Takanakuy – Peru’s Human Bloodsport

Fighters dancing at Peru's dancing festival
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Dating back to the Spanish conquest of Peru, Takanakuy remains a colourful, bloody festivity in Inca country

This article on Peru first appeared here in the edition of Mint Lounge magazine.

It was already 10pm when the minibus pulled into Santo Tomas. What seemed like a quiet sleepy Peruvian town soon transformed into a chaotic Christmas celebration at the town square. I stood watching a recording of fights from the previous year at a TV shop, among a group of poker-faced people. These fights, a Christmas tradition, were the only reason I had endured an 8-hour back-breaking ride from Cusco.

About 10 hours later, I was back at the square. As I stood there, practically chewing the thick quinoa juice, a large procession of drunken men in masks entered the square. They danced, flapping their hands, almost in an imitation of birds, and spoke in high-pitched voices. Some wore boots and leather pants; others, yellow plastic coats. There were women in this group too, wearing heavy skirts and dancing to a tune I would later find out was called Wayliya.

This was the start of Takanakuy, the Quechua expression for “to hit each other”.

The procession led to the town stadium, which was hosting the largest event in its annual calendar. With people now spread out, it was easier to notice the details of their costumes. Some of the masks were topped with stuffed dead animals and birds such as the concorde. The women had braided their hair and wore hats. They were all downing Cusqueña beer and chicha (fermented black corn juice) with gusto.

Later that evening, I met Juan Cancio Berrio Amezquiz, ex-president of the town’s La Casa De Lo Cultura, which translates loosely as the Culture House. “The tradition of Takanakuy was started by the Spaniards, who, on Christmas Day, enjoyed Pelea De Gallos, a betting game of cockfight. The twist was that here, in Peru, the Spanish organized these fights using African slaves,” said Juan Cancio.

The costumes too had their own significance, he told me. They portray different characters.

A fighter at Peru's fighting festival

“The people of Chumbivilcas, the province of which Santo Tomas is the capital, are known to be brave and aggressive. Even the Inca had troubles controlling this region. So this brutal tradition caught on even without slaves. As it grew, different types of people began to take part. The costumes that you see today are a rendition of those characters.”

Some of the popular costumes are based on the langosta (or locusts), signifying the trail of death left by locusts in the 1940s. Others take their inspiration from the Majeno horse-riders, who live close to the Majes river in the Andes. Throw on a leather biker jacket and cowboy chaps, and the Majeno costume transforms into a Quarawatanna character. Such costumes are popular with the young for their intimidation factor. People wearing yellow jackets, I was told, were representing the miners of the region.

It was time. The occasional drizzle hadn’t managed to dampen spirits. And without any special ritual, the fights began. First, it was teenagers who traded punches and kicks, then the adults. If I was hoping that the fighters would show some mercy to each other, then I was clearly mistaken. Every punch, every kick aimed to hurt the opponent.

The crowd grew more excited with every fight. There didn’t seem to be too many rules—but you couldn’t hit an opponent who had dropped to the ground, or use biting and other such tactics.

Kicking and punching any part of the opponent’s body was totally acceptable, however. Most of the fights lasted less than a minute—and ended with the opponents hugging each other. Some kept smiling even during the fight. These, I was told, were people who were fighting for amistoso, or friendship. Of all the aspects of Takanakuy, this one is the least known outside Chumbivilcas. People fight for other reasons too, parading the arena and calling out the names of their opponents. It could be to resolve an issue, to avenge a humiliation, to display machismo, or over a woman. Children fight too and sometimes women do as well, depending on the community.

Another interesting set of characters at the Takanakuy are the Ronderos, the unofficial police of rural Peru. These volunteers from the local community, who resolve matters and dispense justice, are in charge of the fights. Wielding horsewhips, they control both the crowds and the fighters.

“You know, it is a form of social catharsis, letting go of negative energy and emotions. For the Chumbivilcas aggression, Takanakuy is better than to have people fight each other outside of it,” Juan Cancio adds wisely.

The fights came to an end by late afternoon. Aided by a few Cusqueñas, I joined the Wayliya after-party, but decided to call it a day soon after a drunk man demanded that I dance with his sister.

Takanakuy is not a single-day affair. What starts in Santo Tomas then spreads to the villages in the region. The age-old and seemingly bizarre tradition is also slowly gaining popularity across the country. Fights are even being organized towards the year-end in major cities such as Lima and Cusco.

The next morning, I was on my way to Llique, a village 30 minutes away from Santo Tomas, to witness what is known as the gathering of the best fighters from the region. The fights here are more brutal. Almost every other fighter was bleeding, from the nose or lips. Blood dripped on the moist December earth as they walked back to the crowd.

Kids fight at Peru's fighting festival

It was almost time for me to leave, but not before attempting one last thing.

I decided to have a go myself.

And just like that I walked into the arena. They were probably laughing at the sight of a gringo with a death wish.

Less than a minute later, I was staring at the sky as blood trickled from my eyebrow. I had lost the fight. My opponent and I hugged; we had fought for amistoso.

It was easy to smile despite the pain. It may seem weird and brutal, but Takanakuy makes a positive social contribution. Most people agree that it helps avoid some amount of crime. And in many ways, fist-fights are certainly a better way to resolve conflicts than guns.

At least they get to start the New Year with a clean slate. And more importantly, they’re all still alive.

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  • Skyler Haupt says:

    Interesting & brutal! Haha – I can’t believe you fought, too. That’s an awesome story! Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks Skyler. It was one of the 12 challenges I was supposed to take. Turned out to be a lot more frightening than I had anticipated it to be. But yes an experience of a lifetime. You must go too! Regardless of whether you want to fight or not 🙂

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