Each May, in southwestern Bolivia, a surprising scene takes place: men fight with their bare hands under the watchful gaze of police officers. The fighting ritual, called "tinku", takes place during a Christian celebration known as the Festival of the Cross, even though it honours Pachamama (Mother Earth), asking for her blessing for the year’s harvest. Alcohol generally flows freely at this festival and, often, these fights spin out of control — sometimes people even die.
The word tinku, which means “meeting” in Quechua and “physical attack” in Aymara, two local languages, represents both the traditional fighting and dancing that take place on an annual basis in villages in the high plateaux of the Andes. The origins of the tinku festival date to the pre-Inca period, well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors who imposed Catholicism on the region.
"The saying goes: The more blood that flows, the better the harvest will be"
Everything started on May 3, with a mass by the parish priest. The fights took place on May 4 and lasted all day. People come from far and wide to attend the festival in Macha, which is known as the capital of tinku, even if the same celebrations also go on elsewhere in Potosí.
"The fights take place inside a circle, under the watchful
gaze of police officers”
This is how the fights are organised: first, people form small groups. Usually, all of the members know each other but it is quite open — for example, this year, a foreigner joined in with a group of locals. The fights take place within each group. Usually, it's two men who have a similar build that face off. However, women also fight each other.
The fights take place inside a circle, under the watchful gaze of police officers, who stand outside of the ring. In Macha, you are not allowed to wear a helmet, to kick your opponent, or to carry objects made out of iron during a tinku. That said, the rules vary depending on the location [Editor’s note: In some places, contenders can wear helmets or arm themselves with metal objects]. The length of the fight ranges from several seconds to several minutes. It’s over when someone falls to the ground. Generally, everything goes smoothly because the fights are tightly controlled.
"Sometimes the fights get out of hand, and that's when people die"
However, sometimes the fights get out of hand, when two groups start fighting each other, for example. People start punching and kicking each other and some people throw stones, which is not allowed. In that case, the police are usually overwhelmed even though they try to get the situation under control using tear gas or by whipping people. There have even been deaths during the tinku, though, in recent years, the number has gone down because attendees have been less violent. [Editor’s note: This decrease in mortality is also the result of an increased police presence.]
That said, even if there are deaths, it’s not really possible to complain because violence is inherent to the tinku festivities. There is even a saying that the more blood spilt, the better the harvest will be. The entire tinku celebration is organised to honour Pachamama [Editor’s note: this ritual is also a way for men to show off their strength to women or to settle scores.]
The violence usually occurs because everyone is usually drunk. Traditionally, people drink huge amounts of chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from corn. These days, the young people tend to drink beer.
It’s not just fighting that takes place during the Festival of the Cross, there is also a lot of dancing. Groups of dancers come from all over to perform. Many people often get married during this festival — especially during even-numbered years because that is thought to bring luck.