Back to category Published: 11 october 2019 Author: Alexandr V.

Culture and Traditions in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a multinational and multicultural country. Its vast territory had not only nations mixed, but also there has been interpenetration of different cultures. A special, Kazakhstan’s culture has developed.

However, despite such a mixture of cultures, each nation of Kazakhstan carefully preserves its cultural traditions and customs. Kazakhs have a great number of traditions, which are passed down from generation to generation, and are gladly adopted by young people. If we enumerate them all, even a simple list of traditions and customs will make up a weighty volume. Therefore, we shall tell you about the most important and widely observed traditions.

Guest reception traditions

Everyone who has visited Kazakhstan at least once forever remembers traditional Kazakh hospitality. Moreover, not only Kazakhs but also probably all other nations inhabiting Kazakhstan accepted this traditional hospitality and respect for the guest.

Such an attitude to the guests formed in ancient times. Accidental travelers, as well as guests, were always welcomed with hospitality and treated to the most delicious food. The ancestors of the Kazakhs were nomads, so staying in an unfamiliar house was a common thing. This custom is called Konaqasy.

The guest is invited to the yurt to seat in the honorable place (tor) opposite the entrance. They immediately serve light treats of Kazakh cuisine and drinks: qymyz, shubat, ayran, or tea with milk. Fresh baursaks, fresh flatbreads, kurt, irimshik are placed on the table. Horsemeat or lamb appetizers are immediately served as well: zhaya, qazy, shuzhuq, and others. 

Often, in honor of the guest's arrival, the hosts cut lamb and cook several dishes with it at once: quyrdak made of lungs, liver, and kidneys, which is served as a pre-course, and the main dish of the Kazakh table — yet, or Kazakh meat (otherwise called beshparmak). Boiled meat is usually arranged in large pieces on a tray. The owner slices the meat himself, treating each guest with tidbits. Such cutting is also traditional: pelvic bones and shin are intended for old people, brisket for son-in-law or daughter-in-law, cervical vertebrae for girls, etc. The owner presents the most honored guest with the head of a ram prepared specially. Meat is necessarily served with rich broth in bowls.

Another ritual, or tradition, the Konaqkade, is associated with the reception of guests. At the end of the meal, the host can ask the guest to perform a song or play a musical instrument. In return, the guest usually performs improvisation, in which he thanks the hosts for a warm welcome.

Dear, important guests are specially brought to the Kazakh house, for this purpose, there is a ritual called At Mingizip Shapan Zhabu. Dear person, who visited the house, was given a horse and an expensive chapan (embroidered robe made of camel wool with chintz lining).

Sometimes the important guest was presented with a horse, sable fur coat, camel, or Persian carpet or sword. The most valuable things in the house were given as a gift to show respect to the dear guest. This tradition is called Bes Zhaqsy, or five valuable things. Nowadays this custom is not often observed, but in some villages of Kazakhstan, it is still strong.

Since those ancient times, for example, one interesting tradition has been preserved — Yerulik, or acquaintance with new newcomers. New residents of the village are invited to dinner or lunch with their closest neighbors. Thus, at the set table, people are acquainted and newcomers join the society more easily. In many Kazakh families, this tradition is still alive today, whether the family lives in an aul (village) or a modern apartment building.

There are some other interesting traditions related to hospitality:

   •    Toqymqagar or the farewell ceremony. Usually happens before the departure of someone from the family for a long time. A ram must be cut and a toy-dastarkhan must be arranged. Seer-offs say various wishes for those going on a long journey.
   •    Tize Bugu. An ancient tradition, according to which the guest entering the house kneels, showing respect for the owner and his house. Previously, the entrance to the house without observing this rite was perceived as an insult.
   •    Toy-Dastarkhan is a festive feast. In addition to a rich feast, the Toy-Dastarkhan includes sports, music, song contests (aitys), races, and other games.
   •    Shashu is a ritual during the holiday: the arrival of dear guests, weddings, matchmakings, etc., the heroes of the occasion are showered with sweets and coins. Children usually collect scattered candy and money. Kazakhs believe that sweets picked up during Shashu bring good luck.
   •    Suyunshi is a custom to give valuable gifts to those who bring good news.
   •    Baigazy is a tradition to give a small gift to those who bought a new thing.
   •    Sarqyt is a tradition to take away food after the dastarkhan. The hosts give the guests the rest of the meal to take with them. 
   •    Tugan zherge aunatu. The custom of meeting the traveler. A person who has lived for a long time far from his homeland must be rolled in the ground upon return.
 

Wedding traditions

Kazakh wedding is a grandiose significant event as in any other family. However, the Kazakh wedding is not just a holiday for newlyweds, parents, close relatives, and friends, as it is accepted all over the world. The Kazakh wedding is a union of two kinship ties. Therefore, the Kazakh wedding implies a lot of different rituals and traditions, which should be strictly observed.

In the olden days, the young man proposed to the girl through his brother's wife. The bride could not see her husband until the wedding, and if she did not like him, she still had no right to disobey her parents: they decided their fate for their children.

