Kyrgyz People

History and culture of Kyrgyz people

Culture Name


Alternative Names

Kirgiz, Kirghiz, Kara-Kyrgyz, Kirghizstan


Identification. The name qirqiz or kyrgyz dates back to the eighth century. The Kyrgyz people originated in the Siberian region of the Yenisey Valley and traveled to the area of modern-day Kyrgyzstan in response to pressure from the Mongols. The Kyrgyz people believe that their name means kirkkyz, (forty girls), and that they are descended from forty tribes. Today the majority of Kyrgyz people live in the Kyrgyz Republic, also known as Kyrgyzstan, but there are large populations living in China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan was formerly the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic, or Kirghizia.

Location and Geography. Kyrgyzstan has an area of 76,500 square miles (198,500 square kilometers). Its neighbors are China to the southeast, Kazakstan to the north, Tajikistan to the southwest, and Uzbekistan to the northwest. In addition, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan control two enclaves each within Kyrgyzstan's borders in the southern part of the country. Ninety-four percent of the land is mountainous, and only 20 percent of the land is arable. The valleys are densely populated along the few paved roads.

The capital, Bishkek, is in the north, near the Kazak border, where it was known as Frunze during the Soviet era. The country is divided into north and south by mountain ranges. Northern culture has been influenced by Russians, while southern culture has absorbed Uzbek traditions. The Naryn region in central Kyrgyzstan is relatively isolated, and it is here that the Kyrgyz culture is most "pure."

Demography. In 1998 the population of Kyrgyzstan was estimated at more than 4.5 million. Approximately 52.4 percent of the inhabitants are ethnically Kyrgyz. Ethnic Russians (22.5 percent) and Uzbeks (12.6 percent) make up the largest minorities. Many smaller groups, including Ukrainians, Germans, Dungans, Kazaks, Tajiks, Uighours, Koreans, and Chinese, make up the remainder. Many Kyrgyzstan-born Germans and Russians emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union, but due to government efforts, Russian emigration has slowed. The Kyrgyz have a high birth rate, and have become the ethnic majority since independence.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kyrgyz is a Turkic language, most closely related to Kazak. Kyrgyz is mutually intelligible with both Kazak and Uzbek. Northern pronunciation varies from southern and has more Russian loanwords. Many Uzbek loanwords are used in the south.

Kyrgyz was originally written in Arabic script, but Soviet policy changed its alphabet first to Latin and then to a modified Cyrillic. After independence the Kyrgyz government discussed returning to the Latin alphabet, but this transition has not taken place. In 2000 Russian was adopted as an official national language. It is still commonly used as the language of business, and many ethnic Russians cannot speak Kyrgyz. All children study Kyrgyz, Russian, and English in school.

Symbolism. Public art abounds in the form of statues, murals, roadside plaques, and building decorations. One of the most popular themes is Manas, the legendary father and hero of the Kyrgyz people. His deeds are commemorated in the national epic Manas, which is chanted by manaschis. Manas is the symbol of Kyrgyz bravery and is often shown astride a rearing horse, with sword in hand, fighting the enemies of the Kyrgyz people.

While they call Manas their "father," the Kyrgyz do not see themselves as a warlike people. Instead, they are a family of artists. This identity is embodied in the yurt, or boz-ui, the traditional Kyrgyz dwelling. The boz-ui is an important cultural symbol, as both the center of the Kyrgyz family and the showplace of Kyrgyz art. The Kyrgyz flag reflects this. On a field of red a yellow sun is centered with forty rays coming from it. In the center of the sun is a tunduk, the top of the boz-ui. It was under this that the family gathered.

Inside the boz-ui are hung all the forms of Kyrgyz craftsmanship, including rugs called shirdaks. They are made of brightly colored appliquéd wool felt, with stylized nature motifs that have been passed down for generations. These motifs are also often used for borders and decorations on public art.

