The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in Siberia. They are a nomadic herding people of Mongolian stock that practice Tibetan Buddhism with a touch a paganism. There about 500,000 Buryat today, with half in the Lake Baikal area, half elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Also known as the Brat, Bratsk, Buriaad and spelled Buriat, they have traditionally lived around Lake Baikal. They make up about half the population of the Republic of Buryatia, which includes Ulan Ude and is located to the south and east of Lake Baikal. Others live west of Irkutsk and near Chita as well as in Mongolia and Xinjiang in China.
The Buryat language is similar to Mongolian and is a member of the Altaic family of languages. It is spoken by some Buryats at home and taught at some schools. Until they 1930s the Buryats used a Mongol-Altaic script which was written from top to bottom. The Buryats were forced to abandon their script in favor of Cyrillic by the Soviets.
The Buryats I met in 2005 in the Ulan Ude area were pretty assimilated into Russian culture. One night I went out drinking with a Buryat woman, who was part of cultural show I attended, and some of her friends. The woman had a college degree in mathematics but worked mainly at a gas station because it was the best job she could get. At the time I met her, her sister was off in China being set up in a mail-order marriage with a Chinese man she had never met.
History of the Buryats
The Buryats lived in Siberia before the Russians and are closely related to Mongolians. They are believed to have been created by a merging of Mongolia and Turkish tribes from the Altai and Tungus groups, with perhaps some Samoyed people blood thrown in. By the Mongol era The Buryats had emerged as a distinct group, occupying much of the same area they occupy today. By some accounts Genghis Khan was a Buryat not a Mongol. In any case many Buryats joined the Mongols in their campaigns of conquest.
Until the end of the 17th century the Buryat were mostly nomadic cattle hunters and hunters who were able to take large animals such as elk (moose) and bear and hunted some animals for meat and some for fur.
The Buryats initially put up a strong resistance to the Russians but were subdued relatively quickly. They first faced colonization by Russian settlers in the seventeenth century. After initially resisting this intrusion, Buraitia became part of Russia in 1660 and paid tribute to the tsar. Most of the Buryats eventually adapted to life in farming settlements, which continues to be the predominant mode of existence.
In 1922, after the Russian Revolution, the Mongol-Buriat Autonomous Oblast was created. During the 1930's Stalin's Red army attempted to eradicate the Buryat way of life. Their language and religion were repressed. Their temples and monasteries were for the most part destroyed. In the 1930s the Buryat fought back and defended themselves with guns but were crushed by the Soviets. In a two-year period 10,000 people were killed including most of the religious teachers.
Buryats in the 18th Century
Describing his encounter with Buryats near present day Ulan Ude in the 1720s by John Bell wrote: "The Buryat are stout active men...They choose still to live in their tents and tend their flocks, on which their sustenance entirely depends...The chief exercises of the men is hunting and riding. their arms are bows and arrows, lances and sabers, all of which are used on horse-back."
"The men wear a coat, or rather gown, of sheep skins, girt about the middle...The women's dress is nearly the same; only their gowns are plaited around the waits, and hang down like a petticoat.. The married women have their hair hanging in two locks, one on each side of the head, drawn through two iron rings to prevent it floating on the breasts...Their tents are extremely nasty, from using only skins to preserve them in the cold." Bell also described he how he prepared tea in pot wiped clean with a horses tail and mixed with fresh butter and tick cream removed from a sheep skin.
Buryat Religion and Folklore
The Buryat traditionally were Shamanists. Traditional beliefs still remain. Before a meal, they scatter a little bit of the food and drink as an offering to the Gods. For the Buryat white is associated with milk and good things. Silver, the white metal, is prized as an indication of wealth. The bride's dowry usually includes silver as well as coral and sheep. According to the Buryat creation myth the 11 Buryat tribes are descendants of a man and beautiful creature that was a swan by day and a woman by night, After the were married the man asked for her wings so she could no longer change into a swan. Sometime later she asked for her wings back and then flew away never to return.
Buryat, like Tibetans, adorn trees and bushes with prayer cloths. Buryat shaman are also laid to rest here. Their naked bodies are tied to a platform of trees and burned. The bleached bones and skulls of some of these shaman can still be found in the hills.
In the 17th century many Buryat converted to Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist missionaries from Tibet and Mongolia arrived in Buryat camps at that time. In 1741, the tsarist government issued a decree recognizing the Buryats as Buddhists. Like almost all of Russia's Buddhists, the Buryats are members of the Gelupa (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism, whose leader is the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has visited Buryat monasteries several times.
In the 1930s, Buddhist culture was crushed. Monasteries were destroyed. Art work was given to museums. Monks were arrested. Buddhism is now experiencing a rebirth. Monasteries with dramatic upward curbing roofs, have opened and are being occupied by monks once again.
