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Nomadic Culture

By Alma B. Kunanbaeva

Excerpted from a paper titled "Nomads", prepared by the author as part of an event named The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust, at the 36th Annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival On The National Mall, Washington, D.C.:

Nomads and nomadism have been intimately linked to Silk Road trade 1 V and culture since ancient times ("nomad" derives from the Greek nomos, meaning "pasture"), and at the debut of the 21st century, still constitute a vital, if all too often endangered economic and social force in large parts of central Eurasia. From Siberian reindeer herders and Kazakh horse breeders to Turkmen shepherds and Tibetan yak drivers, modern-day pastoralists preserve a way of life that embodies some of the Silk Road region's most time-tested and ingenious traditions.

...Nomad civilization has its own laws governing the organization of time and space, and nomads follow very sensitively the cycles of nature. In the words of one song, they are in continual pursuit of eternal spring. The primacy of movement serves as the basis of the nomads' entire worldview. For them, everything that is alive is in movement, and everything that moves is alive: the sun and moon, water and wind, birds and animals.

The low fertility of the soil does not allow nomads and their herds to stay in a single area for a long time. Overgrazing can have dire results-at the extreme, removing a pasturage from economic use for a period of years. In order to maximize the yield of a pasturage, nomads have to be able to judge on which exact day to drive their herds from one pasture to the next, leaving the abandoned area to rejuvenate over the course of a year. Migration with livestock is an unavoidable fact of survival, and during the process of natural and forced selection, sheep, goats, cattle, camels and horses have been selected for their suitability for lengthy migrations. Indeed, the symbol of nomadism is the horse, whose praise is sung in songs and epic tales. The winged flying horse, called by various names-Tulpar, Jonon Khar, like Pegasus of the ancient Greeks-is a beloved character of legends and a source of poetic inspiration.

At the earliest signs of spring, nomads drive their cattle to spring pastures where the animals give birth to their young, sheep have their spring dip, and are shorn. Spring is a time of hope and the beginning of the new cycle of life marked by the observance of the New Year, called Nawruz ("New Day" in Persian) among the Turkic nomads. Without lingering long, nomads drive their animals on to summer pastures, where the happiest time of the nomadic year begins. Summer is a time of abundance of food, of fattening for the animals, games and holidays for the young, and meetings with relatives as different migratory paths cross. At the same time there are preparations for the bard winter ahead: sewing clothes, weaving rugs, beating felt. With the onset of the first cool days, nomads undertake their migration to fall [autumn] pastures where they carry out the fall shearing of sheep and camels, the preparation of milk, and meat for the winter, and the return to winter quarters.

This nomadic cycle, renewed from year to year, is not exactly the same each year, for the seasons themselves are not the same from one year to the next. Yet what remains constant for the nomad is the sensation of a natural rhythm of movement, stable forms of social organization, and abiding relationships among people. Success in nomadic life depends on mastery of a vast body of collective knowledge amassed over centuries. This knowledge, passed on from father to son and mother to daughter, embraces an entire complex of tradecraft, domestic know-how and moral norms...

...The yurt is the universal dwelling of nomads in central Eurasia, and represents a unique achievement of hitman genius. As the name of a kind of dwelling, "yurt " entered general usage from Russian. In Central Asia itself "yurt" is a polysemous word that can mean "community", "family", "relatives", "people", "land" or "countryside". Turkic-speaking nomads call their dwellings kiyiz uy or "felt home"-Mongolian speakers use the term ger.

For nomads, the yurt is rich in symbolism that represents both the macrocosmic and microcosmic world. Under the endless hemisphere of the sky, called Tengri, which is also the name of God among nomadic animists, the yurt duplicates this hemisphere with the round opening of the smoke hole symbolizing the sun... quite simply, the yurt is at the heart of the traditional nomadic worldview. It provides a model and symbol of humanity and the universe, and is the key to understanding nomadic civilization.