Other important symbols are taken from the Kyrgyz landscape. The unofficial national anthem is "Ala-Too," which names the various features of Kyrgyzstan's landscape. The mountains are described as a body wearing snow and sky, and Lake Issyk-Kul is the eye. Issyk-Kul, in the northeastern part of the country, is called the "Pearl of Kyrgyzstan," and its beauty is a source of great pride. Both the mountains and the lake are on the Kyrgyz seal behind a large golden eagle, flanked by shirdak designs, cotton, and wheat.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The Kyrgyz people were originally settled in Siberia. Pressure from the Mongols forced their group to splinter into nomadic tribes and move to the region now known as Kyrgyzstan. Here they were subdued by the Kokandian Khanate, but there were many rebellions. The Kyrgyz allied with Russia as it expanded to the south. Russia then conquered the Kokands and ruled the Kyrgyz as a part of Russian Turkestan. The Kyrgyz rebelled in 1916 against the Russian peasant influx and the loss of grazing land. After the Communists took control, groups such as the Basmachi movement continued to fight for independence. Stalin's collective farms caused protests in the form of killing herds and fleeing to China.

National Identity. Until the advent of Communist control, the Kyrgyz were still a nomadic people made up of individual tribes. The idea of a Kyrgyz nation was fostered under Soviet rule. Kyrgyz traditions, national dress, and art were defined as distinct from their neighbors. Today people will name the Kyrgyz national hat ( kalpak ), instrument ( komuz ), sport ( uulak ), house (boz-ui), drink ( kumyss ), and foods. Stalin then intentionally drew borders inconsistent with the traditional locations of ethnic populations, leaving large numbers of ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmen within Kirghizia's borders. This was supposed to maintain a level of interethnic tension in the area, so that these closely related groups would not rise up against him.

Kyrgyzstan, like many of its neighbors, voted against independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. With no history as an independent nation, they have struggled with the loss of centralized government control. The people of Kyrgyzstan are, however, meeting these challenges, and Kyrgyzstan is held up as the most democratic and market-oriented country in Central Asia.

Ethnic Relations. Kyrgyzstan is an ethnically diverse country, which leads to tensions between and among different groups. Unlike in neighboring Uzbekistan, the Russian people are not vilified or considered morally corrupt. However, Russians claim there is discrimination by Kyrgyz people. In addition, smaller groups, such as the Uighours and the Dungans, complain of widespread discrimination.

The strongest ethnic tensions are felt between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz, particularly in the southern region of Osh. In 1990 riots and fighting broke out between these groups over competition for housing and job segregation. It is estimated that two hundred to a thousand people were killed in the fighting. Intergovernmental tension is also high, fueling ethnic conflicts.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

The Kyrgyz people did not have an established architecture of their own before they came under Russian rule. Governmental and urban architecture is in the Soviet style. Cities were designed with many parks and plazas filled with benches that focused on monuments to Soviet achievements. Much of the housing in urban centers consists of large apartment blocks, where families live in two- or three-room apartments. Bazaars come in all sizes, and are divided so that products of the same type are sold side by side.

Most houses are of one story, with open-ended peaked roofs that provide storage space. Outer decorations vary by ethnicity. Families live in fenced-in compounds that may contain the main house, an outdoor kitchen, barns for animals, sheds for storage, gardens, and fruit trees. The traditional dwelling was the portable boz-ui, made of wool felt on a collapsible wooden frame, which people still live in when they take their animals to the summer pastures.

Furniture is a Western adaptation, and its use varies between the north and the south. In the north most families will have a kitchen table with chairs. They also may have a low table for meals, with either stools or sitting mats called tushuks. They sleep on beds or convertible couches, and usually there is a couch in the room where the television is kept. Many families also have an outdoor cooking area and eating place for summer use. Sleeping, cooking, and formal areas are kept separate.

In the south there is minimal furniture. A table, sofa, and chairs are kept in a formal room, along with a cabinet full of the family's glassware and books. Large social gatherings usually take place in a special room with two alcoves built into a wall. Decorative chests are placed in the alcoves, and the family's embroidered sleeping mats and pillows are displayed on top.

Southern families may have a low table, or they may spread a dastarkon (tablecloth) directly on the floor and surround it with tushuks to sit on. The dastarkon is treated as a table and is never stepped on. People sleep on the floor on layers of tushuks, which are neatly folded and placed in a corner of the room during the day. In summer, platforms are set out in the garden for eating and sleeping on, often with railings to lean against. Families may sleep in the kitchen in the winter if there is a woodstove.

Throughout the country, floors and walls are lined with carpets and fabric hangings. Furniture usually is placed along the walls, leaving most of a room empty.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Common dishes include: lagman (hand-rolled noodles in a broth of meat and vegetables), manti (dumplings filled with either onion and meat, or pumpkin), plov (rice fried with carrots and topped with meat), pelmeni, (a Russian dish of small meat-filled dumplings in broth), ashlam-foo (cold noodles topped with vegetables in spicy broth and pieces of congealed corn starch), samsa (meat or pumpkin-filled pastries), and fried meat and potatoes. Most meat is mutton, although beef, chicken, turkey, and goat are also eaten. Kyrgyz people don't eat pork, but Russians do. Fish is either canned or dried. Lagman and manti are the everyday foods of the north, while plov is the staple of the south.

