Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Boxshi, epic singer of Uzbekistan © Jabbor Eshonqulov

Alpomish and Epic Traditions

The epic Alpomish has been sung for centuries. Daily life in Uzbekistan is represented in Alpomish, which makes this epic more valuable.

Epics are the literary version of a nation’s history. They provide insight into a nation’s lifestyle, traditions, history, and present and future ways of thinking. The process of modernizing moral values depends on the study of literary heritage.

The epic Alpomish is a priceless work that has been sung for centuries. Over forty versions and variants exist in Uzbek. Daily life in Uzbekistan is not widely represented in other literary works, which is why Alpomish is especially valuable.

In the northern regions of Uzbekistan, oral epic singers still partake in wedding ceremonies and other events. Alpomish functions as a symbol of ancient Uzbek traditions, yet it is relevant to present-day Uzbek culture as well.

According to Uzbek folklore, shamans—shajara—travel to other worlds, where they help bright angels fight against dark angels. This struggle across worlds is seen in Alpomish in the story of Khakimbek. The hero, with the help of pirs, goes on a journey to fight against darkness and spends seven years in prison—a symbol of death and resurrection.

During shaman ceremonies, heroes received a new name to symbolize his hero status and his gain of magical powers in the new world.

Similarly, today in the northern regions of Uzbekistan, when a son is born, he is given a false name to protect him from dark angels and other creatures. After a certain period, the child is given his real name in a small ceremony. Although this ceremony is not fully described in Alpomish, it is referenced in a way that plays an important part in the story setting. When Khakimbek is seven years old, he can already shoot with his grandfather’s heavy bow and thus earns the name Alpomishalp meaning “strong”—and is counted as one of ninety alps (“strong men”). Without the change from Khakimbek to Alpomish, the epic’s meaning changes completely.

Also in north Uzbekistan, a traditional wedding includes a ritual in which the bride is hidden by her friends to protect her from dark forces. A chosen person from the groom’s side must find her and ask permission to take her to the groom.

A reader unfamiliar with this tradition cannot fully understand the episode in Alpomish where Barchin builds a portable tent on a high hill. Hills and mountains were considered sacred places and were reserved for ceremonies. Portable tents were built from white and red (bakhmal) materials, which symbolized the union of two worlds: the man’s and the woman’s. Thus the episode functions as an allegory for a woman’s preparation for marriage.

It is then stated that “Barchin was hidden in one place […] Then she was found.” This is a reference to the bride-hiding ceremony and her protection from the external world.

The reader must also be aware of the significance of hair in ceremonies to fully understand the epic. Hair is described extensively in the relation of ceremonies in Alpomish. It plays an important role as a symbol for magical events.

Hair and animal manes were thought to be related to ghosts. Possessing a strand of hair meant having control over that person. Combing, cutting, or burning a strand of someone’s hair was believed to affect the nature and ghost of the person. Cut hair was preserved to protect oneself from hair magicians.

Hairstyle could indicate that it was time for a woman to marry. During a wedding ceremony, the woman’s hairstyle would be changed. Therefore, all descriptions of hair in Alpomish have a specific meaning.

Another wedding tradition referred to in Alpomish and performed in Barchin’s house is the dying-old-woman tradition. The way in which the tradition is portrayed in the epic is still followed today in the Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya regions.

In the entrance of the room where the bride is staying, an old woman acts like a dog and prevents the groom’s friends from entering. The old woman should be a close relative to the bride and preferably have many children. After the groom finally enters the room, the dying-old-woman ceremony is held.

Marriage functions as a connection between birth and death, and it is considered the beginning of the life and death cycle. The eternal cycle of life and death is referred to in other ceremonies in the epic as well.

Epics and customs are strongly connected. Works such as Alpomish provide historical information about customs, and only by being familiar with the customs can one fully understand the main ideas of an epic.