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Kyrgyz Culture Overview

Since olden limes the Kyrgyz people have led the life of nomadic herdsmen. A complementary source of livelihood was hunting. The nomadic way of life required portable dwellings - felt yurts - as well as loose-styled clothing practical for riding, and domestic articles made mainly of wood and leather. A substantial part of the Kyrgyz daily life was occupied by-home crafts, particularly those connected with processing of livestock breeding products (wool, leather, rawhide, bone, gut string. horn, hoof, etc,).

Although the Kyrgyz practiced bailer and trade with neighboring peoples, their economy was basically communal subsistence. Kyrgyz decorative-applied arts were tied to the processing of animal husbandry products, gathering food and medicinal herbs, raising livestock, and milking metals. A closed subsistence system was a characteristic feature of making home crafts: a family gathered raw materials that they manufactured into products that were then consumed by the extended family or traded in bazaars. Any member of the family could participate in this process or use the products manufactured by the group.
While producing their handiwork the Kyrgyz people were not only striving for the satisfaction of their daily living needs but for the fulfillment of their spiritual ones as well. Love for beauty was conveyed in the decor of articles, in their artistic designs, and in their functionality. Traditional Kyrgyz ornamentation is a particular sphere of culture, a specifically figurative language with a highly practical value.

The nomadic tenor of life put limits on Kyrgyz craftsmen. Nevertheless, any articles handled by them were sealed with the marks of creative work. The exterior and interior decoration of the yurt, the clothing and furnishings, women's adornments, and equestrian trappings bear the signs of a nomadic culture and of high aesthetic values - Kyrgyz utensils convert into pieces of art and serve to integrate life. The main motifs, themes and designs of Kyrgyz ornaments arc in direct correlation lo the world of spirits and objects - animals, plants, natural and spiritual phenomena that surround and inspire a human being. Inside the national consciousness applied arts are inseparable from daily rhythms of beauty and usefulness.

Main varieties of Kyrgyz decorative arts:

  1. Patterned thick felt carpets and domestic appliances.
  2. Patterned weaving.
  3. Woolen carpets with pile.
  4. Wicker ware of patterned chiy reed.
  5. Embroidery.
  6. Leather products.
  7. Wood carvings.
  8. Ornamental metalworking.
  9. Funerary arts - the decorative ornamentation of mausoleums, called gumbez, including figured bricklaying, ornaments decorated with designs, bone carvings, clay modeling, and architectural monuments.

The sources of the Kyrgyz arts have a four millennia history that began in the Minusinskaya Depression in the ancient motherland of the Kyrgyz people - the Yenisei River Valley of Siberia. Petroglyphic art and geometrical designs on utensils and weapons dating back to the Bronze Age represent the first attempts of ancient artists to render the nature and daily life of a human being. More than a millennium ago the Kyrgyz people migrated from the Siberian steppes lo the Tien Shan Mountains and since that time have participated in the historic development of the land now known as Kyrgyzstan.
Although they were mounted nomads in the heritage of Huns, Turks, and Mongols, the Kyrgyz claimed the Celestial Mountains as their own and developed a unique pastoral transhumance that has given the land of the Kyrgyz a spirit of ageless, creative human courage in the face of great trials, 'flint spirit is embodied in the mythic hero of the eponymous epic "Manas."
While remaining nomads, the Kyrgyz traded with neighboring sedentary village peoples. Like actors on a historic stage performing their entrances and exits, the Kyrgyz people recorded in their national memory and preserved in their folkloric art the cultural influenzas of their past. Many cultures came into contact with the Kyrgyz throughout their long history. The ancient stales of the Scythians. Sakas, Sarmatians and I 'suns may have disappeared; the flourishing Karakhanid and Uyghur urban cultures may have turned into mighty stone monuments and ruined mud walls; the Great Silk Road may have become a dirt goat track through disuse; hundreds of great cities may have fallen to Mongols and Timurids; and dozens of forgotten ethnic groups may have drowned in rivers of their own blood; but the bearers of the ancient Kyrgyz Tien Shan culture remained and recorded these influences in their ornamental arts.
Much was imprinted from these cultures into Kyrgyz ornamentation. The motifs of the shyrdack and tushkiiz patterns reveal zoomorphic styles of the ancient Sakas and Usuns. Images of the Sogdian sacred bird, the pheasant, date from the VI-VII centuries. The Seasoned ornamental circles of VII-VIII century provenance, the Karla's' geometrical lines from the VIII-X centuries, the Arachnids' whirligig rosette of the XI-XII centuries, the timeless Chinese symbol of prosperity, the Bronze Age ancient artists' representation of sheep horns, and many other designs can all be found in Kyrgyz folk art.
Employed in quotidian routines the decorative-applied arts interpenetrate the whole life and history of Kyrgyz nomads.

