In Bolivia, the Apolobamba Region of the Department of La Paz is known mainly because the Kallawayas live among its inhabitants of the Aymara community. Possessors of a deep knowledge about medicinal plants, their healing therapies are part of the wisdom and beauty of the Andean worldview. About 250 km from Lake Titikaka, they reside in the towns of Curva, Chajaya, Kamlaya, Huata Huata, Inka, Amarete, Chari, Pampablanca, Chakapari and Charazani.
The origin of the Kallawayas is lost in the ancient history of the Andean civilization. Some indications suggest its presence, even before the Inca period, during the splendor of the Tiwanaku culture, which disappeared in the 11th century AD.
Archaeological investigations have tried to support this hypothesis. In the 1970s, for example, the Ethnographic Museum in Gothenburg published information on a set of materials and human remains found in Bolivia, belonging precisely to the so-called classical Tiwanaku period. In its publication Etnologiska Studier of 1972, the team of an indigenous healer from the 6th century of the Christian era, found precisely in Calliicho, Apolobamba region. Among other things, there were wooden tablets, a bamboo cane tube, a wooden mortar, spoons, syringes, and a skull that had had three intra-vitam trepanations.
The presence of the Kallawayas in the Court of the Incas later on is considered quite probable. Possibly, due to the level of their knowledge, they were led to render their services in Cuzco, the capital of the Inca. Apparently, they were trained to cure paralysis, blindness, pneumonia, wounds and mental ailments. It is known that they prepared drugs equivalent to terramycin and penicillin, made from clay and fermented fruits such as bananas. They also used gentian and the Peruvian cinchona tree for fever, among many other plants. It is assumed that in the Court they had the function of advising the wise men (amautas) on questions of medicine, in addition to dedicating themselves exclusively to attending to the diseases of the Inca, his family and the nobility.
The Kallawallas, on the other hand, have traditionally been known as traveling doctors who move through regions of various countries. In the Aymara language, the word refers to the expression “to leave home.” In Quechua, it refers to the “man who is carrying medicinal herbs.” In the aforementioned report from the Gothenburg Museum, special emphasis is placed on the careful way of storing the macerated plants that were found. Precisely, part of the territories that today are integrated into Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, during the Inca empire received the name of Qollasuyu, which means “land of medicine”.
As a result of the Spanish conquest, the Kallawayas who lived in Cuzco probably returned to take refuge in their original communities. The truth is that their knowledge managed to survive during colonization. They jealously guarded the secrets of their knowledge and skills, transmitted orally only from parents to children using their own language called Machaj juyay or Machajjuya. It is believed that it corresponds to the sacred language of the Incas, not accessible to the people, which they learned in the Court and assumed as a sign of identification, incorporating it into their healing rituals.
In the 19th century, an estimated 500 famous Kallawayas practiced their trade throughout the region. By the 20th century, however, their numbers had dropped to about fifty. As itinerant doctors, some are known to have been in Panama in 1914, during the construction of the Canal.
The Ajayu: The Force of Life
Kallawaya medicine immerses itself in the Andean vision of the world. From his perspective, the huma
n being is the union of three vital elements: the athun ajayu, divine force that grants the powers to think, feel and move; the juchui ajayu, astral or soul body; and the physical body, where both ajayus are incarnated. The Andean being, likewise, in addition to his social relationships and with nature, lives daily in his prodigious supernatural universe. The athun ajayu is immortal, so the protective spirits of the ancestors, the Achachilas, permanently dwell in the mountains, lakes and rivers, granting these places sacred rank. Given the complexity of these interrelationships, not just anyone can be Kallawaya.
The disease, then, appears associated with the loss of the ajayus. If the athun ajayu leaves the body, the life force disappears. It may also happen that, during sleep, the juchui ajayu also leaves the body. If he does not return, his absence will manifest with fever, malaise and pain. It means that the human being has lost his unity, the balance between his vital components. To restore it and bring about the return of the ajayu, the kallawaya will appeal equally to the resources of nature and the world of spirits, complementing them.
