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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 October 2007, 08:43 GMT
Bolivia's offerings to Mother Earth
By James Ingham
BBC News, Bolivia

Although the majority of Bolivia's population is Catholic, many believe not just in a Christian God but one they have worshipped for millennia.

Indigenous and Christian beliefs have fused together here. God is worshipped but, just as important, is Pachamama or Mother Earth.

The Aymara people have lived in the Andes for more than 2,000 years, pre-dating the Incas who ruled over large parts of the west of South America.

An indigenous woman sells a llama foetus in Witches Street, La Paz, Bolivia
The llama foetus is considered sacred by many in Bolivia
Many of their traditional beliefs remained intact during the later Spanish colonisation and they still survive today.

In Bolivia, more than half the population consider themselves indigenous Indians. The Aymara is one of the biggest groups.

Even the president respects their ancient rituals.

In the steep, cobbled, back streets of La Paz, Bolivia's administrative capital, it is easy to see these traditions being practised.

Witches' market

The area is busy. Day-to-day life is a constant bustle, with women selling fruit and vegetables, sitting alongside friends flogging alpaca wool hats to tourists.

We live and eat from the land. Pachamama is our mother and we have to respect her
Juana, spiritual healer
Here small shops and wooden stalls are stacked high with potions, charms, and herbs, and not too pleasant looking llama foetuses. More on them later.

Behind each one stands a woman, waiting patiently for her services to be needed.

In one of these stalls I got chatting to Juana and Ivan, a husband and wife team said to have a special gift.

Juana is a practising Yatiri, a spiritual healer.

Llama foetuses for sale in market
Llama foetuses are offered for sale in Bolivian markets
She learnt the craft from her father who was, in turn, guided by his father.

Her family, she says, has been blessed for generations, but she told me that of five children she is the only one with this power.

"I realised when I was nine that I could heal," she said. "I helped my mother and sisters when they got ill."

When she was 16 she started working on the stall, slowly taking over the business that has been on this spot for half a century.

For 12 years this very calm and gentle woman has been helping people who are sick and trying to bring them good luck.

Pachamama

"We live and eat from the land," Juana said.

Woman making offering
The offering included sugar tablets, herb and wool

"Pachamama is our mother and we have to respect her."

Many people burn offerings, hoping Pachamama will bring them good luck, health, fortune and happiness.

Juana offered to make me an offering too.

She began by spreading a base of herbs on a large sheet of paper. Then she started sifting through a box of small rectangular tablets made from sugar. Each one had a symbol on it - a house, a dollar bill, hearts, a star or a book.

She chose one with the outline of a condor, a giant South American bird. It would, she said, bring me positive energy and peace.

Wrapped in silver leaf

Another, with a picture of a nearby mountain, would bless me on my travels and she added another tablet that she told me would protect my health.

The offering was growing in size.

Map of Bolivia including the administrative capital La Paz

Next, were walnuts - again for health - sweets shaped like llamas - an animal that is so much a part of life here - more sugar cubes, then llama wool, the clothing of Pachamama.

On top of all this she placed a llama foetus.

If you were to dig up most Bolivian homes, you would find one of these buried beneath the foundations.

They are a gift to Pachamama, a way of apologising for cutting into her. They are an important part of any offering and are said to be very lucky.

The smoke swirling in circles was a sure sign of good luck

Next, she wrapped gold and silver leaf around the foetus, and added some llama meat, and incense, presumably to make the concoction smell nicer as it burnt.

Ivan meanwhile was chopping wood. Most people take their offering home to burn them there, but I did not think my hotel would be happy with that idea and I was sure Ivan could build a better fire.

He sent me off to buy some bottles of beer which we would use for a toast.

So right there on the street, next to the stall, we made the offering.

Lucky

I placed the packet onto the wood and made my request to Pachamama.

With a little fuel, the fire took hold quickly. We toasted Pachamama with the beer, asking other stall holders to join in and wish me well.

James Ingham burns offering
An offering was burnt and prayers made to Pachamama

I should tell you at this point that I am soon to become a father for the first time and so my wishes from Pachamama naturally concerned the future for my child.

Juana was delighted and seemed genuine when she told me that the offering was being well received.

The smoke swirling in circles was a sure sign of this, apparently, and meant good luck.

The beer, she said, was particularly sweet, again a sign of luck.

She seemed really content when a man - no-one knew who he was - approached the fire seemingly transfixed by the flame.

"This is very lucky," she said. "And it means you'll have a son."

I will wait and see.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 27 October, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Bolivia
18 Sep 07 |  Country profiles


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