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Elmira Köçümkulkïzï and Daniel Waugh
The traveler in Eurasia often encounters scenes such as these:

What are we to make of this evidence, which we might assume illustrates facets of traditional Central Asian culture? This page will provide some answers and additional illustrations. Our subject here is traditional religion in Central Asia; we begin with what has been termed "dispersed shamanism." This set of pre-Islamic traditional religious beliefs and practices has lasted into modern times, at the same time that many of its practitioners have adopted one or another of the "religions of the book": in the case of the Mongols--Buddhism; and in the case of many of the related Turkic peoples of Central Asia-- Islam. As will become evident, there is a syncretism between pre-Islamic religious tradition and Islamic norms, a fact which explains some of the distinctive features of Central Asian Islamic practice.

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Dispersed Shamanism in North Asia

For many decades shamanism, especially Central Asian and Siberian shamanism, has been the subject of stereotypical treatment, which portrayed it as a homogeneous and unified religion mastered by the "Shaman." It was only the shaman who carried out all the rituals and healing practices in his/her community. This kind of fixed and one-sided view ignored evidence for the fragmentary and dispersed character of "shamanism."

A book by Caroline Humphrey and her collaborator, a Daur Mongol, Urgunge Onon (Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge, and Power Among the Daur Mongols [1996]), asks that we reassess the traditional view of shamanism. Humphrey, an anthropologist, brings to bear her extensive knowledge of North Asian shamanism and nomadism; Urgunge provides his personal knowledge about shamanism as practiced in his village. By examining concrete practice and Urgunge's explanations of what it means, Humphrey demonstrates the multi-functional, diverse and fragmentary character of North Asian shamanism and moves away from the standard effort to treat the subject by applying "general cultural models." In fact, she argues, shamanism cannot be described as "it" at all; i.e., there is no single Shaman, but shamans. Moreover, "among practitioners there was no name for the various activities that outsiders have called ‘shamanism’ and these practices were not thought of as all one thing" (p. 4). In calling shamanism a "dispersed religion," the authors mean that the ideas and practices of the various parts were associated with different kinds of knowledge and specialists (bagchi, bariyachi, barishi, kiyanchi) having particular abilities (chidal) in these spheres (p. 320). And these people were thought to have natural super-human abilities, inherited from ancestors and not acquired by teaching. The idea of the existence of separate and different spirits resulted in the separation of specialists. However, as Humphrey notes, "this did not mean they could not collaborate with one another, each performing part of a ritual or cure using their won expertise" (p. 325).

Humphrey explains the spiritual relationship between nature and people:

Death transforms the souls of certain people into spirits, which are thereby freed from physical human bodies and able to reside in other objects in nature. Master spirits of land had quite different characteristics. They were male and female, young and old, named, often ancestors, had experienced birth, suffering, and death, came out of their tree, water, or mountain habitations to ride or fly around, wore clothes of particular colours, took various animal and bird forms, talked to people through shamans, and often interfered in human life. They had relationships with one another, and in the landscape they had their ‘seats’, ‘running places’, and sites of notable mishaps and adventures. Above all they had personalities, feelings, and motives (p. 128).

In general, rituals in North Asia are made up of action elements:

  • aspersion (the throwing upwards and outwards of liquids, scattered into many drops);
  • libation (pouring out liquids);
  • fumigation by smoke;
  • lighting small butter lamps;
  • daubing with blood and other liquids;
  • piling up stones;
  • sending scented smoke;
  • making offerings of cooked meat, tea, money, matches, and milk products;
  • eating sacralized food;
  • bowing and obeisances;
  • circumambulation and circular dances;
  • ‘beckoning’;
  • constructing a ‘vessel,’ ‘path,’ ‘antenna,’ or ‘obstruction’ for invisible energies;
  • tying scraps of cloth, ribbons, and hairs to sacred objects;
  • setting up ritual (cut) trees;
  • making scapegoats through which evil energies can be expelled;
  • ‘directing’ the head and inner organs of an animal killed in propitiation;
  • whistling, weeping, prayers, invocations, and the uttering of various shouts or calls which repelled or summoned supernatural powers.

This is by no means a definitive list and it is meant only to convey the idea that there was a repertoire of ritual acts, which were often even called by the same names (or local variants) over thousands of miles in North Asia (p. 141-42).

More on historic evidence for shamanic practices.

It is difficult for most Central Asians today to distinguish today between that which is Islamic and that which is shamanic or non-Islamic. What we might erroneously imagine should be separate spheres share, among other things, aspects of ancestor worship. In some of the tombs and shrines below we can see this syncretism.

