Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Turkmen Gorogly epic art performers group © K. Poladov

Gorogly, Turkmenistan Epic Traditions

Gorogly plays an important role of social functions within Turkmen communities. Values and emotions reflected on Turkmen people’s social interactions are described in the epic.

In Turkmenistan, the national inventory of intangible cultural property comprises five domains: oral expression, beliefs, performing arts, craftsmanship, and traditional knowledge. Epics belong in the division of oral expression. More than ten elements have been identified in this field, including epics such as Gorogly, Shasenem and Garip, Zokhre and Takhir, Khuyrlukga and Khemra, Sayatly Khemra, Asly Kerem, Arzy-Gambar, Khatamnama, Warka-Gulsha, Kasym oglan Melike-Dilaram, Nejep oglan, and Tulum Hoja. The epic Gorogly holds an especially important position among Turkmen epics.

The Turkmen people refer to performers specialized in Gorogly as dessanchy bagshy. Within Turkmenistan, dessanchy bagshy are mainly found in two welayats (regions): Dashoguz and Lebap. Outside of Turkmenistan, the tradition is found in neighbouring countries—including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran—and anywhere Turkmen ethnic groups have historically lived.

Gorogly tells the story of the hero, Gorogly, and his forty dzhigits, and includes descriptions of all major traditional Turkmen life events. Sections in prose that describe the events alternate with sections in poetry that express the characters’ feelings.

Various art forms are employed in the oral performance of Gorogly, including narration, singing, vocal improvisation, and acting. Dessanchy bagshy are known for their prodigious memory, outstanding musical skills, and intelligence, which are all necessary qualities for performing the epic. Performers must master traditional musical instruments—such as the dutar (a two-stringed plucked instrument) and the gyjak (a fiddle-like instrument)—and be able to sing various melodies of the epic and improvise on them.

Under the supervision of his master, in addition to learning the repertoire and perfecting his skills, the apprentice learns moral and ethical norms of epic performance. For the transmission of knowledge, teachers use a variety of media, including printed, audio, and video materials. When the student is ready, he takes an exam. The master then gives his blessing to the new performer, who is thus granted the right to perform the epic independently and teach students of his own.

This system of transmission ensures a constant flow of knowledge from one generation to the next and maintains skill levels and standards. In addition, the Turkmen National Conservatory, the State School of Culture and Arts, and various specialized school facilitate the acquisition of dutar skills by learners before they enter training with a dessanchy bagshy master.

Gorogly plays an important role in a wide range of social functions within Turkmen communities. Values and emotions described in the epic form a basis for social interactions among Turkmen people and are reflected in social networks and relations among individuals.

The epic enables Turkmen people to learn and transmit their common history and social values to younger generations. Indeed, it is used as a tool for educating the young and strengthening national identity, pride, and unity. Through Gorogly, youngsters are taught diligence and precise thinking skills. They are also taught to love the history and culture of their homeland. Yet respect towards other nations and cultures is encouraged.

In the epic, the Turkmen people are portrayed as compassionate, wise, generous, hospitable, and tolerant. They demonstrate leadership, fearlessness, and loyalty to friends, family, and country. They respect their elders and never break promises.

Because of the emphasis of these values in Gorogly, knowledge and skills related to the epic, including talent for music, poetry, narration, and language as well as traditional skills described in the epic—such as the breeding Akhal-Teke horses—are highly valued. All of these elements constitute the cultural identity of Turkmen people.

The element is safeguarded thanks to gatherings and social events such as wedding ceremonies. Dessanchy bagshy competitions, regular national and religious holidays, celebrations, commemorations, and international cultural festivals also contribute greatly to the safeguarding of the Gorogly tradition.

Dessanchy bagshy are the main promoters of traditional Gorogly performance as they teach and transmit the element to prospective performers in the same way they learned from their masters. In addition, each province has a bagshylar oyi (“house of bagshy”), where masters gather monthly to exchange ideas, record themselves, and broadcast their performances on TV and radio. This allows for the dissemination of the element among the public and attract potential new performers.

These methods have proven successful as domestic and national interest in the study of dessan has been increasing for several years.

Geldimyrat Muhammedov (Chief, Department of Sources of Turkmen History, National Institute of Manuscripts, Turkmenistan Academy of Sciences)