Putting together a yurt is a magical act that for nomads represents the original creation: the transformation of Chaos into the Cosmos. Disorder into Order. Conversely, dismantling the yurt creates a reverse transformation. Each step in erecting a yurt has a symbolic meaning of which participants in the process are keenly aware. Moreover, the yurt has been anthropomorphized so that its parts are described by the same words used to name parts of the human body. For example, the centre of the yurt where the hearth is located is known as the "navel"; walls are "thighs"; the interior of the lattice frame is the "womb"; the roof is called the "shoulders;" the opening in the smoke hole is an "eye"; the wooden frame is called the "bones" or "skeleton," and the felt covering is "clothing. " Herders say that each yurt has its own spirit, which is why guests bow their head and pronounce greetings when entering a yurt, even if no one is home.
The inside of a yurt has a sacred character and is also imbued with its own symbolism. The spot opposite the entrance is the place of honour and is reserved for people who are closer to the Upper World by virtue of their social status, age or artistic gifts. At the same time, this seat provides a vantage point from which the occupant can view the entire yurt, with men conventionally seated on the right side, and women on the left.

In their traditional daily lives, nomads do not know an unadorned space. All of their surroundings, beginning with the internal appointments of the yurt, are adorned or ornamented by their own skilled hands. To "ornament" is to domesticate, to turn an object into a part of one's own cultural universe. Thus everything that is locally produced, from simple household necessities like drinking vessels and blankets to specially crafted items like horse harnesses and jewellery, represents an inviolable link between art and life. Moreover, ornaments serve not simply as decoration, but comprise a special language that is essential knowledge for an understanding of nomadic arts...

... The nomadic diet is high in protein, and consists mostly of meat and milk, products. Such food provides the energy people need to engage in hard physical labour and symbolizes not only physical but spiritual survival. The daily meal, with its symphony of tastes, customs and rituals played and replayed in the life of every nomad since childhood, serves as a cornerstone of self-identity, and the shared meal is in its turn at the very epicentre of traditional nomadic culture. The ritual of seating guests around the yurt neatly sums up the social and familial relations of people in any given group, demonstrating hierarchy and priorities.

Nomadic hospitality rituals are strongly regulated and provide an opportunity to exchange news and for guests-at the behest of their host-to talk about themselves, their travels and events in the place where they live. Genealogical ties between hosts and guests are thoroughly discussed, and elders recount historical legends and stories. Among the means of communication particular to life on the steppe is a unique form of transmitting information known as the "long ear": whatever is discussed around the dastarkhan (tablecloth) can already be known the next day for hundreds of miles around. How, and by what means!' Who knows!    "

Nomadic life is marked by eternal circles-the circle of the sun, the open steppe, the circumference of the yurt, the life cycle of the mushels or "12-year animal cycle." The completion of one circle leads to the beginning of the next, and each moment of transition is consciously and carefully marked by the appropriate customs, rituals and holidays. One of the turning points is Nawruz, the beginning of the calendar year that occurs on the vernal equinox, 21-22 March.

Preparations for Nawruz begin early: homes are cleaned, new clothes are sewn. On the eve of Nawruz, nomads light bonfires and jump over them, young people wander about with lighted torches, women gather to cook large pots of a soup called sumelak or Nawruz kozhe made of seven ingredients-water, salt, meat, wheat, millet, rice and milk. Stirring the soup, they sing special songs and pronounce blessings. With the sunrise, they sit down to the first meal of the new year, and as they eat, wish one another a long life. Then they call upon relatives, who await them in their yurts with spreads of delicious food. The holiday continues with horse competitions. At meals, elders are offered a boiled sheep's head, there are songs, and bards engage in verbal duelling competitions. Meanwhile, young people play games like "White Bone", which consists of looking for a sheep's tibia bone that has been thrown into the open steppe-into a magical night full of laughter and freedom under a spring sky filled with stars.

Alma Kunanbaeva specializes in ethnomusicology, cultural anthropology and linguistics. She is the author of more than 40 articles and two books, and has taught at universities in the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan.