BOLIVIA’S TWIN ORIGINS: TIAHUANACO AND SUCRE
Bolivia, the fabled land of airy cities tucked in the steep valleys abruptly splitting the rugged highlands plateaux, is also the country of origins and proud pursuit of freedom. In fact, Bolivia has two beginnings, one mythical, the other historical. In the mists of time, as tribes of primitive humans populated the shores of Lake Titicaca and the slopes of the Andean Cordilleras, the divine sibling couple, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, landed on the Island of the Sun and the Island of the Moon, right in the middle of Lake Titicaca. They brought with them culture and civilization and proceeded to teach the local human population the arts and crafts of farming, animal husbandry, forging metals, weaving textiles, etc. From Lake Titicaca, the godly civilizers of the human race marched on to found their imperial city of Cuzco and start a gods-begotten Inca ruling family. And while Bolivian lands and waters brought forth the foundational story of the civilization that would shape and organize much of western South America (Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina), Bolivia has for the longest stretch of its history been fully incorporated as Upper Peru within hegemonic imperial states of Inca Tahuantisuyu and Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru. Until the revolutionary tremors of the Romantic early 19th century, when Bolivia’s second beginning took shape. It was in Bolivia’s future capital of Sucre that the liberal revolutionary movement for liberation of South American nations from Spanish domination throbbed into existence even before Simón Bolívar refined his vision of free and united South America, modeled on the precedents of France and the United States. And even though it was the last country to gain independence from Spain after the routing of the very last remnants of Spanish armed forces, the newborn state marked its watershed beginning by adopting the name of Bolivia, in honor of the El Libertador, and setting up its capital in the newly renamed city of Sucre, after the national hero and valiant general who carried through the ultimate victory over the Spanish empire.
Fittingly with its defiant character, Bolivia is the epitome of freedom-loving nation sharing power between two capitals. Post-independence, the 19th century in Bolivian politics unfolded as a tapestry featuring the resentment and rivalry between the de iure capital of Sucre, and its de facto contender La Paz, until a sustainable solution was worked out in 1898. La Paz was inaugurated as the executive and legislative seat, while Sucre remained the judicial and constitutional capital. This was a significant triumph for Sucre, long known as the social and literary capital of Bolivia, all the way back while it was still part of Upper Peru. Indeed, Sucre attained its fame throughout colonial Spanish America as the “Athens of Peru.” This wasn’t mere provincial boasting: as early as 1624, the oldest university in South America was founded by Jesuits in the then city of La Plata. At the Universidad Mayor, Real y Pontifical de San Francisco Xavier, the oldest and most prestigious law and medical schools were established. Since late 20th century, owing to its cultural riches and significance for the development of world civilizations, Sucre has been declared and protected as the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The extent to which Sucre is central to Bolivian history, its present and future, can be glimpsed from the chronicles of its name changes. The bass chord through all the turmoils and transitions of subjection and governance is sounded in the city’s motto: Aqui nació la Libertad (Here was freedom born), aptly reflecting the story of the country’s two beginnings as well. In its turbulent history, the modern city of Sucre has gone under four different names, each of which tells a special story of the city’s ruling powers and characteristic spirit at a particular epoch. Las ciudad de los cuatro nombres, “the city of four names” started out as the old Aymara town of Charcas. Upon Spanish conquest in 1539, it was renamed as La Plata, after the stream of silver flowing from the nearby mines of Potosi. Throughout the colonial period, the city also went by its local native name of Chuquisaca, the seat of the Charcas audiencia in Upper Peru, which itself was part of the Viceroyalty of Lima including Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Chile. The first “grito libertario” (shout for freedom) in the entire South America rang out in Sucre in 1809, signaling the start of the Bolivian independence movement. The principal setting for these momentous events was the House of Freedom (la Casa de Libertad), which has become the home of the Bolivian Declaration of Independence. At the long last, the city was baptized with its current name in 1825 following José Antonio de Sucre’s victory at the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824. Bolivia attained independence in 1825 when Simón Bolívar visited Upper Peru, and shortly afterwards, in 1839 Sucre was declared capital of Bolivia, exactly three centuries after it was reestablished as the Spanish colonial city of La Plata.