To have good health you have to feed the mountain
The medical practice of the Kallawayas is based not only on their extraordinary notions of botany. The rituals and offerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Achachilas are essential. An apprentice begins to observe herbs from the age of 7, until completing a period of 8 or 10 years of study to come to distinguish at least the characteristics of about 600 plants. He must learn to recognize them, their uses, the where they grow, the harvest time and the way to preserve them.
They do, however, recognize their limits; they do not treat hereditary or terminal diseases. They have proven success in treating conditions such as tuberculosis, rheumatism, and diarrhea. They also treat liver, kidney and heart problems and a group of various ailments called “wind and lightning diseases”.
Trips, on the other hand, are generally planned according to the agricultural calendar that begins on June 21. They make long trips that can last 3 or 4 months, providing their services to remote communities where medical assistance is practically non-existent. These transfers also allow them to expand the collection of plants and play an important role in the training of the apprentice. They travel together on foot, by donkey or by llama to regions of Peru, Ecuador, Northern Chile or Argentina. A round trip to Cuzco, for example, can take 45 days. They carry their herbs, medicines and ritual objects.
The coca leaf is one of the most widely used plants among the Kallawayas, to which they grant sacred status due to its nutritional and spiritual properties. Legend has it that Kjanachuym, an old man from the time of the Incas, was the one who received the revelation of the properties of the plant. For the Kallawayas, it comes from divine origin: a beautiful goddess sometimes took on a human aspect; her beauty enchanted the men she seduced. The elders and wives rejected her behavior, making the decision to kill her. They buried her in very fertile land, where it rained a lot. From the dust of her body sprouted a bush whose leaves had wonderful properties, such as relieving pain and causing optimism for life. The goddess thus took revenge, making men wish to permanently chew the prodigious leaves. It is also common to use other plant species that grow at 3,800 meters high, such as the wachanka and the llalli wangu (red thorn). They also have varieties typical of other regions, such as sawila (aloe), andrés walla (parkii) and the copaiba tree.
His medical practice, however, is incomplete without rituals (challar). In addition to the offerings to the Pachamama and the ancestors, the kallawaya prepares ceremonial tables. He prefers to do his healing work (symbolic, in the language of anthropologists) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; especially during the month of August when heaven and earth allow greater communication with the spirits. It usually accompanies the music, performed by groups called kantus. The old secret language is of course used.
The ritual tables are of three categories: white, gray and black. The white is whate allows solving health problems; the gray ones purify the ajayu and the black ones are to return the misfortunes to the one who caused them. The offerings, which take place mainly in the mountains and hills, can include food, animals, cotton, sweet wine and carnations that they represent desires. Twelve coca leaves also serve as an instrument to read the future and consult about the patient.
The existence of the different indigenous cultures of Latin America and the Andes in particular, is seriously threatened by a set of adverse economic and political factors. The enemies are internal and external. In this context, of course, the heritage of the Kallawayas is not safe. Their world, moreover, now has international recognition. The UNESCO General Assembly, held in Paris in 2003, awarded it the name “Masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. A distinction granted to those cultural expressions considered especially vulnerable.
Currently, Kallawaya medicine is practiced by about two thousand men, who use plants, animals, human products, minerals, amulets and therapies in their cures. The knowledge, transmitted by parents and grandparents to boys and children as a whole make up an intangible heritage. The apprentice has to accompany a teacher, very frequently, on the trips they undertake together. The teaching time lasts between 8 to 10 years. At the end of his apprenticeship, the candidate has to take an exam before the town council. In addition to their knowledge of natural medicine, the Kallawaya share a cosmology, a set of coherent beliefs, rituals, myths, values and artistic expressions, which provide them with an original vision of the world, on which their conception of health depends, that unites nature, the spiritual, society and the person. The Kallawaya have preserved a detailed ancient classification of plants and animals, which may date from Inca times. The Kallawaya are known as traveling doctors and practice their science in many places outside their habitat. The illnesses they cure include scares and those caused by evil, whose cure they share with the Aymara yatiri.