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At Home with the Sapa Inca

At Home with the Sapa Inca
Architecture, Space, and Legacy at Chinchero

This major architectural survey and analysis of the Inca royal estate at Chinchero significantly increases our understanding of how the Inca conceived, constructed, and gave meaning to their built environment.

Series: Recovering Languages and Literacies of the Americas, Download color insert here.

July 2015
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304 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 5 b&w illustrations, 33 maps, 97 b&w photos, 25 color photos |

By examining the stunning stone buildings and dynamic spaces of the royal estate of Chinchero, Nair brings to light the rich complexity of Inca architecture. This investigation ranges from the paradigms of Inca scholarship and a summary of Inca cultural practices to the key events of Topa Inca’s reign and the many individual elements of Chinchero’s extraordinary built environment.

What emerges are the subtle, often sophisticated ways in which the Inca manipulated space and architecture in order to impose their authority, identity, and agenda. The remains of grand buildings, as well as a series of deft architectural gestures in the landscape, reveal the unique places that were created within the royal estate and how one space deeply informed the other. These dynamic settings created private places for an aging ruler to spend time with a preferred wife and son, while also providing impressive spaces for imperial theatrics that reiterated the power of Topa Inca, the choice of his preferred heir, and the ruler’s close relationship with sacred forces.

This careful study of architectural details also exposes several false paradigms that have profoundly misguided how we understand Inca architecture, including the belief that it ended with the arrival of Spaniards in the Andes. Instead, Nair reveals how, amidst the entanglement and violence of the European encounter, an indigenous town emerged that was rooted in Inca ways of understanding space, place, and architecture and that paid homage to a landscape that defined home for Topa Inca.





1. Pirca – Wall

2. Pacha – Place and Time

3. Pampa – Plaza

4. Puncu – Doorway

5. Uasi – House

6. Pata – Platform

7. Llacta – Community






Trained as an architect and architectural historian, Stella Nair is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Core Faculty in the Archaeology Interdepartmental Program at UCLA. She coauthored (with Jean-Pierre Protzen) The Stones of Tiahuanaco: A Study of Architecture and Construction.



This book began as an attempt at reqsiy, the Quechua word meaning “to know a place or a people.”1 In particular, the goal of the project was to become familiar with the Inca estate of Chinchero and the landscape in which it was embedded.2 As the project moved forward, it led to an examination of Chinchero’s creation, its dynamic use as a private residence and state center, its role in a complicated battle over succession, its transformation into a royal memorial and prison, and finally its desecration and subsequent reconstitution as a Spanish colonial town. Growing as such endeavors do, this desire to become acquainted with Chinchero unfolded into the much greater journey to knowing the place and its people in
more profound ways.

This journey required a study of the life and influence of Topa Inca (Thupa ‘Inka), one of the most formidable Inca rulers, who played a critical role in shaping the landscape of Chinchero (in life and in death). Also of importance are those who lived in or visited the royal estate, as well as the various individuals and groups who played a part in drastically altering Chinchero’s urban fabric after the Spanish invasion. While we cannot fully “know” Chinchero and the people who built, lived, and altered it, the journey of trying to know provides critical insights into a dynamic and complex architectural center and the defiant and diverse individuals who shaped and experienced it.

Topa Inca and the Written Records

Much of what we know about Topa Inca and Chinchero comes from colonial-period sources such as Spanish conquistadors and church administrators. In these writings, Topa Inca’s life is remembered in fragments.3 His adult name was Topa Inca Yupanqui. He was born into privilege in the early fifteenth century, the son of a powerful sapa inca (ruler) named Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui and his principal wife, Anahuarque, a woman from the town of Choco, located near the capital of Cuzco. Topa Inca had many siblings, perhaps as many as three hundred, via his father’s official and unofficial sexual liaisons. Little is known of Topa Inca’s childhood, other than a reference that he may have spent his formative years living in the sacred complex known as the Coricancha (“Golden Enclosure”) in Cuzco.

When Topa Inca was a young man, he married a relative. Whether she was a full or half sister (or perhaps even a cousin) is unclear, but it appears he married her because of his father’s wishes. Although incestuous marriages are often associated with the sapa inca, only the last two imperial Inca rulers (Topa Inca and his son Huayna Capac [Wayna Qhapaq]) appear to have married close relatives. Mama Ocllo became Topa Inca’s principal wife. She was a powerful consort and bore him several children. Like his father, Topa Inca also took on secondary wives and multiple mistresses, though not in the same quantity as Pachacuti. One of Topa Inca’s favorites was a woman named Mama Chequi Ocllo, with whom he had at least one son.

