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Ayghyr kosu, a rite for adjoining stallions in their herds. © National Historic, Cultural and Natural Reserve-Museum, Ulytau, 2011

Traditional Spring Festive Rites of Kazakh Horse Breeders

A triad of spring festive rites—biye baylau, ayghyr kosu, and kymyz murundyk, identified and documented in Terisakkan Village in the northern outskirts of Ulytau District, Central Kazakhstan—is a testimony to nomadic culture surviving up to today. Regarded by its bearers as the most important annual festive event, it starts in early May with first spring warmth, new grass, flowers, and foals, opening a new year-round cycle of life reproduction and a new season of making koumiss, an ancient sacred drink.

These rites feature the remnants of ancient cults and beliefs inherited by the Kazakhs from their nomadic ancestors, notably of the cult of horse and the related cult of Qambar Ata. The latter personage is present in the folklore of Uzbek, Kyrghyz, Turkmen, Tajik, and other peoples of Central and West Asia as not only a herdsman and a patron of horses and horse breeders but also as an epic hero and a musician. Among the Kazakhs he is equally known as Zhylkyshy Ata, “the ancestor of herdsmen.”

One meaning of the word qambar is “a stud-horse.” Accordingly, the personage of Qambar Ata in Kazakh folklore is associated with a stallion:

Horse Patron, Qambar, is a stud-horse of herd,
The origin of increase and a source of wealth.1Toktabai A. U. 2004. “Horse Cult of the Kazakhs”. (Translated title.) Originally published as “Культ коня у казахов.” Almaty. p. 25.

Up to now, old Kazakh horse breeders mention Qambar Ata in the traditional wording of worship, blending both pre-Islamic and Islamic concepts, at the start of the festive rites:

Qambar Ata, the Horse Patron,
May God make every wish come true!
May there always be many mares,
May koumiss always be in abundance.
May all children be healthy,
All relatives live in concord
And our alliance be stable.
God the Great!2Ibid. p. 24.

Then the oldest man of the village gives his blessing to all, thus launching biye baylau (tethering a mare), an ancient ‘first milking’ rite, the initial part of the spring festive triad. Biye baylau incorporates several ritual components. The first one is zheli tartu—driving pegs in the ground and straining a rope (zheli) for tethering mares and foals. The first peg is always driven by the elected honored man. Zheli maylau (buttering a rope) is another ritual act of biye baylau. Women generously grease ropes and pegs with fresh butter, asking Qambar Ata to grant an abundance of milk and ‘to fill the roots of everything with butter.'3Ibid. pp. 25–26. One of the most important ritual components of biye baylau is the offering of ritual food (mainly butter, cream, homemade bread, and sweets) to all who may come. Every family serves it near their tethered horses. Nobody can pass it by, everyone must try some food, wherever it is offered, and say a good wish.

A culmination of biye baylau is milking. Mares are milked by women. Men assist them, bringing foals, one by one, to mares for suckling and then taking them back to allow for milking. Everyone is silent, because speaking to those performing the first spring milking of mares is not allowed. To protect horse milk against evil spirits, every housewife performs a qubini ystau ritual, treating a wooden barrel for making koumiss with butter and then with a smoke of fresh juniper kindled in a samovar.

Ayghyr kosu (stallion’s marriage) is a rite for the adjoining stallions in herds. It represents the second rite of the spring festive triad and takes place on the same day as biye baylau. Women grease stallions’ manes and tails with butter, asking Qambar Ata to give good offspring to the herds. Men lead stallions out and keep them in check for a while. Then they take bridles off and let stallions join their herds. This day ends with celebrations accompanied by music performances and traditional competitive games.

Kymyz muryndyk (initiation of koumiss) is a crowning part of the spring festive triad, a rite of sharing the first koumiss, opening a season of its making and drinking. It starts when the first koumiss is ready. One after another, all families invite each other to taste their koumiss. The oldest woman of the village always comes first. She ties a piece of white cloth to a qubi (barrel), whips koumiss and says: ‘clear soul, high-minded wishes’. Then she and the other elderly women occupy the most honorable places at the table. The elderly men and then all the other guests follow them and seat themselves. Prior to the ritual meal, the oldest man enounces his blessing that starts with the name of Qambar Ata regarded as an inventor of koumiss.4Ibid. pp. 26-27. The meal ends with koumiss and good wishes to the hosts. Kymyz muryndyk lasts several days until koumiss sharing ceremonies in all houses of the village are over.

Yelena Khorosh, Scientific Researcher, National Historic, Cultural and Natural Reserve-Museum, Ulytau

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Toktabai A. U. 2004. “Horse Cult of the Kazakhs”. (Translated title.) Originally published as “Культ коня у казахов.” Almaty. p. 25.
2. Ibid. p. 24.
3. Ibid. pp. 25–26.
4. Ibid. pp. 26-27.