Enter the nomadic dwelling of a livestock breeder; from afar his yurt meets you with painted patterns of decorative ribbons and the ornaments of a carved or felt door - eshik tysh. Inside the yurt every detail of decoration on every article of clothing and everyday use fuse and complement each other with picturesque designs, forming that unique ensemble that amazes you with its variety of tinctures and voices, intrinsic to every thing handmade by Kyrgyz craftsmen.
The variegated designs of shyrdacks and alakiizes flow across the floor, the patterns mutating in flowery ornaments of tushkiizes and sleeping mats, which then morph into the lines of ashkhana chiy and tekche - suspended shelves made of cloth and reed. Patterned ribbons - terme, kadjars and besh keshte - coil round a yurt, binding the wooden joints of the dwelling.
Opposite the entrance visitors are met with a chest, the sund.uk, proudly bearing the symbol of the family's prosperity. Open the chest and appreciate the wife's dowry, the possessions she brought to the marriage, treasures made by the women of her family. Packed inside the sunduk are quilts - tushuks and kuraks - designed with patterns of multicolored cloth patches; and pillows - djazdyk and chavadans - sacks for clothing woven with woolen yarn.
Braided strips and tassels - djel boo and tegerich - hang from the domed ceiling of the yurt, dangling down from the arched vault of the tunduk, the cross beams that open the yurt to the heavens above. Stamped patterns adorn the utensils for drinking: the leather pialas (drinking cups without handles) and the vessels for kumyz - the koinoks and kerkers.

Designs are also embroidered on clothing, carved on wooden dishes and poles (ala-bakans). These all create the unique world of a nomad. This universe, wherein every ordinary thing turns into a symbol, is intimately and deeply connected to the high traditions of antiquity. The nomad's world is filled with poetry and beauty, elements sorely lacking in our own everyday, disconnected and disassociated modem life.
This clause seeks to explore the magical world of the Kyrgyz nomad by describing the main kinds of Kyrgyz applied arts and the sources of ancient Kyrgyz ornamentation. Beyond the catalogue of artifacts is a hidden world of centuries-old wisdom and deep, creative beauty that must lived to be properly understood.

Kyrgyz Thick Felt

Articles made of thick felt-carpets, bags, sacks for storing domestic articles, clothing for the ever changing mountain climate, and the "skin" of a yurt- formed the most important part of a nomad's routine life. Felt is made of pressed sheep, goat or camel wool, although only a very rich person could ever afford camel wool felt. Kyrgyz felts were always valued due to the high quality of the time-tested tradition of felt manufacturing.
Once the felt rolls arc compressed they are spread out and designed with ancient techniques, such as the sewing together of cutout patterns (mosaic), the in-filling of colored patterns (applique), and fancy thread stitching.
Kyrgyz felt products are richly decorated with designs; their patterns reflecting the environment, plants and animals, and cosmological and religious concept ions. The names of the patterns themselves reveal their connections to the natural realm. A hornlike design is named kochkor muyiiz(ram' shorn), a trident-karga tyrmak( raven claws), a fork-strick is acha bakan ( a pole used to remove the felt covering, koshma, from the smoke -hole of the yurt); and an almond-shaped pattern is called a badam (almond).
To produce felt the wool is washed, dried and then whipped by of long willow sticks on an outspread hide. The beaten wool is then laid out in flattened layers on a mat woven of chiy reeds. The wool is sprinkled with hot water and folded into a roll along with the reed mat; the roll is then tied round with ropes (arkans} and dragged along by hand, by foot, or behind a horse for about an hour, while two or three persons repeatedly step on the roll to compress the wool. The roll is then unfolded, re-sprinkled with hot water, folded and dragged again. The process is repeated several times until the fell attains the desired thickness and the wool fibers are tightly compacted to become waterproof.

In some places of Kyrgyzstan, mainly in the south, after an hour of preparatory dragging by foot, the thick felt is loosed from the mat and continues to be pressed by hand. Often the roll is compressed with the help of two ropes: one of them unwinds while the other winds up the roll of chiy. Sometimes a donkey or horse is used in this process, while the Kyrgyz people of the Chinese Xinjiang Kyzyl-Suu region use a yak.