Today, of course, everything is different. Kazakh guys and girls, as well as all over the world, get acquainted on the street, in cafes, in social networks, but wedding rites still matter and are necessarily held during the marriage and at the wedding ceremony.

As before, matchmakers (qudalar) come to the house with gifts. The bride's ring is given by his brother's wife, not the groom himself. Wedding day used to be set by the elders of the family, but today the date of the wedding is discussed with the newlyweds. During weddings, matchmakers usually exchange expensive gifts.

The tradition of paying kalym, or bride price, is not always the case now, but in many rural families, where traditions are stronger, they try to honor the customs and give the bride's family cattle, expensive fabrics, and jewelry. Traditionally, the groom has the right to see the bride and visit her parents' house only after the payment of kalym.

After all the procedures have been followed and matchmaking has taken place, the bride's father appoints a day of farewell to the beloved daughter (qyz uzatu) and gives all the groom's relatives clothes.

The wedding itself is a great holiday to which all relatives of the bride and groom are usually invited. During the wedding, the specially invited akyn (folk improvising poet and singer)  sings traditional Kazakh wedding songs, contests, dances, and funny competitions are held. After the wedding, the newlyweds go to the wedding tent.

List of the main traditional wedding rites:

   •    Qudalyq — matchmaking of the groom's parents together with close relatives of the bride.
   •    Aran Keru — a rite of passage of matchmakers to the house of the bride's parents.
   •    Bethashar —the rite of revealing the bride's face. Bride show at the wedding.
   •    Syrga salu is a symbolic rite of putting on earrings for the bride by the mother of the groom, which means the final contract between the grooms.
   •    Qalyng mal (kalym) — payment of kalym (gift) by the groom's side to the bride's side as a gratitude for their work and upbringing of the girl.
   •    Qyz uzatu is a traditional rite of farewell for the bride from the parents' house to the groom's parents' house.
   •    Qursaq toy — Kazakh folk custom of the groom's family to arrange a holiday after the news of the pregnancy of the bride.
   •    Bride theft is a tradition when a dzhigit simply kidnapped a girl he liked and took her to his village. After the kidnapping, all other rituals were performed. Today, this is only done with the consent of the girl herself. Otherwise, kidnapping is considered a criminal offense.

Customs related to children

Tusau kesu (cutting the ties)

Many Kazakh customs are related to children. For the Kazakh family, children are the most important treasure, so their growth and upbringing are associated with a huge number of rituals and traditions. This is either laying in the cradle, naming, and, of course, one of the most important customs for a child — Tusau Kesu, or cutting the ties. This ceremony is held when the child starts taking his first steps.

A child's legs are tied with a thin, colorful cord, which is cut by an energetic man with many children, a respected aksakal (elder, a venerable elderly man), or a dear important guest. The cord, which is used to tie the legs of the baby, traditionally consists of black and white threads. It means that in life there are not only white but also black stripes — the future dzhigit (a young man) must be able to overcome difficulties.

The ritual is accompanied by songs and wishes (bata), so that the child stood firmly on his feet, confidently walked through life. After cutting the ties, usually followed the toy: a holiday with a feast, contests, songs, and music competitions. After Tusau keser, a child used to get a horse and saddle, today they are limited to expensive gifts or money. 

Sundet-toy (circumcision)

Another custom, which has been preserved and is often observed in Kazakh families, is the Sundet, or the rite of circumcision. This custom appeared in Kazakhs with the arrival of Islam in the Great Steppe and is still considered one of the most important family traditions.

Sundet is conducted when a child turns 3, 5 or 7 years old. On the day of the holiday, the boy is dressed in beautiful national clothes and put on horseback. Relatives weave brightly colored ribbons into the horse's mane and tie a bag of treats to the saddle. The boy should drive up to relatives in turn and treat them with food from the bag. When all the gifts and treats are given out, the boy goes to a separate yurt (or room) together with a mullah (and nowadays — with a surgeon), where he is circumcised without anesthesia. After that, parents organize a magnificent holiday — Sundet toy where everyone present gives the child money or valuable gifts.

Other traditions and customs related to the birth and upbringing of a child

   •    Shildehana — toy dastarkhan, the birthday party for the baby.
   •    Besikke salu, besik toy — toy-dastarkhan in honor of the placement of the newborn in the cradle. As a rule, it is organized on 3-5 days after the fall off the umbilical cord of the baby. Before that, the child sleeps with his mother.
   •    Yesim qoyu or at qoyu. A ceremony in which the child is given a name. It is often combined with Schildehana or Besikke salu. A respected person usually gives the name of the child.
   •    Qyrqynan shygaru. A ceremony is performed on the fortieth day after the birth of a child. The child is bathed in 40 spoons of water, hair and nails are cut for the first time
   •    Auzyna tukirtu. The name of this ritual translates as spit in the mouth. Kazakh people have a belief that with a drop of saliva given to a child by a respected person, the child will receive a piece of talent from that person.
   •    Ashamayga mingizu. It is a tradition to give a 6-7-year-old boy a horse and a Kamcha (whip). During this ritual, the child was proclaimed as a dzhigit (a young man). On this day, the old men blessed the child, and the parents arranged a small toy in honor of the son.

