The phaqchas: the importance of water expressed in Inca architecture

The origin of life for the worldview of the Incas is manifest in water. Turning water resources into a substance of vital importance. Reason for which, he was considered a deity. The importance of water cannot only be understood in studies or stories of the Incas. All of us who have visited an Inca site have seen the exclusive constructions of water channels that they made for the continuous flow of this liquid. With a greater presence, they can be found in the Inca citadels of Tipón, Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, and many more. Expressing in this way the importance of water for the sustenance of a population and therefore of a civilization.

The Inca springs bring crystal clear water with abundant strength

Within the Andean worldview, water has an important role. The architectural distribution of the Inca constructions, with greater dimensions, is proof of this. To begin with, water must be understood and related to the places of origin of life. Hence it has mythical qualities such as being the source of life itself. It is for this reason that it is also called paqarina, which can be translated as “Creator of life.” Furthermore, at the same time, it can be conceived as a source of healing and purifying properties.

The importance they gave to water as a vital element was not only reflected in representations of symbolic figures or carvings. In the case of the Incas, they developed an entire network of tributaries where water could reach not only important temples within Inca society; but the population also reached every corner. In this way, the vital liquid was prioritized for all activities, especially for agriculture. This practice was concrete mimesis of the understanding of the flow of water throughout the Earth, understanding that the waters flow through underground channels until they reach the tributaries of the rivers to finally complete their eternal journey to the sea.

These constructions dedicated to water transit, arranged throughout the city, are called phaqchas. Spaces of carved stones allowed us to have control of the waters and better control of this hydraulic circuit. Currently, this type of construction should be considered a marvel for civil engineering because it only uses gravity and a complex network of carved stones to distribute water to all corners of the city.

What is phaqchas?

The water sources of Tambomachay

It is necessary to explain that the main tributary of water from any site in Inca constructions is considered phaqcha. In the sense that it is a divine main source, but some also call these constructions pacarina. EIn both cases, they are called that way because they can give life. Likewise, these names could confuse anyone who does not know or is clear about this distinction. A pacarina is the general way to talk about natural motifs such as volcanoes, lakes, rivers, snowfalls, and others.

These are considered sacred spaces or beings because in these spaces, is where new human beings are created. Humans or semi-divine characters, stronger, considered the children of the sun or Tayta Inti. While the phaqchas, from its main source, is a pacarina, but linked exclusively to the deity of water. These, in turn, have constructions through which water can descend to cover the recesses of a citadel.

In this sense, phaqchas phaqchas are constructions that can be seen in large venues. These constructions mainly served to supply water to an entire city. These water conduits were not for the exclusive use of any social sector. According to studies, the presence of these buildings can be found in both Hanan and Hurin. Perhaps the only difference that can be found is the finishes. For example, phaqchas close to sacred places such as temples or ritual sites, have fine finishes and elaborate carvings.

In the citadels of Machu Picchu, Choquequirao, and Tipon you can find the important water network that they designed so that water connects and reaches all places without distinction of Hanan or Hurin. Likewise, exclusive water channels were created for the platforms or terraces, which were used exclusively for growing food.

What does Phaqcha mean?

One of the water sources in Ollantaytambo

As we saw, the importance of water within the cities of Tawantinsuyo was fundamental. An example of this is that, still today, we can see in many Inca citadels buildings dedicated to and that are part of the water supply circuit. Some of them inexplicably continue to work without any problem. In addition, the channel of its waters is crystal clear and quite powerful. An example of this place and with more particularities is Tipón.

The word “Phaqcha”, comes from the Quechua language. One of the first records that exists at the time of using this word is thanks to Julio C. Tello, who to name these Inca constructions first used the term “cisterns”, but later decided to change it for a more appropriate one. In his texts published in 1942, a variant such as Paccha or Pakcha can already be seen. But on this occasion, no importance or sacred value was given to water. It was simply understood as another water circuit.

