by Ashley Cowie
BELIEVED TO BE A GIFT FROM THE CREATOR GOD VIRACOCHA, INCA PRIESTS IN THE TEMPLE OF THE SUN IN CUZCO, PERU, USED THE GOLDEN SUN DISC TO CONTROL THE SPIRITUAL HEALTH OF THEIR ENTIRE EMPIRE.
The Golden Sun Disk was used to control 41 ceke lines (energy lines) which emanated from the Temple across the entire Inca territory which were believed to control the spiritual climate of the Inca people, who made ritual offerings at alters and shrines located upon these ceke lines. Inca priests regarded the Temple of the Sun as the center of the known universe, and the Golden Sun disc was located at the ‘center of the center. But it was thought of as more than an artefact with divine powers, it was seen as actual divinity on Earth, the God Button if you like. This second article recounts my search for the Golden Sun Disk in the mountains of Peru.
THIS SEVEN-FEET WIDE DISC OF ‘TRANSLUCENT GOLD’ VANISHED FROM THE TEMPLE OF THE SUN SOMETIME IN THE WEEKS PRECEDING THE 11TH OF NOVEMBER OF 1535, WHEN FRANSISCO PIZARRO’S SPANISH TROOPS INVADED CUZCO AND ARRESTED MANCO INCA, THE LEADER OF THE INCA PEOPLE.
Manco escaped and amassed almost quarter of a million Inca warriors in the jungles surrounding Cuzco, declared war on the Spanish Empire, and demanded they leave immediately. But the Spanish weren’t going anywhere.
A brutal jungle war for Cuzco was fought for almost a full year until Manco’s people retreated to the last city of the rebel Inca empire, Vilcabamba, almost than 100 miles north west of Cuzco. Located on the Chontabamba River, a tributary of the Urubamba River, Manco Inca founded Vilcabamba in 1539 as the capital city of the Neo-Inca State. For two years the Pizarro brothers searched the Andes for Manco and in April 1539 they discovered Vilacamba and captured his wife, Queen Cura. The Pizarro brothers stripped her naked, strapped her to a tree and spent hours ‘firing volumes of bamboo arrows into her body’ before floating her punctured torso down the Vilcanota River in a basket, where it would eventually be found by Manco. Mountains between Cuzco and the Vilcabamba region.
On June 23, 1541 the game changed when Francisco Pizarro was assassinated in Lima by two of his own men, who had become jealous of the personal gold wealth he had amassed for himself. The assassins subsequently sought refuge with Manco Inca who welcomed them in, but in 1544, after many guerrilla battles in the mountainous regions of Vilcabamba, the two assassins murdered Manco fulfilling a deal with the King of Spain who in return for Manco’s assassination, promised them pardon for having murdered Pizarro.
Manco was stabbed while playing a game with the two Spaniards, who were quickly arrested and killed, an he was succeeded by his son Sayri Tupaq Inca who continued to hide out in the Vilcabamba region until 1572 when it fell to Spanish control, after which the city was destroyed then lost, becoming the fabled ‘Lost City of the Incas’.
THE SEARCH BEGINS
When Manco Inca retreated in 1535 and founded the Neo-Inca capital city of Vilcabamba, one of the first tasks he would have undertaken would have been to erect a new central Temple of the Sun so that the people could maintain their daily worship of the sun god Inti. Because the sun disk was regarded as the centre of the Inca’s universe, the fulcrum of their entire cosmovison, it would have been reinstalled in a new Temple where it would have been used by the priests as an anchor in their solar rituals and ceremonies, and most importantly to regain control the national ceke lines which flowed across the Inca state.
I had spent a week in Cuzco meeting archeologists and specialists at the most important Inca ritual sites, learning about the old Inca believes. Having gained a basic overview of Andean cosmovision we were ready to launch our expedition to the Villcambamba district in search of Manco’s personal residence, a remote mountaintop structure known to Inca’s as the jewel of Puncuyoc – Inca Wasi.
ONCE THOUGHT TO BE AN ISOLATED STRUCTURE, INCA WASI’S INCREDIBLE LEVEL OF PRESERVATION MAKES IT A RARETY AMONG INCA RUINS, BUT IT’S WAY, WAY OFF THE BEATEN TRACK.
Inca Wasi is located at 13’000 ft about 90 miles north of Cuzco and 20 miles from the Neo-Inca capital, Vilcabamba.
