Kyrgyz Customs and Traditions

As all Eastern countries, Kyrgyzstan, is famous fir its customs and traditions, especially for hospitality. Our way of life and language are changing during our life, but customs and traditions stay without any changing. These traditions and customs are handing over from elder generation to younger. Kyrgyz were traditionally nomads. This has influenced their food, clothing and traditions. Being nomadic, their national food revolve around the meat whicn was readily available from their herds. We offer the readers the following as glimpse of Kyrgyz food and traditions and hope they will be able to experience the exceptional hospitality of Kyrgyz firsthand during their stay.

Kyrgyz Cuisine
Kyrgyz national cuisine has absorbed elements from all of the cultures with which it has come into contact. In Kyrgyzstan you could not really have a tablecloth since the Kyrgyz did not (and in a lot of places still don't) sit around a table to eat. Instead, they spread a large, white cloth or dastorkhan, on the floor in the center of the yurt or outside on the green grass, and place soft pillows along the edges. People sit cross-legged - Indian fashion. In the figurative meaning dastorkhan is a special dinner or holiday meal, and has specific rituals and traditional dishes. We’ll now discuss some of those traditions and recipes.

Dastorkhan usually begins late in the afternoon or early in the evening, and continues for many hours. New guests are often surprised at the number of meat dishes served. That is traditional and connected with the life of nomads. A shepherd has spent the whole day doing hard physical work, with a chunk of flat bread and some tea for sustenance and only in the evening, when his work is done can he relax and eat his fill. The dishes were usually prepared with meat since it was a staple in the diet of livestock breeders. At a dastorkhan the guest removes his shoes and enters the yurt. There is always a special place set for honoured guests and it is decorated with beautiful hand-made carpets, usually directly opposite the entrance. The host sits near the door. It is his responsibility to offer his guests the best dishes and to be sure that there is always hot tea in their cups. There are usually bowls of mountain honey, melted butter, thick sour cream, fruit and boorsok.

Boorsok - deep-fried pieces of yeast dough and usually served with tea or broth.

Kymyz - is the Kyrgyz traditional beverage made from horse's milk (mare’s milk). It has been made since ancient times. The Manas Epic mentions it and there are many folk sayings connected with it: Kymyz is a man’s blood and fresh air is his soul. The man who drinks kymyz will live a hundred years. Kymyz contains over two hundred varieties of plants and one litre gives the body several hundred calories of energy. It aids digestion and increases the amount of glycogen in the body. A cup of Kymyz relaxes you and increases your appetite.

Besh-Barmak - is simple to translate. Besh means five, and barmak means fingers. Usually it is made from lamb or horsemeat. The meat is cut into tiny pieces by the host and his relatives, and mixed with hot noodles. Bouillon is then poured over the mixture and the besh-barmak is ready. Kuurdak is made with the intestines of a sheep fried in fat and served with steamed potatoes. Horse intestines are one of the favourite Kyrgyz delicacies - chuchuk, kazy, karta. The other is plov - fried rice with meat and carrots. Manty - steamed meat with vegetables in dough.

Shashlyk - meat roasted on skewers. Shorpo - is hot meat broth with potatoes, meat and onion. Lagman - is a strong spicy ragout with cut pieces of meat, vegetables and spices poured onto long handmade noodles.

Every nation has its own customs and traditions. Although usually in rural areas a man and woman are introduced by their parents and meet each other with a chaperone, a Kyrgyz tradition (still very much followed today, especially in the villages) is for the man to literally kidnap his bride. Although technically against the law, this custom still accounts for up to 50% of weddings. Sometimes the bridegroom will come to an arrangement with the bride's parents and other times he will just literally, take her from the street and she may not have even seen the man before in her life. If the woman refuses or escapes, then it is a greater insult to her own family than that of the groom and even if she has never been with the man she will be considered 'damaged goods' and her own family will not take her back. Agreed kidnappings are more prevalent these days as it reduces the cost of a wedding, as only the bridegroom's family has to be catered for.

The wedding ceremony is a mixture of ancient and Muslim religions. It consists of several parts: matchmaking, betrothal, the wedding and bride’s arrival at the bridegroom's house. An indispensable condition of this ceremony is the bride's price – “kalym”. In Soviet times kalym was banned as a relic of the past. According to custom seeing-off the bride is accompanied by parting words or songs.

