As Chris Hedges discovered as a battle-hardened reporter, war is a force that gives us meaning. Whether we sublimate violence in entertainment, have paid professionals and state agents do it for us, or carry it out ourselves, human beings cannot seem to give up their most ancient vice; “we demonize the enemy,” Hedges wrote, “so that our opponent is no longer human,” and “we view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness…. Each side reduces the other to objects — eventually in the form of corpses.” Each new generation inherits old hatreds, and so forth….
Maybe one way to break cycles of violence is with controlled violence — using bare fists to settle scores, and walking away with only bruises, a little hurt pride, but no lasting wounds? That’s the idea behind Takanakuy, an Andean festival that takes place each year at Christmas in the province of Chumbivilcas, in the mountains of Peru. The region has a police force made up of around three officers, the nearest courthouse is “a stomach-wrecking 10-hour drive through the mountains,” notes Vice, who bring us the video above. Potentially explosive disputes naturally arise, and must be settled outside the law.
Rather than rely on state intervention, residents wait to slug it out on Takanakuy. The name of the festival come from Quechua — the region’s indigenous language — and means “to hit each other” or, more idiomatically, “when the blood is boiling.” But combatants have had upwards of twelve months to cool before they step into a ring of cheering spectators and go hand-to-hand with an opponent. Fights are also officiated by referees, who do crowd control with short rope whips and call a fight as soon as someone goes down. Takanakuy is ritualized combat, not bloodsport. Although traditionally dominated by men, women, and children also participate in fights, which usually only last a couple minutes or so.
“Some traditionalists disapprove of female participation in Takanakuy,” writes photojournalist Mike Kai Chen at The New York Times, but “an increasing number of women in Chumbivilcas are defying convention and stepping up to fight in front of their community.” Male fighters wear boots, flashy leather chaps, and elaborate, hand-sewn masks with taxidermied birds on top. Women wear elegant dresses with fine embroidery, and wrap their wrists in colorful embroidered cloth. “The ultimate aim is to begin the new year in peace. For this reason every fight… begins and ends with a hug”… or, at the very least, a handshake.
The festival also involves much dancing, eating, drinking, craft sales, and Christmas celebrations. Suemedha Sood at BBC Travel compares Takanakuy to Seinfeld‘s “Festivus,” the alt-winter holiday for the airing of grievances and feats of strength. But it’s no joke. “The festival seeks to resolve conflict, strengthen community bonds and hopefully, arrive at a greater peace.” Libertarian economists Edwar Escalante and Raymond March frame Takanakuy as “a credible mechanism of law enforcement in an orderly fashion with social acceptance.” For indigenous teacher and author and participant Victor Laime Mantilla, it’s something more, part of “the fight to reclaim the rights of indigenous people.”
“In the cities,” says Mantilla, “the Chumbivilcas are still seen as a savage culture.” But they have kept the peace amongst themselves with no need for Peruvian authorities, fusing an indigenous music called Huaylia with other traditions that date back even before the Incas. Takanakuy arose as a response to systems of colonial oppression. When “justice in Chumbivilcas was solely administered by powerful people,” Mantilla says, “people from the community always lost their case. What can I do with a justice like that? I’d rather have my own justice in public.”