Knowledge of Topa Inca as an adult is derived mainly from accounts of his success on the battlefield. The colonial writers devoted considerable time to the details of his many conquests, which was no small feat, given that Topa Inca spent most of his adult life away in battle. Along with his father and several of his brothers, Topa Inca was instrumental in expanding the Inca Empire, which was called Tahuantinsuyu, or “Land of the Four Quarters.” It is these military victories that seem to have prompted his father, Pachacuti, to change his mind about the imperial succession and designate Topa Inca as his heir, having him replace a brother, Amaru Topa, who had previously been appointed as legatee (the Inca did not practice primogeniture). By incorporating extensive and diverse new lands that stretched across the western rim of South America, Topa Inca came to rule one of the largest empires of the early modern world. He lived a long life and, sometime in the late fifteenth century, built a royal estate at Chinchero.

Chinchero and the Written Records

Inca rulers built lavish estates to serve as private retreats, temporary capitals, and memorials to their rule. Some sapa inca built more than one. Pachacuti had two estates in the Urubamba Valley (Pisac and Ollantaytambo) and another at Machu Picchu. Topa Inca had a side valley that spread up a canyon and covered part of the plains above. Here his principal wife, Mama Ocllo, had lands and Topa Inca built Urcos (today called Urquillos).5 Toward the end of his reign, Topa Inca or dered a new residence be built for him in a canyon above Urcos (Urquillos), on the edge of the Pampa de Anta plains. This retreat was called Chinchero, which aptly described its location in two ways. It was within the region of Chinchasuyu (Chin) and was built upon the side of a hill (chiru means “on a side”). The written records describe Chinchero’s construction, with Topa Inca gathering his noblemen together at the site and ordering them to build an impressive royal retreat.

According to colonial writers, Topa Inca lived in Chinchero for several years. It appears that he spent that time with his favorite secondary wife, Mama Chequi Ocllo, and their son Capac Huari (Qhapaq Wari). As his father had done before him, Topa Inca changed his preference for successor, from Huayna Capac (son of his principal wife and close relative Mama Ocllo) to Capac Huari. Sometime in the late fifteenth century, Topa Inca died at Chinchero. His death led to a succession dispute between two sons, Huayna Capac and Capac emerged the victor, putting to death his stepmother Chequi Ocllo and banishing his half brother Capac Huari to exile in Chinchero. What happened afterward is met with silence in the co lonial writings. We have no references to the royal estate for the next several decades.

Fortunately, the colonial sources have much to say about Inca estates in general, including what happened to them after the death of the royal patron. When an Inca ruler died, the sapa inca was “not at the end of his career but at the beginning of candidacy for ancestral greatness.”6 In the form of a mallqui (mallki, ancestor mummy), Inca rulers were consulted on important matters and were feasted and venerated. They also continued to travel, participate in ceremonies, and own properties, which they visited with their retinue of servants.7 Thus, even after death, Chinchero was likely the royal sanctuary of the great leader Topa Inca. Here his mallqui would have been served fine foods and drinks and venerated with great fanfare. When he was not in residence, his family ( panaca) would have tended the grounds. Certainly life at Chinchero would have been altered by the confinement of Capac Huari within its borders. However, in many ways the royal estate would not have been so different from when Topa Inca was alive.

But Chinchero changed dramatically when Eu ropeans arrived in the Americas. Their diseases raced across the continent, decimating indigenous populations. One of these diseases infected Huayna Capac and killed the Inca ruler quickly. His death, along with that of his intended heir, created a vacuum in leadership. According to the written sources, two remaining sons (the half brothers Atahualpa and Huascar) began a war over succession, which, in addition to European diseases, wiped out half the population in Tahuantinsuyu, if not more.