Aitys

Aitys is one of the obligatory parts of the holiday program of any Kazakh holiday. It is a poetic-musical competition of the Kazakh singers-improvisers.

During the aitys, the performers sit or stand in front of each other and start a kind of song dialogue, constantly passing the word to each other, continuing the theme started by the opponent. Aitys can be held on any arbitrary theme. According to the results of the competition, the winner is chosen. The jury consisting of distinguished people or guests of the festival evaluates not only the musicality and performing talent, but also the skill in parrying the arguments of the opponent, humor, and ingenuity.

Aitys is somewhat reminiscent of modern rap battles: the same principle is used in the order of performance and the evaluation of participants.

Several akyns can take part in aitys, although paired performances are more traditional. Aitys is often held between a man and a woman. For example, in 1946, Kazakh composer Mukan Tulebayev wrote the opera Birzhan and Sarah based on aitys between famous akyns of the XIX century Birzhan-sal and Sarah Tastanbekkyzy.

Nauryz Holiday

Another wonderful tradition dating back to the ancient pre-Islamic times of the history of the Kazakh people — the holiday Nauryz. It is a holiday of spring, renewal of nature, the beginning of a new year, a new life. According to Tengrian beliefs, Nauryz is considered the beginning of the New Year and is celebrated on March 22 on the day of the vernal equinox.

Like the rest of the great feasts, Nauryz consists of many small rituals and customs. The holiday begins at dawn when all the inhabitants of the village or aul come out together to plant trees under the guidance of aksakals. 

After the trees are planted, everyone gathers for the celebration. People have fun, congratulate each other on New Year's Eve, and wish each other peace, prosperity, richness, and happiness. Songs composed especially for this holiday — Nauryz Zhyr — are performed. Sports competitions are held: kures wrestling, racing — baiga.  Often in the middle of the village, there are big swings for children and youth. There are also intellectual contests for solving poetic riddles and contests in short sayings. 

After the holiday, each family in each house sets a festive table — dastarkhan. The meal was usually held at noon. Before and after the meal, the invited mullah reads prayers in honor of the ancestors. At the end of the meal, the eldest of those present gave a blessing (bata) to keep the family intact year after year. In this ritual, we see the fusion of pagan and Muslim traditions.

During the Nauryz holiday, the presence of the number seven representing seven days of the week, the unit of time of universal eternity, was mandatory: before the aksakals were placed seven bowls with a special festive drink of Nauryz-kozhe, which was prepared from seven types of cereals, the dastarkhan had seven different treats.

The festive day usually ended with aitys - a great performance, where all the surrounding akyns competed in improvising skills. Aitys ended up with the sunset: it was believed that this was the moment when good conquered evil. Then the fire was lit, and people with torches lit from it, with songs and dances went around all the neighborhoods of the village, completing the holiday of spring renewal and equinox.

Traditional Kazakh games and entertainment: 

   •    Kazakh traditional hunting with a golden eagle. The golden eagle has been used since ancient times by nomads for hunting small game: hares, corsacs, foxes, etc. Specially trained berkutchi hunters are engaged in the breeding and preparation of hunting birds.
   •    Kazakh traditional hunting with Tazy. Kazakh hound Tazy is a unique animal, an ancient breed of hunting hounds, belonging to the intangible heritage of UNESCO. With Tazy, Kazakhs hunt small game and steppe antelopes.
   •    Kures - Kazakh wrestling on belts. Competitions are usually held during the Toy. Other peoples of Central Asia also have analogies of this struggle.
   •    Toguz Qumalaq. Table game based on number 9. This seems to be a simple, but quite complex logical game, which is often called "algebra of shepherds", as it often brightened up the leisure time of nomads.
   •    Asyq is a children's street kernel game, which has now become the national sport in Kazakhstan. The country even holds Asyq tournaments.
   •    Bastangy is a kind of format for youth parties, which was usually held after the departure of parents. Young people gathered for a small party. During the Bastangy, they often expressed the wish that the journey went smoothly and without incidents.
   •    Asar is a tradition to help someone with the whole family or the whole generation, with the whole village. This could be building a house or cattle sheds. At the end of the work, dastarkhan was held for the helpers.
   •    Zhylu is a tradition very similar to Asar. In this case, they help those who have suffered as a result of natural disasters: fires, floods, etc. Any person, of any kind, and even the Juz can help the victims to the best of his ability. Donations can be cattle, building materials, clothes, money, labor force as a help.
   •    Belkoterer is a tradition of preparing special meals for the elderly. Tasty, soft dishes such as kazy, zhent, koumiss, cottage cheese, etc. are specially prepared for them. The duty to treat the elderly rests with children or close relatives, less often neighbors.  

Conclusion

Of course, we can tell about all the traditions and rituals for a long time, show photos and pictures. However, the best thing to do is to come to Kazakhstan and see yourself, to take part in these beautiful and bright ceremonies, to experience the warm hospitality of the Kazakh people.

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