The Ancient Carnival of Oruro in Bolivia

Located in South America, Bolivia is a country with a great tradition and culture. Known earlier as ‘Upper Peru’, it was renamed after Venezuelan Liberator Simón Bolívar in the 1800s, post gaining Independence from their Spanish colonialist. It has many attractions like the ‘Salar de Uyuni’ – a massive stretch of salt flat land, raft rides on the Amazon river and hiking through Vergel Canyon located in Toro Toro National Park.

Due to its colonization by Spain, Bolivia largely remains to be a roman catholic country. Many traditions and customs are imbibed from its colonizers. On the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, the city of Oruro begins one of the biggest celebrations in the country – the ‘Carnaval de Oruro’.


The Start of ‘Carnaval de Oruro’


The city of Oruro was well known during the Spanish colonial period as the hub of rich silver, led and gold mining. Miners of the area pay homage to Virgen del Socavón – Virgin of the Mineshaft, who is venerated during the carnival Saturday. Finding its roots in folklore and religion, this carnival displays a variety of colors, dance and music. The parades exhibit a blend of the region’s old indigenous culture and later adopted Spanish roman catholic traditions.

BBC News reports that ‘Carnaval de Oruro’ has been taking place since the 15th Century. According to indigenous legend, four plagues were sent by a devil known as ‘Wari’ to punish the Uru people. They fell victim to these plagues until the appearance of ‘Nusta’ – a female figure who defeated the plagues.’ ‘Nusta’ later became recognized with the ‘Virgen del Socavon’. The people would then dress as devils and dance in gratitude. This event can be interpreted as the onset of Christianity in the area.


An Ancient, Traditional Parade


There are over thirty indigenous communities in Bolivia, each having origins, beliefs and rituals. The olden day town of Uru Uru (modern-day Oruro) was a religious destination. The celebration in which the Uru people paid homage to their Gods is seemingly the origin of this carnival at Oruro. In the early periods, people would wear animal skins as masks in these ritualistic parades. Men would predominantly take part.

The current procession is flocked with beings from folklore, handmade costumes, decorated motor vehicles, floats, marching bands and storytelling dance performances. Archangel Michael, armored with a shield and sword, leads the parade into the streets with the noisy devils in costume behind.

Devil’s costumes represent the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Masks donned by people are handmade and contain a dragon, a frog, a viper, or a bull’s head on them. Other beings in the parade are ‘China Supay’ – the devil woman, ‘El Tío’ – The Uncle, the Incas tribe, the Spanish Conquistadors and many more.

In the parade, the ‘Danza de Los Diablos’ or Devils Dance is a dance presentation that narrates a battle between good and evil. It has remained the same since colonial times. In this performance, Archangel Michael conquers the forces of evil.
There are multiple dance groups that perform at the Oruro carnival. They display distinct aspects of the precolonial and post-liberation life in the region. Traditional dances include Morenada, Caporales, Tobas, Tinku, Llamerada, Kullawada, Suri Sikuri, Waka Waka, etc.

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Festivities and More!


Planning and practice for the five-day parade commenced as early as November of the previous year. The festivity begins in the morning and continues throughout the day till late at night. On the first day, Priests lead the long procession. They are followed by altar boys swaying incense thuribles to the church of the Virgin of the Mineshaft.

The area is filled with food stalls, games, and shops selling handmade textiles, art, masks, attires, ornaments and religious objects. Parade-goers are covered in colorful outfits, hefty headgear, and band musicians with drums, flutes, trumpets, orchestral cymbals, and other local and traditional instruments.

Crowd participation in the musical performances is immense during live shows! A day is also dedicated to having festive family meals and offerings to the Virgin. Houses are decorated and well kept for this occasion. A well-known meal served here is the ‘Charquekan’. It consists of llama meat served on corn accompanied by boiled eggs and potatoes, with a spicy sauce called ‘llajua’ and cheese.

The extravaganza concludes with the ‘Dia del Auga’ – Day of the Water. This is a non-lethal water fight that takes place in the streets with water balloons, spray guns, foams sprayed at attendees. Oruro Carnival is said to draw crowds of up to 400,000 people annually.

UNESCO defines oral and intangible heritage as “the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community expressed by a group or individuals. Recognized as reflecting the expectations of a community in so far as they reflect its cultural and social identity.” On May 18th, 2001, UNESCO declared Oruro Carnival a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.


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Feature Image Via BBC.

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