Most New Yorkers identify with one of the three main monotheistic religions - Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Nevertheless, there's a growing interest in the traditional spiritual practices of indigenous peoples. A “despacho” ceremony in the heart of Manhattan spotlights an ancient gratitude and prayer ritual rooted in the Andean mountains of Peru.
Spiritual seekers and the merely curious participate in the ancient Incan ceremony, conducted by Jesus Aguilar, a Peruvian healer-priest called a shaman.
Aguilar moved from Cusco, Peru, to New York with his American wife. For him, those two worlds - one ancient, one modern and nearly 6,000 kilometers apart - are bound together.
"The Mother Earth is still here with us. You could be in any part of the world, but always the sacred things will be in your heart, in the flowers and the trees and the water. Because everything is sacred, the concrete, the mobile phones. The wheels, all sacred coming from the Mother Earth," said Aguilar.
The despacho ceremony is thousands of years old. It aims to bring balance between the human world, the natural world and the spiritual realm.
Aguilar builds a “bundle of blessings” as a gift to Mother Earth - Pachamama in his native Quechua language. Participants also ask her for gifts in return.
Despacho elements symbolize this give and take. Corn for nourishment. Money for wealth. Cotton for clouds and rain. And sugar.
"Because the earth is very sweet with us. Because it is sweet with us, we need to be sweet with her, too," he said.
Aguilar gives out sacred leaves called “kintus” symbolizing love and beauty and he tells the group to pray into them.
"Okay brothers and sisters, we will put in front of our third eye, we will put our intentions. What do we want? What do we need? What do we want to say thank you [for]? What do we want to let go [of]? Every people will have different types of intention. You can ask whatever you want because the universe is infinite," he said.
Hillary Webb, an expert on Shamanism
, educates Westerners about Incan traditions.
"In the case of the kintus, you bring the leaves to your mouth and that breath is life force, it’s the energy, it’s part of the prayer you are transmitting out of your own body and into the leaves so that it can then be sacred with the spirits and shared with the community," she said.
That formula makes sense to the participants at this ceremony.
"Every day we have intentions. Today we just got together and made them official!" said one woman.
"I felt we were all making this little bundle of joy and good things and happiness and pureness and it felt great to be a part of that," said a man at the ceremony.
"I really love this way of just pausing for a minute in his crazy city and being grateful for what we have," said another woman.
At the end of the ceremony, the shaman wraps the despacho with its prayers for later burning. He said the sacred smoke will feed Pachamama.