Alakiiz (variegated felt)

A pattern of colored stripes is transferred onto the wool by spreading dyed strips out on the mat before the roll is folded. The design is imprinted into the felt to form blurry-edged "lye-dyed" images, giving the carpet a wild and colorful look.

The method of manufacturing these large ornamental carpets is conventionally called "mosaic". The pattern is transferred onto two layers of felt of contrasting, vivid colors and then the outline is cut out. The felt is divided into layers and afterwards is sewn together so that some pieces form the pattern and others the background or field. A twisted woolen double braid is sewed between the contrasting pieces. The braid differs in color from both the pattern and the field and makes the design expressive by providing a three-dimensional relief. The carpet composition consists of the central field and the outer skirting with a color range that varies across the different regions of Kyrgyzstan.
Usually Kyrgyz carpets have two dominate colors: red and blue, brown and blue, brown and orange, red and yellow, or brown and white. Usually color combinations of the skirting do not complement the colors and tints of the central field, but rather contrast and sometimes even clash according to western tastes. Carpets and floor coverings made according to the mosaic technique of pattern and field form a "psychedelic" composition where the field and the pattern vibrate with the intensity of the contrasting colors. At other times the colors vary only in hue and one can hardly differentiate the pattern from the background.

Kyrgyz Patterned Weaving

From ancient times the Kyrgyz, people have preserved the secrets of processing wool (taar) for outer garments and everyday life items. Thick, coarse yarn was used to make household sacks (kap), saddlebags (kurjun) and floor carpets.
More delicate yarns were manufactured for table-cloths (dastarkhan), usually striped or plaid. Strips of embroidered undyed wool cloth (eshik tysh) veiled the entrance to the ynrt. Hand-colored pieces were used to manufacture outer garments.
Kadjary cloth strips are used in the same way as terme cloth: the narrow ones fasten the wooden parts of a yurt's framework to the overlayed pieces of felt, whereas the wide ones are used to decorate the yurt (tegiritch). Strips are also used to sew various articles such as carpets (shaltcha), saddle-bags (kurdjun), bags for smaller articles (bashtyk), horse-cloth (at djabuu) and other everyday articles.
Kyrgyz crafts women produce three kinds of patterned wool cloth: terme, kadjary and besh keshte that differ in technique, ornament and color range. Kyrgyz people call patterned cloth strips, boo. The width of a strip (from 4 up to 70 cm) is determined by its practical application. The narrowest strips (tizgitch boo) fasten dome poles and the edges of the lattice walls of the yurt (kerege). Wider strips (djel boo) weave through the sustaining poles of the yurt itself. Tuurduck boo and eshik boo fasten felt blankets (koshmas) that cover the movable dwelling. Wide strips (kerege tanguu) decorate the yurt from the outside. Strips are also sewn together to make rugs (shaltcha).
For clothing, the northern Kyrgyz generally used sheep and camel wool, while in southern Kyrgyzstan cotton and silk were also used.
Washed and carded wool was stretched into tight twisted plaits and spun into a yarn ball with a spindle (iyik). After dyeing, the yarn was woven on a wooden frame loom (ermek). The main parts of the loom include a sword-shaped wooden shuttle (kylych) used to pull the weft and beat each row up against the previously woven row: a frame harness (kuzuk): a plank (takta) acting as a second harness, and a "dilator" preventing the warp threads from getting entangled. Weaving is usually carried out on warm days, placing the loom outside the yurt in the open air.
Work at such a loom is very laborious. Usually two women work to weave the weft yarn through the warp threads.

A weaver calculates the width of patterned strips, and the number and colors of the warp threads, according to a planned design. In order to obtain patterned cloth that can serve to decorate the dwelling, women work for hours, eventually stopping at the end of the day without a break.

Kyrgyz Terme

This kind of kyrgyz design weaving is the most laborious. Terme means "assembled" or "prefabricated." reflecting the main technique used in the cloth manufacturing. Thicker and coarser yarns than those used for kadjara or besh keshte are taken for the warp. Warp threads, forming the pattern, are gathered together by twos on a stick (tergitch). While the cloth strip is woven the ornamental threads are kept aside until they enter the process to form the design. Usually a one-sided patterned cloth is manufactured, although double-faced strips (eki djiuzduu) are used to form bands (djel boo) that decorate the yurt and hang down from the domed ceiling.
The terme pattern is formed by the combination of two colors: red and blue, orange and brown, red and brown, blue and orange, etc. Terme composition always comprises one or two borders. The ornamental elements used to decorate the cloth are: tai taman (track of a foal), tailak taman (track of a colt), djolbors tynnak (tiger's claws), kara kash (black eyebrows), koshkor muiuz (sheep's horn), chychkan izi (track of a mouse), etc.

