LITERATURE AND FOLK STORIES OF KYRGYZSTAN

LITERATURE IN KYRGYZSTAN

The Kyrgyz language was not written down until the 20th century. The Kyrgyz have a rich tradition of oral literature. One expert told National Geographic, "The Kyrgyz think of themselves as the poets and artists of Central Asia."

The Kyrgyz oral tradition included several epics about mythical warriors, including Manas, Jayin-Bayis, Kurmanbek, and Er Tabildi.The epic Manas is most widely known, and is still widely performed by manaschis. It is not a memorized piece; the best manaschis take the outline of the story and improvise verses, which have a distinct rhythmic beat and are accompanied by expressive hand gestures. Thirteen versions and four million verses have been recorded. [Source: everyculture.com]

During the twentieth century, novel-writing in the historical and romance genres developed. The best-known Kyrgyz novelist is Chingiz Aitmatov, who is known for his critical novels about life in Soviet Central Asia. Other famous Kyrgyz literary figures include: Mukhamad Kashgari, great thinker and philosopher born in Barshon in Issyk-Kul area who invented a world map which marked the lake as the center of the world; and Yusuf Balasaguni, a medieval writer and scientist born in Balasagyn, whose book Kuttu Bilim made him famous and loved throughout

Central Asia. Another fairly well-known modern writer is Kazat Akmatov (born 1942). He was critical of the Soviet regime. Among his works are the play “The Night of the Divorce” and the novel “Time.” Both were about Stalinist repression and were banned by the Soviets.

Akyn

The Kyrgyz have a long tradition of informal recitation of folklore and improvised narrative singing performed by bards, accompanied by a three-stringed, apricot-wood instrument called the komuz. The Kazakhs have a similar tradition except they use a two-string instrument.

The term “akyn” refers to a performer that improvises verses – rather similar to a “minstrel” in old Europe. The akyns began as the oral carriers of history, myth and philosophy for Central Asia's pre-literate nomads.

An akyn, or bakshy, is the musical title given to the bards who mastered the art of improvised narrative singing. In the old days akyn acted as shaman and healers and passed on history, myths and clan stories and genealogies. They were famous for philosophizing and reeling off verses hours at a time about subjects ranging from the wonders of the universe to the pleasures of drinking koumiss. They were skilled at using old stories and legends to make thinly veiled editorials about current leaders and figures.

In the Soviet era, traditional music and satirical narrative singing was suppressed and Kyrgyz akyn were forced to improvise verses that honored the Communist party and the bard tradition was adapted for propaganda purposes. Akyns often sang about Lenin, the revolution and the achievements of the party.

One Kazakh akyn wrote:
We treasure our honor and our hoards,
We’ll cut our foes to pieces with swords...
That at the victory Stalin should touch
His had in contentment to his moustache

The aken form was neglected after the collapse of the Soviet Union but have been making a come back in recent years. Now the aken string together verses about Putin and noodles.

Aitysh Competitions

Aitysh is a traditional music-poetry contest between two performers, who sit near each other and compete by exchanging verses, each cursing and mocking of the other, and trying to be clever, poetic, musical, rythmic and topical, not unlike the rap competitions that Eminem engaged in the film 8 Mile. One Akyn told the Washington Post, “It’s all about improvising on whatever topic comes up. Who has the sharpest verses with the most musicality and rhythm and wisdom and wit.”

Some akyn participate in the impromptu antiphonal singing (alternate singing by two choirs or singers) activities. Generally, these akyn are specialists who don’t engage in other singing activities, or sing long folk songs. Akyn antiphonal singing comes in two forms: 1) spontaneous and 2) organized. The spontaneous form is measured in part on the ability of the akyn to make friends with their songs. To improve their skill, akyns often make long and arduous journeys to call on prestigious Akyn to learn techniques. The organized form of Akyn antiphonal singings is performed at funeral ceremonies, weddings and festivals. At such times the Akyns represent their clan or tribe. Their success or failure not only affects their own reputation, it is closely linked with the honor of their clan and tribe. The audience often cheers loudly and shouts encouragement to Akyn of their tribe or clan. ~

Competition Akyn antiphonal singing is a measure of skill and wisdom. During festival events Akyns play their own Dombra, cross-examine each other and sing antiphonally. They try to overtake outdo their rivals, not give up ground, and do their best to show off their talents, hide their shortcomings in their impromptu songs, displaying the command of language, singing talents, manner and even moral character. The singing does not come to an end until one party feel ashamed of his inferiority retires on his own accord. Akyn contests are held every year on the summer pastures of the steppe. The participants include famous Akyn, representatives from a number of clans and tribes, old seasoned singers and young upstarts. ~