Sufism and the Spread of Islam Amongst the Peoples of Central Asia

There is significant evidence about the historic importance of Sufi orders in the spread of Islam along the Silk Road all the way into Xinjiang and also into Northern India. We find interesting examples in the Tarikh-i Rashidi, a sixteenth-century history by Mirza Muhammad Haidar, who was born in Tashkent and whose family came from the Mongol Dughlat tribe that ruled in the northwestern part of the Tarim Basin (at one point from the famous city of Kashgar). Mirza Muhammad's purpose was to provide a history of his ancestors and related contemporaries, the Chagatayid descendants of Chingis Khan. Conversion to Islam and interaction with Sufi religious orders was an important part of that story. The legacy of the Chagatayids was assumed by Tamerlane and his successors, and then, in the sixteenth century, by the Mughals, whose empire was founded by Mirza Muhammad's contemporary Babur.

There are several important Sufi "orders" each of which traces its lineage back to a particular founding teacher. In the fourteenth century, the Yasawiyya (founded by Ahmad Yasawi in the 12th century) was the most important Sufi order in much of the Timurid realm; thus Tamerlane ordered built in the 1380s the imposing mausoleum complex at Ahmad Yasawi's grave in Yas (now Turkestan city, in Southern Kazakhstan). Yasawi's shrine attracts many worshippers today and is a kind of Central Asian "Mecca."

By the fifteenth century, the Naqshbandis (founded by Baha ad-Din Naqshbandi [d. 1389 and buried near Bukhara]) became the dominant one in much of Central Asia and became actively involved in Central Asian politics, especially in Bukhara. Connections between Babur's successors in India and the Naqshbandi Sufi order continued to be important, since the order spread to India. Although Islam was already well established in some regions of what is now western Xinjiang, where there were important Sufi shrines, in the seventeenth century the Naqshbandis became the dominant force in the region and for a time actually ruled in Kashgar. The so-called "Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine" in Kashgar is the tomb of the Naqshbandi khojas. (When Gunnar Jarring was in Kashgar in 1930, he photographed a huge pile of Marco Polo sheep horns in front of this otherwise Islamic tomb; see Return to Kashgar, p. 192.) The Naqshbandis even extended their influence into China proper.

Undoubtedly it was during the period of Naqshbandi expansion into north-western Xinjiang that the Kyrgyz in the neighboring mountains were converted, presumably by the appearance in their midst of individual preachers who relied both on Quranic teaching and on Sufi poetry to attract adherents. The importance of the connection with nomadic oral tradition can be seen from the fact that many Central Asian poets, among them the Kazakh and Kyrgyz oral poets, adopted religious/spiritual Sufi ideas and composed poetry both in traditional style of oral poetry as well as in the style of written classical Arabic/Persian poetic tradition. Among the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a group of poets, who are called by scholars "zamanachi akindar" (poets who sing about (modern) time, i.e., time under Russian colonial rule), emerged. Most of them were able to write and read in Arabic and composed poetry in written as well as in oral forms. Much of their poetry interprets the world in general and socio-political changes happening under the Russian rule through a religious lens and with a nostalgia for the past. The oral epics include many Islamic elements such as worshipping at a shrine; going on the "hajj" (in one of the versions of the epic Manas, Manas goes on the pilgrimage to Mecca); use of Sufi saints' names as spiritual ancestors, etc. In Manas, one of the war cries is "Baabedin," that is Baha ad-Din Naqshband. Under the Soviet regime, the oral poets were condemned for their incipient nationalism and religious emphasis, and their names not even mentioned in Soviet school books.

"Formal" Islamic Practice in Central Asia

Outside observers often have noted that some of the formal rituals of Islam seem to be lacking in Central Asia (for example, in part due to the suppression of religion under the Soviet regime, few pray five times a day). However Islam is present at major formal occasions, in rituals or rites of passage such as funerals, circumcision, marriage, and also at the holy month of Ramadan. It is common for men when they get older (after sixty) to begin praying five times a day. Recent years have seen a revival of Islam, often in strictly observant forms, in part because of the relaxation of anti-religious policies with the breakup of the Soviet Union, in part as a natural alternative to the secularity of even the post-Soviet regimes, and in part because of the infusion of outside support from countries such as Saudi Arabia. The issue of so-called "Islamic Fundamentalism" is a very important one in some areas of Central Asia today--notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Too often, it seems, the term is only an excuse for governments to crack down on their political opponents, whether or not that opposition has anything to do with religious belief.

