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Tuvan Culture

June 15, 2013

Our time in Tuva has been amazing. The Yenesei River runs along behind our hotel and is so large, deep and fast, that we have all been astonished at the amount of water it carries. Past the river is a plain and then the Doga Mountain, marked by the inhabitants of Kyzyl with white rocks that spell the name of the mountain out for the city to see. I was told by an American expat who lives here, that, during Soviet times, it spelled out “Lenin” and one day in the early 1990s, a group of people from the city rode their bicycles out of town and up the mountain to rearrange the rocks. The Doga Mountain is significant in the local shamanic tradition because it “anchors” the community to the world, and the community to this place.

We have been discovering and discussing the relationship between shamanism and Buddhism in Tuva. Both traditions are very strong here and they are not mutually exclusive. Most people here follow at least some of both traditions and there is a kind of division between what they see a llama for and when they go to the shaman. For example, when a person dies, his family goes to the shaman to have a ritual performed that tells the person’s soul to move on to the next world, not to stay in this world and trouble his family. However, when a child is born and the parents are choosing a name, they might consult a local llama at the Buddhist temple. In some cases, a shaman will tell people to seek out a llama for help with a situation. Our guide today described shamans as healers, but also as psycho-therapists to whom people will turn for advice about family situations.

I have been fortunate enough to see rituals performed in both traditions while we have been here. Because of our connections to Americans in Kyzyl, we were invited to the shamanic ritual ceremony blessing the Tuvan Throat Singing Symposium. Throat singing is something very special in this place. It is practice in other places throughout Central Asia, but Tuva is the home of this unique art form. We drove a half mile out of town to the site of a very elaborate yurt camp and on a hill next to the river, the Tuvans had erected a 15-20 foot pile of stones. They are set up in an upside-down cone shape and there is a large wooden post about 30 feet tall in the center. The post is decorated with horse tail and ribbons. Many musicians placed their instruments on the stones before the ceremony to be blessed.

There was about 50 feet of space between the “ova” (the stone and post) and then there were 6 posts that were carved, each with a symbol that capped the post. Each of the symbols represented an aspect of Tuvan culture and throat singing. There was a string that connected the posts about 5 feet in the air and during the ceremony, we tied silk scarves on the string. These prayer flags are common to shamanic and Buddhist traditions. The shaman spent at least an hour building a fire in the “log cabin” style and people brought food to place into this. People also placed milk and food on a table of stones next to the shaman, who poured a small amount of milk from each bottle placed there into a bucket that he used throughout the ceremony.

The ceremony began when the shaman called everyone together and spoke for a while about the importance of thanking the ancestors who gave them their culture and specifically throat singing. He explained the significance of each of the symbols on the posts and then began the ritual. He also exhorted the Tuvans to encourage young people to learn the traditions and preserve their own culture and, interestingly, questioned why Tuvans do not live long lives. We found out later that Tuvans typically do not live to be very old and there are conversations going on about why that is.

After covering the “log cabin” with a “teepee” of sticks, the shaman took a small branch of juniper, dipped it in the milk mixture and sprinkled it all over the fire. He then sprinkled his drum and the ova and all the instruments on it. Before he lit the fire, he lit some juniper and brought the fire all over his hands and arms several times. He also called another man down and drew a knife from his belt. The other man held the knife by the handle and the shaman gripped the blade tightly, then drew his hand down the blade. He did this several times, each time going to the fire structure and dripping blood into the center of the fire. I want to say here that the blade had been dulled and he was not actually cutting himself. He chanted and sang as he circled the lit the fire and it began to smoke.

The rest of the ceremony involved sprinkling of milk on the instruments, then smoke from juniper branches blown onto the crowd and the instruments. The crowd responded to the smoke by waving the smoked toward themselves. They were also involved, chanting and praying while the shaman was performing, chanting, singing, dancing and praying.

Finally, he called the musicians to get their instruments and bring them to him to be blessed individually. The musicians came to him and he sprinkled them with the milk. One musician was rejected by the shaman due to the presence of iron on his instrument. The shaman told him to take it back to the ova and then bring it back again. The musician appeared to be very confused by this, but complied and returned later for the blessing, which the shaman gave to him.

At the end of the ritual, the shaman called the children in the crowd up to be blessed. He sprinkled them with the milk if they were very young. For the older children, he placed the milk in their hands and they put it on their faces. Finally, the adults lined up to get the blessing.

All of this occurred in the most spectacular setting. The mountains around us, the river below and before us, stretching out into the valley. The sun set during the ceremony, the big sky turning from blue to pink and gold, then to purple. In the dimming of the light, we walked down to eat our dinner in the VIP yurt which was simply stunning.

I wish you could all be here to experience this with me. It is amazing!


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One Comment
  1. Jane Mills permalink

    This is a great blog. I love learning about these people! What a great experience!!!

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