This method differs from ferine cloth in that kadjary used thinner yarn. The cloth decoration necessarily includes either wide, single-colored strips interlaced with narrow ornamented ones, or wide patterned strips divided by narrow, single-colored ones.

The ornament is formed by the alternation of one or several patterns, the edges laced with two or three narrow strips of some other color. The main colors are red, blue, orange, white and brown. The field is usually red and bears patterns of blue or white colors. Sometimes the field is brown and bears ornamental designs of red or blue colors.
Large patterns are used: kochkor muiuz (sheep's horn), kyial (fantasy), it kuiruk (dog's tail), badam (almond), as well as elongated geometrical figures -diamond, square, triangle, rectangle, etc. Such patterns as tarak (comb) and tumartcha (amulet) are widely used.

Kyrgyz Besh-keshte

This third kind of design weaving refers to a specific style of embroidery in a satin-stitch on a white or yellow-brown background. The Kyrgyz craftswomen explain the name of the cloth (five embroideries) to refer to the five necessary patterns (terk, tegerek, kochkorok or kaikalak, it taman, and chuurtma), or for the five primary colors used (red and blue are basic, while yellow, green and brown are complementary).
The composition of the cloth pattern is intricate, comprising either a continuous and uninterrupted pattern, or groups of smaller and larger patterns divided by transversal patterned stripes. The field is formed of undyed light woolen or cotton threads.
This cloth is mainly used in the Osh and Talas provinces to sew sacks for storing articles (chavadan), saddle-bags (kurdjun) suspended bags (bashtyk), rugs (djuk djabuu), yurt decoration strips (boa, tegiritch, kerege tangu) and floor carpets (shalcha). Floor carpets, sewn of alternate strips of besh keshte and kadjary, and sometimes terme, are highly valued.

Kyrgyz Patterned Weaving

From ancient times the Kyrgyz, people have preserved the secrets of processing wool (taar) for outer garments and everyday life items. Thick, coarse yarn was used to make household sacks (kap), saddlebags (kurjun) and floor carpets.
More delicate yarns were manufactured for table-cloths (dastarkhan), usually striped or plaid. Strips of embroidered undyed wool cloth (eshik tysh) veiled the entrance to the ynrt. Hand-colored pieces were used to manufacture outer garments.
Kadjary cloth strips are used in the same way as terme cloth: the narrow ones fasten the wooden parts of a yurt's framework to the overlayed pieces of felt, whereas the wide ones are used to decorate the yurt (tegiritch). Strips are also used to sew various articles such as carpets (shaltcha), saddle-bags (kurdjun), bags for smaller articles (bashtyk), horse-cloth (at djabuu) and other everyday articles.
Kyrgyz crafts women produce three kinds of patterned wool cloth: terme, kadjary and besh keshte that differ in technique, ornament and color range. Kyrgyz people call patterned cloth strips, boo. The width of a strip (from 4 up to 70 cm) is determined by its practical application. The narrowest strips (tizgitch boo) fasten dome poles and the edges of the lattice walls of the yurt (kerege). Wider strips (djel boo) weave through the sustaining poles of the yurt itself. Tuurduck boo and eshik boo fasten felt blankets (koshmas) that cover the movable dwelling. Wide strips (kerege tanguu) decorate the yurt from the outside. Strips are also sewn together to make rugs (shaltcha).
For clothing, the northern Kyrgyz generally used sheep and camel wool, while in southern Kyrgyzstan cotton and silk were also used.
Washed and carded wool was stretched into tight twisted plaits and spun into a yarn ball with a spindle (iyik). After dyeing, the yarn was woven on a wooden frame loom (ermek). The main parts of the loom include a sword-shaped wooden shuttle (kylych) used to pull the weft and beat each row up against the previously woven row: a frame harness (kuzuk): a plank (takta) acting as a second harness, and a "dilator" preventing the warp threads from getting entangled. Weaving is usually carried out on warm days, placing the loom outside the yurt in the open air.
Work at such a loom is very laborious. Usually two women work to weave the weft yarn through the warp threads.

