The Kazakhs: Pictures of a Millennium-Long Life
Kazakhstan is still perceived by many as a civilisation of nomads who, like a thousand years ago, live in yurts, ride camels and subsist on horse meat and milk. Surely, it is not so. Modern Kazakh society is fairly urbanised and keeps abreast of the universal progress. However, the Kazakhs still strongly adhere to the traditions of their ancestors. It does not take a Kazakh much to recreate in his or her mind the pictures of the distant past: listening to the dombra (two-stringed musical instrument), eating beshbarmak or kazy (traditional food), or watching baiga (horse races). Now we invite you to have a look at these pictures...
Historically, the development of Kazakh culture has been tied to the nomadic economy that included animal husbandry as the main occupation and some crop production. Household livestock—horses, camels, cows, sheep and goats—provided the steppe dwellers with meat, milk, skins and wool. The latter materials were used to produce felt for mobile houses, carpets, bags, clothes, and many other items. Crop farming was limited to South Kazakhstan and included millets, barley, wheat and oats. Fishing was practiced in lakes and rivers. Hunting was popular, essentially as a recreational activity rather than trade. The Kazakhs hunted hares, foxes, wolves, deer and mountain goats using bows or, in later epochs, firearms. The most prestigious type of hunting was falconry.
A nomad spent his life in the wild. That is why love for animals shows in Kazakh customs, ceremonies and folk poetry. Animal names were often used as epithets to describe a person's character or express an attitude towards him. Loving parents would address their child "kulunym" ("my foal"), "botam" ("my colt"). When talking about beautiful eyes of a girl, one would say "bota koz" ("the eyes of a colt"). The Kazakhs cared about foals and colts lovingly, and often tied a tumar (triangular amulet) to the animal's neck and plaited tiny plumes of eagle-owl feathers into its mane to protect it from diseases or an evil eye. As people moved from one place to another, they fumed all their livestock with the sacred juniper smoke in order to scare away evil spirits.
Light, movable houses, yurts, were perfectly suited for nomadic life, as they were easy to assemble, disassemble and transport. The size of a yurt depended on the number of wooden latticed sections (kerege) which were attached to bent poles (uks) meeting at the top. These elements were fastened together with woven belts of varying width (wide, baskur, and narrow, bau). The wooden framework was covered with thick felt (kiiz), brown for ordinary days or white for festive occasions. At the top of a yurt there was a wooden circle with crossing spokes, shanyrak, which is the traditional symbol of home. The interior of a yurt included a minimum set of sectional wooden furniture: a bed, a dresser, bins, chests and a rack, all easy to transport. Felt and woven carpets, embroidered bedspreads, curtains, hanging bags for utensils, and other items were functional yet decorative, and some of them were true works of art. Many researchers say that, as you step into a Kazakh yurt, you enter a world of bright colours and patterns.
Kazakh traditional utensils were made of leather, bones, wood and metal. For example, leather was used to make sabas—vessels for storing and processing horse and camel milk with capacities of 10, 20 and even 100 litres. A saba has a wide square bottom and a narrow nozzle in which a wooden whisk is fixed. The bottom end of the whisk had a crosspiece and the upper part was decorated with silver incrustations. As a rule, Sabas and other vessels made of leather were treated with juniper smoke. Leather was also used to make other items: kettle-shaped milk-pails, anchor-shaped field vessels for kumys (horse milk), cases for porcelain pialas (caps), etc. Wood was used to make conical churns, plates for meat, large bowls for mixing kumys, ladles, pialas and many others. Iron was used to cast cooking boilers which were installed on iron stands or earthen ovens. Boilers for festivals were big enough to cook a cut horse carcass at once.
Traditional Kazakh cuisine is dominated by meat and milk products. Horse meat was valued most; in autumn, it was used to make sausages: kazy (from rib parts) and chuzhyk (from cut meat). In summertime women gathered wild garlic, pounded it with salt, and then hanged it in sacks until all moisture was gone. In two weeks, dry yellow mass was produced, which was used during autumn slaughtering for flavouring meat. The most popular festive dish was beshbarmak—boiled meat with rolled dough, which was served with onion sauce and broth. Horse and camel milk were fermented to prepare traditional drinks called kumys and shubat, respectively. Airan (kefir) was produced from cow and sheep milk. The sour mass that remained after milk filtering was used to make kurt—small balls dried in the shade. Sweeties made of fried and milled millets with butter and sugar were called zhent. Flour was used to fry thin cakes, shelpek, and doughnuts, baursak.
The Kazakh traditional clothing was practical and comfortable. It was mainly unbuttoned, loose in sleeves and flaps and could be put on or taken off quickly. It was universal and protected the steppe dwellers from cold and sun heat alike.