Buryat shaman are still active. Most shaman work at day jobs such as farming, construction or engineering. They are connected to the past through a chain of priests that stretches back for centuries. In the Soviet years shamanism was repressed. In 1989 a shaman donned grotesque masks for a ceremony that hadn't been performed in 50 years.
Buryat shaman traditionally have gone into trances to communicate with gods and dead ancestors to cure diseases and maintain harmony. A Buryat shaman named Alexei Spasov told the New York Times, "You drop, your pray, you talk to god. According to the Buryat tradition, I'm here to bring some moral calmness....It's not when people are happy that they come to a shaman. It's when they're in need of something— troubles, grief, problems in the family, children who are sick, or they're sick. You can treat it as a sort of moral ambulance."
Buryat shaman communicate with hundreds, even thousands of gods, including 100 high-level ones, ruled by Father Heaven and Mother Earth, 12 divinities bound to earth and fire, countless local spirits which watch over sacred sites like rivers and mountains, people that died childless, ancestors and babushkas and midwives that can prevent car accidents.
Buryat Shamanist Rituals and Vodka
Describing an elaborate ritual that began with sequence of 12 prayers to babushkas, ancestors, spirits and gods, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, "Relatives have prepared hard boiled eggs, cheese, mashed potatoes, pig fat and curds. They sit, smoking and drinking tea. Every one wears a hat or scarf; to go bareheaded is a serious faux pas...In the center of the room sits the beset couple, side by side, their chairs forming an 'L' with those of Mr. Spasov and a wizened family elder who has an honored seat. On the floor is a pot filled with glowing members....Next to the pot are the seven remaining bottles of Russkaya vodka and two other of uncertain lineage. Mr. Spasov drops a handful of brotherworst in the pot, and a sweet-smelling haze, not unlike marijuana drifts up to eye level and hangs. He pours vodka into a bowl, sprinkles a few drops on the embers then takes a sip himself."
Shaman in the Buryatia region and the people they help often get roaring drunk during their rituals. Vodka serves as holy water: its is sprinkled, dabbed and most of all consumed. It is not unusual for ritual to begin with 13 half-liter bottles of vodka and end with none.
Wines wrote: "’To the old babushkas,’ Spasov intones, ‘the old babushkas who died long ago, who are our saviors.’ He passed the bowl to Mrs. Montusova, who dabs a bit of vodka on each underarm and on her throat, then takes a sip herself. Along the wall, as the women make faint waggling motion with one hand, a bottle makes the rounds.
"’There are many great babushkas,’ one woman whispers. ‘And each of us has to drink his share and pray to each of them....More brotherwort, more Russkaya. More sprinkling, more shots. ‘To the old babushkas who treated children, the sons and grandsons,’ Mr. Spasov says, ‘To the old babushkas, so that those sons and grandsons never get sick.’... A roster crows. A steady procession takes shape to and from the outhouse, along planks into the thick Siberian mud."
Buryat Life and Culture
The Buryats used to be nomads who lived in yurts in nomadic camps. They moved their camps as their animals migrated to find new pastures. Buryat hunters hunting in the taiga used conical shaped tents called chums. After being introduced to Russian-style wooden architecture by the Cossacks the Buryat built eight-sided wooden facsimiles of their yurts, Today most live in Soviet-style apartments blocks or Russian-style wooden houses.
The Buryats have traditionally been known as hard workers. In the old days wealth and property was measured in terms of animals rather than land and these animals were owned by the clan rather than individuals. Unlike other Mongol groups they cut hay for their animals for the winter. Under Russian influence the Buryat the concept of private ownership of land took hold and traditional aristocratic classes used the new concept to secure more wealth and land.
Buryat society has traditionally been organized around clans and lineages within clans. Each lineage was made up of several families headed by a chief. In the old days these grouping were tied together through feudalism. Under Russian rule settlers were divided from nomads and each was required to pay a certain amount of tribute. Feudalism no longer exists by ranking based on clan hierarchies and status within clans is still important.
The Buryats perform traditional dances at their annual summer festival. They have a rich folklore of legends and epic. They have traditionally been regarded as skilled metalworkers and jewelers, They make rings, bracelets and adornment for headdresses from coral, turquoise and pearls. Leather from their animals is worked into bags, clothes and various other items. They are also skilled at making Buddhist sculptures. Tuvan sports such as horse racing and wrestling are popular (See Tuvans). The Buryats used to hunt with metal throwing weapon called a bolu. Today they are allowed to hunt nerpa (Lake Baikal seal) from motorboats.
Buryat Marriage and Family
Marriages have traditionally been arranged and sealed with the payment of a bride price or an exchange of women between two families/ Sometimes they took place through the abduction of the bride by friends and relatives of the groom. Young men usually married between the ages of 18 and 25 and young women married between 17 and 21. A great emphasis was placed on the lineage and family background of the groom.