A weaver calculates the width of patterned strips, and the number and colors of the warp threads, according to a planned design. In order to obtain patterned cloth that can serve to decorate the dwelling, women work for hours, eventually stopping at the end of the day without a break.

Mats woven out of the stalks of this prairie plant arc known by all peoples of Central Asia. Kyrgyz people use them primarily to line the latticed framework (called kerege) that forms the circular walls of the yurt. A long patterned mat (chymyrgan or kanat chiy), with dominating scarlet and blue colors, fences and separates the wooden parts of the yurt from the felt covering (koshma - tuurduk). Sometimes the mat is 8 meters long while the height is 150-160 centimeters. Depending on the diameter, several mats are used to encircle the yurt.

The patterns are mainly geometrical: diamonds, squares, octagons, triangles, zigzags, and crosses, to name the simple ones. Patterns are widely used - they are it kuiruk (dog's tail), kochkor muiuz (sheep's horn), karga tyrmak (raven claws), karkyra (flight of cranes), djagalmat (bird). Many patterns arc the symbols of daily utensils and articles: tabak oyu (a round dish), kazan kulak (a cauldron handle), ooz komuz til (a mouth harp's tongue), kerege kez (an eye hole in the wall of a yurt), ala monchok (variegated beads) omurtka (spinal bone), etc.
Patterned mats produced by-Kazakh masters are also similar to Kyrgyz ones. There is a saying that Kazakh and Kyrgyz arc kin with the difference that the Kazakhs are nomads who traverse the steppes horizontally, while the Kyrgyz are nomads who move vertically from valley to mountaintop. Their traditions and language (Qipchaq Turkic) are so close that Russian settlers in the region originally referred to the Kazakhs as Kyrgyz and the Kyrgyz were called Kara-Kyrgyz (Black Kyrgyz).
A special loom is used to weave chiy mats. It consists of two vertical poles with forks at the ends, where a cross pole is placed. Woolen yarn is thrown over the cross pole while the ends are coiled over stone weights. In the course of manufacturing a plain mat (ak chiy) reed stalks are placed in an alternating series of heads and tails laid out in opposite directions. Threads from both sides are thrown over to the opposite sides to secure the stalks. Some stalks are twined round with a thread to make the mat more durable. Every stalk in a patterned mat is threaded round with wool of different colors in order to create a certain pattern.
The chiy reed is also used in manufacturing the thick felt and as a "ground cloth," or underlayer for felt carpets, insulating the yurt from the damp ground. Patterned mats (ashkhana chiy) serve as a folding screen inside the dwelling, separating the housewife's comer. They are also used to form the backing of the felt curtain at the entrance to the yurt.

Patterned mat weaving (ala chiy, chymyrgan chiy) is a very laborious art which is why relatives and neighbors are needed to assist a craftswoman (chyrmaktchy).

Kyrgyz Embroidery

Embroidery art in Kyrgyzstan has ancient roots. Kyrgyz embroidery (sayma) is stitched with woolen and cotton threads onto felt (koshma), leather, velvet, and woolen or cotton fabrics. Embroiderers (saimatchy) use a square wooden frame (kergich) as an embroidery hoop to stretch out the cloth.
In the decoration of many embroideries of the XIX and beginning of the XX centuries a dark-red color on a black field prevails with insertions of white, yellow, and sometimes blue and green colors. Many ornamental motifs in the embroidery of fabrics, though having much in common with other kinds of Kyrgyz decorative-applied arts, actually look different from those on felt or in carvings. Later samples reveal a strong influence of Russian and Ukrainian motifs.
Embroidery decorates a lot of articles used in everyday life and for some solemn occasions. These are mostly articles that decorate the yurt: djabyk bash (decoration strips), eshik tysh (the outer side of the entrance curtain), tekche (suspended shelf-cloth), ayak koitchu (suspended shelf), ayak kap (clothes bag), kuzgu kap (mirror strap), kaitchy kap (scissors strap), tabak kap (dish strap), kashyk kap (spoon strap), chainek kap (kettle strap), ashkhana bashy (the top side of the ashkhana chiy); keptchuk (horse tackle, a saddle blanket); beldemchi (a lady's skirt), chach kep or kep takyia (a lady's cap); duriya (a kerchief); men's trousers, etc.

Every yurt was proud of its embroidered wall carpets - tuskiiz - whose decor brightly reveals the originality of Kyrgyz embroidery - sayma. Generally, embroidery ornamentation is more varied than other kinds of Kyrgyz applied arts, and often contains realistic figures of animals.

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