The Kazakh people are rich in traditions. From birth through old age and death, every step of lives has historically been marked with celebration. Even funeral ceremonies have their own special symbolism. Kazakhs have preserved many traditions and customs that pervade life’s important moments, like birth, marriage, raising children, hospitality and celebration arrangements which have been passed to generations throughout the centuries. Many are no longer relevant in modern Kazakhstan, however, due to changes in ways of life and the influence of historic factors.
Permanent crossings across the boundless steppes, life in small groups, and religious beliefs have created a unique combination of rites and customs that now comprise Kazakh traditions. Some traditions helped the Kazakh people develop practical survival skills, some had spiritual significance, some helped develop social relationships, and others became the basis of the Kazakh people’s culture and identity.
Today, the traditions of Kazakhstan are part of the national doctrine, which is based on four principles: trust, transparency, tolerance, and tradition. The country’s leadership supports the preservation and revival of national traditions, and various organizations work to disseminate information about the history and traditions of the Kazakh people.
Traditional phenomenon of portable Kazakh houses had been evolving towards perfection for centuries. Researchers have recognized it as “the most perfect type of portable shelters and impressed the travelers and merchants, ambassadors of foreign states and medieval historians. Many of them, left fanciful descriptions of felt tents, which amazed them with its comfort and splendid decorations.
A traditional yurt is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. The Kazakh yurt is easy to assemble and disassemble. It retains heat well and protects from the wind, as well as from the excessive heat in the summer. When it is hot, felt flooring is removed to make the inside cooler. For the winter, the yurts were insulated with double covers, surrounded with snow, hedged with sheaves of reeds, and dug round with soil.
Yurts have two main types: cone-shaped (for Mongols, Buryats, etc.), hemispherical (for Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, etc.).
Yurt is a round-shaped, sophisticated construction with a dome. It consists of three main parts and many other smaller parts.
Three main parts include Shanyrak — top of the Yurt, Kerege — walls carcass and Uwyk — a carcass part from Kerege to the Shanyrak. The carcass is usually covered with pieces of felt from outside and decorated with carpets from inside. It should be noted, that Shanyrak is extremely valuable for Kazakhs and is considered to be a sacred symbol of family wellbeing and piece.
Yurt usually does not have rooms in it, and it was a common practice to have a separate yurt as a bedroom, separate one as a kitchen, guesthouse, etc as long as people could afford that. A nomad made the Yurt easy for assembling and disassembling, and with the help of one camel and two horses the entire construction of the yurt and decorations of the interior are easily transported.
The bearers of yurt-making knowledge are craftspeople, both men and women, who produce yurts and their interior decorations. Yurts are made from natural and renewable raw materials. Men and their apprentices make the wooden frames by hand, along with wooden, leather, bone and metal details. Women make the interior decorations and exterior coverings, ornamented with traditional zoomorphic, vegetative or geometric patterns. As a rule, they work in community-based groups supervised by experienced women artisans, and employ weaving, spinning, braiding, felting, embroidering, sewing and other traditional handicraft techniques. Yurt creation involves the whole community of craftspeople, and fosters common human values, constructive cooperation and creative imagination. Traditionally, knowledge and skills are transmitted within families or from teachers to apprentices. All festivities, ceremonies, births, weddings and funeral rituals are held in a yurt. As such, the yurt remains a symbol of family and traditional hospitality, fundamental to the identity of the Kazakh people.
The origins and history of the yurt’s structural development are to this day subject of lively debate in the academic literature. The prototype of the contemporary Kazakh yurt is a yurt of the ancient Turkic type, invented in the middle of 1000 B.C.E. and which itself owes its structural features to the semi-spherical Hun hut, an even earlier type of portable housing. It is in any case clear that the yurt is a product of a long historical development and gradual perfection of more primitive types of dwelling. The yurt’s unique architecture and complex semantics reflect the level of cultural development and ideological sophistication of Turkic peoples.
Yurts have been a distinctive feature of life in Central Asia for at least three thousand years. The first written description of a yurt used as a dwelling was recorded by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. He described yurt-like tents as the dwelling place of the Scythians, a horse riding-nomadic nation who lived in the northern Black Sea and Central Asian region from around 600 BC to AD 300.
Kazakh hospitality traditions have much in common with those of other Oriental cultures, all of which have a very respectful attitude towards guests. In the past, Kazakhs faced very severe reprimands for not properly hosting a guest (even an uninvited one). The hosting of guests began with a greeting, after which the guests were seated in the most honourable place in the yurt (usually in the centre, towards the back). After that, the guests were treated with kumis, various snacks, and meat. In some cases, they were presented with gifts, and the guests of honour were often given shapan (robes).
The hospitality traditions of the Kazakh people include many different customs that apply depending on the situation and the status of the guest:
At mingizip shapan zhabu – the custom of the highest honour, which involves giving a horse and a robe to the guest.
Bata – a blessing when a guest leaves, especially if the guest is going on a long journey. Usually this tradition is expressed in a beautiful poetic form.
Belkoterer – a treat for the most elderly guests, symbolising care and respect for elders.
Beszhaksy – which translates as “five gifts” and is like the «at mingizip shapan zhabu». The five gifts are a camel, a horse, a carpet, a sabre, and a fur coat.