Akyns Recognized by UNESCO

In 2008, akyn was included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: The predominant form of cultural expression among the Kyrgyz nomads is the narration of epics. The art of the Akyns, the Kyrgyz epic tellers, combines singing, improvisation and musical composition. The epics are performed at religious and private festivities, seasonal ceremonies and national holidays and have survived over the centuries by oral transmission. [Source: UNESCO ]

“The value of the Kyrgyz epics lies largely in their dramatic plots and philosophical underpinnings. They represent an oral encyclopaedia of Kyrgyz social values, cultural knowledge and history. The pre-eminent Kyrgyz epic is the 1000-year-old Manas trilogy, which is noteworthy not only for its great length (sixteen times longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), but also for its rich content. Blending fact and legend, the Manas immortalizes important events in Kyrgyz’s history since the ninth century. The Kyrgyzs have also preserved over forty “smaller” epics. While the Manas is a solo narration, these shorter works are generally performed to the accompaniment of the komuz, the three-stringed Kyrgyz lute. Each epic possesses a distinctive theme, melody and narrative style. Akyns were once highly respected figures who toured from region to region and frequently participated in storytelling contests. They were appreciated for their proficiency in narration, expressive gestures, intonation and lively mimicry, so well suited to the epics’ emotionally charged content.

“During the 1920s, the first part of the Manas trilogy was recorded in written form based on the oral interpretation of the great epic singer, Sagynbay. The epics remain an essential component of Kyrgyz identity and continue to inspire contemporary writers, poets, and composers; even today, the traditional performances are still linked to sacred cultural spaces. Although there are fewer practitioners nowadays, master akyns continue to train young apprentices and are helped by recent revitalization initiatives supported by the Kyrgyz government.

According to UNESCO akyns were placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because:

1) The pre-eminent Kyrgyz epic, the Manas trilogy, is an oral encyclopaedia of Kyrgyz social values and history. Performed at seasonal ceremonies, national holidays and other social gatherings, the Manas epic continues to inspire contemporary Kyrgyz writers and composers. 2)The tradition of tutorship and the master-apprentice method of transmitting the art of the Akyns needs to be revitalized. Kyrgyz scholars of epic poetry and cultural workers need to be trained in state-of-the-art methods of digitization and archival management, including digital archives. The UNESCO project intends to renew and promote interest in the art of the Akyns in Kyrgyzstan and abroad and ultimately recover the prestige of being an Akyn.

UNESCO hopes: “Studios for young Akyns in various regions of Kyrgyzstan will be opened, and contests among those attending the studios will be organized. A concert tour consisting of both famous Akyns and the most talented youth from Akyn studios will also be staged in two regions. The compilation and publication of a representative, concise edition of the Manas, the pre-eminent Kyrgyz epic, and its translation into Russian will be undertaken.

Famous Akyn and the Revival of the Form

Famous akyn include the Kyrgyzs Togolok Moldo, Sayakbay Karalayev and Sagymbay Orozabakov, and the Kazakh Jamboul Jabayev. The later was born in 1846 and lived to be 99. He was known throughout the Soviet Union and was declared “the patriarch of folk poets.”

One of the greatest akyns of all time was Toktogul (See Below). He appears on the 100 som banknote and was a master at the art of Aytish. Some of his improvisations got him into trouble with the local “manaps” and they arranged for him to be exiled to Siberia. After the Bolshevik revolution he wrote a poem about Lenin which is sometimes credited as being the beginning of “democratic ideas” amongst the Kyrgyz. [Source: advantour.com]

It is said that at the time the Soviet Union collapsed there were only four akyns left in the country. The art form is, however, showing signs of a revival – with the creation of the Aitysh Foundation, the opening of a school for young akyns and an increasing awareness in the Manas Epic (following the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the epic in 1995 – it is even being taught in schools). Sung in the Kyrgyz or Kazak languages, it is almost impossible to catch the pithiness of the verses in translation. During the 2005 Parliamentary elections, akyns went on the campaign trail, taking their version of a stump speech from village to village.

