Foto: Beto Ricardo, 2002


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The long ritual of the Kwarup


The Kwarup (name of the ritual in the Kamaiurá language, and as it has become known more generally) is considered the great emblem of the Upper Xingu, both by the peoples of the region and by those outside, including by people of the major cities of Brazil, through the media. In fact, it is a funeral ceremony, which involves myths of the creation of humanity, the hierarchical classification into groups, the initiation of Young people and the relations among the villages (in this regard, see the item "cosmology and rituals").

Both the “owner of the village” and the “owners of the houses” have the privilege of a differential form of burial. In the case of the “common” inhabitants, the body is wrapped in a hammock, laid in a grave, later covered by a mat, and finally earth. For the chiefs, there are at least two types of burial. In one of them, the body is tied to a wooden frame similar to a ladder, and placed inside the grave in such a way as to be standing up, facing to the east; in the other type, two graves are dug, three meters distance from each other, and connected by a tunnel. In each grave, a post is placed. The body is placed in a hammock that goes through the tunnel and has its wrists tied to the posts. In both cases, a funeral chamber is made, for the openings of the graves are tamped with mats and ceramic bowls turned upside down, and then covered by earth.

Some time after the burial of a leader, those who prepared the body and placed it in the tomb ask the close kin of the deceased to erect a fence around the burial place. The acceptance of the request by one of the kin marks the beginning of the ritual Kwarup, which covers a long period of time. Its conclusion occurs in the dry season, at the time the tracajá turtle lays its eggs, around August or September. For this final ceremony, the village that is hosting the Kwarup sends an invitation to the other groups of the upper Xingu.


The kinperson who gave permission for building the fence becomes the “owner” of the Kwarup, that is, the one responsible for the organization of the ritual and for providing the food and drink for all those invited, which means he should have available a good supply of manioc. The kin of other deceased “famous men” will also be solicited by their respective gravediggers and, on accepting, they will become secondary “owners” of the same Kwarup. The main “owner” and the secondary owners will in turn invite the kin of deceased “commoners” to get together for the same ritual. But there will only be one fence, which will mark off the tomb of the one for whom the first invitation was made. The gravediggers will yet exercise the important activity of connecting the “owners” with the rest of the village and, at the end of the ritual, also with the guests.

Shortly after putting up the fence, the kin of the deceased are bathed and painted by the gravediggers. At that time, percussion instruments made of a bundle of pequi nutshells used in the initial period of mourning are substituted for rattles, played by two men who shake the rattles in front of the fence of the tomb, an activity which reaches a peak of intensity on the last night of the ritual, when they will play the rattles the whole time in front of the Kwarup trunks.


The second important preparatory measure is the gathering of a large quantity of pequi fruits, which ripen in November and December. The gathered fruits are put inside the fence that marks the tomb, until the inner space is filled. They are boiled, their pulp is stored in baskets lined with leaves, which are kept at the bottom of a lake. Their seeds are also kept in small baskets. The fish however have to be caught at most five days before the end of the ritual, given the difficulty of conserving them, even smoked.

Over the months that follow until the end of the ritual, there occur – though not necessarily everyday – two types of dances and the playing of long flutes (uruá, in the Kamaiurá language), always repaid with the offering of food by the “owners” of the Kwarup. The focus of attention in these ritual activities is always the fence over the burial place.

The ideal of inviting to the ritual the largest number of villages possible is limited by the availability of food and by the state of relations among the villages. A messenger, selected from  the group of gravediggers, with two others who accompany him, is sent to each village to make the invitation, in a formal style that is well-known to them.

On the Plaza of the village that will host the ritual, each deceased person to receive homage is represented by a section of a trunk of about two meters in length. The trunks are cut from a species that has distinct names depending on the different languages of the Xingu. The Kamayurá call it Kwarup, the same wood that the mythic hero used to make the women that he sent to marry the jaguar. The trunks are placed side by side, upright, stuck in holes 50 centimeters deep. They are painted and decorated with feather adornments and male belts. The only difference between the trunks that represent the men and those that represent the women is that the first have unrolled cotton bands tied around them (see photo). Also the deceased common men have the right to be represented by trunks, but of less thickness and with simpler ornamentation. The spirits of the deceased who receive homage stay together with the trunks on the last night of the ritual and their participation is reduced to that time.


The Kwarup trunks then become the focus of the ritual development, while the fence around the burial place is removed and transformed into firewood for the hearths of the camping places of the invited villages, the representatives of which arrive on the day that precedes the last night of the ritual. On their arrival, the messengers who made the invitation lead the “captains” of the guests of each village by the hand, to whom food and a place to sit is offered on the plaza. After being served, ththey go back to their camping-place.

At nightfall, they light fires in front of each Kwarup trunk. While the residents of the host village take turns, keeping wake over the trunks and weeping for the deceased who receive homage, the visitors of each camp enters in its turn into the village, bringing logs of pindaíba to rekindle the fires, in a tense and stirring scene.

In the morning, the guests and hosts prepare themselves for the huka-huka, a wrestling match which in Kamaiurá terminology recalls the cries of the wrestlers who, on facing each other, imitate the grunting of the jaguar. The hosts confront one invited village at a time, beginning with individual matches of recognized champions. These are followed by simultaneous matches of various pairs of rivals, up to the matches of the youngest wrestlers. The wrestlers face each other stamping their right feet on the ground, making clockwise turns around each other, with their left arms extended and their right arms held back, while they shout back and forth: hu! ha! hu! ha! Until their right hands hit and they grab the neck of their adversary with the left. The match, which can last a few seconds, ends when one of the adversaries is thrown to the ground, which does not have to happen literally, it being enough that the back part of one of his knees be snatched by the hand of his adversary, which is considered a sufficient condition for causing him to fall. The villages invited do not wrestle amongst themselves. The adornments of the Kwarup trunks can be given to the winning wrestlers and also to the two rattle-players.

After the match, one of the girls who was in puberty seclusion, who by now is very light in color due to her not having been exposed to the sun for months, and with her hair very long, her bangs down to her chin, since they have not been cut during seclusion, offers pequi seeds to the leaders of one of the invited villages, while the “commoners” of the same village take off her garters. This is repeated with the representatives of each one of the invited villages. The act has a very clear sexual connotation, for both in the myth and in daily life the woman has sexual relations without her garters. Besides that, the Xingu people confess that the smell of the pequi was transferred by a mythical hero from the sexual parts of the woman to this fruit.

Food is then offered to the visitors. Duos of visiting uruá (in kamaiurá) flute-players and also hosts play these instruments, accompanied by girls who have come out of seclusion, and they dance throughout the village, going in and out of the houses. The ritual ends with the farewell of the guests.