The destruction brought by the Europeans affected Chinchero in particular. Topa Inca’s panaca, which cared for his mummy and his royal estates, suffered more than most. According to co lonial records, Topa Inca’s panaca sided with Huascar, who was captured by orders of Atahualpa and eventually executed in 1532 (one of the first firm dates we have for the Inca). In retaliation for their support of his half brother, Atahualpa killed many of Topa Inca’s panaca, the very people who would have tended to the buildings and lands of Chinchero and who would have brought Topa Inca’s mummy to the royal estate to be sung to and feted. Topa Inca’s mallqui was burned, an act considered horrific and shocking to the indigenous population. The onslaught of European diseases and the subsequent conflagration of the sapa inca in the civil war devastated the lavish royal estate of Chinchero and its royal patron.

Devastated, but did not destroy. Written records indicate that Topa Inca’s huauque (wawqi), or brother statue, endured and his ashes were secretly collected and venerated once more. His form changed, yet again, but his essence remained. A few of his descendants survived Atahualpa’s purge and the Spanish invasion. Most were very young, one of whom was the daughter of Capac Huari. Scattered across the Urubamba Valley, the Pampa de Anta, and Cuzco, these remnants of Topa Inca’s panaca laid claim to the former ruler’s possessions, such as the royal estate of Chinchero and its surrounding lands. But they were not alone. References from church books and state orders indicate that ownership of these areas was deeply contested and fluid. Authorities, both secular and religious, vied for rights to lands and labor, resulting in a deeply entangled and of ten shifting web of indigenous and European players. Somehow during this time, Chinchero transformed from an Inca royal estate into a settled colonial town.

Architecture, History, Knowledge

The written records provide an opening for us to begin to know the built environment of Chinchero and the people who shaped it. These writings give us a tantalizing outline of Chinchero’s patron, builders, and inhabitants, as well as insights into what led to the royal estate’s creation, destruction, and reconstitution. However, as useful as the colonial period records are, they are also often contradictory or biased, and thus have their limitations. For example, to create this coherent summary of Chinchero’s history, I have had to elide some of the counter-narratives that suggest a different sequence or result of events. Part of the problem is that none of the written records come from people who built or lived in the royal estate. And only a few of the writings come from colonial-period inhabitants. Instead, the majority of the writers were Spaniards, who brought a dramatically different understanding and agenda to Inca history. In the few instances where Inca elites were consulted about the history of Chinchero and Topa Inca, they were rarely from Topa Inca’s panaca; therefore, their perspectives were still those of outsiders who also had distinct agendas (such as aggrandizing the accomplishments of their own panaca).

The historical documentation is not improved much by writings covering Chinchero’s colonial history. Written mostly by Spanish administrators and religious leaders, these documents are deeply embedded with Spanish desires to possess native lands, labor, and souls. While the early modern writings offer provocative and tantalizing clues into Chinchero’s history, they too are limited in that they exclude the viewpoint and experiences of the people who built and lived in the royal estate and town.

By contrast, the architectural remains are a living testament to the people who constructed, experienced, and redefined Chinchero. In its stone blocks, terraced walls, extensive canals, and shaped hillside are multiple gestures of history. The result is an architectural palimpsest of desires, actions, reactions, and remembrances. As such, Chinchero’s surviving architecture can provide insights into the past of the royal estate and its inhabitants and into the violent changes wrought by the European encounter. Hence, the built environment of Chinchero serves as an important resource in our journey to know the place and the people who lived there.

Using Inca architecture as a tool for insight has its own constraints, however. To begin with, there is the issue of knowledge. Despite its visibility in the twentieth century, Inca architecture is not well understood. A case in point is the World Heritage site Machu Picchu. From written records, scholars have been able to determine that this majestically situated site served as a royal estate for Pachacuti in the fifteenth century, but there is little information about what actually occurred in and around individual structures. Some observers (past and present) may venture guesses, but we do not actually know where the ruler, his wives, their children, his courtiers, state officials, or servants lived. We do not know where the administrative offices or royal reception areas were situated. Nor do we know how the structures may have been used after the collapse of the Inca state. In sum, we have little idea how the buildings at this royal estate, or at other Inca settlements that lack written texts, were used, understood, or experienced. We can only understand Inca architecture in the broadest of terms. In other words, a primary source of information into Inca history (pre and post-1532) lies unexplored.

Architecture and Preservation

Another issue concerning the study of Inca architecture is preservation. The colonial invasion and the subsequent centuries of neglect, rebuilding, expanding settlements, and modern reconstruction ruptured most of the Inca’s purposely laid sequences of spaces. Although there are many Inca remains today, most of the original complexes exist only in portions, such as a collection of buildings, sections of Inca roads, or neighborhoods in a city. Machu Picchu (a popular tourist destination) has been estimated to be at least seventy percent modern construction.8 The Inca site most celebrated for its “pristine” preservation has only slivers of its original built environment remaining. Its highly altered physical form represents the condition of most Inca settlements, such that imperial architectural phrases stand isolated, no longer part of the long narratives of architectural experiences that once gave them definition.

