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Discovery Central Asia #29
Discovery Central Asia

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For centuries, the Kyrgyz led a nomadic lifestyle. So ingrained is this way of life that the saying goes: "when a Kyrgyz dies and is laid to rest, only then does he seize to be a nomad and finally settles down".
Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the rites surrounding the passing of human being is linked to very specific traditions and the funeral service is held with great pomp and aplomb. A long guest list, who all need to be hosted lavishly for several days, a splendid grave site, anything else is unthinkable.
The cost is shared among the extended family members since the family honor is at stake. Food, traditionally horsemeat, the most expensive and exclusive has to be served. The mausoleum alone can typically cost the price of a horse. The government undertakes attempts to curb the excess that traditions impose, a law has been passed limiting spending but it is expected that the law will be honoured more by being ignored than by being observed.
Nobody is able to trace the exact origin of these firmly anchored rites. Over time, various influences have played a role in shaping the traditions, there are distinct Russian elements and regional differences in Kyrgyzstan.
According to Muslim tradition, the burial takes place typically within 3 days of the passing, in certain communities the burial should take place before the next sunset or sunrise. Mourners start to gather from the first public announcement and pay their respect to the body draped in a carpet with the face exposed.
As in all Islamic societies, professional and specially assigned women and men are in charge of all arrangements and organisational aspects. From inciting the mourners at specific moments to whail, so as to let go of their pain, to reciting prayers and adhering to the rules in general, all is being taken care of by these highly regarded members of a community.
A yurt is set up nearby the deceased's home in which the body is arranged. Even in urban communities a yurt will be mounted in all probability in the court yard or garden. The entire extended family is expected to attend the festivities and many people travel great distances. The dress code is fairly relaxed although dark clothes are usually worn and traditional Kyrgyz women wear a white head scarf.
At the funeral itself, an imam presides over the ceremonies, leading prayers and reciting from the Koran. The body is placed in the ground and attendees in turn throw handfuls of soil over it. Then the grave is filled.
Memorial services take place after another 7 days (jetilik); after 40 days (kyrky); after 6 months and finally, after 1 year. Only then is the gravestone installed or the mausoleum erected.

(single chamber mausoleum built on a square base with an octagonal pyramid roof)
Throughout Kyrgyzstan there are many examples of ancient burial sites, from barrows (burial mounds) to grand mausoleums (Gumbaz).
A western traveler noted in 1856: "it can be said that if the nomadic Kyrgyz have any form of architecture at all, it is to be found in structures erected for the dead."
The earliest grave marks are probably the balbals, a group of which is located at Burana Tower near Tokmok and outside the Historical Museum in Bishkek.
Many of the later mausoleums are in the shape of small citadels complete with four corner towers, crenulated walls, often topped with a dome, cone or marquee made from clay bricks in fancy patterns, and adorned with the symbol of Islam, the crescent moon. The mausoleums at Uzgen in the Osh oblast and the Manas Gumbaz in Talas are well preserved examples. More recently, ironwork in the shape of a yurt is erected over the gravesite.
Also, rather poignant are the roadside memorials devoted to victims of road accidents that scatter the mountain roads. These are often plain, soviet style headstones with an inscription and sometimes a photograph.

Were to see

    -Ak Taala in the Naryn province, the mausoleum at Taylik Baatyr
    -Bishkek, south of the city towards Ala-Archa, mausoleum of Baitik Kanaev, the Kyrgyz leader who helped the Russians conquer the Kokand Khanate at the end of the IXX century
    -Burana Tower, the base of three ancient mausoleums with reconstructed walls
    -Kochkor cemetery, most unusually right by the roadside and not on an elevation
    -Koshoi Korgon, just outside At Bashi, Naryn oblast, allegedly the mausoleum built by Manas for his fallen friend and cousin, Koshoy
    -Safed Bulan - Moslem graveyard, mausoleum of Shah-Fazil who brought Islam to Central Asia, still an operating Sufi mosque and pilgrimage site
    -Sary Jaz, remains of a wooden structure, a quadrilateral based on four pillars, an ancient design corresponding to a description in the Manas
    -Talas Valley, Manas Gumbaz, 12 miles southeast of the modern town, features on the reverse of the 20 som note
    -Uzgen, close to the main road, museum complex based around a tower and old minaret and three grand mausoleums from the XI and XII centuries, featured on the back of the 50 som note

Discovery Central Asia #10

Discovery Central Asia supplement #4/2005

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