Korimdik – a gift that gives a guest the right to see a young daughter-in-law or a newborn baby.
Konakasy – treats that must be served to guests, even casual or uninvited ones. If the homeowner does not present konakasy, then the guest could complain to the village elder, and the homeowner must pay a fine in the form of a horse or other livestock.
Konakkade – a gift from the guest to the owner of the house, which is usually in the form of a song or a verse.
Shashu – a custom to shower guests with sweets and money, which is carried out at weddings, during matchmaking, and at other similar events.
Yerulik – an ancient custom of hospitality in which material assistance is provided to the newcomers to a tribe or village when they meet the existing residents, to help them adapt to local life.
Kazakh culture includes many unique family traditions such as the naming of descendants, the status of a person depending on his age, and the principles for raising children. Family relationships were built on a special hierarchy, and a lot of attention was paid to kinship ties and affiliation to a particular clan. The rituals associated with bringing up children combine aspects of both the Muslim and nomadic cultures.
The principle of “zhety ata” (which means “seven grandfathers/ancestors”) was the foundation of kinship ties. The basic premise was that the sons of sons became the grandsons of the family, and they were called “nemere”. The daughter’s children were called “zhien” (which translates as “nephew”) and were no longer considered to belong to their mother’s clan. Therefore, only men continued the clan. Thus, the Kazakhs carried on their ancestry to the seventh generation. This was done so that people remembered and honoured their ancestors and, from a practical standpoint, to help avoid marriages between close relatives.
The seven generations were as follows:
1) Bala – child/son
2) Nemere – grandson
3) Shobere – great-grandson
4) Shopshek – which means “tiny son”
5) Nemene – which means “neither a relative nor a stranger”
6) Tuazhat – which means “born to be a stranger”
7) Zhurezhat – considered a very distant relative and allowed under Kazakh customary law to marry others within the same generation of the family.
Kazakh family traditions also included various principles of raising sons: the eldest son was sent to his grandmother and grandfather, the middle son was trained to be a warrior, and the youngest son stayed at home where he was expected to help his parents. From birth, children experienced many rituals, some of which were intended to help them become independent and accomplished people. These included:
Besike salu – one of the first rites in the life of a child, the ceremonial laying in the cradle.
Kyrkynan shygaru – the rite of bathing a child when he or she turns 40 days old.
Tusau kesu – the symbolic ritual of cutting a rope that binds the legs, to enable the child to walk.
Atka otyrgyzu – the first mounting of a horse, intended to help prepare a boy for the nomadic life.
Circumcision – a classic Muslim rite that Kazakhs perform when a boy is 5-7 years old.
All these and other rituals were carried out so that the boys would become good warriors and providers and the girls would learn to take care of their families and their homes.
The Kazakh people also have a tradition of dividing their lives into 12-year cycles called “mushel”. The first mushel, which starts after the first year of life, covers a person’s childhood and ends at 13 years of age. The second mushel represents growing up and, during this period, boys and girls are expected to start a family, find their vocation, and learn to run a household. After 25 years of age, in the third mushel, adult life begins, when people already have life experience and know how to resolve problems on their own. The fourth mushel starts at 37 years of age and represents the beginning of wisdom. From this age men, once they have grandchildren, can be considered aksakals (respected and influential elders). The fifth mushel doesn’t have any particular meaning, but is an indicator of achievements in life and of a person’s transition to old age. The sixth mushel begins at 61 and represents old age. Traditionally, people’s attitude towards, and treatment of, a person depends on his or her mushel, social status, and marital status – although this tradition is less prominent in modern society.
Household and Sports Traditions
Like any country, the Kazakhs had their own everyday household, sporting, and gaming traditions. Some of these have been forgotten, while others are being revived. Some traditions relate to household life, while sports traditions are mainly found at weddings and as part of national and religious holiday celebrations.
Some of the most important household, sporting, and gaming traditions are:
Tize bugu – the tradition of kneeling when entering a house, to show respect to the owner. Failure to do this is likely to be perceived as an insult.
Tokimkagar – a ritual held before someone leaves for a faraway place or for a long time. During the ceremony, a sheep is sacrificed, a festive table is laid, and the participants make various wishes for those going on the journey.
Zhylu – a custom to provide material and moral support to victims of fire, flood, and so on. It involves not only relatives and friends, but also neighbours and fellow villagers. Support may help meet the victims’ immediate needs such as clothing and food or may be in the form of more substantial assistance such as livestock, housing, or money.
Arasha – a special word that people shout in order to stop a fight or a scene. Ignoring this command may result in a fine or punishment.
Tyiym – a general concept for various prohibitions. For example: according to Kazakh tradition, people mustn’t be given a knife or a dog (as this may start a feud), and they mustn’t whistle in the house (because it will drive away the owners’ money and good luck).
Asyk – a children’s street game that uses stones or dried knucklebones of sheep (asyks), which is now a national sport in Kazakhstan with regular tournaments.
Kures – Kazakh wrestling, which has parallels in other Central Asian countries.
Togyz Kumalak – a board game based on the number 9. This is a difficult logic game that’s also called “shepherds’ algebra” as it’s one of the favorite leisure activities of nomads.
Horse games – various competitive and entertaining games involving horses were played in the distant past. These are one of the strongest examples of the ancient traditions of Kazakh nomads.