The bride, leaving her home, takes a mirror, handkerchief, perfume and brush as gifts to her husband's sisters and this shows her good intentions. Every mother puts her heart and soul into the dowry and that is why they are kept as family heirlooms. When the bride enters the groom’s house, she stands on the threshold. Her mother-in-law holds a full cup of water over her head and tells her to be faithful wife to her son and a good daughter-in-law. Then the bride seats behind a screen – “koshogo”. No men can enter the room where the bride is sat. Women who come to look at her give her a scarf and say kind words to her. After all this, the man and woman get married – niike kiyuu and then the parents of the man choose a godfather for them. During Soviet times, marriage lost much of its religious overtones and although religion is no longer banned and is enjoying a revival, many couples still opt for a civil ceremony.

Birth of a child
In Kyrgyz culture many traditions are connected with the birth of a child. For example, before the first breast-feeding the child's mother puts some melted butter in its mouth, as Kyrgyz people believe that this tradition can predetermine the successful future of a child. When a baby smiles in its sleep, it means that it is dreaming about an angel and if a male child sleeps with half-closed eyes, his wife will be very beautiful. From ancient times the naming of a newborn child has been a serious event for Kyrgyz people. It is considered that the child's destiny depends on choosing the right name.
According Muslim tradition a newborn child can be named only by a respected man or in honor of the first guest to arrive. Today many children have ancient names, for example: Turan, Kagan, Tegin, Bars… Some names are based on things found in nature: for example, Kolbek – master of the ocean, Taalaybek – master of happiness, Venera -Venus (morning star)… Kyrgyz names reflect Kyrgyz culture.

Kyrgyz lullabies are very lyrical and kind and tell children about the world, as if preparing the child to meet the birds and animals.

White Dome of a Kyrgyz yurt
A Kyrgyz yurt is a masterpiece of nomadic architecture. A white yurt is the national architectural symbol of the country, like the Eiffel Tower in France and the Coliseum in Italy. The first records of yurts in the 5th Century B.C. reflect the antiquity of this unique house. In fact to the Kyrgyz it is far more than a house - it is the very essence of life itself - everything happens here - birth, marriage, death, life. To spend time in a yurt is to really experience contact with Mother Nature herself.

The ancient Kyrgyz nation appeared and became strong in these warm yurts. It is not just an example of construction but its internal decoration is an example of national originality and each item has specific role and place. The yurt is divided into two parts: the men's part, where usually the saddle, kamcha – a whip - and men's clothes were kept, and the women's part is the place for household items and other necessary things. Even the hearth, which is very sacred for Kyrgyz people, has its own place and meaning. No one should step over a hearth, burn dirty old clothes or spit in it. When the master of a yurt dies his relatives sit around the hearth and mourn him. of the yurt's crown is the tunduk - a dome, a wooden circle. It symbolizes the sun with four beams as the four sides of the world.

For many centuries the tunduk was the symbol of the unity of a family and all the people. From the outside the tunduk is covered by a kashma for the night. Every family paid attention to the decoration of their yurts. Walls were decorated by carpets and sometimes by skins of foxes and martens or embroidered panels. Opposite the entrance usually stands a chest or ottoman with colourful blankets and small pillows. There are necessary things in a yurt: kooker, konok-vessels made of skin for kymyz, ayak kapy bashtyk- nap embroidered bags for household items, chyny-kap – cases for piala, which were made of leather or wood with an ornament from soft wool and many other things. A yurt of the ancient nomadic Kyrgyz people can be assembled by three masters without any nails in less than an hour and this makes it unique. It can be moved on two horses. On rainy days it does not get wet, preserves coolness on hot days and in windy weather – warmth. This ancient house of the Kyrgyz people was moved on snow-covered mountains and green pastures; it helped the Kyrgyz people overcome all their difficulties.

Kyrgyz Handicrafts
The Kyrgyz folk art developped in tune with a nomadic way of life. So main item that wee decorated: clothes, arms, lesser extent, waving, embroidery and rugs- all of which had partical use as well as value. Having a nomadic life-style, Kyrgyz people have creates a unique material made of felt. Felt is very warm; it protects the kyrgyz national dwelling, which is called the yurta. Felt is also used to make natioanl carpets, which are called shyrdaks. You will admire the felt carpet making process demonstrated by local woman.

