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Belt Dealers

Remember the days, perhaps as early as a decade or two ago, when telling someone that you had a black belt in karate actually meant something?  When karate was actually a respected art form?  When it meant you were a badass if you had a black belt and men and women alike desperately wanted one?  The only problem back then was true karate senseis had such rigorous criteria for awarding students with a black belt – you actually had to work hard and have talent.  In today’s world, we know that karate is the most diluted form of martial arts (you’re not far behind, kung-fu) and black belts mean little thanks largely to belt dealers – opportunists who saw the demand for black belts, figured out there was a fortune to be made, and decided to make them easy for people to acquire, karate skills be darned.  In fact nowadays, with MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) having congealed the various martial arts forms from different cultures into one, and made the MMA style popular to learn – or at least pretend like you’ve learned – there’s a dilution factor associated with almost all martial arts.

Just when you thought the state of martial arts was hopeless, you happen to come across the story of an unusual and little known festival known as Tinku that takes place high up in the Andean Mountains, in a remote northern territory of Bolivia in a village called Macha.  A festival, that while offering up numerous pleasantries, also features a form of “ritual conflict” where people fight hand-to-hand, and with clubs, whips and boleadoras (a throwing weapon designed from weights connected to the end of cords).  When things get out of hand – and they frequently DO get out of hand – people at this festival die.  Tinku, the martial art, has no belts and offers no training at schools in Houston, Denver or Los Angeles.  It hasn’t been commercialized.  And it hasn’t been folded into the culture-diluting banner of MMA (as far as we know).

The point is, with Tinku, you have what may be the last uncommercialized martial art in the world, exclusive to a remote part of the world, which has developed organically and remained the same for centuries.

Bring On the Festivities

If you think you know what a happening village festival in South America looks like, then think again.  In addition to the fierce fighting that takes place at Tinku, there are numerous other pleasantries and rituals that will capture your imagination.

Long before arriving at the Tinku festival grounds, the constant and warlike drum beat that emanates will make you feel like you’re about to engage in an ancient battle.  In addition, you’ll hear guitars, charangos (lutes) and zamponas (panpipes) echoing out.  Upon arrival at the grounds, the bold colors of men’s costumes, used to symbolize power and strength, are a visual feast for the eyes.  Women wear embroidered skirts and extravagant hats painted and decorated in feathers and ribbons.  Alcohol consumption plays a significant role in the festivities and revelers get severely intoxicated on chicha, a fermented beverage made from corn with 96 proof alcohol content.  Whipped into an excitement and alcohol induced frenzy, revelers begin to dance, starting in a crouching stance, then bending at the waist, followed by wild arm movements and kicks.  It is only when they begin to engage in a hard stomp that the fighting is set to begin.

Tinku began out of the Andean belief system that praises Pachamama, or Mother Nature.  The festival occurs between different communities and kin groups in the region and each year in May, it coincides with the Catholic Fiesta de la Cruz (Festival of the Cross).  The celebration highlights the end of the harvest and up to 3000 indigenous Bolivian Indians descend upon the dirt-poor village of Macha to celebrate.  There’s nothing quite like Tinku, as it is a rare fusion of Catholic and pre-Columbian beliefs, the most devout belief being that any blood spilled during the fighting is an offering to Pachamama and will invigorate the soil.  “The men who come to fight certainly bring their fears,” says Adelmo La Paz, a Tinku fighter who has engaged in countless battles and seen much bloodshed.  “But they fight for a purpose – one that is greater than the sum of their fears – and because of that, they fight with a fury that leaves other men mangled and sometimes dead.”

In an effort to keep people from dying, townspeople and sometimes even riot police are called in to control the chaos.  That doesn’t mean such measures always work.

Brutal Combat

On May 4 of each year, revelers intoxicated from partying too hard, begin to transform into fighters.  Marching through the town, they begin to eye potential rivals – sometimes there is already a built-in score to settle.

It’s not uncommon for fighters to challenge someone who they believe cheated them out of land, or cheated them out of a woman.  It is often such deep-seated angers that need resolving, which result in fighters carrying rocks to provide their punches with greater force; either that, or they just hurl them at their opponent.  It’s also not uncommon to see fighters with hands wrapped in cloth with glass pieces attached to it, further allowing them to have fists of fury.  Of course, there’s also just good old-fashioned kicking and punching, and standardized weapons including fighting sticks, each practiced and refined to the level of a martial artist in order to inflict heaps of bodily damage.  To counter such extreme violence, fighters often wear leather helmets and protective body wear.  Most fights are short-lived, lasting only a few minutes, but that hasn’t stopped deaths from occurring.  In recent years, the police presence at Tinku has caused it to be slightly more organized and perhaps safer to a degree, but much of the violence still seems to be on par with celebrations of the past.

Some accounts of Tinku would have you believe that it’s nothing more than a drunken brawl.  However, the fact is, Tinku is born out of a belief system that is taken very seriously and objections to the proceedings by local populations seem few and far between.

Authentic Tradition

There are few age-old traditions in the world that remain authentic and intact; Tinku is a tradition that has maintained such a status and has yet to be commercialized, however it is increasingly popping up on the radar of journalists who wish to report on it and backpackers who wish experience it with their own eyes.  It’s even now listed in Lonely Planet, which cautions that it is “a violent and often grisly spectacle.”  If you’re interested in experiencing Tinku in all of its authentic glory, by any reasonable estimation, there are only a few more “good” years left to get out to the festival and witness it in top form before it too becomes diluted.  However, at that point, you may be able to pick up a nifty Tinku black belt for only a few bolivianos (the local currency), if that’s your thing.