Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Making a wish at the river bank before slaughtering a sacrificial animal © Aibek Samakov

Blood Must Encounter Water: Tasattyq Sacrifice Ritual in Syr Darya Delta and Sustainable Water Management

A small crowd is standing on a bridge across the canal that brings water to the village. The canal diverts some water from the Syr Darya River, the only source of irrigation water in the region. There are several cars parked on the banks of the canal and a medium-size truck with a two-year old bull is parked right on top of the bridge. A group of young men take the bull on the bridge and tie him up. The crowd gathers around and the people present lifts their palms up at the chest level. The most respected elder loudly starts making a wish: “May there be plenty of water this year for our crops and livestock; may there be peace and prosperity in our lands; may there be accord and respect in our community….” The wish, which is also a blessing, goes on for several minutes. After every sentence, the crowd univocally utters “amen” to show that every person seconds that wish. Then, bull is solemnly sacrificed on the river bank, and its blood flows into the current turning it red for a little while.

After the animal is slaughtered, it is taken back to the village where other members of the community are preparing for a feast. Some women are making fried bread, youngsters are pealing carrots for the pilaf. Others are cleaning the houses where the community members and guests will come together for the feast. On the next day, the meat of the sacrificed animal is cooked with rice and all members of the community as well as two other neighboring villages come together to share this meal. After the meal is over, the most respected elder reiterates the wishes for abundance of water, prosperity, and a good year. That is how the tasattyq ritual unfolds almost in every community in the Syr Darya Delta (Kazakhstan).

The tasattyq ritual is conducted by every community in the river delta every spring after the vernal equinox and before summer. The tasattyq brings together the members of the community who self-organize to have this feast. Each household contributes some money (typically between USD 3 and USD 5) to purchase a sacrificial animal and other things needed for the feast. On the day of the ritual, both men and women are involved in preparing for the ritual. According to local people, the main purpose of the ritual is to ask the Creator for abundance of water, for rains, and for protection against natural calamities such as floods.

Although not explicitly mentioned as such by local people, the tasattyq ritual is a communication platform where local community members discuss their livelihoods and talk about water distribution and management. Local livelihoods include livestock herding, melon and watermelon gardening, and mowing reed (as a winter forage for livestock). All the resources sustaining these livelihoods such as pastures and land for melon gardens and reed beds are managed as common-pool resources. Because preparation for tasattyq takes quite some time, it is not just a one-day interaction. While getting ready for the ritual, community members talk to each other about where they are each making their garden, how much reed they need, etc. Often times, community members make their gardens right next to one another because this way it is easier to fetch water to the fields and water loss due to filtration and evaporation is minimized. Thus, even though community members do not explicitly talk about sustainable water management during the tasattyq ritual, the ritual becomes a communication platform enabling community members to make coordinated decisions that contribute to sustainable water management.

The tasattyq ritual also contributes to sustainable water management by fostering caring attitudes toward the Syr Darya River and water in general. The tasattyq ritual is a vivid example of how human-river interactions are shaped in the river delta. The animal sacrifice at the river bank aims remind people where water comes from. The wishes for prosperity and peace uttered at the ritual highlight the intrinsic link between prosperity and water coming from the river. The requirement that the blood of sacrificed animal should encounter water reminds people that the life force (symbolized by sacrificed animal’s blood) comes from and returns to water—the substance that supports all life on Earth.