The “Epic of Manas” is an epic poem in verse, said to be over a thousand years old, about a tribal leader named Manas and his adventures in Central Asia. Sometimes called the “Iliad of the steppes,” the story has been passed down over the generations orally by "Manas-tellers" and was not written down until the 1920s. Experts don’t agree on the epic’s history, but it has been around in oral form for at least several centuries. Composed in Kyrgyz, it recounts the exploits of the hero Manas and his son and grandson as they struggle to fight off external enemies — primarily the Oirat Mongols and the Khitan — and unite the Kyrgyz people. Along with heroic tales such as Dede Korkut and the Epic of Köroğlu, Manas is considered one of the great Turkic epic poems.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Manas is the world's longest poem. The storyteller Sayakbair Karalayev, who died in 1971, once told a version of the story that was 530,000 lines long—20 times the length of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad combined and 2½ times longer than India’s Mahabharata—over three days and nights. Some versions are said to have over 1 million lines and take six months to perform. Thirteen versions and four million verses have been recorded. Most of the Manas story that is recited today was written down from the words of Sayakbai Karalaev, whose picture is on 500 som banknote. A statue of him stands in front of Bishkek concert hall.
"Manas" is Kyrgyz for "God." There is a fable-like quality to some of the stories. Many Kyrgyz turn to the Manas for philosophical and moral guidance and regard the epic as both a historical document and a religious text. The origins of the stories are not clear and the age of the epic is questioned. The first written reference to the epic is in a 15th century Tajik chronicle. The Manas is part of the Turkic “dastan”, a genre of literature that served as an educational medium by which the Kyrgyz transmitted their history, values, customs and ethnic identity.
Mike Edwards wrote in National Geographic, “No Kyrgyz festival is complete until a singer rises to intone stanzas from the longest narrative in world literature. The Epic of Manas bulges with half a million lines of verse. Purportedly a thousand years old, it's both the story of a Kyrgyz folk hero — that's Manas — and a hymn to freedom, valor, and the unity of the Kyrgyz tribes. Scholars aren't certain Manas lived. No matter. In the words of Kyrgyzstan's president, Askar Akayev, the narrative is "our spiritual foundation ... our pride, our strength, and our hope." Under the Soviets the epic was banned in schools, except for parts rewritten to conform to Soviet ideology; in Kyrgyzstan as elsewhere Moscow suppressed ethnic tradition and pride. But Soviet authority did not easily penetrate the soaring Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges, and the Kyrgyz who lived there clung to their roots. Shepherds sang of Manas around their campfires and parents handed down verses totheir children. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2002 ]
Kyrgyz Epic Trilogy: Manas, Semetey and Seytek
The Manas consists of three parts. The first part is a story of the hero Manas. The second is tells about Manas’s son – Semetey, his childhood and struggle against his enemies. The third part is about Manas’s grandson - Seytek. [Source: advantour]
The legends and folk stories are set in the period when the Kyrgyz were exiled from their native lands in the Lake Baikal area of present-day Russia by Chinese warriors and moved to the Altai territory, where present-day Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China all come together. It was here that Manas was born. From an early age he displayed extraordinary abilities and feats of strength and got himself into various scrapes due to his propensity to mischief and generosity. His fame spread far beyond the Altai. When the Chinese emperor heard about Manas’s strengths sent an army of warriors to kill him, Manas Manas managed not only to smash the Chinese, he united the Kyrgyz and regained their native lands. Thus, for the Kyrgyz people Manas is the legendary hero who united all Kyrgyz tribes to win back their motherland.
Manas’s son Semetey was a great warrior too. After Manas death, his wife Kanykei and with her son moved back with her parents. Semetey grew up not knowing that he was a son of a legendary hero. Once he realized the truth about his origin, Semetey decided to regain Kyrgyz lands and avenge the death of his father. Semetey and his friends performed many acts of bravery. But his enemies conspired against him and eventually prevailed. The second part of Kyrgyz Epic Trilogy ends with Semetey’s disappearance.
The Manas’ third part “Seytek” deals with Kyrgyz’s struggle against local enemies. It is narrates the struggles and adventures of the Seytek, grandson of Manas and is a continuation of the narrative unveiled in previous parts. The story includes Seytek’s upbringing in the camp of his father’s enemy; his unawareness of his origin; his maturation into a great hero; the discovery of the truth about his origin; the expulsion of his enemies; his return to his people; and the unification of the Kyrgyz and restoration of peace.
