Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Chanting Manas, Doolot Sydykov © Aigine CRC

Rhapsodes of Unity and the Preservation of Ethno-cultural Identity

The rapid processes of globalization and mass culture have increased interest among the Kyrgyz people regarding traditional culture for the preservation of historical memory and ethno-cultural identity. In this, the role of UNESCO is remarkable, one which promotes the preservation, development, and dissemination of national culture as well as contributes to transmitting culture and ensures its continuity over time.

The Kyrgyz people are of a small nation in Central Asia, which has an ancient history and rich intangible cultural heritage. The nomadic people of Kyrgyzstan did not lose their statehood, territory, and system of writing just once, but throughout their nearly two thousand years of existence. According to the historical annals and chronicles of Chinese and Arab authors, the Kygyz traditions disappeared for up to five centuries. Regardless of all circumstances that lead to their virtual disappearance, Kygyz people were able to preserve and enrich their own cultural heritage. Foremost, the Kyrgyz shrine, an epical trilogy called Manas, along with other forms of ICH, is an essential part of their ICH.

It is surprising that it not only survived but is very prominent in Kyrgyzstan. It is particularly significant that the interest of the youth in the legendary past of its people is not lost.

Modern manaschi (epic-teller) of different ages compete, but not everyone can be awarded this honor. This is given only from ‘above,’ through the dreams or inheritance of ancestors (the guiding motives of the chosen ones) in which one becomes a speaker of ‘the word,’ which is a reference to the half million verses in Manas.

Epic-tellers perform a sequence of text, images, and forms of emotional quality of the philosophical and poetic narration of a verse of the epic for hours, days, or weeks, sometimes falling into a trance, without losing rhythm.

Sacred-rituals and cosmogonic components are the most important parts of the recognized narrator’s creation, who is trusted to deliver Manas to the masses. The narrator disseminates epochal historical events and centuries-old struggles of the Kyrgyz people for freedom, independence, and unity, which was led by the hero Manas and his descendants, Semetei and Seitek. In fact, the epic is composed of fourteen parts, seven generations of ancestors and seven generations of Manas’ descendants.

Researchers of Manas who analyze the mythological layer argue that it is mainly connected with Central Asian folklore, but some parts of it exist in other international analogues. In addition, the epic contains information about three worldly religions, which are confirmed by the historical and archaeological monuments located on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. In the past, the nomadic people of Kyrgyzstan were mostly pagans worshiping the sky, celestial bodies, various natural objects, and phenomena; the manifestation of shamanism was very strong during that time. Nowadays, shamanistic traditions residually occur in Kyrgyzstan as a steady phenomenon of nomadic culture. Above all, it exists in close relationship with the holders, custodians, and transmitters of the spiritual culture.

Researchers noted that there is a fine line that distinguishes between a rhapsode (epic teller) and a shaman, but at the same time, the phenomenon is of the same order and relates them to the society-rooted idea of supernatural findings and elevation (i.e. the art and status of the ones who were designed to be mediator between the world of people and the world of spirits). Thus, the creative spirit of manaschi is based on the natural strength of the ethnogenetic memory of the Kyrgyz people and on the perception, transformation, and transmission of all information regarding Manas from generation to generation.