Men's clothing included an undershirt, pants, outer trousers and an unbuttoned robe (light or warm) which was wrapped up to the left and fastened with a belt. In winter, men wore heavy sheepskin coats. Traditional headdress included tyubeteika (a skull-cap cylindrical in form) and a white felt high-crowned hat over it in summer, and a fur hat in winter. Men wore soft heelless boots with overshoes (galoshes) or heeled leather boots; and felt stockings and boots with loose long bootlegs in winter.
Ladies’ garments were mostly similar to the men’s one in style and cut and included a bib gown, jacket, cool and cold-weather dressing-gowns, and a fur coat. Girls and young women wore a skull-cap in summer and a fur hat in winter. Women wore a cloth headwear looking like a hood and a turban (a long scarf of linen, cotton or silk wound around the head) atop. Both girls and women wore hose made of supple leather, and shoes or boots.
Wedding dress was particularly remarkable for their gorgeousness. A headdress, saukele, was the most sumptuous and costly part of the wedding attire: conical in form, up to 70 centimeters high, decorated with silver and gold-plated jewelry, gems and ornamental stones. A wedding dressing-gown was trimmed with coins and silver-mounted jewels hanging on chains and with silver and pearl plates. A bridal gown was embroidered with silver on the neckline and trimmed with corals and pearls round the skirt. A belt of velvet, brocade, woven, chamois or leather and footwear of leather, chamois, velvet or brocade were decorated with silver plates. Bridal decorations also included a necklace, amulets, earrings, bracelets and rings as well as silver jewelry woven into the braids.
The Kazakhs had an unwritten code of behavior that regulated gestures, mimics, poses, speech, and voice intonations during meals, funerals and festivals. The relations between men and women, family members, hosts and guests, clansmen and people from other clans all were subject to these rules. The Kazakh etiquette is traditionally based on respect towards the elder, men, guests, and mother. The nomads strictly observed the laws of hospitality which was essential for survival in the steppe. The most honourable guest would be asked to sit on the best carpet against the yurt entrance and offered a mutton head cooked in a special way. People arriving from distant places were also treated with much respect: they were regaled with best food and offered gifts. A guest who carried news enjoyed the overall attention. The Kazakh speech etiquette was close to diplomatic standards in that it employed smooth, allegorical formulas and that there were no direct forms of refusal or request.
In summertime, especially when guests came from various clans, traditional games were held, which included mainly exercises in riding skills: baiga (long-distance race); kok par (struggle for a goat carcass by two teams of horsemen); kumis alu (picking up a silver coin at a full gallop); audaryspak (wrestling on horseback). The Kazakh traditional wrestling, kazaksha kures, was very popular. There was also a ritual race called kyz kuu: if a young man had been able to overtake a girl and kiss her at a full gallop, he was entitled to marry her; but if a girl was overtaking a young man, she was whipping him with a lash.
In the evening, as the games were over, a musical and poetical contest, aitys, would begin. Singers, akyns were signing and improvising until dark, and then young people continued to enjoy themselves near campfires and alty bakan (movable swings). They would sing and play various ritual games. One of them was called ak suyek: in a moonlit night, a white bone was thrown into the steppe, and young men and girls started looking for it. As they were walking in the dark, romantic affairs began between them. Young men and girls from the same aul (village) could only be friends: inside a father's clan, relatives could marry each other only in seven generations.
A Kazakh wedding was always a bright spectacle. Many elements of wedding, from clothing and rituals to games, were deeply symbolical, and intended to express the ideas of prosperity, wealth, numerous and healthy children, and protection from the evil eye or wicked tongue. Normally, after a preliminary agreement, the relatives of the young man came to the girl's house. Upon receiving the consent of her father and agreeing on the amount of kalym (goods and money to be paid for the bride), they would present the girl with earrings, beads and feathers of an eagle-owl to indicate that she was engaged. Then the bride’s family started collecting the dowry and the groom’s family kalym. A farewell was hold in the bride’s house followed by a more spectacular bridal reception in the groom’s house with performing rituals such as bet ashar (the taking off the veil) and korymdyk (the bride-show on the next day). When first entering the groom’s house, the bride poured a spoon of oil into the fire saying, "Mai ana, ot ana zharylka" (an appeal to earth-goddess Umai for the well-being and healthy children). It was a rite of the bride’s absolution from sins and joining the new family.
The bride could wear her best garments, saukele and jewelry, especially when visiting her husband’s relatives, until the first child’s birth. She had to keep within certain rules of decorum. She was forbidden to speak and laugh aloud, look into her father-in-law’s eyes, address her father-in-law and her husband’s elder brothers by name and turn her back to the senior members of the family unless necessary. In addition to skill in culinary and serving the tee, the daughter-in-law had to be skilled with the needle and had a refined taste. She was expected to be smart in all things, including neat dresses, a graceful manner of walking, behaviour, gestures, the skill of homemaking and laying the table for dastarkhan (repast). Women who had many sons were held in honour, so the bride’s health and reproductive capacities were in the centre of her family’s attention. They practiced magic, for example they sewed mascots of fertility on the bride’s dresses. People believed that a golden eagle in the room where a woman in labour was lying, or a smith banging with a hammer on the anvil, or firing rifles could alleviate abnormal labour and deliver the woman from malign forces. Other women unbound hair, the lying-in woman was taken off all jewelry, all knots in the house were undone, and all chests, buckets and jars were opened in order to hasten the happy event.