The Epic of Manas reflects the aspiration of the Kyrgyz people to unify, find peace and reclaim in their territory. It describes many of spectacular acts of heroism and has many battles. Along with the epic scenes are moments of love and faithfulness by the heroes towards their wives.
Manas: on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List
In 2009, the Manas was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: The Kirgiz ethnic minority in China, concentrated in the Xinjiang region in the west, pride themselves on their descent from the hero Manas, whose life and progeny are celebrated in one of the best-known elements of their oral tradition: the Manas epic. [Source: UNESCO]
Traditionally sung by a Manaschi without musical accompaniment, epic performances takes place at social gatherings, community celebrations, ceremonies such as weddings and funerals and dedicated concerts. Regional variations abound, but all are characterized by pithy lyrics with phrases that now permeate the everyday language of the people, melodies adapted to the story and characters, and lively parables.
The long epic records all the major historic events of greatest importance for the Kirgiz people and crystallizes their traditions and beliefs. The Kirgiz in China and the neighbouring Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan regard the Manas as a key symbol of their cultural identity and the most important cultural form for public entertainment, the preservation of history, the transmission of knowledge to the young and the summoning of good fortune. One of the ‘three major epics of China’, it is both an outstanding artistic creation and an oral encyclopaedia of the Kirgiz people.
Manas, Semetey and Seytek Recognized by UNESCO
In 2013, the Kyrgyz Epic Trilogy — the Manas, Semetey and Seytek were included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: “The Kyrgyz epic trilogy of Manas, Semetey and Seytek describes the unification of scattered tribes into one nation. The trilogy expresses the historical memory of the Kyrgyz people and survives thanks to a community of epic tellers, both women and men, of all ages. Narrators accept their calling after experiencing a prophetic dream, understood to be a sign from the heroes of the epic. During recitals they enter into a near-trance state and use special forms of narration, rhythm, tone and gestures to recreate the epic’s historical atmosphere. [Source: UNESCO]
“Continuous narration of the trilogy may last up to thirteen hours. Performances are held on various public occasions, from village events to national celebrations and holidays. Epic storytellers also provide moral and spiritual support to local communities and individuals during social events, conflicts or disasters. They consider the trilogy a cultural heritage for which they take personal responsibility. The trilogy helps young people to understand their own history and culture, the natural environment and the peoples of the world; it also provides them with a sense of identity. As a component of formal education, it promotes ideas of tolerance and multiculturalism. Transmission occurs orally from master to apprentice through non-formal education.
According to UNESCO the Manas, Semetey and Seytek were placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) Passed down from generation to generation, providing a sense of identity and transmitting values of mutual respect, the epic trilogy embodies the social memory of the Kyrgyz people; 2) Its inscription on the Representative List could contribute to raising awareness of the significance of the intangible cultural heritage through promoting dialogue among practitioners of oral heritage, in particular epic storytellers worldwide.
Manas Volumes and Stories
Regarded by the Kyrgyz as both its Bible and it Iliad, this narrative poem is not only a literary treasure, but also a encyclopedia to study the history and culture of the Kyrgyz. Traditionally, whenever Kyrgyz people had free time or got together at events such as weddings and festivals they formed groups—sometimes small groups, sometimes a crowd of hundreds, even thousands of people— and recited , sang or listened to passages and episodes of the the “Manas”. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]
The full version of the Manas is comprised of seven volumes, with the first being about Manas himself and the other seven being about his descendants. The first three volumes — the stories of Manas, his son Semetey and his grandson Seytek — are regarded as Great Kyrgyz Epic Trilogy. The version of The Manas read in China has eight volumes and 200,000 lines. Each volume is named after the central character in it. They are: 1) “Manasi” (Manas); 2) Semaitaiyi (Semetey); 3) Saiyitieke (Seytek); 4) Kainainimu; 5) Saiyite; 6) Asilebaqia—Biekebaqia; 7) Sumubilaike; and 8) Qiketaiyi. The whole epic is named after the first character “Manas”. The epic topic describes how eight generations of King “Manas” descendants unified all the Kyrgyz tribes together to defend against invasions from other groups. With help from their friends and comrades, “Manas” and his offspring punished traitors, outwitted demons, assisted the weak and the poor, and above all defended the Kyrgyz people. Similar to other epics, the “Manas” is filled with scenes of wars against different enemies. The epic demonstrates the strong spirit of the Kyrgyz as they forged their identity and strove for for national independence. It also describes the life and society of the Kyrgyz people ancient times and in the Middle Ages. ~
