By Betsy Wagenhauser
Kazakhstan stepped into the world arena as an independent republic in 1991. It is a new nation in transit, charging forward to join the ranks of a world en the threshold of the 21st century. Yet at its heart lies a history rooted in antiquity and a culture suffused with tradition. It boasts a nomadic past and warrior legacy stirring up images of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.
The ethnic Kazakhs, who now account for a half of Kazakhstan's population, were primarily pastoral nomads until the middle of the last century. Depending on the climate and nature of the land, they might have easily traveled hundreds of miles, migrating from rich summer pastures to warmer winter quarters, accompanied by their horses, sheep, cattle, goats, and camels.
They lived in yurts - portable, dome-shaped tents of felt made from boiled camel's wool. Even the word "kazakh", meaning "independent," "free," "wanderer," depicted their nomadic existence long before it became an ethnic connotation.
Today the Kazakh is settled in cities and villages. Many live an agricultural life, although few still roam the arid steppe and mountain valleys in search of pasture for their herds. The traditions and folkways of these people have come with them into their contemporary homes, intermingling with the routines of modern life.
Foremost in Kazakh custom and tradition are the elements of family and marriage. The family was the cornerstone of nomad society.
A strong family produced a strong society. In nomadic days, the elders of the extended family were tribal leaders. They put down a code of conduct and united with other tribal leaders to forge a unified Kazakh nation. According to the "way of the elders," older persons were honored and respected, their word law. They were put first, whether it be at meetings, during special occasions or festivities, when dividing military spoils, and at funeral ceremonies.Marriages were arranged to cement tribal bonds.
The Kazakh saying "the matchmaking lasts a thousand years, while the son-in-law lasts only a hundred" signifies the importance of a relationship created between the two tribes. The process of marriage arranging can still be a lengthy and complicated one. Family elders meet a number of times, following a prescribed pattern of the groom's father and selected male relatives going to the bride's house and vice versa. Gifts of livestock are exchanged, be it cattle and sheep and horses, cattle and sheep, or cattle alone, depending on the wealth of the families.
Special foods, such as sheep's liver, are eaten by the fathers and other men of the family, to bind promises and forge bonds. The entire process may last 40 days. Another element that figures prominently in most Kazakh celebrations is the horse. Kazakhs were, and still are, superb horsemen Few people know that stirrups and chariots originated with the Kazakhs. They also perfected the technique of shooting an arrow with surprising accuracy while atop a galloping horse. In the past many Kazakh children, it is said, learned to ride before they walked. At the center of most Kazakh festivals is the horse in some form, be it the meat on the table, the drink (koumyss), or the entertainment.
Many festivals will feature a traditional horse race. As many as 200 participants, mostly young boys riding bareback, will race their horses around a mile track in the middle of the steppe for about 30 laps. In this case it's not the fastest who wins, but the most enduring. Many will drop out before the end of the race and it's not unlikely that a horse or 2 drop dead before it's over.
There are a number of other traditional games on horseback which are sill enjoyed today. Kuuz Kuu (catch the girl) involves a contest between young boys and girls. In this race the girl does her best to gallop away from the young man. When he tries to overtake her, she lashes him with a whip. If the boy cannot catch up before reaching a predetermined point, the girl may 'reward' him with more whipping. If he succeeds in besting her, he gets a kiss. Audaryspak ("wrestling on horseback") requires strength and superb horsemanship. The contestants fight while on horseback and the one who can pull the other off his horse wins. Kumis Alu ("Pick up the coin"). is an event that requires the rider to pick up a handkerchief (a coin was used in olden days) off the ground while galloping at full speed. It is reported that Alexander the Great witnessed such a contest during his campaigns in Central Asia and is reported to have commented "This is a training worthy of a warrior on horseback".
The Kazakh today is no longer a nomad in the literal sense. Yet the traditions that have evolved over centuries, virtues necessary to survival, are not particularly superfluous today. Strong ties to family, respect for elders, competitiveness, and a high regard for courtesy to others are traits which may well ensure the continued survival of a people in a time of reformation of its statehood, economy, and culture.
Melodies and Songs of the Kazakh Steppes