For this reason, Chinchero provides a rare opportunity. The original constructed passage to its heart, as designed and laid out during imperial Inca times, remains largely intact.9 From its long roads and elaborate shrines, to its grand plaza and processional spaces, Chinchero’s built environment allows us to trace the entire, carefully choreographed journey visitors would have taken from the distant roads to the grand plaza.

The preservation of Chinchero’s architecture reveals how the trip would have varied according to the traveler, with its open roads and resting places unfolding only as far as a visitor’s rank permitted. We can see how layers of architectural encounters were articulated according to status. Socially constructed spaces were meant to reinscribe the landscape as Inca, conveying who belonged and who was excluded. These spaces were also meant to express the distinct agenda of the patron, Topa Inca Yupanqui, whose desires did not always coincide with those of the Inca state. Of course, we cannot know if the people allowed to travel the roads or pass by Topa Inca’s shrines reacted in the ways that the designers intended; architecture can inform and suggest but not determine how people experience space. Even the most cautiously designed spaces can neither ensure a specific reaction from a visitor, nor anticipate all possible transgressions.

Therefore, the aim of this philosophical and archeological inquiry into Inca architecture is not to proclaim ultimately that we know how people in the past actually experienced Chinchero. Instead, by tracing Chinchero’s carefully choreographed architectural sequences and manipulated landscapes, we can begin to understand the ways the built environment was used to try to construct distinct experiences and places at Topa Inca’s estate. In doing so, a richer, more nuanced interpretation of Chinchero and its patron emerges, revealing the sophistication of Inca architectural practices and how an aging ruler used the built environment to attempt to shape what happened after his death. Although his legacy was very different from what he had anticipated, Topa Inca and his magnificent estate were remembered for centuries after his death.

Architecture, Space/Place, Experience

This expedition to know Chinchero is methodologically crucial to understanding Inca architecture. For it is only by applying an approach that highlights the experience of architecture that we can begin to know Chinchero—in particular, to comprehend the ways in which Chinchero’s built environment was designed to function during the imperial Inca and Spanish colonial periods. This means we must trace the fine details of architectural gestures at the royal estate in order to understand how distinct places were made and specific experiences and meanings were fostered on both the small and large scale.11 In doing so, we move from becoming acquainted with Chinchero (reqsiy), to knowing Chinchero in a more profound way that includes the direct experience of space and place as well as knowledge of sacred practices. In Quechua, these types of “knowing” were called rikuy and yachay.

This ideographic approach to architecture draws heavily from phenomenology and is useful for three reasons.13 First, it directly addresses the three-dimensional aspects of architecture. A building is not an object that can be grasped from a single vantage point. One cannot understand a structure by gazing at a façade or simply studying its plan. Instead, one must consider the spaces that are created. For example, to examine the façade or plan of Rome’s Pantheon is to miss the central focus of the structure. The immense interior space is far more than the sum of its parts. This was also the case with Chinchero’s impressive buildings.

Second, this approach also considers how architectural spaces create and articulate movement. This is important because spaces do not exist in isolation; each relates to and informs the other.14 For example, at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the two plazas, tower (campanile), and basilica can each be studied in isolation. But to do so would be to completely misunderstand this impressive complex, because the experiences of these distinct features are intimately linked. With each step through this complex, the spaces (and thus the architectural elements) unfold in new ways. This is also the case with Topa Inca’s royal estate. The spaces of Chinchero unfold as one alternately moves and lingers under the direction of the built environment.

And finally, this approach foregrounds the multisensory experience of the built environment, highlighting the ways people create and transform their spaces to give meaning to their world. This entails exploring how humans perceive and inform space within distinct contexts.16 It also requires questioning what messages are being expressed in the architectural experiences and who composed them. The latter may range from powerful elites who manipulate spaces to proclaim their power17 to the disenfranchised who transform space to resist authority.18 This method also involves the designers and builders of Chinchero and their specialized ways of knowing (yachay) Chinchero.

This way of looking at architecture is of particular value in the study of Chinchero because, for the Inca, architecture was theater. It was designed, constructed, and laid out to proclaim imperial authority. Yet these messages were also highly localized, thus the architecture was suited not only to a particular geography, but also to a specific political and cultural landscape. Architectural gestures, from the large to the small, were used to articulate messages of conquest, power, and relationships with the sacred. As part of a grand, extended drama, by means such as the manipulation of vision, sound, and movement, desired experiences were carefully staged. By evoking qualities of both familiarity and the unknown, Inca architecture was used to foster a sense ei ther of belonging or of exclusion for distinct people within imperial Inca space.

Aims of the Book

The objectives of this book are threefold. The first is to demonstrate the complex ways that the Inca gave weight and meaning to space. The Inca did not rely upon a heavy-handed use of dense construction to convey their power, but instead manipulated space in subtle, often sophisticated ways in order to impose their authority, identity, and agenda. For example, in the immense, dramatic landscape of the Andes, they created long, extended processions, abrupt pauses, focused sightlines, and exposed stages. This theatrical use of space defined political, religious, and familial relationships for the living and the dead.

The second objective is to reveal how an ideographic approach to site analysis (one that draws from phenomenology) can reveal important clues about the people who planned and experienced a landscape. In the case of Chinchero and Topa Inca’s momentous reign, a period for which we have scant written sources, an ideographic approach provides vital insights into the ways distinct elements such as outcrops, streams, terrace walls, doorways, windows, and roofs were manipulated to create dynamic settings that reiterated the power of Topa Inca, the choice of his preferred heir, and the ruler’s close relationship with sacred forces. In studying these architectural details we also see the false paradigms that have profoundly misguided how we understand Inca architecture.

The third objective is to trace the legacy of Topa Inca’s estate during the Spanish invasion. As indigenous peoples and Europeans struggled for control of the architectural and urban fabric of Chinchero, the armature of the royal estate was devastated. But by understanding the fundamental architectural categories that gave meaning to place during Topa Inca’s reign, we can see how, from the ashes of the European catastrophe, an indigenous town arose that remained rooted in Inca ways of understanding space and place. It continued to pay homage to a landscape that defined home for Topa Inca.

The topics explored in the book move along a path from the general to the particular, from the paradigms of Inca scholarship and a summary of Inca cultural practices to the events of Topa Inca’s reign and the many individual elements of Chinchero’s built environment. The Inca used architecture to try to create particular experiences and impressions. This book concentrates on the intentions behind these carefully controlled designs, what they tell us about the Inca’s use of architecture in their conquest strategies, and how, after the Spanish invasion, different groups manipulated Inca architecture at Chinchero for very different ends.

The book begins with an analysis of the way Inca architecture is represented in existing studies, which serves as an intellectual foundation for the rest of the monograph. The first chapter, “Pirca—Wall,” examines two basic assumptions. The first is that the function of Inca architecture is clearly legible in its forms; the second, that the kallanka, a structure long believed to have been associated with ceremonies and feasting, held great significance for the Inca. Although scholars have tended to use the presence of a kallanka as a touchstone in the interpretation of Inca sites, I demonstrate that this building type is in fact a fabrication of the 1970s and also that the assumption on which it is based—a modernist notion of form revealing function—is not valid in the Inca context. Regardless of their function, the vast majority of Inca structures are rectangular in form. These simple forms allowed the rapid establishment of settlements across the Andes, but to more fully understand the architecture, we must look at how it conveyed meaning and hierarchy for the Inca.

In the second part of the chapter, I pursue the question of how the Inca viewed their architecture and apply my findings to the study of Chinchero. Recent scholarship derived from careful examinations of physical evidence and ethnohistorical documents has revealed three key categories that the Inca valued: facture (the process of making), materiality, and patronage. For the Inca the very act of making was profoundly meaningful: it implied devotion, revealed skill, and reiterated power dynamics. At Chinchero the entire site was built of caninacukpirca, finely bonded masonry that was used only in the most elite of Inca installations. This style of masonry marked the process of making as a celebration of the sacredness of stone as well as the Inca’s power to transform it. Moreover, the primacy of materials has deep roots throughout the Andes. At Chinchero, the andesite and limestone that were used to build the estate clearly distinguish it from nearby sites. These materials carried with them a sacred meaning that tied the architecture to the landscape. The chapter ends with a discussion of patronage through an analysis of the colonial-period writings on Chinchero, the majority of which describe the process of building the royal estate and thus the importance of patronage in Inca architecture. Topa Inca’s wishes were carried out by noblemen and laborers in a physical enactment of their allegiance and subservience to the sapa inca. At a time when elites and laymen alike had attempted to usurp his power, this symbolic act of building served to reinforce Inca royal authority and hierarchy.

After facture, materiality, and patronage, I argue that a fourth architectural category, spatial practice, was also important for the Inca. Thus the second chapter, “Pacha—Place and Time,” begins with a summary of what we know about such practices and the crucial role they played in defining the Inca built environment. One of the reasons why the Inca were highly successful in controlling so vast and rugged a territory as the Andes lay in their ability to make subtle yet deeply meaningful architectural gestures that transformed the experience of place. Topics covered in this chapter include the Inca understandings of movement, landscape, and royal estates, as well as how space and experience were manipulated in the design of Cuzco, the Inca capital.

In the second half of the chapter these phenomenological insights are applied to Chinchero—why the location of this royal estate was significant and how the experience of approaching it was carefully constructed to communicate Topa Inca’s authority. The primary audience for these spatial and temporal gestures appears to have been the powerful Inca nobility residing in the adjacent Urubamba Valley, particularly those potentially allied with Topa Inca’s principal wife and presumed heir. Through the manipulation of movement, vision, and natural rock formations, the built environment conveyed messages of regal exclusivity and of Topa Inca’s intimate relationship with sacred forces.

The next three chapters examine the main plaza and its surrounding buildings as an example of place-making as a means to articulate the sapa inca’s authority. In the third (“Pampa—Plaza”), fourth (“Puncu—Doorway”), and fifth (“Uasi— House”) chapters the architectural and spatial dimensions of the main open-air space (Pampa) are analyzed, providing insights into the construction of royal authority as a theatrical display. Here, materiality, facture, patronage, and spatial practices are compared with evidence derived from archaeological excavations and writings from the colonial period to show not only how the Pampa and adjacent buildings functioned together, but also what they reveal about the particulars of Topa Inca’s rule. In doing so, function is re-examined and problematized as a fifth category. While it may have been overemphasized and simplified in the scholarship, function did play a role in defining the experience of Inca architecture.

Given the attention the Inca gave to the construction of experience, it is not surprising the buildings adjacent to the main plaza also served as critical stages for political theaters. In this section of the book, key building types associated with the main plazas at royal estates are studied and compared with the physical remains at Chinchero, such as the cuyusmanco (ruler’s day room), carpa uasi (royal auditorium), camachicona uasi (meeting place for government officials), and sun tur uasi (viewing tower associated with palaces). At Chinchero, these buildings played key roles in defining state performances and were deeply tied to the constructed experience of the main plaza. In addition, the role of sight and architectural openings is examined, revealing that viewing stages, doorways, and windows were not simply pragmatic design expressions, but deeply symbolic experiences. In the Andes today, sight is still understood to enable a very particular way of knowing a place (rikuy).

The types of buildings that line Chinchero’s plaza have often been misunderstood. This is the result of the legacy of the Spanish authorities who first wrote on Inca building types in the colonial period. Chapter 5 unpacks this complicated misunderstanding. I argue that European writers, struck by the unusual spatial patterns of Inca architecture, conflated several distinct types of Inca structures and wrote about them under the rubric of “galpón.” In fact, this name, believed by many scholars to be indigenous to the Andes, can be traced back to the Spanish adoption of a word from an indigenous language (Pipil Nawat) in what is now Nicaragua, an illustration of the many complicated and often overlooked cultural exchanges of the early colonial period.

The sixth chapter, “Pata—Platform,” moves the journey to the residential portion of Topa Inca’s royal estate, a space that few people would have received permission to enter. Accessed only by Topa Inca, his family, trusted advisors, and servants, this was the most privileged space of the royal estate, which contained a small assortment of finely made buildings (uasi) on (and around) an elevated platform ( pata). This terraced platform, or “step,” is described in terms of layout and function, in light of writings from the colonial period on Inca private life. Buildings associated with the private life of the Inca at royal estates are examined, such as the punona uasi (house of sleep and sex), uaccha uasi (house for children by low-status wives), and the aca uasi (excrement house). Structures that may have been located in or were functionally related to this area are also explored, such as the capac marca uasi (house of the royal treasury), masana uasi (house for drying clothes), aka uasi (corn beer house), and churacona uasi (warehouse).