While the subject merits detailed separate treatment and thus will merely be broached here, it is important to remember that the formal, learned manifestations of Islam have a long history in the urban centers especially of southern Central Asia. Ata-Malik Juvaini, the thirteenth-century Persian chronicler of Chingis Khan lauded pre-conquest Bukhara:

In the Eastern countries it is the cupola of Islam and is in those regions like unto the City of Peace [=Baghdad]. Its environs are adorned with the brightness of the light of doctors and jurists and its surroundings embellished with the rarest of high attainments. Since ancient times it has in every age been the place of assembly of the great savants of every religion [Boyle transl., pp. 97-98].

More than a century after Juvaini wrote, in the time of Tamerlane and his successors, formal Islamic learning (including science) flourished in Samarkand. Later still, toward the end of Bukhara's independence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the city was known as a stronghold of "conservative" Islam at a time when muslim leaders in many areas of the Russian Empire were beginning to advocate "westernizing" education. The only officially authorized muslim religious school (medrese) allowed to operate in much of the Soviet period in Central Asia was the Mir-i Arab Medrese, shown here across from the twelfth-century Kalyan Minaret.

Central Asian shrines

The pictures and commentary below will provide examples of various aspects of both traditional pre-Islamic religious belief and the syncretism of pre-Islamic and Islamic practices. Most of the examples are from Kyrgyz areas of Central Asia, but a few are from Uzbekistan. Humphrey's commentaries on shamanism, based on Mongol examples, in many cases are relevant to analyzing the evidence shown here.

To illustrate the physical evidence of religious beliefs amongst the early nomads of Eurasia, we might start with the ubiquitous petroglyphs which at many sites are considered to be more than three thousand years old. These pictographic drawings of horned animals such as ibex and mountain goats (often accompanied by hunters) are found all over the Central Asian territory inhabited by various ancient nomadic tribes and tribal confederations. A particularly impressive group of them, shown in the first three pictures here, is in a boulder field on the outskirts of the city of Cholpon-Ata in northeastern part of Kyrgyzstan. A fourth picture shows analogous depictions on a cliff face above a small valley in Gansu Provice, China; other examples could be produced from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Northern Pakistan and Northern India. Animals played a significant role in hunting as well as pastoral societies of Central Asian nomads, who revered certain animals as their totem ancestor. In their shamanic worldview, all the horned animals had their master-spirit or protector named Kayberen. People worshipped all kinds animal spirits, including the master-spirit of Kayberen, for they were believed to have soul, feelings like human beings and supernatural power to harm people if they were mistreated. Therefore, traditionally, hunters, accompanied by shamans, before they killed any horned animal, first had to please the master spirit of animals by imitating their animal behaviors. Since these pictographs are to be found in otherwise quite ordinary natural settings, drawing the pictures of mountain goats on rocks may have been one of the ways of worshipping or pleasing their master-spirit. Central Asian traditional applied art (for example, various woven textiles) consists primarily of ornaments and designs reflecting various types of animal horns.

Also among the oldest evidence connected with the nomads' religious beliefs are the stone figures called balbals. They are found scattered across the steppe regions and pastures of Inner Asia. One example here is lying in the grass near the petroglyphs at Cholpon-Ata; the other examples were brought together from various areas to create an open air museum of balbals next to the Burana tower in the town of Tokmok near Bishkek, capital city of Kyrgyzstan. This was apparently one of the capitals of Turkic Karakhanid state, which flourished in the tenth-eleventh centuries C.E. Many other examples have been found in the area of the Kipchak nomads north of the Caspian and Black Seas and in the northwestern part of Mongolia where inscriptions have been found which refer to Kültegin, the khan of the sixth-century first Turkic Empire. It has been said that these balbal stone figures represent the defeated enemies of the Turkic khans and were erected in honor of deceased khans. Excavation under balbals has in some cases revealed burials. All of the balbal figures hold a cup at chest level. The holding of the cup is said to symbolize the enemy’s submission and offering its service to their master in the next world.

In the past, each tribal group had its own burial site, which was usually located on an elevated location, i.e., on a hilltop or hillock. Nowadays, since people became sedentary and thus had to live in lowlands that are suitable for agriculture, burial places are located not far from people’s villages. The examples here are from just south of Bishkek and from Cholpan-Ata. As the structures of these tombs show, there is an interesting mixture of traditional nomadic, Islamic, and modern/western burial customs. With the arrival of Islam in Central Asia since the ninth century C.E. Central Asian ancient shamanic religious beliefs became mixed with Islamic religious traditions and rituals. Some graves are located inside the bare wooden or iron structure of yurts, which have Islamic symbols, a moon and a star on their top. Some tombs are built in the style of Islamic architecture (often with small domes) but have pictures of the dead persons. Modern memorial stones erected during the Soviet period have a picture of the deceased and the date of his birth and death.