Heroes in the “Manas” possess superhuman powers and human sentiments. They are brave, strong and aggressive warriors but at the same time they can also be overly proud and peevish as well as modest and fatherly. They get angry over stupid, little things are not immune to making foolhardy mistakes but they can also be reasonable and amiable, earning the respect of their for their military successes and their warmth and humanity. Some have compared the Manas heroes to wild horses galloping courageously but restlessly and untamed on the open steppe. There are many tragic heroes: sons killed by fathers, brothers killed by brothers, nieces killed by uncles, grandsons killed by grandfathers, wives killed by husbands, and warriors sacrificing their lives for other of warriors. Unlike the Tibetan “King Gesar” and the Mongolian “Jiangger”, which have happy endings, heroes of “Manas” often meet unfortunates that make tragic impacts that extend far beyond them. ~
Manas and Kyrgyz Identity
The Manas lies at the heart of Kyrgyz culture and history has became an expression of Kyrgyz unity. A Manas image is stamped on the Kyrgyzstan currency and the Manas name has been attached to the country’s main airport. Books, operas, movies, comic books and television dramas based on the poem have appeared. Many villages, streets and a university are are named after the legendary hero. Former Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev called the epic "our spiritual foundation...our pride, our strength, and our hope" and it "united all ethnic groups, clans and tribes that used to live here".
Manas is the symbol of Kyrgyz bravery and is often shown astride a rearing horse, with sword in hand, fighting the enemies of the Kyrgyz people. While they call Manas their "father," the Kyrgyz do not see themselves as a warlike people. Instead, they are a family of artists. [Source: everyculture.com]
No festival or event is complete without a recitation of the Manas. Professional Manas-tellers keep themselves busy by giving public and private readings. At Manas parties guests eat "mountains of meat and drink lakes of koumiss." Some say The Manas predates the Kyrgyz people and was “given” to them by Soviet scholars as part of an effort to give the people’s of Central Asia separate identities,
In the Soviet era, the Manas was banned in schools, except for parts that conformed to Soviet ideology, and regarded as expression of backwardness, tribalism and traditionalism. Manas himself was called a “bourgeois nationalist.” The epic survived beyond the reach of authorities in the mountains where shepherds and hunters sang its verses around the campfire and passed it down to their children.
In 1995, there was a large celebration honoring the “1,000th anniversary” of the Manas. In a speech given in a three-story yurt, Kyrgyz president Akayev said, “In times of hardship we turn our spirits to our great forebears. The values of this epic are relevant today. They reflect the hopes of many peoples looking towards the next millennium.” Earlier efforts to honor the “1,000th anniversary” of the epic in the 1930s and 40s were thwarted by purges, repression and war.
Manas, the Hero, and Episodes from the Manus
Manas is a khan, or batyr. He is strong, powerful, courageous and a natural leader. He is also fair and just. He does not destroy nor conquer. He simply tries to help his people and defend them from aggressors, and is regarded as an embodiment of all Kyrgyz virtues. But he by no means perfect. At times he can be cold-hearted, mischievous, haughty and full of himself.
No one is sure if Manas was inspired by a real-life warrior. Some historians claim he is based on a warrior who died in A.D. 23 at the age of 52. According to legend he is buried in the western Kyrgyz town of Talas, where there is a 14th century tomb said to be Manas’s final resting place.
The “Manas” describes the evolution of the Kyrgyz people and episodes of the first three volumes revolve around Manas, his wife Knaykey, his old advisor Bakay, his son Semetey and his grandson Seytek. Many of the episodes revolve around Manas’s attempt to unite the Kyrgyz tribes and create a homeland for his people in the face of attacks from hostile tribes. Many of his battles involve recapturing Kyrgyz land from Chinese aggressors.
The episodes and stories of the Manas are believed to have originally been a number of different stories about a number of people, heros, legendary figures and heros. Many are attributed to the Norgay people who lived around the Aral Sea. Over times these stories were joined togethers and attributed to a single person, Manas.
