Feb 5, 2003
The Ch’alla is one of the most common rituals in Andean life. It can be seen in all parts of the Andean region where there is a significant settlement of Quechua or Aymara people, although it is most common in the central Andes (that is to say, the highlands of Peru and Bolivia).
Hans van den Berg gives the Spanish translation of the Aymara word Ch’alla in his Diccionario Religioso Aymara as ‘aspersion [sprinkling]‘ (van den Berg, 1985:48). He goes on to define the term thus:
En muchas oportunidades los aymaras realizan la ceremonia llamada ch’alla. Consiste en derramar un poco de alcohol que se va a tomar sobre el suelo en honor de Ia pachamama; o en asperjar alcohol sobre los implementos que se usa en los ritos o sobre un animal que se va a ser sacrificado. Tambien se realiza la ch’alla de las chacras por motivo de la siembra o en algun momento durante el periodo del crecimiento de las plantas, en el estreno de herramientas de trabajo, cuando se hacen los cimientos de una nueva casa y durante un viaje, cuando se pasa por una cumbre. (van den Berg, 1985:49)
This definition is echoed in many other ethnographies of the cultures of the Andean region. I aim to deal with the phenomenon of the ch’alla in the urban setting, rather than in the rural sphere, about which various works on ritual have already been published.
When in La Paz, Cochabamba, and other large cities in Bolivia, it is easy to see the extent to which the ch’alla is still practised. One need only sit in a bar for a matter of minutes before observing how, before drinking, those present almost absentmindedly tip their glass or bottle to let some liquid spill on the floor, or alternatively dip the tip of their index finger into the glass and then flick the liquid away to the floor. The action is occasionally accompanied by a mumbled prayer to Pachamama, which can be offered on behalf of the group, but this is fairly rare in an informal urban setting, unless the ritual is taking place as part of a larger ‘mesa ritual’.
The word ch’alla has also been ‘hispanized’ to turn it into a verb challar which is used in Bolivia to denote the action of performing ch’alla, and also on occasion, meaning ‘to bless’ (although this usage is used only in relation to Pachamama, and never with reference to the Christian religion).
This simple gesture is the basic element common to all ch’alla rituals; whether performed on a grand scale, or in a home, or indeed, in a bar. The practise is so common and natural for so many urban (or urbanised) Bolivians that many people do not realise that they are performing the action. The arguments for whether rituals are conscious or unconscious actions will follow in a later section. But whether personal or public, innate or learnt, sober or drunk, it is certainly predominently true to say that “Pachamama, Mother Earth, is always toasted before any Andean drinks a beverage” (Bastien, 1978:197).
The pouring of libations (that is, a drink offering to a god) is not an activity which is unique to the Andes. In fact, this ritual activity can be found in most parts of the world, and in diverse religions. There are interesting descriptions of the pouring of libations in other cultures to be found in works by Turner (about the Ndmebu of Zambia) and J. Omosade Awolalu (about the Yoruba of Nigeria).
The other phenomenon to be discussed in this dissertation, is one which is closely linked to that of the ch’alla, in the sense that it is also a ritual performed in honour of Pachamama, and that it is also to ask for her blessing over a person, situation, house or object. The main difference between the mesa ritual (also written as MISA by Hans van den Berg (1985:123)) and the ch’alla is that the mesa ritual is performed only on special occasions (although the action of performing a mesa ritual makes the occasion sacred), and involves some degree of planning and preparation, while the ch’alla, as has already been demonstrated, is a much more spontaneous and less complex activity overall.
In order to avoid any confusion between the Misa Catolica and the Andean Misa to Pachamama, the word Mesa will subsequently be used to signify the offering to be described below, except in quotations, in which case the word should already be in context, and the meaning therefore clear. This confusion is often made, as pointed out by Gabriel Martinez, when he notes that:
“el termino ‘misa’ [es] una de las pronunciaciones alternativas quechuas y aymaras, para la palabra castellana ‘mesa’ como se sabe, aquellas dos lenguas no diferencian fonologicamente nuestras vocales lel e lil y las pronuncian indistintamente, en este realizacion, de un u otra manera” (Martinez, 1987:11)
It should be mentioned that the merging which is occurring in this situation is conceptual as well as linguistic.
