The Wiphala: Bolivia’s Other National Flag

500px-Banner_of_the_Qulla_Suyu.svg

The Qulla Suyu wiphala.

Of all of the world’s national flags, few if any can be considered as distinctive as the Qulla Suyu wiphala. Since 5 August 2009, this particular wiphala is required to be flown on all public and private buildings jointly with the more familiar red-yellow-green Bolivian national tricolour. This makes Bolivia the only sovereign country with two distinct national flags of theoretically equal status. But what is a wiphala, what does its design represent, and why is this flag so politically charged?

The wiphala emerged during the days of the Inca Empire (perhaps as early as 2 000 years ago), where it was as a royal standard or processional emblem. The seven colours on the banner are representations of the colours of the rainbow, a theme that occurs repeatedly across various fields of Quechua-Aymara art and design. Arranged diagonally, these also produce the unique patterning on the wiphala: each colour is in a square within a row or column, producing a 7×7 grid where each row and column is made of the seven distinct colours. There were four different wiphala arrangements used during the Inca Empire (Quechua: Tawantinsuyu) times, one arrangement for each of the four Incan provinces (suyu) represented in the flag. The colour of the longest diagonal line specifies which region a particular wiphala represents:

White: Qullasuyu (the southeastern province, representing the Aymara territories of Peru, Bolivia, and northern parts of Chile and Argentina; this is the version that has become standardised in Bolivia)

Yellow: Kuntisuyu (the southwestern province, coterminous with modern-day southwestern Peru)

Red: Chinchansuyu (the northwestern province, covering central and northern Peru, all of Ecuador, and extreme southwestern Colombia)

Green: Antisuyu (the eastern province, covering the eastern slopes of the Andes in what is now eastern Peru and west-central Bolivia)

Inca_Empire_South_America

The four suyu of the Inca Empire. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/44/Inca_Empire_South_America.png. Available under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

As an emblem of resistance, the wiphala was banned very early on in the course of Spanish rule. In modern times (specifically the mobilisation of indigenous right movements in the 1970s), the wiphala has been adopted by such movements in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile, and has become ubiquitous at public events. Owing to their mutual history under the Inca Empire, the wiphala has been adopted by pan-Andean indigenous movements at large. In this modern guise, the seven colours of the wiphala have acquired new meanings:

Red: Planet Earth

Orange: expression of society and culture

Yellow: energy, force andmoral principles

White: time

Green: Andean economy and production, natural resources and the environment

Blue: Space and the supernatural

Violet: Andean government and self-determination

In Bolivia, the Qulla Suyu wiphala became the standard used in the movement that culminated in the election of Evo Morales, an Aymara, as Bolivian president in 2005, who went on to elevate that version of the wiphala to a national symbol recognised in law (similar to the renaming of the country as the ‘Plurinational State of Bolivia’ in an effort to recognise the dozens of various indigenous ethnic groups in the country, and the designation of 34 different official languages). This is a rather interesting move in a country where Aymara are not even the largest indigenous group (Quechua make up 30% of the population; Aymara 25%, mestizo 30% and white 15%). That said, as mentioned above, indigenous movements across the Andes had adopted the wiphala concept years before as an emblem of solidarity; any objection to the elevation of the wiphala as a national symbol of Bolivia tends to come from the eastern, wealthier, Spanish-dominated side of the country (specifically the department of Santa Cruz).

681px-Pueblos_originarios_de_Bolivia

Distribution of indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Both the Aymara and Quechua are concentrated in the densely-populated Andean highlands in the west. Together, the makes up over half of the total population of Bolivia and the vast majority of the non-mestizo indigenous population. Source: Rojk, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Pueblos_originarios_de_Bolivia.png. Available under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Regardless of any political connotation, the wiphala is one of the most distinctive and aesthetically pleasing and attractive flags or banners you will ever see.

Further Reading

Centellas, M. (2010). Bolivia: Flag Wars. Pronto*, 3 August 2010. Available at http://www.mcentellas.com/archives/2010/08/bolivia-flag-wars.html. Accessed 4 December 2010.

Emerson, J. (2005). The Wiphala. Social Design Notes, 13 June 2005. Available at http://backspace.com/notes/2005/06/the-wiphala.php. Accessed 4 December 2010.

Zamudia, T. (2006). La Wiphala. Derecho de los Pueblos Indígenas. Available at http://www.indigenas.bioetica.org/wiphala.htm.Accessed 4 December 2010.

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