If fact, in 2011 only seven people attempted to make the climb to Inca Wasi, five of whom made it and the other two gave in half way there. We left Cusco at 8am and drove passed endless lines of spiritual tourists marching to Machu Picchu hoping to catch some Inca wisdom, and after 18 gruelling hours navigating the broken Inca Trail, mudslides, floods and fallen trees, in a convoy of reconditioned 1980’s – 4×4’s, we eventually reached Vilcabamba and met our expedition team, who had already started to set up camp at the foot of the mountain trails.
Our expedition crew rallying together at the foothills of the Vilcabamba region.
We were to spend the next ten days exploring remote mountain ranges in Peru and we had a lot of camera equipment and stores, so we had a 40-man strong expedition, composing of 18 Inca mountain guides with 16 horses, 8 production fixers, 4 drivers, 2 cooks and a the 8 man documentary film crew.
The next morning before setting off we double checked that our filming equipment was properly secured to the horses. This expedition cost in excess of $100’000 so getting to the top of Inca Wasi to find a camera was broken, or that the microphone didn’t work, was simply not an option. On top of food, water and other survival essentials we had waterproof camera and audio housings, equipment tents, industrial battery charging units, lighting equipment and two of everything – just in case!
We followed traces of Inca road, immaculately laid stonework, as it snaked its way across the landscape, sometimes disappearing completely, then re-appearing precisely were one needed it most! Inca roads are like magic writing. You can see nothing in front of you – but a change of angle or a difference in the light, and you suddenly see a line traversing a ridge, usually unnaturally high, as Incas preferred to travel at height and always walk instinctively on the high side of any given valley.
FOR 3 LONG DAYS AND NIGHTS WE ENDURED VICIOUS STORMS AS WE NAVIGATED THE FOOTHILLS OF THE INCA TRAIL TOWARDS OUR ULTIMATE GOAL, THE SUMMIT OF INCA WASI, ONE OF THE HIGHEST BUILDINGS IN THE NEO-INCA EMPIRE.
Seven hours later we arrived at White Rock (Yurak Rumi in Quechua) the legendary home of the great Yurak Rumi Inca Oracle. When Hiram Bingham came to Peru in 1911, searching for the Lost City of the Inca, one of his top priorities was locating White Rock, an intricately carved granite boulder the size of a double decker bus, which for over 600 years was one of the holiest shrines, located upon one of the most important ceke lines, in the Inca Empire.
The Incas reshaped massive natural rocks so that they best suited the state ideology and their mystical solar religion, and they became ‘huacas’ (sacred sites located on ceke lines). Boulders such as we find at White Rock “were symbols of commemoration, state identidy, mediation, and the cosmos and they enhanced the Incas’ perception of their sacred relationship with nature and the land (Van de Guchte, 1999).”
A ROCK, ONCE CARVED, WAS WORSHIPPED BY THE INCAS IN A WAY QUITE FOREIGN TO US. EMBEDDED IN THE EARTH, THESE SCULPTED MANIFESTATIONS OF THE SACRED WERE CONNECTED WITH THE POWERS OF THE UNDERWORLD AND BECAME VENERATED WHEN ENHANCED BY ELABORATE CARVING.
“Sculpted outcroppings, as huacas, were an important part of cosmological symbolism regarding the three worlds of the Incas (Paternosto, 1989).”
When Manco Inca died his son Sayri Tupac took charge of the scattered Inca Empire and like his father, he resided in Villcabamba. From here he could safely retreat in any direction if the city came under Spanish attack. After the Spanish sent a message to Sayri Tupac promising him a peaceful life if returned to Cuzco, he ‘consulted the Oracle’ to ask whether or not to accept the Spanish offer. The two previous times he had asked the Oracle the answer had been negative, but this third time, the Oracle said ‘yes’ and Tupac moved back to his beloved Cuzco, leaving his brother behind to rule the Vilcabamba.
White Rock (Yurak Rumi in Quechua) the legendary home of the great Yurak Rumi Inca Oracle. Looking north.
The White Rock Oracle is like nothing I had ever seen before. I’m from Scotland and I know all about standing stones, but this boulder is around 400 tonnes in weight and it has been carved so intricately that it almost looks mechanical in nature. In many ways the rocks function was mechanical, in that it was essentially a great big sun and moon dial.