The Mesa is a complex offering, made up of many different ingredients and serving many different hinctions. In a subsequent chapter, the ritual of the mesa will be described in full, but at this point it is important to understand how it differs from the ch’alla ritual. Van den Berg defines the Mesa well:
Misa es la palabra mas comun para la ofrenda compleja, es decir para la ofrenda con varios o muchos ingredientes. Es una hoja de papel, sobre Ia cual se colocan, segun la intencion de la ofrenda, una cierta cantidad de elementos vegetales, animales, minerales, alimenticios y diversos. Estos ingredientes constituyen dones olfatorios, alimenticios o especiales para los seres sobrenaturales y simbolizan un determinado deseo (proteccion, suerte, amor, maleficio, etc.). Hay ofrendas benevolas y ofrendas malevolas; es decir, ofrendas que tienen la intencion de conseguir un bien o de hacer mal. De la gran variedad de ofrendas podemos enumerar las siguientes: alta misa, apustal misa, chiwchi misa, ch’iara misa, insinshu misa, janq’u misa, kuti misa, llampu misa, muxsa misa, nanqha misa, salud miss, samina misa. (van den Berg, 1985:123)
Each of the different mesas that he offers as examples have a different function (as can be seen by some of the names: e.g. salud mesa – for health), and different ingredients. All of these mesas can be bought ready-made from stalls in the markets of Bolivia, although many of the women who sell them say they prefer to make them up for each person individually. It is also possible to buy each ingredient separately, and this is common practice for those making a complex or large offering.
As should now be clear, the ch’alla and the mesa are radically different rituals; one complex, the other simple; one relatively pre-planned and organised, the other much more spontaneous. But it is important at this point to realise that the ch’alla itself makes up an important part of the mesa ritual. The problem here is with terminology used by informants. In my experiences performing research in Bolivia, I found that the word ch’alla can be used to mean a number of things:
- the sprinkling of alcohol on the ground as an offering to pachamama (‘challar’)
- the liquid that is poured on the ground in this action (‘hacer una ch’alla’)
- the blessing from pachamama whose petition accompanies the action (‘pedir Ia ch’alla’)
- the gathering of people to ‘bless’ something new (house, car etc.) which will involve the action of (i) (‘Hay una ch’alla en la casa suya hoy dia’)
- an alternative name for the action of burning the mesa ritual, and all the surrounding rituals (‘durante la ch’alla, masticaremos la coca’)
Added to this, the word Mesa also has a couple of different meanings within this context; it can either be the name of the piece of paper, containing the offerings, which is burnt during the ritual, or the name of the ritual itself.
As can be seen, the problems inherent in the terminology used by Bolivians mean that the true symbolism or meaning of what is happening in a situation involving ch’alla or a mesa ritual can easily become confused by those not used to the cultural context, if all the participants are not agreed on the meaning of the words concerned. However, it is hoped that this text will remain sufficiently clear, with added explanation and annotation of meaning when necessary.
As already noted, the ch’alla is performed in a number of situation, both formal and informal, although the mesa ritual is generally reserved for more important occasions. These occasions can include the ‘dedication’ of a new house, or vehicle, a special day in the year eg. Martes de Ch’alla which falls on the same day as Shrove Tuesday in the Christian religion; or the third day of the festival of Todos Santos) or when an individual wishes to seek a blessing for themselves (for suerte, trabajo or amor) or on behalf of someone else (familia, novia, amiga).
The petitioner can choose to buy the mesa themselves from the market, after consulting with the woman who sells the ingredients as to which are the most appropriate chiwchi or misterios (important ingredients to be explained fully later) to include in the offering. Alternatively, it is quite usual for the stall-holder to choose the misterios or chiwchi on the behalf of the petitioner, after looking at them for a moment or two (‘reading’ them). In this case, the petitioner will not know which items have been chosen, and these are ceremonially ‘read’ by the participants of the ritual before the mesa is burnt. It is said that the fortune of the participants can be found in the meaning of the misterios.
A mesa ritual (ie the actual offering made up of various ingredients and presented on a piece of white paper) can cost between five and five hundred Bolivianos (US$1- $100), depending on the complexity and content of the ingredients, as well as the prestige of the woman (witch) who made it. The average mesa costs around seven Bolivianos, and the coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol also necessary for the ritual are then purchased seperately.
This cost is not seen to be unreasonable, considering that the mesa ritual is only performed occasionally (on average, once every three months). Having said this, it is interesting to note that stall-holders and shop-owners in the La Cancha market area of Cochabamba chose to perform the ritual on the first Friday of every month (providing that this does not coincide with a Christian festival, eg Good Friday), as well as at other important events which occur during the year. This adds considerably to their costs, especially when the fact that the ritual is an eminently social occasion, and therefore requires the purchase of more alcohol (usually alcohol puro for the ritual, and beer and chicha for the participants).