Later, Pardo, another scholar, in 1957, related the continuous presence of these constructions in various Inca enclosures. So he begins to grant him a sacred representation. On this occasion, it is understood that the fountains and canals were a clear way of worshiping water. Finally, a more committed scholar, Chávez Ballón, uses more appropriate words. formulating “paqcha”, to name those constructions or architectural elements that supply water. Later they also referred to utensils used for the worship of water with the same term.

What was the importance of water for the Incas?

This is what the fountains and water channels look like in Tipon

For the Inca civilization, water was of vital importance. Some of the mentions that can be found of water, by the chroniclers, are when they describe the Inca citadels and the abundant presence of “water fountains” which was what they called them. These sources of water supply, they say, were obtained from springs, springs, rivers and lakes. Clarifying that each of these representations had a huaca or divine figure. They were also related to the ceques. In some cases, scenes related to the cult and the worship procedure in these sacred precincts are narrated.

As might be expected, the Spanish did not understand the cosmogonic organization of the Incas. This can be evidenced in some chronicles that leave aside some important figures to understand the pantheon of the Inca gods. The main divinities were the sun, the moon, lightning, and the stars; some consider comets and rainbows. Other divinities were the snow-capped mountains, the mountains, the springs, the paqcha, some caves, and some geographical variations. These gods could only represent pagan worship for the Spanish.

The worship of water included performing ceremonies and rites in the sea, lakes, lagoons, springs, rivers, etc. Any place where clean water is found, with the ability, in addition to giving life, was considered sacred and received great care. Coca leaves, seashells, and some edible seaweed such as mullu were offered. Carved figures, figures in gold and silver, were also found.

Currently, these activities continue to be carried out in gratitude for the important work that water does for humanity. According to some oral compilations, it is believed that the main source or “the mother of all waters” is the sea. His children would follow him, who would be the lakes and lagoons. These are connected through underground waters and some rivers, these connections strengthen ties with the oldest gods, fertility, and initiation; once again, leading to representing the origin of life.

During the time of Tawantinsuyo, the worship of water became widespread, which led to the emergence of specialists to perform the entire ceremony. Sacrifices and offerings began to be left to express gratitude. Those in charge of the ceremonies were priests who dedicated themselves to giving words of gratitude and kindness. The months of September were the privileged months to perform rituals and worship water. During these activities and according to some procedures, healing ceremonies could be performed. This ritual used to be done at the crossing of two rivers and sometimes in the phaqchas ceremonial.

An interesting fact:
During the Empire and rule of the Incas, the road networks that made up the Qhapac Ñan or Royal Road were completed. This path served to guide and unify all the states and ethnic groups allied to the Inca empire. The routes that led off in the direction of the 4 of them were called Ceques. Bauer, an anthropologist, confirmed that of the huacas arranged in the different ceques that left Cusco, 30% were dedicated to water temples or more precisely phaqchas. In this sense, only in Cusco, you could find many places with a strong inclination or natural value dedicated to water.

The undeniable value of phaqchas today

Currently, the phaqchas, although many of them do not work correctly. They continue to play an important role in the main Inca citadels. They must be understood as important and cultural elements. They were present throughout history. Surely the tradition of respect for water was inherited from the first settlers in this part of the world. That is why no one can deny the value that phaqchas have and that they should continue to have since currently water is not treated with respect.

Likewise, there are studies that the city was configured and designed from the water sources; as well as the importance that the Sun had for urban development. In this way, the importance of the water resource and the presence of the Sun was highlighted. We believe it is necessary to explain that the phaqchas were made up of the entire system of water channels, which included small and rectangular structures; although their construction varied depending on the place in which they were built. Some lived in small spaces, practically for personal veneration. However, there are larger constructions typical of the most important temples. These constructions reveal the flow of water at high altitudes. The latter were surely for exclusive use for ceremonies and rituals.


By Imachupicchu – Last updated, February 8, 2024

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