Over the course of a year the shadows which are cast across its five faces highlight certain notches and protrusions, and to the trained Inca eye these patterns indicated when to plant seeds, harvest crops and when animals should be impregnated. Natural features in landscapes which were used to record time and predict seasonal changes became sacred, and over time White Rock became the most sacred site in the Neo-Inca Empire of the Villcabamba.
WE ALL KNOW THE TERM, BUT WHAT EXACTLY DOES IT MEAN TO ‘CONSULT AN ORACLE’?
Most archeologists agree that “asking an Oracle” has something to do with observing the weather. Say before an expedition into a new territories, the group leader consulted the Oracle to ask if the gods supported the adventure. If the sun shone and the sky was bright and blue, it might have been said that the gods smiled on the progress of that group of people, and likewise, if it poured and was cloudy and windy, then perhaps the expedition didn’t have approval from the gods.
Having slept with my head resting against the Oracle, the next morning we set off at 5.30 am and 6 hours later arrived at the edge of a 1000 feet deep gorge where we had planned to cross into the sacred Vilcabamba region. A massive landslide had engulfed the road leaving us with only two options, a 75 mile diversion adding two days onto the expedition, or we could somehow engineer a way to cross the gorge.
The engineer in our team of fixers had noticed some water engineers about 10 miles back, who were renowned for building zip-lines and make-shift bridges over landslides and gorges, landslides being a daily occurrence. Having a fist full of American dollars it wasn’t hard to ‘re-employ’ the engineers for the day and over the next eight hours they, and all the village folk, and us, constructed an impressive makeshift zip-line over the gorge.
ONE WE HAD TESTED IT WITH SEVERAL SLIDES OF WOOD AS BALLAST, WE BEGAN SENDING EQUIPMENT AND PEOPLE OVER TO THE OTHER SIDE IN A TERRIFYING METAL BASKET.
THE DEVIL WITHIN
Having been absorbed in Andean cosmology and legends of Inca artiefacts for several months, we could almost smell the translucent gold of the Golden Sun Disk in our nostrils, but first, I had a deadly adversary to deal with that was casting a shadow on the entire expedition…
In 2009, on my 36th birthday, I lost 15lbs in one week, passed out in a restaurant and woke up in a hospital the next day, where I was promptly diagnosed as an insulin dependant Type 1 diabetic. My pancreas had stopped producing insulin and I would be required to inject insulin 6 or 8 times a day, as I currently do, for the rest of my life. I was only two years into my new condition. It generally takes newly diagnosed patients at least two years to come out of denial, and to really start learning about all of the diseases moving parts, and to deal with the condition appropriately through diet and exercise and mathematics.
I was about to lead an expedition of 40 people, six days deep, and 13’500 feet high into the Peruvian Andes. The challenge was immense for even the fittest members of our team, and I had this demon chewing at my stomach – what if I was the person that couldn’t make it? Imagine organising all this and then being “that guy”. I was some pressure, thats a fact.
The dynamics and dangers associated to an expedition like this are many, but equally, are those of diabetes. What people don’t realise is that when you see a Type 1 Diabetic gazing out a window, they generally aren’t taking in the view, they are calculating the following:
HOW MUCH SUGAR DID I HAVE FOR BREAKFAST? HOW FAR HAVE I WALKED SINCE? HOW LONG TILL LUNCH? I’M EATING OUT, WILL THEIR BE FAT IN MY LUNCH? WILL I WALK AFTER LUNCH? AM I STRESSED? WILL I BE STRESSED LATER? AM, I AT ALL UNWELL? DID I HAVE SEX THIS MORNING?
All these questions, and volumes more, need answered repeatedly through the day by Type 1’s Diabetics, for all these factors raise and lower ones blood glucose level. We need to know these answers to these questions, and many more, to accurately match the insulin we are injecting with the carbohydrates we are consuming.
If I overexerted myself, which was inevitable, my blood sugar level could have dropped too low and if this is not treated immediately it results in a coma. Its that simple. Diabetics and sugar are like cars and petrol. If you don’t top up regularly they stop and need towed away! Furthermore, if I fell into a coma and didn’t get medical attention within 4 hours, it would be game over for me.
