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Bolivians celebrate 'miniature festival'

Bolivians purchase miniatures to celebrate the festival, hoping they will obtain full-size copies later in the year.
Last modified: 23 Jan 2014 19:11

From high up in the mountains overlooking La Paz everything down below looks very small. But walk down the steep streets, four thousand metres above sea level, and you'll find that some things really have been reduced to their miniature form.

Every 24th of January sees the start of the Alasitas festival, which runs into February. Alasitas, in the indigenous Aymara language, means: buy me. The tradition says that if you purchase in miniature what you want later in the year and present it to Ekeko, the god of abundance, then you shall get what you desire.

For sale on the market stalls are tiny food items, crates of beer, banknotes, flat-screen TVs, computers, university diplomas, houses, shops and, if it's what you want, little domestic servants. There are mini passports and visas if you have the urge to travel.

It's a custom steeped in pre-Hispanic tradition, practised long before the Spanish arrived, but very much modernised to move with the times and the desires of today's believers.

Ekeko is himself very small, a dwarf. The tiny purchased items are pinned to his poncho and an effigy of the little god is left in a strategic location in the owner's house, so he's always with them. Some place a cigarette in his mouth and light it or offer him a drop of alcohol.

Others scatter flower petals, mixing both ancient and more recent customs. On midnight on the day before the Alasitas festival opens, there is a ceremony to return the miniature items which were successful, that helped the bigger, the real thing, to materialise.

Ancient roots

The Alasitas used to be held in September but was moved to January to commemorate a 1781 uprising against the Spanish colonialists. And it was very much an indigenous festival.

It now attracts visitors from all over Bolivia - both indigenous and non-indigenous - and, increasingly, tourists from neighbouring countries and beyond.

Luis Camacopa Poma has a workshop with a view fit for the Aymara gods, high in the mountains and only accessible by a torturous route up streets so steep that at times you feel your vehicle, struggling in first gear, might fall over backwards.

The air is thin and breathing for recent arrivals to La Paz is laboured. On a clear day Luis can see the snow-peaked Illimani mountain.

For the past 35 years, Don Luis as he is known, has been sculpting figures, mostly Roman Catholic saints. As Alasitas approaches he reduces his dimensions, scales down the size and makes miniature versions of his work.

"Look, you can see the detail here," he said. "The secret is in how we make the mould. I invest a great deal of time in making the mould. If you put in the work, the results are excellent."

Don Luis both makes his own designs and works to order, sometimes spending several weeks on the intricate detail of just one mould. He then has to squint and hold his hand very steady as he paints the reduced models.

There's fierce competition, he said, between artists in La Paz, and over the border in Peru where the festival has spread, to produce a combination of the smallest and the best.