Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Talantaaly Bakchiev singing Manas © Sayakbay Manaschi

Epic of Manas as National Identity of Kyrgyz People

Throughout their history, the Kyrgyz people have lived nomadically, which then determined the direction of their cultural and spiritual life. This idea comes to life quite easily when examining the intricacies of Kyrgyz folk art and epic poetry, in particular. The main core of Kyrgyz epic poetry is Manas.

Manas originated in the eighth and ninth centuries in the Sayano-Altai and Yenisei territories (now the Russian Federation), when the Kyrgyz people created their own statehood, Great Kyrgyz Khanate. Manas includes the historical memory of the people, bringing together a history to form a basic self-identity for an entire ethnic group—the Kyrgyz ethnicity.

Manas is exclusively Kyrgyz. Its story and manner of performance have not been found in other work by Turkic-Mongolian people. Unlike other epics of the world, Manas is performed a cappella and a special recitative is included. Manas was performed orally and handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. The entire volume of the epic, its plot, the characters, and the names were stored in the memory of narrators who did not write down anything. The entire text of Manas is composed of exclusively poetic lines—a half a million lines, and it does not include prose insertions.

Manas contains information about the customs and manners of the Kyrgyz people as well as their knowledge about geographical, religious, philosophical, medicine, international relations, national games, weapons, and state structure. Given the breadth of information, the epic is a kind of encyclopedia of Kyrgyz life that has evolved over many centuries.

The Singers of Manas Tales

The epic’s primary guardians and bearers were the singers of tales—manaschy. They kept the text of the epic in their mind, without learning it and writing down.

The nature of Manas storytelling is still poorly understood. The singers themselves say they do not learn the text of the epic, but rather that it comes to them through an intervention of sacred forces that govern them. Manaschy believe that knowledge of the epic comes to them during ayan (waking dream, vision). During ayan, the heroes of the epic come to the manaschy and give their blessing to spread the story of Manas among the people. Disobedience can lead to serious consequences in the form of a disease, infertility, and even death. Such evidence was given by modern manaschy, and many of whom came to the narration through their past illnesses.

“Given the breadth of information, Manas is a kind of encyclopedia of Kyrgyz life that has evolved over many centuries.”

The Basic Idea of the Epic and the Content

The basic idea of the Manas epic involves uniting the people and struggling for independence. The main hero of the epic is Manas, for whom the epic is named. Manas has a mission to unify disconnected Kyrgyz tribes. To reunite the people, he has to fight against foreign enemies as well as domestic foes since there is resistance with some heads of clans who prefer not to have such a union.

Throughout Manas, the subject of struggle and heroism is prevalent. We can see this not only in the struggle against vassal khans and the coalition restoration created by Manas, which is then destroyed by his family, and this becomes a leading theme in Semetei and Seytek, the second and third parts of the trilogy. Manas fights with mythical creatures as well as real historical enemies—Kalmaks and Kytays—as he moves forward for his people’s independence and for the creation of the Kyrgyz statehood

What makes Manas special is that it offers us a glimpse into the past. For example, we can see the three-part world structure that the ancient Kyrgyz believed in. The epic also describes the process of ancient funeral rites. One of the characters of the epic bequeathed his dead body to be scraped off with sharp dagger, and the remaining bones were washed with koumiss (fermented mare’s milk).

The Epic of Manas Today

The significance of Manas has been recogn-ized by the world community: in 1995, the 49th session of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution—On the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Kyrgyz national epic, Manas. The next important step in the recognition of the epic as a world heritage was its inclusion in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.

Currently epic remains a living tradition of narration, as evidenced by the young narrators, who continue to narrate and convey the epic. Manas, as a phenomenon of national identity, is still a major spiritual heritage of the Kyrgyz ethnic group.