Wealthy families marked the birth of their sons by holding the festivity (shildekhana) three days after the delivery. It included a distribution of costly gifts, a lavish feast, national sport games, and poetry and musical contests. On the fifth day, when the baby was put in a cradle, women arranged another festivity (besikke salu). When the infant was 40 days, one more feast was given (kyryknan shygaru). Prosperous mothers of large families added water into the child’s bath with a silver spoon in forty stages. Then the hostess threw silver coins or rings saying "balanyn kuni kumistei zharyk bolsyn" ("May my child have the future as bright as silver"). After bathing of the child in that water, the silver coins and rings were dealt out among the guests. When the child was one year old, he underwent the rite tusau kesu: his legs were bound by a boiled ram intestine or a parti-coloured rope in a figure-eight knot. Usually, a strong and lucky man cut the rope manacles and helped the child to make its first steps. This rite was symbolical, and intended to promote the child’s prosperity.
At the age of three or five, girl had ears pierced using floss thread as earrings. Boys of the same age underwent circumcision (sundet toi) which was marked by a feast and giving presents to the circumcised infants. Boys first bestrode a horse when they were five or six years old, only after circumcision. The Kazakhs used a special child saddle (ashamai) providing safe riding. Wearing a smart dress and a hat trimmed with eagle-owl feathers, an infant sat astride a horse while aksakals (elders) blessed him. Then the guests enjoyed a feast and sweets (shashu). When a boy could sit tight, he was presented with a small-sized saddle, and at the age of 12 he was presented with a man-sized saddle fitted with complete harness. When a boy was 12, the age when infants are vulnerable for illness (mushel zhas), he was put on a leather belt decorated with silver plates.
Funerals were also associated with numerous rituals. The departed was laid in the right part of the yurt or in a separate yurt, if the family was wealthy. The wife and close relatives wept for the defunct meeting the visitors with a mournful song, zhoktau. A lance was placed on the right of the funeral yurt’s entrance, with a white banner if the decedent was old, a red one if he was young and a black-and-white one if he was elderly. The body would be committed to earth the next day after the night following the death-day (konagasy). If it was Tuesday (according to popular belief, a heavy day), the funeral was postponed for the next day. At the funeral day, at the seventh and fortieth days, and at the death-day commemorations (as) were arranged with feasting and telling beads. In commemoration of the most honoured people a feast was held with horse racing and contests four years after the death-day as well. In the 18th-19th centuries graves were decorated with stelae (kulpytas), semiabstract sculptures of a moufflon (koitas), charnel houses (kumbez) and other monuments.
Islam spread into Kazakhstan in the 9th-10th centuries, mainly in the south. Along with the Muslim sacred law (Sharia) the Kazakhs applied customary law (adat) which legitimated kalym, a marriage to a brother’s widow (amangerlik), and calling people of different family lines as sworn brothers (tamyrlyk). Islam has not eradicated Shamanism and heathen beliefs associated with worship of fire, animals, plants, cliffs, and water. The Kazakhs used to tie scraps of material on sacred trees (oba) believing that they could help them to recover health and protect from bad luck. At the same time, the Kazakhs used to observe the Muslim fast (oraza) and celebrate two religious holidays: Oraza Ait and Kurban Ait.
Ancient traditions pertaining to weddings, births or funerals are still alive in rural areas. Falconry also remains popular in some regions. Asar ("mutual assistance") is a noteworthy custom when neighbors, friends and relatives join hands in doing painstaking work, specifically in making felt or woven carpets and building of houses. Thus, the wall construction takes one or two days due to cooperative efforts.
Modern Kazakhs celebrate lavishly both the European New Year and the Turkic New Year Nauryz. The celebration of Nauryz starts on 22 March (the day of the vernal equinox) and lasts for three days. People decorate their houses, wear festal dresses and make as many dishes as possible, including Nauryz kozhe, a ritual dish composed of seven ingredients: water, salt, milk, kefir, fresh or air-dried meat, millet and noodles, which is a symbol of the fertility. Each guest partakes of this dish, believing that it promotes health, happiness and wealth.
Gay colours in households, numerous rituals in human relations, the unity of laws established by people and laws of nature—such is the nomads’ world, which has given strength to generations of the Kazakhs during thousands years. Many of its scenes exist now only in quiet museum rooms and on photo album pages. However, this world has not been faded away and still lives in the mind of the Kazakhs who often think and act mechanically in accord with traditions. You should perceive this world and only then you will be able to understand the mentality of modern Kazaks and discern the picture of their millennium-long life.
By Shaizada Mynzhasarova
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