March 2011

What is a Qowa?

Ever visited the witch market in Bolivia and wondered what all the intriguing and rare looking items were and more importantly why the witch market existed in the first place?

Hersha Mistry
Projects abroad
Volunteer
Manchster - United



A small garden with relatively small beds with a great variety of crops

Having arrived from a country where witch markets barely exist, I was intrigued by what purpose they actually served in Bolivia and as a result, wanted to find out more, but in particular I wanted to find out more about a ritual called Q’owa which all Bolivians seem to talk about.

In order to do this, I interviewed two local people from the area and had the chance to actually visit the witch market itself. In the process of doing this, I learnt that the witch market caters for many rituals in Bolivia including Q´owa. The main purposes of this ritual are to bring good luck and to attain happiness in oneself. Q´owa for the Bolivians is an offering of foods to Mother Earth (Pachamama). Through this offering, Bolivians believe that they will be protected by Mother Earth; that She will help them to create harmony within families, peace in love affairs, work as well as bring prosperity in business. The ritual is also practiced in the valleys and eastern parts of Bolivia and forms part of the Andean tradition dating almost over 1000 years old.

So we took a trip down to the witch market in Bolivia one sunny afternoon in a bus packed with people with the intense sun shining brilliantly upon us, in order to witness just how the Q’owa was prepared.

On arrival I was extremely fascinated by the different, colorful powders, various mixtures of herbs and huge variety of hanging dried lamas that were on display that afternoon. Part of me was also nervous with the perception of witch stories I heard in the past and spells being made over the innocent and vulnerable. I forced myself to stop thinking of the latter and tried to focus on immersing myself in the fascinated culture I was in at that moment in time.

“the purposes of these incense powders are to purify the house of negative influences, to protect oneself from negative enemies, to bring good fortune and to continue bringing good luck in one’s life”

The lady we interviewed at the witch market was a friendly old woman, serving other customers at the same time; she tried to deliver her best service to us. When asked what the Q’owa was she quoted “Q’owa preparations are requested by people as an offering to Pachamana to attain good luck and happiness from Mother Earth in exchange” I then asked her to prepare the Q´owa so I could see firsthand how it was made.

She carefully took a sheet of A4 paper and placed pieces of llama fat in the centre and explained that this was an offering to Pachamana. My full attention was captured while she then placed pieces of white sweet candy ingrained with shapes of insects, love hearts, houses, banks, buildings and others were then placed on the borders of the sheet of paper as she described that each shape represented the request from Pachamama to bring good luck in each of these areas. A mixture of herbs was then placed on top of the llama fat. We were told its significance was to eliminate negative influences. She then placed four types of very colorful incense powders in the preparation, and quoted “the purposes of these incense powders are to purify the house of negative influences, to protect oneself from negative enemies, to bring good fortune and to continue bringing good luck in one’s life”.

Coca leaves were then placed on top as another offering to Pachamama. Quinua was added to the preparation as she described its purpose was so that one could attain a lot of money. A drop of honey was added on top to emphasis good luck and more sweets were added as the lady quoted “to make the good luck work”. At this stage, the preparation of herbs looked quite large and the paper itself looked very heavy. I thought she was going to stop, but she carried on…

She then added two more incense sticks, named Mera, to bring more good luck and Copal to bring positive energy. Finally confetti was added to decorate the Q’owa and we were then told that the final preparation of mixed herbs and candy should be placed on a burning charcoal, ready to be burned with smoke until the preparation is completely burnt out.

So what happens next?

Once the Bolivian reaches their home, the charcoal is prepared; this needs to be well made and should be burning red. The Q’owa preparation is then placed on the red burning charcoal. It can take up to two and a half hours before the Q’owa is completely burned. As the Q’owa burns, there is a strong smell radiating and one can note this as the smell of the strong incense powders. The smoke may slowly enter the house. Once the Q’owa is completely burnt, the mixture is taken and carried around all the rooms in the house and then parts of it are sprinkled in each corner of each room. Followed by this, another person is usually present. They stand behind and sprinkle wine in all the same locations, mainly all the corners of each room as a second offering to Mother Earth. During the process, Bolivians think very positively and wish for positive events to take place in their lives. Whatever is remaining from the Q’owa is then taken downstairs at the front door so that the smoke may continue to enter the house. It is said that the first time the Q’owa is burnt in a house, the ashes are then buried in ones´ garden.

“I was amazed by the amount of devotion and deep thinking the Bolivian commits to during the ritual of Q’owa”

People in Cochabamba, follow this Q’owa ritual on the first Friday of each month, offering this preparation as a ´thank you´ to Mother Earth. Cochabambinos buy a tailor made preparation of Q’owa from the witch market to reflect their own requests from Mother Earth, that is to say, the herbs used in the Q’owa are the same, but it is prepared differently for different purposes and this is also reflected by the shape of the candies which are placed in the preparation. Therefore, in total, the Bolivian would practice this ritual twelve times in the year for Paachamama. I was amazed by the amount of devotion and deep thinking the Bolivian commits to during the ritual of the Q’owa.

Qówa for the Potosinios

I was quite fascinated to learn that the Q´owa is actually prepared differently in different parts of Bolivia and its significance varies hugely. I interviewed a person from Potosi to find out more.

I learnt that in Potosi, the eastern part of Bolivia, most of the population are miners, and the Q’owa offering is made to the Devil as opposed to Pachamama (Mother Earth) in Cochabamba. This is because the Potosinos believe that the Devil is the creator of the mines and as a mark of respect, they offer the Q’owa to the devil, believing that he will bring more minerals in exchange.

The Q’owa for the Potosinos is prepared in the same way however, it is celebrated each Thursday. The differences in its preparation include: the size of the Q’owa; it is much larger and bottles of beer and wine are placed in the preparation as well as coca leaves and the fetuses of either llamas or cows as an offering of food to the devil. On the first Tuesday of February in Potosi, a carnival takes place for the Q’owa offering where a llama or cow is sacrificed for the Devil. Half of this animal’s leg is then placed on the Q´owa preparation. The blood of the sacrificed animal is then splashed across the public on this day as Potosinos believe that this is what makes the Devil happy.

Having interviewed and learnt about the Q’owa ritual, the visit the witch market and the offerings to Pachamama, it can teach one to think that the spiritual world is greater than we actually think and maybe we should take time out of our busy lives to stop and reflect in this, to learn to respect Mother Earth and more importantly to appreciate it just like the Bolivians do twelve times a year.

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