Ala-kiyiz, shyrdaks, tush-kiyiz are parts of a dowry and favourite things in each family. Every woman, making felt carpets, puts her whole talent and soul into it. Ala-kiyiz is made of rolled wool, dyed in different colors, and then the carpet is dried and its colours are as bright as the Ala-Too Mountains, but the ala-kiyiz with its diversity of colors is not as brilliant as a shyrdak (patterns applied from painted felt). A Shyrdak can last for 30-40 years, but an Ala-kiyiz is not as sturdy as a shyrdak – lasting only about half as long – but it is quicker to make. Traditional designs are based on things in the natural environment – white stars of baychechekey – snowdrops, snow-covered mountains and flaming tulips. All these are distinctive features of Kyrgyz art. Indeed, in Kyrgyz ornaments, based on circles and semicircles red and blue prevail. Combinations of these colours symbolize a clear sky and spring flowering land. Felt handicrafts, as a revival and developing branch of textiles are widespread in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz women sow felt headgear and vests. Felt has valuable properties - preserving human energy and giving its owner a feeling of serenity and domesticity.

Kyrgyz chiy The American scientist John Summers wrote a book called Kyrgyz chiy after visiting our country. In his words, only Kyrgyz people make fine souvenirs and household items from chiy. Chiy really protects a dwelling from dust and strong winds. At night and early in the morning nomads usually opened the curtain of the yurt, turned off the koshma and tied it to a wooden kerege. Through the chiy lattice passed fresh mountain air.

Chiy mats have several uses. While cooking on a hearth in the middle of a yurt, chiy contains the fire and does not let smoke spread throughout the yurt. Chiy mats and multi-coloured wall panels, felt handbags and dolls radiate the sun's warmth and the warmth of the hearts of the skilled workers.

Traditional Costumes
Kyrgyz traditional costumes are actually the clothing of ancient nomads. Many kinds of European clothes also originated here. Nowadays it is rare to see local people in traditional clothes; they can be seen on national holidays, festivals or in the State Historical Museum in Bishkek. Chapan – is a man's outer robe made of dense velvet and decorated with appliqué or a pattern made of braid in traditional style.

Usually a Chapan is presented to a noble and honoured guest as a sign of one’s special favour and attention. A Camsole - is an overcoat for both men and women put on over a shirt or a dress. It is usually sleeveless, ending at the hips or waist and closed with special fasteners. It is made of velvet and embroidered or decorated with appliqué. A woman's camsole is more brightly coloured than a man's and has a fitted waist. Elecheck - is headwear for married and older women. Usually young married women wear scarves. Ak-Kalpak - is the traditional men's headwear. It is made from felt and embroidered.

Ak kalpak
Kyrgyz people have a tradition of saying to a departing grandee: “Do not take off the white kalpak”. These words are full of secrets: do not betray your forefathers; do not lose your dignity whatever happens. Figuratively speaking the loss of a white kalpak, means loss of honour.

For a real Kyrgyz man a kalpak is not just a hat it is a sacred thing, a symbol of vital energy. Enemies killed baatyrs (heroes) but they could not consign to oblivion the white kalpak. It was created by the mighty genius of people. For many centuries the kalpak never changed its form. A white kalpak is a part of our history. The Kalpak, symbolizing the height of the Kyrgyz snow-covered mountains, reflects elevated thoughts, the spirit of and union of people. Worldwide only Kyrgyz and Kazakh men wear kalpaks. The originality and uniqueness of a felt kalpak is that you can wear it in all seasons, as it is very practical; it can be fold in two and will not rumple. If a short man wears it, he will seem taller, and a horseman becomes courageous because of the curved corners of the kalpak. Every element of a kalpak means something. The brush should be in front, it symbolizes juniper, which is associated with eternity. There are many legends about the ornaments on a white kalpak; every curl of it has its own history and meaning.

Kyrgyz people only give white kalpaks to their close friends. In ancient times the kalpak symbolized friendship and unity between people. Fighting tribes very often gave each other white kalpaks as a sign of reconciliation. For instance, a Kyrgyz man will never give his own kalpak to another man; he will not throw it upwards or kick it. At the entrance of a yurt every man takes off his kalpak and puts it on the place of honour inside. Today many young Kyrgyz men, who study abroad, take with them a white kalpak as a part of the Ala-Too Mountains. The word ak – white figuratively means something sacred and high: Ak Ala-Too – snow-covered Ala-Too.

Women's jewellery
In ancient times silversmiths were treated with respect as people endowed with special sacred power over fire and iron and then as skillful masters of favorite adornments. Jewellery was a part of the national dress of à Kyrgyz woman. Finger rings (shakek), arm bracelets (bilerik), earrings (iymek) were worn b ó women. À girl wore, à narrow finger ring. And à married woman wore à wide î n å with several thin rims. Oval, diamond -shaped or square buckles were studded with ñîrnå lian îr coral, and massive, round or flat bracelets were decorated with niello engraving.