Unfortunately, our analysis of these structures and their related spaces is greatly hampered by architectural destruction. Thus the journey to and through Chinchero begins to fragment. However, the surviving architectural phrases hint at the blurred lines between the public and private as well as between life and death. In doing so, they reveal how aspects of private life would have permeated the public portions of Chinchero and how imperial performance would have penetrated the sanctity of domestic life.

The final chapter, Chapter 7, “Llacta—Community,” describes the transformation of Topa Inca’s private retreat into a town during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It begins with Topa Inca’s sudden death at Chinchero and the ensuing power struggle that resulted in an ending very different from what Topa Inca had planned. After bitter accusations and behind-the-scenes negotiations between the two wives, their sons, and related Inca nobility, Capac Huari was banished to Chinchero and his mother executed. Chinchero, built as a personal retreat, temporary capital, and monument to Topa Inca’s rule, was transformed into a royal prison.

Soon thereafter, the arrival of Europeans in the Americas brought disease, civil war, and death. At Chinchero, the imperial landscape was intentionally ruptured and Topa Inca’s career as a mall qui unexpectedly ended. A gridded plan was laid down on top of the meticulously crafted Inca design, devouring most structures in its path. Surviving royal buildings were alternately modified, damaged, buried, or destroyed. A Christian church was erected on top of the largest imperial cuyusmanco, and the theatrical Pampa became an agricultural field. However, indigenous residents began their own reconfigurations of the space, such as the construction of an Inca-style wall in the façade of the new church and Inca niches next to Spanish-derived arches in the new plaza and within their own homes. While the Spanish authorities attempted to control the population of Chinchero by redefining the urban landscape, indigenous residents reinscribed the architecture and space of the new town in typically Inca ways.

The seventh chapter also reveals the incorporation and naturalization of Christian ideas into the sacred Inca landscape and the reinterpretation and revitalization of Inca identity among the population of Chinchero, which included Inca, Ayarmaca, former yanacona (Inca servants), and other indigenous migrants seeking refuge within Chinchero’s borders. Cut off from their sacred and agricultural landscapes by encroaching Spanish land grants and beleaguered by regular attempts on the part of these landholders to usurp Chinchero’s growing independence, the residents of the former royal estate turned defiantly inward, creating a secure yet vibrant sanctuary where newly reconstituted references to Topa Inca’s grand estate became a rallying point for self-definition and independence.

In sum, this book is itself organized as a journey in trying to know Chinchero and its patron, Topa Inca. Chapter 1 is a preparation for the trip, providing a background on the ways in which scholars have examined Inca architecture and the categories that the Inca may have used to give meaning to their built environment. Chapter 2 begins the journey, walking the roads that lead up to Chinchero and the architectural gestures that informed movement. Chapter 3 moves to the dramatic entrance and main theatrical space at Chinchero, the Pampa (plaza). Chapter 4 highlights some of the key architectural stages positioned around the plaza that would have allowed one to watch and be watched. Chapter 5 goes inside three of the plaza structures, providing our first clues to interior Inca space and ritual. Chapter 6 encounters the first ruptures in the journey as it transitions from the public to the private, exploring the royal residence and how intimate issues such as sex and defecating can change how we think of Inca space. Chapter 7 describes the end of the journey in a fragmented landscape. By moving across the architecture of ruin and renewal in Chinchero, the chapter examines not only the entangled nature of the end of the imperial Inca period and the beginning of colonial rule, but also that of the architecture of royal estates with that of colonial-era indigenous towns.

This journey in trying to know (reqsiy, rikuy, and yachay) spans the lifetime(s) of an Inca ruler, two colonizing powers, and three hundred years. While also using written records, collected oral histories, and excavated remains, this book follows the faint and often shifting traces of architectural change at Chinchero in order to examine how this estate was a defiant sanctuary for the ruler and his mummy, one that was specifically designed not to surrender to the state, time, or even death but instead to celebrate a powerful present and redefine the future of Inca rule. While Topa Inca’s vision for his life as mallqui and for the identity of his successor may not have become a reality, his architectural legacy profoundly informed a new town, in which a diverse indigenous population struggled to survive amidst the horrors of the Spanish occupation. In teasing out the constructed architectural experiences and the layered histories of those who inhabited Chinchero, we can begin to understand how a place was made and its meaning was shaped.