Today in Central Asia people worship trees, especially isolated ones, rocks, and mountains with an unusual shape. However, as recent ethnographic studies of North Asian shamanic culture and tradition made by Caroline Humphrey show, such trees are usually the sites of human deaths. Many people are not aware of the fact that "the master-spirits are not spirits of the tree, rock, or hill, but souls-turned-spirits located in them . . . Noteworthy ancestors, virtually always shamans, were in fact buried in trees. The entire corpse, or, after a second funeral just the bones, was placed inside a hollowed-out tree trunk and the bark carefully replaced so the tree could continue to grow. The soul-turned-spirit in the tree then became the master-spirit (ejin) of that place. Unlike the oboo cult, which could be carried out at any suitably impressive mountain and could be transferred to another mountain if a group moved away, the shaman-ancestor cult was tied to unique places, just as each shaman was unique in a way that clan elders were not." (p. 128)

As one Daur Mongol woman also noted: "The Daurs do not think that there is a soul in all things. They think that only those beings which are alive have souls. If people see mountains, water, and trees as having souls this is because some shamanic master soul has been put in, and because of this people say they have souls, but this is not really a soul of the mountain, water, or tree. Daur shamans never worship land spirits they only worship their own dead shamans’ spirits." (Humphrey, p. 132)

Here we can see an interesting example of a shrine in the Alamedin valley south of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. This is a cow’s skeleton lodged in a lone tree growing near the intersection of two streams. Although it looks like that people sacrificed the cow at the stream for the spirit of the lone tree, in fact, they may have worshipped the deceased ancestor or relative whose soul turned into a spirit, which is now believed to reside in the tree. The landscape of all worship sites tell us that people chose places that have an unusual or perhaps sacred appearance such as a lone pine-tree or bush located near a river, stream, spring or lake, and rock or mountain with an unusual shape.

An unusual case of a similar kind of shrine is shown here from the East Karakol valley in northern Kyrgyzstan. Unlike the traditional way of hanging an animal’s head or carcass on a tree, this sheep’s carcass is suspended above the mouth of a concrete conduit on stream. Very likely the location was chosen simply because there were no trees near the herder camp located just down the hill, but streams, rivers, and springs are also places of worship and sacrifice. It is quite possible that someone may have died or been buried at this site, and later the relatives of the deceased came to sacrifice a sheep to honor the spirit of the dead.

The photo here provides an example of another way such worship may be expressed, by the tying of strips of cloth to the branches of a bush or tree. Located on the curve of a road above the main reservoir north of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, this site could be one where auto accidents have claimed lives, or it could simply be a location marked as a special one because of its panoramic view. Many springs along the roads in Central Asia are similarly marked by tying of strips of cloth to branches of surrounding bushes. The practice also can be observed in many Islamic regions on trees adjoining important shrines. (See the linked page above, for Solomon's Mountain in Osh.)

It is not uncommon to see Muslim graves where the connection of animals with the deceased is commemorated. Next to the Karakorum Highway overlooking Lake Karakul in a Kyrgyz region of western Xinjiang, China, is a Muslim graveyard which has typical domed tombs. Next to one of the tombs though is an unusual grave. On top of it is a rope, one end of which is tied to a stick and the other end buried in the ground. Very likely this is a horse’s grave, so sharply contrasting in form from the adjoining Muslim burials. Possibly the horse was killed and buried together with his owner. We know from archeological findings in Central Asia that in the past when a man died his favorite horse as well as other necessary objects and belongings were buried with him. Caroline Humphrey’s account of the burial customs of the Daur Mongols provides a good example:

"While the corpse was lying at home a saddled horse (hwailag) was tethered outside in the yard. A thin rope was attached from the corpse, near the head, to the animal. Urgunge [co-author of the book] thought this string was a ‘rein’, though he was not sure, and that the horse was the soul’s mount on its journey to the other world. The horse should be elderly and castrated male, one the deceased’s much-used animals. The horse was killed and its heart, liver, lungs, and spleen removed, cooked, and placed beside the coffin. The rest of the meat was eaten . . . [Humphrey, p. 195.]

