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Burying a Tibetan Peace Vase in Peru

In May 2006, I took a group of women to Peru on a scholarly and spiritual pilgrimage. Our focus was to investigate and experience female shamanism, both ancient and contemporary.

Shortly before the trip, I was approached by the program director of the local Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist center in the mountains near Santa Cruz, California, where I have been a member for several years. She asked if I would be willing to take a Tibetan Peace Vase on our trip and bury it somewhere in Peru.

The World Peace Vase project was created by the renowned Tibetan lama, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who died shortly after all six thousand vases were consecrated in 1991. The vases were filled with precious substances and consecrated by his prayers and those of many other lamas in India and Bhutan. The aim of the project is to place the vases in every country in the world with the intention that they "assist in creating world peace and harmony on both a social and environmental level, in all major water bodies, in all important natural sites such as the highest mountains, largest rivers, holy and powerful places, in all major ecologically endangered locations, and even in space."[1]

Of course, without hesitating, my answer was yes!

tattooed, long-haired mummy

Tattooed long-haired mummy at Mari Reiche Museum.

I had given the participants a packet of research material to study before our trip. I intended for us to visit numerous museums and archaeological sites, with a special focus on the coastal desert area south of Lima, and I wanted them to know some of the rich prehistory there.

The pre-Incan cultures of Paracas and Nazca (approximately the first 800 years of the Common Era) created some of the world’s most complex and intricate textiles and pottery, depicting flying women, women with snakes, and shapeshifting human-animal figures, as well as many iconographic snakes, cactus, jaguars, and condors. This culture buried its shamans (many of them women) sitting up straight inside thick “mummy bundles.” The bodies were wrapped in hundreds of yards of woven and embroidered textiles, and the bundles were then regally attired in such riches as gold jaguar masks, feather capes, wooden masks, and red sea shell necklaces. A picture of one such spectacular mummy bundle caught my eye in the 1980s, when I was reading an ancient-art book, and my dream of someday visiting Peru first took shape.

One of the things I hoped to do was redress the male-biased research that characterizes Andean archaeology (so typical everywhere else as well). The books and captions theorize grandly about male "priests," "warriors," "kings," and "gods." Yet, as with many other cultures I have studied and visited over the years, the bulk of the artifacts unearthed in Peru resemble the Goddesses and prehistoric matristic (female-centered) images found around the world.

aerial view of the orca Nazca lines

Orca lines, Nazca (indicated, left middle).

Generally overlooking several millennia of vibrant cultural expression and evolution, scholars focus unduly on the reign of the Incas, a brief and late 100-year period of Andean "unification" in which the cultures of the entire area were brought under one dynasty. Taking their cues from the patriarchal Incas and projecting backwards with their imaginations, scholars over the years have tended to perceive every female burial as a "human sacrifice."

Unfortunately most of the cemeteries containing the Nazca and Paracas burials have been radically looted over the course of centuries, with no regard for their sacredness. Looking for objects made of gold and other fine metals to sell on the black market, the thieves carelessly tossed skeletons every which way. They scattered bones, hair, and pieces of clothing across the site, destroying the context needed to determine who and how important the person in the burial might be. In Cahuachi, an ancient ritual city near Nazca, it is estimated that as many as 5,000 tombs have been robbed. This huge disturbance in the funerary customs of these highly evolved ancient people was the reason I chose a cemetery in Nazca as the place to bury the Peace Vase.

Nazca is also the site of the famous and mysterious “Nazca lines” scratched on the desert floor more than a thousand years ago, possibly as an astrological or astronomical calendar or zodiac, or perhaps as ceremonial lines for "ritual walking" (and maybe both). Also sketched on the ground are huge figures which can only be seen from the air, so our group took flights in small airplanes in order to view the gigantic animal images and geometric forms. Many of these mythic creatures — spider, condor, monkey, orca, hummingbird — are the same figures painted on Nazca pottery and embroidered into the remarkable Paracas textiles. Peru's leading expert on Nazca culture notes that "the textiles were woven from a single thread of llama wool and the pictures of animals created on the pampas are all based on one line edged in the desert." It was their "proficiency as weavers that allowed them to execute pictures and designs on a large scale."[2]

mummies in open tombs

Mummies in open tombs.