National games
In recent many national sports have been revived. One of the largest national sports competitions was The First Sports and Athletics Meeting in 1997 that included Burcut saluu (hunting with a mountain eagle - unique to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) and Kush saluu (falconry). The Kyrgyz, as nomads everywhere, are accomplished hunters and feast days and competitions usually include archery. Modern Kyrgyz sport includes more than 10 kinds of horse-races, including tai chabysh - one-year old horses are trained to race and are ridden by small boys, kulan-chabysh is for one and half year old foals and aht-chabysh - at three years old, they can be run in this main competition. Races are usually held on holidays or feasts.

Horse games

The game Ulak-Tartysh was usually played in addition to traditional horse-races during festivals and feasts. One of the horse riders with a goat's in his hand raced far ahead. Other participants in the game followed him. A champion will be that who has a quick horse, catch up with jigit (young man) with the goat's carcass. He would snatch the carcass and slip out of his pursuer's hands to finish first. He had to be skillful and experienced horse rider, so that other competitors could not throw him down from his horsein the heat of the struggle for the goat's carcass. In the race Kyz-Kuumay a young girl-rider stars first. All participating young men then followed trying to catch her and kiss. Kyrgyz traditional horse-sport games have always been very popular. Except above two we have many others and at present you can be observed during national holidays and festivals.

Kyz kumay is a part of the wedding ritual. A bride and a groom take part in this game. According to the rules, the bride is given the best horse and a head start over her husband who had to catch up with her to prove his right to marry her.

Ordo - an ancient game that has very strict rules played with sheep bones.

Oodarysh – wrestling on horseback, is also a popular game. Two riders try to pull each other off their horses and they are even allowed to pull the horses down as well.

The favorite sport is kuresh – wrestling, which is a true spectacle and extremely popular.

Musical instruments

According to legend the mighty hunter Kambarkan made the komuz and he composed the first Kyrgyz melody and that is why people called him the Father of melody. He could understand birds’ and animals’ languages. He never killed birds, because he considered them sacred. He enjoyed listening to their singing for hours on end. One day, while hunting in the thick forest, Kambarkan heard an amazing and unknown melody and he was so charmed he could not continue on his way and he tried to guess the origin of these charming sounds. He thought that it was an unknown bird and he began to whistle trying to roust her out, but when he climbed the tree from where this bewitching melody was coming, he saw that the branches of two trees were connected by the dried gut of a squirrel: apparently it had unsuccessfully jumped from one branch of a tree to another and had stumbled on a sharp bough and ripped open her belly. This strained dry gut emitted charming sounds under the lightest breath of wind. Kambarkan took it off the branches, and made an instrument from the tree on which the gut was hung, the shape of which was like a kookor – a vessel for keeping kymyz. When he stretched the first string it emitted the groan that had astonished him in the forest, the second string sounded softer and the third – was more tender and melodious. The sounds of the three strings were like the clattering of hooves. Today the komuz with its unique melody still exists and gives us many hours of enjoyment. That is why people say:”Kyu atasy Kambarkan” – Father of melody. It is said, that even in ancient times Kyrgyz people liked to listen to its sounds. In the Manas Epic there is a detailed description of the process of making a komuz from an apricot tree.
In 1982-1983 during excavations in Shamsi village, not far from Tokmok archaeologists found a golden mask and komuz (4th - 5th Century) and this proves the ancient origin of this musical instrument.

The instrument is an integral part of Kyrgyz history and culture and its very sound reverberates like an echo of time itself. In the 20th Century there were many maestros of this exquisite instrument - Mozzoke, Niyazaly, Murataly Kurenkeev, Karamoldo Orozov, Atay Ogombaev, Toktogul Satylganov, Ibray Tumanov, Asylbek Eshmambetov etc.

Temir komuz
Temir komuz is also known as a Jew's Harp in other cultures and this simple but melodic instrument is enjoyed worldwide.
The Kyrgyz version is made by an aul metal smith - temir usta. Perhaps it is the smallest musical instrument; women and children play it. It is pressed to the teeth by one hand, and the fingers of the other hand vibrate the plaque. Its case is made of wood in the form of a kookor and is decorated by à kochkor muj­uz, or kyal carved motif.