Through my lens: a mountain of devotion

Photographer Christopher Roche reflects on the ‘unforgettable’ experience of walking alongside pilgrims in the Andes

Some 80,000 pilgrims descend upon the Sinakara Valley in the Peruvian Andes each year to celebrate the festival of Qoyllur Rit’i – a mixture of Inca and Catholic traditions. During the final night, bands of ‘ukukus’, characters based on a mythological, bear-like figure, head up to the holy glaciers to perform initiation rituals. At dawn they descend back into the valley, carrying large crosses on their backs.

I was camping on a muddy slope at an altitude of 4,600m so the conditions were not that comfortable. The pilgrims liked to dance and play music (the same tune over and over as far as I could tell) throughout the night, so little sleep was to be had. It was below freezing during the night but the days on the whole were glorious and the thin air only made everything more vivid.

I was corralled into joining in the initiation ceremony, which meant I got whipped by the leader of the ukukus

I hiked up to 5,600m at night to photograph these ukukus descending from the glaciers at
dawn. The full moon made it all the more magical. I was corralled into joining in the initiation ceremony, which meant I got whipped by the leader of the ukukus. It was a symbolic whipping – but stung enough to make sure I’ll remember the event for years to come.

The pilgrims had great respect for the mountains and glaciers, which they considered holy. They were dressed in beautiful costumes and spent much of the time dancing as well as praying. It was wonderful that the pilgrims could gather together over several days – where alcohol was forbidden – to keep their traditions alive and vibrant.

I’m keen to explore people’s thirst to connect with something greater than themselves. These pilgrims were doing just that.

Christopher Roche is an award-winning photographer who documents inspiring aspects of the human condition. His current project, Devotion, explores faith traditions around the world.

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