the physical world, or to enter it. Indeed, this doctrine has been found to be so widespread that it has been named the Solstice Gateways.
The age-old question
As with so many other Andean megalithic sites, there is controversy over the age of Sillustani. My research has strengthened my opinion that parts of the Tiwanaku complex date back to the period immediately after the last Ice Age and I am coming round to the view that other megaliths may be even older. Equally, we should not fall into a bear-pit of materialist polemic here. Those of you who followed the link to John Major Jenkins’ technical paper on the Solstice Gateways above, may recognise that not only was this knowledge highly sophisticated and ancient, but it also pervaded many ancient cultures around the world. Perhaps the Lords of Hatun Colla were latter-day custodians of this ancient spiritual science?
If so, then the question of exactly when Sillustani’s megalithic towers were constructed is of secondary importance. Stones were fashioned, dressed and assembled into these ‘houses of souls’ in order to facilitate a very ancient spiritual technology. It might just be that the Hatun Kolla had preserved, what were to them, venerable and esoteric traditions of working megaliths in order to do just that. After all, why else would they have gone to all that trouble if these were just funerary towers?
Stones and cirles