Not far from Lake Karakul, in the same Kyrgyz region of Xinjiang but up in remote mountain valleys, there are different shrines, which the local herders indicate also mark burials. They are characterized by an array of poles, at the ends of which are tied yak tails and to which strips of cloth may be attached. At the base of the poles is an array of ibex or mountain goat horns. In form, these shrines resemble sacred cairns or oboos, which are widespread in Eurasia and are often located at high points (the tops of hills or on mountain passes). In North Asia, every spring and autumn, Mongols, Buryats, and Daurs conducted oboo rituals in spring and autumn by piling up trees and stones. They sacrificed animals to various forces of nature such as mountains, hills, cliffs, and rivers, but most importantly to tengger (Turkic/Mongol word for sky and God). People prayed "for human prosperity, for male descendants, for timely rain, wind, warmth, for the elimination of calamities, storms, and cattle diseases, for abundance of the five cereal crops, the flourishing of domestic livestock, and the banishing of ticks and crop-eating insects . . . Large oboo rituals were always followed by the "manly sports’ of archery, wrestling, field-hockey, and horse-racing" (Humphrey, p. 148).

According to the tradition of North Asian oboo rituals, animals were slaughtered at the oboo site. People made fire to cook the meat, which they ate.

The bones were not burned but left at the site. Incense was burned, bowls of alcohol and blood thrown to the cairn. The meat was then laid out piece by piece in the shape of the animal in a big container and placed to the front of the cairn (south). The participating men stood in order of genealogical seniority and an officiant, either the clan elder or the bagchi, would pronounce the prayers. In rhymed speech he asked the mountain spirit to ‘come down’, to deign to grant the people’s requests and accept the offering. The participants splashed water all over the cairn and one another, and then they again circumambulated the site three times in the direction of the sun. Finally they had a big feast. The cooked meat was thought to be blessed by the mountain spirit and by heaven. Giving the deity food to eat was not the important meaning given to the rite; rather the meat was offered as a sign of reverence, and, one might say, as a material medium for the blessing (keshi) which was received in return. The splashed water was said to signify the rain which the clan described. Finally, the head, skin, and hooves of the sacrificed animal were hung on a tall pole facing the sky in a south-pointing direction, and left to the ravages of the weather...Male fertility is commonly associated with oboos. The Mongols and Daurs put the skulls of favourite horses on oboos; when the skull is that of a stallion people take their mares to the spot to ensure it will bear young. [Humphrey, pp. 147-149.]

Here are two Kyrgyz examples of what it seems reasonable to interpret as oboos. The first is a collection of animal horns on top of a rock outcrop overlooking the Kengxuwar River not far from the snout of the Kuksay Glacier on the south side of Mt. Mustagh Ata in Xinjiang. That this collection of horns was not simply a random dump next to a hunter/herder camp is suggested by the fact they are contained within a low stone wall. The second example is quite different, a sizeable pile of stones at a high point on a trail in the Karavshin Valley in southern Kyrgyzstan. Not far away from this oboo was a grave, and a bit farther along the trail was a mosque (discussed below). It is a common ritual practice to add a stone as one passes an oboo. Similarly stones may be placed on a grave or other object which has sacred significance. One even sees small cairns erected on the top of unusual large boulders.

The Karavshin Valley, which has long been an important access route to summer pastures higher in the Pamir-Alai Mountains, today has evidence of the revival of open expression of Islam. Unlike the ancient pictographic drawings of horned animals on rock surfaces, this Arabic inscription (a verse from the Quran) is of recent origin.

As one moves on along the trail, passing the oboo shown above, one arrives at a very interesting religious complex located near the intersection with another valley. The compound has been fenced off. Within it is a mosque, which has a covered porch and inside which one can see the mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca). Next to the mosque is a shrine featuring ibex or mountain goat horns on a pole, and adjoining that shrine a very prominent boulder. Below the pole, "offerings" of unusually shaped rocks have been placed. Down behind the mosque is a small hut with a couple of sleeping platforms for travelers or pilgrims. High on one of the cliffs overlooking the site are more ibex horns.

For our final example of the syncretism of Muslim and pre-Muslim traditions, we go to Samarkand, which in the era of Tamerlane (Amir Temur, 1336-1405) and his immediate successors was a bastion of Islamic orthodoxy. In important ways the Timurids preserved their nomadic traditions. The Gur-i Amir mausoleum, built at Tamerlane's behest for his grandson who pre-deceased him, became the family mausoleum and center of an important religious complex. Interestingly, a pole with a horse tail has been erected over one of the graves in the interior, a feature characteristic of oboo ritual sites in other regions of Central Asia which were not influenced by Islam.

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© 2001 Elmira Köçümkulkïzï and Daniel C. Waugh.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.

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