You see, Type 1 Diabetes is unique to every patient, essentially because we all metabolise at different rates, and this constantly changes with age. Before we set off I spent an hour with the expedition medic so he could try and understand my version diabetes. We calculated that we were about to undertake the equivalent of running two marathons, in one week, which would require an enormous amount of carbohydrates to achieve. You need approximately 300 grams of carbohydrates, consumed throughout the day to maintain a balanced energy level. I would need 900 grams a day to get to Inca Wasi and back, alive.
The production team had employed a company of French fixers who knew the Villcabamba region. They had a great reputation for fixing problems and making things work, and in their team they had a rope specialist, a tracking and map specialist, an electrical engineer, two experienced drivers and two translators to handle the local variances in language from region to region.
As a rule, I never expect anybody to look after my illness and I avoid it weighing on anybody. I take pride on being totally self sufficient and dealing with it myself. This being the case, I had prepared a waterproof cooler stuffed with different types of sugar/carbohydrate stocks. Chocolate and candy for quick release sugar hits and bananas and brown bread for when I needed slow release carbs, depending on whatever we were doing at any given time.
I gave my cooler box to one of the Inca guides and personally watched him strap it onto a pack horse. We were sorted, and it was time to get on with getting to the top of the Andes and hopefully locating the lost Golden Sun disk.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
THE CLIMB TO INCA WASI
Over the next two days we navigated dense rainforests and eventually came above the tree line and began crossing exposed mountain plateaus. We trekked past endless unexplored Inca agricultural settlements and ruined farm building, walls and luxury structures like stone baths cut into river banks.
All the way a nasty thunder storm followed us which rendered survival essentials like lighting fires at night and heating food and water, virtually impossible. Thick fog reduced our visibility to 5 meters at times and our spirits were almost crushed by the end of day 4, added to by the fact that parts of the climb were so steep that we had to pull up the horses carrying the equipment. As expected, at around 9’000 feet the horses began to suffer exhaustion and we had to leave them behind.
PREDICTABLY, WHEN ONE REACHES THE TWO-THIRDS STAGE OF MOST CHALLENGES THE WEAK AND THE STRONG FORM TWO DISTINCT FACTIONS. IT TAKES A SPECIAL SORT OF CHARGE, A PASSION, A STRENGTH, TO CLIMB THE LAST WALL IN ANY CHALLENGE.
By the end of the fourth day, 3 of the expedition team began showing symptoms of exhaustion and they opted to stay behind with the horses and excess equipment. The temptation is to motivate, encourage and lift those who buckle, but we all had enough to carry and people who ‘give in’ only serve to hold back those with a drive. One has to accept that in life there are hunters and farmers, and we had no time to train farmers how to hunt.
On the morning of day five, a seven strong film crew, led by Field Producer Kinga Phillips, and 10 Inca mountain guides set off for the summit and after 9 hours hiking we reached a plateau at around 12’500 feet where we set up camp to recharged all the filming equipment in preparation for our hike to the summit the next morning.
We didn’t sleep a wink that night as the gods had sent a storm to cap all storms. In the darkness we struggled to pin down tarpaulins and made every attempt to keep the filming equipment dry, waiting for the sun to rise.
The summit came into view with the first light around 5.00am. Let me remind you, we were at 12’500 feet altitude, 9 hours from the expedition, and a week from the closest hospital. I had 120 grams of carbohydrates left in a tube of syrup in my pocket and all my carb stores were untouched, waiting for this moment. I felt strong and ready to climb to Inca Wasi. The medic and I got together and did our maths. Each of us was carrying about 40 lbs of equipment and it was around 1000 feet to the summit, but it was a nearly vertical climb. The air was thinner, so my sugar absorption would be greater. We finally worked out that I needed about 300 grams of carbs to make it half way to the summit.
I TURNED TO THE FRENCH FIXER AND ASKED HIM FOR MY CARBOHYDRATE SUPPLY BOX. HE WALKED OFF AND AFTER THREE, THEN FOUR, THEN FIVE SLOW MINUTES HE RETUNED TO THE GROUP WITH HIS HEAD SLUMPED, AND BE WHISPERED IN A DEEP FRENCH ACCENT ‘THE BOX OF CARBS IS BACK WITH THE HORSES, 9 HOURS BACK DOWN THE MOUNTAIN.’