Toktogul Satylganov

Toktogul Satylganov (1864 -1933) was a talented poet, akyn (singer-improviser) and virtuoso komuz player. He was born in poor family living in Suusamyr district in what is now known as the Toktogul district of the Djalal-Abad region. He never learned to read or write. When he was 12 his parents sent Toktogul to serve a local bai (feudal leader) as a junior herdsman, which at that time was a bonding a child to slavery. Close relations with other destitute people played a decisive role in forming his character. [Source:fantasticasia.net ~~]

His early poetic talent was encouraged by his parents. His father Satylgan was known as talented poet in his community. His mother was a witty woman, who knew many tales, legends and traditions. When Toktogul turned 13 years old he started to compose songs and play the komuz. In early songs like "Because of the Poverty" the young Toktogul sang about the cruelty and inhumanity of his master Kazanbai and his own unfair and miserable existence.

In 1882 Toktogul faced a famous king's singer, Arzymat, in a poetry competition and won. In this contest Toktogul showed himself to be not only an outstanding singer but also a fearless critic of injustice and greed and a defender of the rights of poor peasants. Word of his success and outspokenness traveled all over Kyrgyzstan. Today, many streets, parks, schools and libraries in Kyrgyzstan are named after Toktogul Satylganov. Also a district, town, Bishkek concert hall and the biggest reservoir in the country are named after him.

Political Activity of Toktogul Satylganov

Toktogul authored many lyrical, satirical, and philosophical songs and poems that became classics of Kyrgyz literature. His freedom-praising songs infuriated the feudal establishment, manaps, mullahs and tsarist officials. In 1888, during a rebellion in Andijan, tsarists alleged falsely that Toktogul's participated in revolt and arrested him. A court sentenced him to death, a punishment later reduced — due to the "Tsars mercy"— to seven years in a Siberian labor camp. As was true with thousands of Russian revolutionary sent to Siberia, Toktogul’s experience in the labor camp intensified his socialistic idealists and broadened his political outlook and understanding of inequality caused by feudalism. While in the camp he composed a number of songs describing convicts' life and made a komuz of Siberian pine with an axe.

With help from his Russian friends, Toktogul overcame many difficulties and escaped from the camp, making his way back to present-day Kyrgyzstan in 1903. On his return he composed a number of songs describing happiness of a man welcomed back to his motherland: "Meeting the Native Land", "Greeting Desirable Nation", "Mama, Dear, Living? Healthy?". In many of his songs of that period Toktogul predicted the end of tsarism, praised people who fought for labor rights and encouraged the Kyrgyz people to bond with their "elder brothers" — the Russian working masses. Enraged tsarist regional rulers locked the poet in Namangan prison but was soon released after demonstrators called him to be released.

Toktogul was the first akyn (poet) to welcome the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 that created the Soviet Union. He was not only a herald of the new era but was also an active participant of revolution. During this period he wrote the poem "What Woman Gave a Birth to Such a Person like Lenin?", which is regarded as the beginning of Kyrgyz Soviet literature. During the Soviet era he wrote a number of songs about the Communistic party, the Soviets and the kolkhoz idea development. His works were translated into all the Soviet Union’s languages and were published abroad.

Kyrgyz Legends

The Kyrgyz history goes back to ancient times. Many many events from this period is known for us in a form of myths and legends. The most famous work in the Kyrgyz folklore — the Epic of “Manas” — is regarded as both a historical and legendary work. Some of events described in the epic are believed to have taken place, but the major part of this work is a legendary, however, and there is often no way to prove whether a certain event happened or not. The epic Manas tells the story of a great hero named Manas who united all the Kyrgyz. The Manas is one of the longest works of literature one in the world: twice as long as the Indian epic The Mahabharata. [Source: advantour]

Other Kyrgyz myths and legends such as the “Legends of Issyk-Kul and “The Pearl of Kyrgyzstan” are connected primarily with geographic places. Many old stories are linked to Kyrgyz mountain ranges and gorges. One of them, “The Legend Jeti-Oguz Gorge,” is inspired by seven red rocks that resemble sleeping bulls. Another one is about “The Manas Bowl” waterfall in Barskaun gorge. According to the folk story Manas scooped up water from a spring there, leaving behind a depression that formed the bowl.

There are also some famous legends based on real people. During his trip in Kyrgyzstan, one folk story goes, the famous Russian traveler and scientist N.M. Przhevalsky helped local shepherds kill the eagle who was hunting their flocks. In memory of this the Kyrgyz placed a killed eagle with an olive branch in its beak — a symbol of peace and well-being — on the Russian’s grave.