If a wedding proposal from the groom to the bride was accepted the fathers of the bride and groom exchanged waistbands. This was regarded as a promise that cold not be broken. After the terms of the bride price were worked out a date for the wedding was chosen. Before the wedding the groom performed a sacrifice to the spirits for the well being of the bride’s family. The bride’s family hosted the groom’s family in a feast that featured filly meat and double-distilled koumiss, Before the wedding the bride hosted a party with her girlfriends and was brought to the groom’s house on horseback. The central rite at the wedding was when the bride bowed to spirits of the groom’s clan and to Buddhist gods and threw small pieces of fat at the chest of her father in law.
In the old days families tended have many children in part to compensate for a high child mortality rate. Children were protected with spells and amulets and given strange names to trick evil spirts Children have traditionally begun to perform chores and take care of their younger siblings at an early age.
The traditional staples of the Buryat diet have been milk, milk products and meat from the animals they herded. Milk products were consumed fresh in the summer and fall. Butter was made from milk, skimmed off during boiling. The remaining milk was fermented with a special yeast to make various kinds of cheeses and yoghurt. Some milk was fermented and distilled into a special kind of vodka. After distillation the remaining curdled liquid was mixed with flour, roots and bird cherries and frozen into a solid that was consumed during the winter.
Buryats eat the meat of all kinds of animals but prefer mutton, except in the winter when they like to eat beef. Meat is usually prepared in slightly salted water. The bouillon is used as a flavoring for noodles or millet. Mutton liver, preferably wrapped in stomach lining, is regarded as a delicacy. They also eat intestines and traditionally drank the blood of freshly slaughtered animals. The head and eyeballs are considered special treats given to guests. Many animals are slaughtered in late autumn and the meat was frozen so it could be eaten in the winter.
Bread and pastries have been adopted from the Russians and incorporated into their own cooking dishes made with milk and flour, meat and flour grilled with sour cream and steamed meat pies made with sweet dough. Their traditional drinks are milk-based vodka, koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) in the summer and tea served with either milk, mutton fat or baked salted milk skin.
Buryat clothing has traditionally been made of strong, warm and durable materials: flexible and comfortable wether riding on a horse or sitting on the floor of a yurt. In the winter men wore a fur overcoat called a del. The left side button closed over the right side. A long sash with silver and copper decorations was worn around the waist. In that they carried a tobacco pouch, snuff box, a knife in a sheath and a piece of steel and flint for starting fires. They kept their pipes in their boots. The steel, tinder and flint used for starting fires was kept in a special, embroidered sack. In the old days the steel used to start a fire was considered so valuable it could be traded for a horse.
Women wore trousers, shirts and a coat like the men but the collar was lower and cuffs were preferably made of China silks or brocades. The hem was sometimes decorated with otter fur. Over the coat, married women wore a sleeveless jacket. In Mongolia, the Buryat dels differ slightly from those worn by Mongolians. The Buryat men’s del has a large patch on the chest and three colored stripes. The one worn by Buryat women consists of dress with a vest.
Men and women wore leather boots with thick soles and upturned toes. Boots made in this way gave riders confidence that they would not slip from the stirrups. In the winter felt was placed in them for extra warmth. Both men and women wore headgear made of sewn fabric or beaver or otter fur. Men used to wear their hair pulled back in a braid. Women wore theirs in two braids covered with velvet. The braids were worn in front and silver and coral ornaments were woven into them. Young girls wore multi braids joined at the temple with red thread. Republic of Buryatia
Buryatia is a mountainous republic that covers 351,300 square kilometers and occupies the north and east side of Lake Baikal and embraces a 880-kilometer-long "panhandle" that stretches to the Mongolian border. Buryatia is a republic set up for the Buryats, the largest indigenous group in Siberia. Buryats make up about 23 percent the population of Buryatia. Most of the residents are Russians. In the early Soviet era, there were 46 monasteries (datsans) and 150 Buddhist temples. Stalin shut most of them down and sent many lamas and monks to gulags. After Stalin's death, Buddhism was tolerated. It has experienced a rebirth since the break up of the Soviet Union. There are also some Old Believer communities in Buryatia.
The Republic of Buryatia, formerly the Buryat ASSR, lies along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal and along the north-central border of Mongolia. In 1989 the Buryats constituted only about 24 percent of the republic's population; Russians made up about 70 percent. The total Buryat population of the Soviet Union in the 1980s was about 390,000, with about 150,000 living in the adjacent oblasts of Chita and Irkutsk. In 1994 the population of the republic was 1.1 million, of which more than one-third lived in the capital city, Ulan-Ude. Buryatia possesses rich mineral resources, notably bauxite, coal, gold, iron, rare earth minerals, uranium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and tungsten. Livestock raising, fur farming, hunting, and fishing are important economic pursuits of the indigenous population. The main industries derive from coal extraction, timber harvesting, and engineering.
There are many Mongolians in the Buryatia region of southern Siberia near the Mongolian border. Mongolians drink tarasun, fermented mare’s milk. There are about 6,000 Khalkha-Mongolians living in Tuba and Buryatia.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); 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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016