Through the storm, the team looked at me with utter terror in their faces, rightly so. They all instinctively started banging their pockets furiously looking for anything with sugar. The medic had a syringe of pure glucose in his kit which would revive me from a coma for a hour or so, but it was useless as the camp was 9 hours away. In an act of compassion which I can never repay, Kinga turned on the French fixer and in a display of raw female fury, she tore him a new ass hole, at around 12’500 feet.
Ashley thinking his number was up.
I needed to think sharp and fast. I distanced from the group until I was out of sight in the fog, were I kneeled down on a rock to think. Everything in my world became so vivid, so colourful and real. I could smell everything so clearly. My survival instincts were peaking! I started so smile tightly, with terror, if that makes any sense?
All I could think was “this is it, you pushed it too far”. I started to think not of survival, but of my parents and brother. It was upon checking my phone to see if I had enough battery to make a good bye video, that everything changed. WTF? I was letting myself be consumed with morbid thoughts and I was spiralling downwards. With no spiritual allusions or connotations, an instinctual fire rose from my toes and spread through out my body like a cloak of invincibility. I gritted my teeth and thought “I need to man up and fix this now”.
IT’S NOT EVERY DAY YOU FACE DEATH AT 12’000 FEET. THIS WAS ALL SO NEW TO ME AND I HAVE NEVER BEEN SO CONSCIOUS OF EXISTING IN THE HERE AND NOW. BOTH THE PAST AND FUTURE WERE A MILLION MILES AWAY FROM ME.
I returned to the group who were so stressed, angry and upset. We ripped through our day packs looking for any form of carbohydrate and we came up with two chocolate bars and a couple of apples. This was enough carbs for about one hour of walking, which means even if we headed back downhill to the horse and the camp site, I would have be unconscious for 8 hours depending on the storms which surrounded us, and my brain would have been damaged beyond repair.
The french fixer, whose neglect had threatened my life, had the 9 Inca mountain guides huddled around him, and we could see that he was communicating our dire situation. But he had a degree of excitement in his demeanor, and before long he and the group of Incas scuttled away into the fog.
It crossed our minds that the heat might have got to much for him, and that he and the Inca’s had abandoned us, and rather than dealing with a man-slaughter charge, would tell the authorities that we had wandered of filming and got lost. NBC Universal were insured to the hilt for my condition, and the fixing company had been highly vetted before hand, but this guy was fatal in every single way. An utter hips-up of a human. In an expedition you must depend on you team, and this one person had cast us into the most terrible place imaginable.
If I had fallen on a cliff and died looking for the Golden Sun Disk it would have been quick and final. But watching my blood sugar level dropping, and seeing the chocolate slowly vanish, it was like being in an open air torture chamber waiting to die. The medic kept reminding me that talking was using up energy and further dropping my blood sugar levels.
AFTER 15 LONG MINUTES THE INCAS BEGAN TO REAPPEAR FROM THE FOG. THEY HAD ALL LEFT IN DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS BUT THEY RETURNED TOGETHER, SMILING. THEY HUDDLED AROUND ME AND PUSHED THEIR HAND-WOVEN SHOULDER BAGS AT ME, WHICH WERE FILLED WITH A FIRE ENGINE RED, SUGAR FILLED PICHUBERRIES.
The Inca’s knowledge of the natural resources in their ancestral landscapae allowed them, in this apparently remote and baron landscape, to produce sugar upon demand. The French fixer did ‘the walk of smug‘ but toned it down after another fire-stare from Kinga. I ate about half a pound of Pichuberries to make sure I was covered with enough sugar, and it took me a good three hours to shake off the morbid thoughts that had taken a proper hold of my psyche.
Fours later we approached the sacred lakes surrounding the summit of Inca Wasi and spent the entire afternoon searching the foundations and ruins surrounding Inca Wash looking for any signs of the Sun Disk. We didn’t expect to find it lying around, but this was where Manco Inca lived when he retreated from the Spanish invasion of Cuzco, and he had the disk!
Then at 2pm Inca Wasi came into view. We had risk everything, life and limb, and we were about to shoot the scene when I made a singular observation pertaining to the location of the Golden Sun Disk, which the Peruvian archeological community have since taken very seriously. But that’s next weeks article…
Copyright 2016 Ashley Cowie
Presented with author’s permission
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Exploring the world making films, writing books and blogging about lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and arts, the origins of legends and myths, architecture, symbols, artefacts and treasures.