Legends of the Horse’s Head and the Seven Bulls

The legend of At Bashi — the Horse’s Head — tells the story of a Kyrgyz herder who sold his cattle in the Andijan region (now in Uzbekistan) and on his return, exhausted, settles down for the night at a jailoo (“pasture”) and let his horse go free to graze. When the man tried to coral the horse the next day it ran away. He chased it and when he finally caught it he killed it and cooked its meat. He left the head behind and called the place At-Bashi (“Horses head”). He ate the meat along his journey home and called the place where he had his last meal from the carcass Naryn — which was the name of the dish he had cooked, a sort of soup with finely cut meat. If you find these places on the map you will see that they are quite far apart - the man went a long way to sell his cattle and chased the horse for quite a distance! [Source: advantour]

Jety-Oguz Rocks resemble seven bulls lying on the earth. According to a famous Kyrgyz legend these unusual rocks were formed during a time when two rulers were feuding. One of them had a beautiful wife. The other ruler fell in love with her and stole her from his rival. A murderous war was unleashed between the two rulers that neither could win. The first ruler demanded the return of his beloved wife and said he would not stop fighting until that happened.

The wicked khan who stole the wife devised a wicked plan. He decided to kill the wife and give the body to her husband, as the first ruler did not tell specify how he wanted to have his wife back. The wicked khan arranged seven-day festivities, slaughtering a bull every day. When the seventh day came and the last bull was slaughtered, the khan killed the woman with his own hand. But his evil deed did not go unpunished. The moment the wife’s blood was shed on the rocks, hot flows of water flushed to the valley and killed the khan and his servitors. After that gorge where the wife was killed became known as Jety-Oguz – “Seven Bulls” because the rocks there resemble the bulls that were sacrificed before the wife was killed

Legend of Burana Tower

The Burana Tower is situated 10 kilometers south of Tokmok. The tower is thought to have been part of a minaret that was once much taller than the one standing now. A Kyrgyz legned on origins of the tower goes: Once there was a powerful khan who had a beautiful daughter, Monara, whom he loved very much and wanted to protect against the affections of local djigits — young men. [Source: advantour]

One day the khan summoned all the fortune tellers and clairvoyants in the region and demanded that they tell the girl's future. All of them foretold a happy life for the girl — except one. This aksakal declared, "I can only say the truth even though you may execute me for it. Your daughter's fate is a sad one. She hardly reaches her sixteenth birthday when a poisonous black spider bites her and she dies immediately." The Khan was angry, but he could not ignore the prediction. So he built a tall tower and the fortune teller was incarcerated in a small room at the bottom and his daughter was placed in isolation in another room at the top of the tower.

The girl grew up in the tower, looking out over the valley through the four windows in the cupola which looked out to the compass points – North, South, East and West. Servants brought her food and drink, delivering it in a basket after by climbing a ladder placed against the outside of the tower. They were inspected from head to toe to make sure that their clothes, the food, nor the plates, hid a spider.

On the day of her sixteenth birthday, the khan was so happy that the old man's prediction had proved false. He decided to congratulate the girl on her "special day" and went to her room carrying a bunch of vines. Congratulating her with a kiss, he presented her with the fruit, which she accepted and then, inexplicably, collapsed and died. Dumbfounded the Khan inspected his gift ... and there was a black spider. The khan was grief stricken and sobbed so loudly that the tower shook and the top part fell down, creating the ruin that we see today.

Issyk-Kul Legends

Lake Issyk-Kul is a large lake in northern Kyrgyzstan. One legend on its origin goes: once upon a time there lived a cruel ruler who fell in love with a girl of great beauty. He ordered his servants to kidnap the girl from her native village and bring her to his palace. The girl loved a common shepherd and so she rejected the Khan’s love. The young shepherd saved his sweetheart riding a magic horse, Tulpar. The khan sent his best warriors after them. The girl was brought back, but the proud beauty preferred death to captivity and committed suicide by jumping from her dungeon window. [Source: advantour]

The khan, however, did not escape punishment for his evil-doings. Clean mountain water rushed down to the valley where his palace was situated and overwhelmed it in flood waters. In its place Issyk-Kul lake formed. Under the lake there is a ruined monastery whose origins is unknown. Some say there may be some connection between it and the khan described above.