The history of the Kyrgyz people is reflected in the Manas. It is said that many of the battles described in the story really happened. In the beginning of the epic Manas is a heathen who worships many different gods. Then suddenly he falls into Namaz. Some say this episode describes the moment that the Karakhanids brought Islam to Kyrgyz lands in the 10th century.
Passages from the Manas
The Manas begins:
His mother was nine days in labor,
Eight midwives were on hand
A sound of screaming rang out, and everyone rushed
Was it a boy or girl?
When his mother saw Manas' penis, she so glad
Recovering consciousness, she lifted Manas,
But he was as heavy as a 30-year-old man.
Greedily, he ate three sheep' stomachs fill with butter.... [Source: Los Angeles Times]
A passages about Manas preparing an army for battle goes:
Not a space there was between the flag and standard
The earth’s surface could no be seen!
Not a space there was between the flag and standard
The range of Altai could no t be seen
Points of lances gleamed; men’s head’s bobbed;
The earth swayed on the point of collapse
Flags and golden standards fluttered,
And the ground splinting din could be heard...
The army, marching with a terrible noise,
Was greater the eyes could take in...
Eyes were bowed with all the looking!
Black plains, grey hills
The face of the earth was beaten down!
Coats of mail all a-glitter,
Racers and chargers bursting forth neighing...
The enormous warrior host
Set a-moving with a crack! [Source: Lonely Planet]
Manas-tellers are known as “manaschi”. They were traditionally illiterate “akyn “(“bards”) and wove issues of the day into the stories and improvised from a basic story line and rhythm in the same way a talented jazz musician does. The best manaschis improvise verses, which have a distinct rhythmic beat and are accompanied by expressive hand gestures. There are few really good Manaschi left. Manaschi generally chanted the verses without musical accompaniment and were said to have shaman-like powers and were often consulted by ordinary people on personal matters. One Russian historian described a 19th century manaschi reciting parts of the Manas to cure people and treat infertility.
“Manas” reciting is a folk art with high cultural value among the Kyrgyz that combines speaking, reciting and singing to express historic events and narrative thrills and spills. The plots and character interplay are often very complicated but the lines and fluid and harmonic, and can be easily sung. Scholars and ordinary Kyrgyz have used the “Manas” to study history, geography, customs, religion, economics, family relations, and marriage, music, painting and language. Supu Mamayi is one of the best-known “Manas” singing masters. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities]
The Manas has traditionally been performed in yurts. Describing a traditional manaschi, Reuters reported, “Urkasj Mambetaliyev...sways, gestures and breaks into a sweat as he half-sings and half-chants the tale of a duel from the epic.” Mambetaliyev told Reuters, “You can become entranced if the people listening are very attentive and involved in what you are telling. Then you lose yourself in the special energy that is circulating.”
Modern day bards perform in sequined outfits and often recite memorized passages. Describing one of these. Richard Boudreaux wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Wearing a burgundy velvet suit and white felt cap, he sat cross-legged on a rug, closed his eyes and filled the living room with a monotonous chant. His wife, who has to hear him recite almost constantly, fled the kitchen.”
China Tries the Claim The Manas as Its Own
The Chinese called the "Manas" the “Manasi” (“Manas”). In China it is claimed to be one of the three great long epics along with the Tibetan epic, “King Gesar” and the Mongolian epic “Jiangger.” In 2018, the Poly Theater in Beijing hosted a stage version of “Manas". Some have seen these labels and efforts as an attempt by the Chinese to claim the story as their own, Bruce Humes wrote in Altaic Storytelling: “A large-scale, colourful rendition of the Kyrgyz epic Manas was staged in March 2018 in Beijing’s ultra-modern Poly Theater. This performance came just two days after President Xi Jinping, speaking at the People’s Congress, cited it and two other non-Han-Chinese works, the Tibetan-language King Gesar and the Mongol-language Jiangger .showing their importance in the Party’s current multiethnic-is-good narrative. [Source: Bruce Humes, Altaic Storytelling, April 12, 2018]
“For some time now, scholars at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the state media have been busy “re-packaging” these three epics in a way that emphasizes their Chineseness, while playing down their non-Han origins. The trio, which includes the Mongolian epic Jangar, are now frequently referred to as “China’s three great oral epics” , despite the fact that all three were composed in languages other than Chinese by peoples (Kyrgyz, Mongols and Tibetans) in territories that were not then firmly within the Chinese empire.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Amazon
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.
Last updated October 2022