Sunday, March 07, 2010

The conquest story revealed. And coming up...

Alright -- it’s time to get more direct. February was full of strange posts that had to do with a famous conquest in history. Which conquest was this and why wasn’t I referring to it more directly? The reason is a decidedly vain one. Just as the hero in an Indian movie has to make a special, memorable entry, so I too was looking for some grand way in which to begin writing about my travels of last December and January. And if my attempt only made you yawn and put you to sleep -- well, at least it served some purpose.

So let me get it out of the way: the story I was referring to was the conquest of the Incas. The mountain range along whose length the kingdom had its domain is the Andes; HC, the king in the first part, is Huayna Capac; the warriors from the ocean were Spanish conquistadors, the battle-efficient beasts they ride are horses (which the Incas had never seen before, hence the belief that the men were half-men, half-beasts); the captain of the invading warrior army, FP, is Francisco Pizzaro; HS, one of Huayna Capac’s sons, is Huascar; the other son, AH -- the protagonist of the story, who was kidnapped by the Spaniards -- is Atahualpa; the capital city C, is the 11000-feet high Andean city of Cuzco; the northern city, Q, is Quito; M, where the history-changing, woefully one-sided battle was fought and lost by the Incas, is the city of Cajamarca. Finally, the symbol with the intersecting pieces is the Christian cross, and the box with the creased pads and strange printed symbols, which Atahualpa threw in irritation, is the Bible.

I hid the names deliberately to tickle your curiosity, but by not talking about the horses, the beards of the Spaniards, the cross and the Bible directly, I was also trying to capture the disorientation of the Incas who had never seen such things before. (They did not have a writing system but that did not impede them from running an efficiently administered empire; they did have complex knotted strings, called qhipu, which clearly had some sort of accounting function, if not more).

The Andean empire of the Incas was the last completely isolated empire in the world. That makes their achievements even more special and original, but it also made them vulnerable to the Spaniards who came with the knowledge and resources of both Europe and Asia, a much larger, more contiguous, more diverse and better connected landmass than the Americas.

My twenty-day visit to Peru and Bolivia inspired the posts, as did John Hemming's magisterial and impeccably researched The Conquest of the Incas. In the next weeks and months, I will write about the history of these countries, provide photographs, excerpts from books, and discuss current affairs. Bolivia, where Evo Morales was recently reelected, presents a fascinating study in popular left wing movements. That is precisely the reason I visited the city of La Paz, whose politics is as dramatic as its impossibly high setting (at over 12,000 feet, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world).

Watch this space, then. The posts won’t come all at once or regularly, but come they will.


Krishnan said...

Hari, I am hooked.

Brendan said...

Hi Hari

I'm really looking forward to these upcoming posts. Check out the book
"The White Rock An Exploration of the Inca Heartland" by Hugh Thomson
(Overlook Press, NY and Woodstock: 2001) I think you might love this book given your interests in the region.

Federico Helfgott Seier said...

Good posts Hari, here's a link to a recent story about qhipu collections that remained in the hands of andean communities (though the knowledge of how to use them mostly died out):
It's based on the research of Frank Salomon, who has a book about this (I think in English it's called The Chord Keepers). That was based on his research in the province of Huarochiri, he then went to Rapaz, where the New York Times article is focused.

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