According to another legend the great conqueror Amir Timur (Tamerlane) ordered every warrior to place a stone every time they passed Issyk-Kul. So many warriors carried out this orders that they created a stone ridge called Santash on the eastern side of the lake. Another legend is connected with Genghis Khan—the location of whose tomb is unknown. Some Kyrgyz aksakals (old wise men) believe that “The Great Universe Shaker” was buried beside Issyk-Kul.

There are also legends regarding Lake Sary-Chelek . Thousands of years ago people wearing golden clothese came to the valley where the lake is now located from the Dragon’s Country (China). These people worshiped the marine god Kho and established the city of Sai-Kho on the river which flowed through the valley. The people lived in peace for many thousands of years, worshiping their God, who had the body of a fish and the head of a man and lived in a marble basin inside a temple devoted to him. He taught the local tribes to farming and cattle breeding and other trades. [Source: advantour]

The valley was ruled by a high priest who died once in a century. To elect a new leader a ritual was held in which a beautiful girl was selected and brought to the basin of Kho. The god emerged from the water and kissed the girl on to the lips. Nine months later she delivered a child who became high priest. Later disaster struck. Conquerors found the secret pathways to the valley and attacked the city. Almost all the inhabitants were killed. The high priest cried out to Kho and asked him to defeat the conquerors. The marine god emerged from the water with a loud roar. The rocks which surrounded the valley crashed down and the water rushed down from the mountain peaks. All conquerors were killed and the water washed away Kho and all the valley’s inhabitants. Lake Sary-Chelek was formed, Some say Kho may still live there.

Legend of Origin of the Bugu: the Tribe of Mother Deer

The Kyrgyz Bugu (or Deer) tribe consider their first ancestor to have been a "Mother Deer". They have a legend which describes how in ancient times, when the earth was covered with forests, a Kyrgyz tribe lived on the banks of the Yenesei river near Lake Baikal in what is now Russia. There was constant fighting between this tribe and other neighboring tribes. Wars broke out when cattle were stolen. Houses were razed to the ground and many people on both sides were killed. [Source: advantour]

One day a beautiful bird appeared and told the Yenesei river tribe in a human voice that a calamity was about to happen, but the tribe members paid no attention to the prophecy. Soon afterwards, their leader Kulchoo died. As the tribe prepared to bury him and great noise was heard and their bloodthirsty enemies attacked them. Caught defenseless, they were killed one by one until no one was left alive.

It so happened, however, that a young boy and girl from the tribe had earlier gone into the woods to collect mushrooms — and so they were to escape the slaughter. On their return they found their parents, relatives and friends all dead, their homes destroyed and the once clean river flowing red with blood. They saw their enemies leaving and heard them boast about the slaughter. They waited until they were sure that they had all left and then began to search for food and help.

Hungry and afraid, they eventually saw signs of life at the foot of the mountain. They rushed down the mountain to find that it was their enemies who were feasting and celebrating. Driven by hunger and forgetting their fear, the rushed forward begging for food. One kind old woman took pity on them and gave them some boiled meat. Others in the crowd, however, recognized them as Kyrgyz and carried them off to the Khan, who sat on his white felt carpet and drinking Koumiss. He burst into a rage, furious that some Kyrgyz had survived and, screaming at the old woman ordered her to kill them so that not one Kyrgyz remained alive. She took them to a cliff overlooking the Yenesei River and prepared to throw them over it. She prayed to the River to accept them and take pity on them as there was nowhere on left on earth for them, and asked them to forgive her.

She then heard a voice and saw a large maral deer, with big black eyes and udders heavy with milk. She explained to the old woman that some hunters had killed her own children and she wanted to nurse the two human children. The old woman was astounded ... you don't know man," she said, "they have no respect for animals - or each other. All you are doing is inviting pain and suffering. Why do you want to do that?" The mother deer replied that she would take the children away. She had plenty of milk and would be able to feed and care for them. She would be a good mother. The old woman gave her consent.

The children followed the deer, and she took them a long way away, over the mountains to Lake Issyk Kul where she nursed them and raised them. There, they married and had two sons — Tynymsejit and Alesejit, who raised families. They called their new tribe the Bugu — the tribe of the Mother Deer. In due course Tynymsejit moved with his family to the Naryn region but Alesejit remained around Lake Issyk Kul. Some time later the harmony between the Bugu and deer came to a tragic end. In the Issyk Kul region, some people killed deer and used their antlers as decoration for their graves. So the deer left and went deep into the mountains. The legend has many variations, usually with more detail and subplots. The best known rendition of it is in Chinghiz Aitmatov's novel "The White Ship".

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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