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The Rainbow & Inca Empire Flags: A Curious Case of Historical Synchronicity


As visitors first arrive in Cusco, they are often confused by or perhaps just curious about the ubiquitous flag that adorns most city streets, official buildings, and many private homes. The cause of confusion is the striking similarity between this flag and the Gay Pride one. More often than not, visitors assume that Cusco may very well be such a gay-friendly city that proudly display its support for the LGTBQ community. However that is not necessarily the case.

So how did the mighty Inca Empire & LGTBQ ended up sharing similar Flags?

As we know, the Gay Pride Flag was designed by the San-Francisco based artist, Gilbert Baker, in 1978. According to Baker, each color symbolized a particular aspect of the LGTBQ community. Pink symbolizes sex. Red is for life, and orange for healing; yellow for the light of the sun. Green represents nature, and blue is for art. Indigo is for harmony and violet symbolizes the human spirit. However, when the time came to manufacture the flags there were some issues which were resolved by removing the color pink and indigo; and that is how the Gay Pride flag came to have its six colors.

On the other hand, the flag of the Inca Empire (or Tahuantinsuyo, in Quechua, the ancient Inca

language) is attributed to Raúl Montesinos Espejo, from Cusco, who designed it in 1973 to commemorate the 25th. anniversary of his radio station—which incidentally was also called Tahuantinsuyo. Mr. Montesinos’ design had seven colors: red, orange, green, sky blue, blue, and violet—that is to say, his flag only differed from that of the Gay Pride in that it had only one more color, sky blue. In 1978, in one of those moments of historical synchronicity, the same year the Gay Pride was officially adopted in the US, the then mayor of Cusco, Gilberto Muñiz Caparó, made Mr. Montesinos’ design the official flag of Cusco.

Nowadays, the rainbow flag is not only used to represent the city of Cusco, but the whole of the ancient Inca Empire. The flag is present in all official events and is seen waving throughout the city of Cusco. But the adoption and use of this flag is not without controversy in Peru. A large number of Peruvian historians and archeologists consider flags in general to be a Western concept and, thus, rendering its use during the Inca Empire a historical improbability.

According to historian, María Rostworowski, the use of the flag is a grave mistake. “The Incas did not make use of [this Tahuantinsuyo flag]. It never existed, and no chronicler makes reference to it. Let’s separate the facts, things that are real and serious, from those things that are nonsensical. It is time to set the record straight, because [the use of this flag] is ahistorical. And history must be defended,” Rostworowski sternly argues. In 2003, the Peruvian National Academy of History declared that, “[the] official use of the “so-called” Inca Empire flag is inappropriate and ahistorical. The concept of a flag does not comport with the historical context of the pre-Hispanic Andean world.” The aforementioned sentiment seems to be the consensus amongst the majority of researchers of the Inca culture. Most of them argue that those who accept the idea of an Inca Empire flag do so by relying solely on the accounts of chroniclers, like Guamán Poma de Ayala and Garcilaso de la Vega, who described the customs of the Inca culture through the prism of their Western frame of reference. (It was worth noting that the Inca civilization left no evidence of a written language. They managed their vast and complex empire by recording information on enigmatic knotted strings known as Quipus, or khipus.)

However, according to Peruvian researcher, Fernando Aparicio Bueno, author of the essay, ‘The Flag of The Tahuantinsuyo’, there is textual evidence that seems to indicate that the Incas used “flags” (or banners for that matter). In order to prove this, Aparicio Bueno uses, amongst other things, the following citation from Garcilaso de la Vega, who in Book VI, Chapter V of the Royal Commentaries of the Incas (1617), states, “…the first month of the death of the [Inca] king, the whole city [of Cusco] cried over him daily, showing deep sorrow and often shrieking. Every neighborhood would go into the fields unprompted; they would take with them the Inca emblems, FLAGS, weapons, and some of his clothing items…”

Similarly, the native Peruvian historian, Joan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yanqui Salcamaygua (ca. 1500s), describes in his writings the existence of “the Capac Unancha”(which is Quechua for the Flag of the Inca); this flag, according to him, was located at the Qorikancha complex (the most sacred place in the Inca Empire) and was handed down to Whayna Qhapaq, one of the Inca Emperors; Joan de Santa Cruz also asserts that Kuracas, (Inca magistrates), warriors, and Manco Inca (the first Inca Emperor) wore the Unancha. It is also worth noting that Cuichu, Quechua for rainbow, was considered a divinity and had its own temple within the Qoricancha complex in the city of Cusco. Incas considered the rainbow a gift from the Sun God. Thus those who approve of and attempt to validate the use of the rainbow flag as a symbol of the Inca Empire have, amongst other things, this fact on their side: There is ample evidence that proves that the rainbow, its colors, was intricately connected to Inca religion and culture.

Lastly, irrespective of the historical appropriateness of the use of the rainbow flag to represent the Inca Empire, or the pre-Hispanic Andean world, for that matter, and so long as the colorful “Inca flag” continues to wave at homes, businesses, and government offices in Cusco, one thing is certain: thousands of visitors shall continue to be confused at first by this ubiquitous flag; for they will have the impression that they are visiting one of the gay-friendliest cities in South America. Alas, it is all just a misunderstanding and a peculiar case of historical synchronicity.

by W. Pérez Mama Pacha Explorations Team Bibliography

(1) Aparicio Bueno, Fernando. La Bandera del Tahuantinsuyo. (http://siar.regioncusco.gob.pe/public/docs/1940.pdf) (2) Centro de la Preservacion de La Cultura y Literatura Aymara- Quechua. (http://www.cebem.org/cmsfiles/articulos/Revista_AQ-14.pdf) (3)Palominos, Teodomiro. 2004. Cosmovision Andina y Casa Sallqa. (4) Rostworowski, María.1988.Historia del Tahuantinsuyo. Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, (5) Wachtel, Nathan, et al. La visión de los vencidos. Nueva visión del Perú.

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