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Manas - The Hero and The Legend

Let the shepherds come and hear me. Their sheep and horses will go home by themselves. Nobody-neither wolf, nor panther, nor thief-will carry off a single lamb while I sing about Manas.

The 18th century manaschi, Keldybek

Although virtually unknown in the West, the Manas epic is one of the world's greatest oral poems and the pinnacle of the Central Asian oral tradition. It depicts the history of the Kyrgyz people and all their myths, tales and legends, and is their greatest cultural treasure, offering moral and spiritual guidance throughout the ages. Manas epic in fact predates the Kyrgyz as a unified people and offers a historical- mythological background to their genesis. Kyrgyz look to the epic in their search for a national identity and for assistance as they navigate their uncertain entry into the 21st century.

The complete cycle is estimated to be 20 times longer than Homer's Odyssey and Iliad combined, and about twice as long as the Mahabharata. Rather than being read as a text, the Manas legends are traditionally-recited and embellished from memory by narrators called manaschi who are highly revered as story-tellers (akyns) in Kyrgyz society. As an oral tradition the legend has survived for centuries without being written down and manaschi have always been valued as much for their improvisational skill as they have been for their powers of recall. Fragments of the legend were finally written down for the first time in Russian in 1858 but the epic was not recorded in its entirety until the 1920s.

Manas is a 10th-century legendary hero of the Kyrgyz, and the Manas epic is a long, complex cycle of legends associated with the exploits of a heroic khan or batyr who is deemed to have possessed all the valiant qualities associated with the Kyrgyz character.

The Epic of Manas is made up of three parts that concern the legendary hero's life and legacy: that of Manas himself, his son Semetey and his grandson, Seitek. The hero is Manas, a Kyrgyz leader who embodies bravery, strength, justice, great skill in horsemanship and martial arts. Historically, Manas was a Kyrgyz chieftain, or khan, who came from the Talas region, where his mausoleum or gumbez still stands. The epic tells of his adventures and search to find a homeland for his people. With the help of his advisers and trusty knights, he goes to war with bigger more fearsome Uyghur foes, finally winning victory at a battle in which he is mortally wounded. It tells also of his marriage to the wise Kanykei, daughter of a Samarkand khan, as well as her expulsion with baby Semetei after Manas' death and their ensuing adventures.

To sum up the 1,000-year-old-epic in one paragraph: Manas is said to have had tens of thousands of horsemen at his disposal and a personal guard of 40 warriors that represented the best of the various Kyrgyz tribes, and who would later become his personal friends and close companions. Manas was eventually killed by Kongurbai, a Chinese leader, and following his death the Kyrgyz tribes were led by his younger brothers, Abyke and Kobosh. The brothers wanted to marry Manas's widow Kanykey but she escaped with her son Semetey to Bokhara, where her father ruled as khan. When Semetey grew to become a man he returned to the land of his birth to avenge his father's death. Semetey managed to defeat his uncles in battle, but those of his father's original 40 companions that had survived would not serve him after being captured and so he had them beheaded.

The epic was recited in snatches at festivities and passed orally from generation to generation for centuries, with bards (manaschi) weaving in topical themes and characters to comment on their times. The stories probably derived from the exploits of a range of regional military leaders, which were gradually assigned to the superhero, Manas.

Manaschi are born, not made. A child is said to receive the calling to be a manaschi when visited in his or her dreams by the Manas spirits. One man tells how, as a child, he started to learn the Manas text when his sister fell seriously ill. In the end a shaman was called who said that the Manas spirits invoked during the brother's recitals were too strong for his sister. As soon as the boy gave up his recitals, his sister's health returned.

As akyns (story tellers) dedicated to recounting the legends in time-honoured fashion, manaschi have a vitally important role in keeping Kyrgyz culture alive. It is a calling that requires a great deal of devotion and responsibility as, apart from having to learn the world's longest epic by heart, they have a duty to pass it on to others and cannot refuse if asked to recount it.

The role of manaschi also calls for considerable dramatic, linguistic and people- handling skills in order to keep an audience fully engaged and stimulated. Expert manaschi are often revered by their audience as having considerable power, and a skilled practitioner is said to be able to make the story come alive for his audience, even for foreigners who cannot understand the language.

Ullukhabar Atabek was nine when he first dreamed that he was Almambet, one of the characters in the epic. 'I saw all of them in my dream. When I woke up I began to write down my dreams.' Born in 1930s and living in Toktogul village, near Bokonbaeva, on the southern side of Lake Issyk Kul, he is a highly respected manaschi, and has performed all over Kyrgyzstan as well as in France, Switzerland and Turkey.

Listening to him is a thrilling experience, even if you cannot understand the actual words. He dons the chapan, the heavy blue-black velvet, gold- embroidered coat traditionally worn by manaschi, and sits cross-legged in the dappled shade of the apple and peach trees of his orchard, his moustache curling around his cheeks.

Looking down quietly for a moment, he gathers himself and then begins, slowly at first but with increasing emotion. He tells the epic with passion and commitment in a chanting, sing-song voice, rolling his r's, gesturing with anger, wiping tears of emotion from his eyes. Neighbours hear him and creep silently into the orchard to listen. Afterwards he says simply: 'When I say the epics, it leaves my heart feeling very light. You can't teach it, either you know it or you don't. It comes from God.'

Ulukhabar is one of the few manaschi raised in the old oral tradition, which was developed by mostly illiterate bards who relied as much on visionary inspiration as memory. That oral tradition has now died out, but fortunately attempts to document fragments of the epic were first made in the 1850s by the Kazak anthropologist, Chokan Valikhanov. During Soviet times the oral tradition was recorded by folklorists and has since been translated into many languages, reflecting the wide range of nationalities in Kyrgyzstan. It has made an impressive revival since independence and the story is now even more accessible, in the form of novels, TV shows and poems.

Some 20th-century manaschi who have become nationally famous include Sagymbay Orozbakov (1876-1930) who began reciting the Manas epic when he was 15 years old and was said to be able recount the classic version of nearly 200,000 lines; Seydene Moldoke-kyzy (born 1922), a rare female manaschi-, and Toktogul Satilganov (1861-1933), Togoluk Moldo (1860-1942) and Sayakbay Karalaev (1894-1971, dubbed 'the Homer of the 20th century') who all appear on current Kyrgyzstan banknotes and often have streets named after them.

There are now special manaschi schools, where apart from the national syllabus, children also learn the text, tempo and the prescribed gestures which accompany the epic. In their late teens they are judged by an unofficial board of manaschi according to whether they have infused their performance with sufficient feeling and sensitivity for the different nuances of the epic. Those who are approved by the board can begin to improvise.

Despite uncertainties concerning the legend's true age, 1995 was declared the 1,000th anniversary of the Manas epic by UNESCO and internationally recognised celebrations were held throughout Kyrgyzstan in that year. An architectural complex to commemorate the occasion was built in the Kyrgyz capital and a new museum dedicated to the Manas legend was opened next to the mausoleum reported to have built for Manas by his wife Kanykey near the northwestern town of Talas.

During the 1995 '1000 years of Manas' celebrations, former President Akaev, attempting to sail on Manas' strength, identified the 'seven principles of Manas': patriotism, national unity, humanism, co-operation among nations, hard work and education and, in Akaev's words, 'strengthening and defence of the Kyrgyz state system'. Their source cannot be specifically located within the text but the principles have become signposts to successful nationhood.