“Nair's book is an important contribution to Andean scholarship, demonstrating that a nuanced appreciation of architectural space can result in surprising insights about an ancient culture.”
ReviewQuotes::Author, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“This is exactly the sort of book I wanted. This is exactly the sort of book you probably want, if you’re interested in the Inca and even possibly if you aren’t. Of all the Inca Imperial material I’ve read, this is the one I would recommend most highly.”

“This is an impressive and important contribution to Andean studies and to the anthropological study of landscape and architecture. The volume is full of nuanced analyses of the construction and experience of Chinchero. Nair presents fascinating interpretations throughout the book and touches on a wide range of theoretical domains. . . . [A] wonderful and erudite book that will inform analyses of the Inca state for years to come.”
American Anthropologist

“As eloquent and sure-footed as it is insightful and practical, both generalists and specialists will appreciate the volume’s detailed analysis of Inca architecture and landscape rooted in close observation and measurement, archaeology, ethnohistoric sources, and the acuity of a phenomenological methodology. . . In sum, At Home with the Sapa Inca is a critical addition to Andean studies.”
College Art Association Reviews

“This engaging, meticulously researched, and clearly written monograph is well suited for course adaptation. It promises to become one of the classic studies of the Inca and their magnificent architectural legacy, and to serve as puncu, an opening from which future studies will follow.”
Latin American Antiquity

“Insightful, evocative, and thoroughly researched, Stella Nair’s new book explores the distinctive architectural spaces and structures of the royal Inca palace…. This wonderful work will be of great interest to Andeanists of all disciplines. Its highly accessible nature makes it ideal for undergraduate and graduate courses in architectural history, art history, and archeology, anthropology, and the history of Latin America.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“[At Home with the Sapa Inca fosters] a deeper understanding of Inka culture, especially as it was borne out through elite practices and space…[It] would be useful for both casual and specialist readers interested in Inka and architectural history. It offers a real insights into Inka life and architectural style.”

“This important book offers a superb study of Topa Inca’s palace complex at Chinchero, Peru, organizing its analysis around Inca concepts and architectural features, and through the spatial progression through which the site would have been experienced. Nair foregrounds how Inca architecture delineated and sacralized space while producing stages for performance, and she provides and excellent reading of the politics of place and movement.”
The Americas

“El detallado análisis arquitectónico efectuado por Stella Nair, a partir de sus observaciones en Chinchero y la atenta lectura de diversas fuentes etnohistóricas coloniales, convierten a este libro en un importante referente para el estudio e interpretación de la arquitectura imperial incaica.”
Cuadernos del Qhapaq Ñan

“Clearly written and beautifully illustrated, At Home with the Sapa Inca will be of great interest to scholars interested in learning about the production of space at the center of an ancient empire, and how the intended meanings and actions of these spaces changed relative to historical and political transformations.”
Cambrige Journal of Archaeology

“Remarkable…The book's seven chapters expertly guide the reader trough the experience of space at Chinchero.”
Sixteenth Century Journal

“This volume is a major contribution to the field. It represents a comprehensive study of an Inca royal estate and presents the remarkable amount of information that an architectural study can glean from even a 500-year-old ruin. The book’s contributions not only consist of new information regarding the structure and function of the estate at Chinchero but also represent a major addition to the study of Inca architecture in general. . . . Nair is eminently qualified to conduct this study, and her arguments and conclusions are extremely well supported.”
Gordon F. McEwan, Professor and Chair of Anthropology, Wagner College; author of The Incas: New Perpectives and Pikillacta: The Wari Empire in Cuzco; and coauthor of Moray: Inca Engineering Mystery

“This book will be heralded by architectural historians, art historians, archaeologists, ethnohistorians, and Andeanists of all disciplines. . . . The author builds significantly on previous studies of Inca royal estates (chiefly those by Morris and Niles) by focusing on the site of Chinchero. . . . The book will make a significant contribution to Andean studies and will be a welcome addition to studies of Inca royal estates, the operations of the Inca state, Inca architecture and the built environment, and Inca history.”
Carolyn Dean, Professor, History of Art and Visual Culture, University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of A Culture of Stone: Inka Perspectives on Rock and Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi in Colonial Cuzco, Peru


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