The economic fortunes of Sucre, while it was still known as La Plata and Chuquisaca, were closely tied with the fabulously copious deposits of silver and tin in its immediate surroundings. For that reason, Sucre was not only a major university center, the seat of the Supreme Court, and a big banking hub – the city of immaculately white facades and myriads of churches and cathedrals was also tightly connected with the mining town of Potosi. The silver-mining town of Potosi and the cone hill of Cerro, where silver and tin had been extracted for centuries, elicited as much explorers’ interest and travelers’ admiring gasps as the urban gems of Sucre and La Paz: “pink, purple, lavender, brown, gray, and yellow streaks make it look as though the gods, having finished painting the universe, had used this as a dumping ground for their surplus pigments,” in the words of the American archeologist Hiram Bingham (120).
Bolivia’s other capital, La Paz, commands attention as “the highest metropolis in the world,” situated in the foothills of the towering snowcaps of Mount Illimani, itself the tallest peak of the Bolivian Andes. According to legend, La Paz is “the only walled city whose ramparts were built by God” (Clark 282). Another intriguing comparison helps frame Bolivia in a different perspective than the usual associations with the rugged highlands, fierce pride, and indomitable natives. Bolivia has been likened to “the Switzerland of South America” with regard to notable similarities in their physical geography and political history of independence struggles amid bigger and more powerful neighbors.
The story of Bolivia emphasizing double beginnings and shared boundaries would be incomplete without a return to the country’s mythical point of origin and its wonder-of-the-world physical border. Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, has for centuries been in use as a highway between Peru and Bolivia. Within the Bolivian side of the lake emerge the isles of Intikarka and Koati (the Sun and the Moon), where Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo came down to earth and set out on their journey to found the empire of Peru. Bolivia also lays territorial claim to the peninsula and village of Copacabana with the cathedral Our Lady of Copabacana, the center of the most important regional pilgrimage routes and festival processions. It has been poetically depicted as the “Bolivian shrine by the lake in the sky” (Clark 13). The village of Copacabana was the launching point for Incas on their sailing route to the Islands of the Sun and the Moon: copacabana means “beholder of the sacred stone”. Francisco Tito Yupanqui, descendant of the Inca dynasty, sculpted the legendary statue of the Virgin of Copacabana out of stucco and American Agave, and painted it with gold. Adding to the aura of holiness and mystery that envelops the lake and its surroundings, the locals commonly navigate the lake in balsas, traditional boats made of totora reed growing in the marshes around lakesides.
From Lake Titicaca, along the road to La Paz, one marches steadily back in time, even before the landing of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, stumbling upon the area of Tiahuanaco with its pre-Inca ruins and the mysterious Gate of the Sun. Belonging to the same civilization, a giant figure carved out of a single block of red sandstone can be found in La Paz. At Tiahuanaco site, clusters of carved monoliths dot the landscape, arguably surpassing the Stonehenge in archeological interest and beauty, and probably dating back to 1000 BCE. Among them, the most noteworthy are the Gate of the Sun, the Lion’s Door, the pillared palace of Kalasasaya, and various remnants of fortresses, temples and palaces. And at Tiahuanaco we find the ultimate story of origins, not only of Bolivia, but of the world:
“In the life of Manco Capac, who was the first Inca, and from whom they began to be called the Children of the Sun, they had a full account of the deluge. They say that all people and all created things perished in it, insomuch that the water rose above all the highest mountains in the world. No living things survived except a man and a woman, who remained in a box, and when the waters subsided, the wind carried them to Huanaco, which will be over seventy leagues from Cuzco, a little more or less. The Creator of all things commanded them to remain there as settlers; and there, in Tiahuanaco, the Creator began to raise up the people and nations that are in that region, making one of each nation of clay, and painting the dresses that each one was to wear. Those that wear their hair, with hair; and those that were to be shorn, with hair cut; and to each nation was given the language that was to be spoken, and the songs to be sung, and the seeds and food that they were to sow. When the Creator had finished painting and making the said nations and figures of clay, he gave life and soul to each one, as well men as women, and ordered that they should pass under the earth. Thence each nation came up in the places to which he ordered them to go… They say that the Creator was in Tiahuanaco, and that there was his chief abode…” (Inwards 20-21).
Bingham, Hiram. Across South America: An Account of a Journey from Buenos Aires to Lima by way of Potosi, with Notes on Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.
Clark, Sydney A. The West Coast of South America: How to Get the Most Out of Your Trip to Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1941.
Inwards, Richard. The Temple of the Andes. London, 1884.
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