The contemporary town of Nazca itself is a scene of utter ecological desolation. The surrounding region is dry desert — no rain falls at all during the year, which is why the Nazca lines can still be seen so clearly after so many centuries — and although the ancient inhabitants developed remarkable irrigation techniques using the rivers that flow into the sea there, the contemporary coastal people have not availed themselves of these techniques and the place is a disaster, an industrial wasteland. The people are poor and desperate, the town feels almost dangerous, and our burying the vase seemed like a helpful thing given the general tenor of the area. We prayed that not only would the ancient corpses be tranquilized and put at peace, but that the contemporary community would also receive benefits of peace and well-being from the burial of the vase there.

Our Peruvian guide took us to the Chauchilla cemetery where the main Paracas burials have been found. Skulls and bones can still be found scattered around the dunes there, although archaeologists have attempted to put the tombs back together in an orderly way to create an exhibit for tourists and visitors. The looters’ relentless search for gold, silver, and gemstones continues today, although at this point there are more protections in place, such as fences and security guards at the sites.

tree in a barren landscape

The tree we chose for our ceremony.

altar of skull and bones resting in the trunk of a tree

The altar we created for our ceremony.

women burying peace vase and skull in the sand

The burial of the Peace Vase and skull.

We visited 13 open tombs that archaeologists have prepared for tourists to view, and then we wandered across the sand dunes collecting bones and skulls to make an altar under a special tree we chose for our ceremony. One curved piece of skull bone we placed as a cup for holding water in our ceremony, at which point a huge, forceful whirlwind suddenly arose, encircling us, blowing sand around and around us, and around the tree where we were gathered. The wind stopped as quickly as it had started, and we thanked the spirit of that skull for blessing us with its powerful presence.

Our guide, joining in our somewhat clandestine task, had acquired a shovel for us to use in digging the hole. She herself began the digging, then each woman in our group took her turn. We followed the specific instructions given by the Rinpoche for burying the vase and, also according to his instructions, we documented our process with photographs. We said mantras for Throma, the Tibetan Black Dakini, and made prayers for the Nazca people and town to receive benefit and be restored to well-being. One woman in our group had found a whole skull, which we decided to bury in the hole with the vase, along with a red cloth covered with Tara mantras and an eagle feather brought by members of our group for the ceremony.

Once we had carefully placed the vase and skull in the hole, we each filled it back in with dirt and carefully swept the surface until it could not be discerned that there had been any disturbance. The vase is now safely buried under a tree where no one is likely to be digging anytime in the future.

We saw other mummies on our trip, mainly in museums, like the marvelously tattooed female in a case at the memorial museum of the famous German archaeologist, Maria Reiche. As a young mathematician and astronomer, Reiche had been drawn to Peru to study the mysterious Nazca lines, which became her life work. She lived there until her death in 1998 and was known as "the Lady of the Lines" and "Saint Maria" by the local people. Her gravestone at the site is lovingly carved with "La Dama de Nazca," the Lady of Nazca.

The day we left the country for home, the world press released the story of a fantastic discovery of a high-ranking female mummy in the north of Peru near the coastal site of Trujillo. The mummy’s context was undisturbed, so it was impossible for scholars to avoid the spectacular implications of the burial of this Moche woman leader. Although a reporter for the New York Times felt certain her artifacts must have been presents from a male warrior who intended to marry her (and said so in print), the Peruvian press was clear that she was buried in the classic style of a high-ranking general, and that she was in fact a general and the leader of the Moche region at the time.

All up and down her arms and on her feet, snakes were tattooed, reminding us of the tattoos we had seen on the arms of the mummy in the Reiche museum unearthed from the Nazca tombs hundreds of miles south from the Moche region during the same time period. The Moche "general" wore a woven dress, a large elaborate gold crescent crown embossed with a jaguar, a gold nose ring and necklaces. She was laid out on a special gold clothlike structure; next to her lay 23 gold rods with snake heads.

With the serendipitous arrival of this news as we flew out of Peru, I couldn't help but feel that our mission there was accomplished!

Footnotes

  1. Siddhartha's Intent International, World Peace Vase Programme.
  2. "The Lost City of Nazca," BBC, January 20, 2000.

Graphics Credits

  • all photos, © 2006 Vicki Noble. All rights reserved.
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MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
is a seasonal web journal (zine) for Goddess Women and others interested in Goddess Lore and Scholarship, Goddess Religion (ancient and contemporary), Feminist Spirituality, Women's Mysteries, Paganism and Neopaganism, Earth-based Religions, Witchcraft, Dianic Wicca and other Wiccan Traditions, the Priestess Path, Goddess Art, Women's Culture, Women's Health, Natural Healing, Mythology, Female Shamanism, Consciousness, Community, Cosmology, and Women's Creativity.

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