Most people eat four or five times a day, but only one large meal. The rest are small, mostly consisting of tea, bread, snacks, and condiments. These include vareynya (jam), kaimak, (similar to clotted cream), sara-mai (a form of butter), and various salads.

Kyrgyz cafes, chaikanas, and ashkanas usually will have six or seven dishes, as well as two or three side dishes, on the menu. Many places also will serve shashlik, which is marinated mutton grilled on a skewer. It is common for only a few of the menu items to be available on any given day. Drink options are limited to tea, soda, and mineral water. Patrons are expected to order as a group and all eat the same entree. Ristoran (restaurants) usually have more varied European and Russian dishes.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. During holidays and personal celebrations, a sheep is killed and cooked. In the north, the main course is beshbarmak, which is accompanied by elaborate preparations. The sheep is slaughtered by slitting its throat, and the blood is drained onto the ground. Then the carcass is skinned and butchered, and the organ meats are prepared. The intestines are cleaned and braided. The first course is shorpo, a soup created from boiling the meat and organs, usually with vegetables and pieces of chopped fat. The roasted sheep's head is then served and distributed among the honored guests. The fat, liver, other organs, and the majority of the meat are divided equally and served to the guests, with the expectation that they will take this home. Guests receive a cut of meat that corresponds to their status. The remaining meat goes into the besh-barmak. It is shredded into small pieces and mixed with noodles and a little broth, which is served in a communal bowl and eaten with the hands.

In the south, the main course is most often plov. The sheep is killed and prepared in the same manner as in the north. Shorpo also is served, and the meat, fat, and organ meats are shared and taken home in the same way; however, it is rare for the head to be eaten. Plov is served in large platters shared by two or three people, and often is eaten with the hands.

For a funeral and sometimes a marriage, a horse will be killed instead of a sheep. The intestines are then used to make sausage.

In the summer a traditional drink called kumyss is available. This is made of fermented mare's milk, and is drunk at celebrations when it is in season. Multiple shots of vodka are mandatory at all celebrations.

Basic Economy. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan went into a deep recession. The economy seemed to be improving in 1997, with low inflation and high growth percentages predicted for 1998, but the troubled Russian economy caused renewed economic difficulties.

Kyrgyzstan is considered self-sufficient in both food and energy. Despite this, electricity is either unpredictable or rationed in the winter. About 35 percent of the people are involved in agriculture, and nearly every village family has a garden where they grow food to support their needs. Most people have a small amount of livestock, such as sheep, cows, and chickens. Excess produce and dairy products are commonly sold to neighbors or at the bazaar.

Unemployment is high, but many people make money by selling goods at the bazaar or by using their private cars as taxis. Kyrgyzstan is dependent on other countries, such as Turkey and China, for consumer goods and chemical products. Since independence, most manufacturing plants and factories have closed or are working at reduced capacities.

Average salaries are higher in the north. State employees may not be paid for months at a time. Pensioners receive minimal monthly payments as well as flour and cooking oil. In 1998, a total of 23 percent of households could not meet their basic food needs.

Land Tenure and Property. Early attempts at privatization led to rioting in Osh in 1990, so this process was put on hold. Farmland cannot be owned by individuals, but it is possible to hold land rights for up to ninety-nine years.

Commercial Activities. Kyrgyzstan is a country with few natural resources. The economy is based on agriculture, mining, and animal products. Most exports are in the form of raw materials. Kyrgyzstan has deposits of gold, coal, bismuth, mercury, antimony, tungsten, and copper. The most important export is hydroelectric power.

Major Industries. Craftsmanship accounts for nearly half of Kyrgyzstan's yearly production. Artisans make saddles, carpets such as shirdaks and alakiis, embroidered hangings called tushkiis, and are skilled at goldsmithing. Other industries include metallurgy as well as those for mechanical and electrical materials, motors and electronic components, and some textiles. The processing of animal products such as in tanning, shoe manufacturing, wool production, and animal slaughter also are important.

The Kumtor gold mine has been rated as the seventh biggest in terms of world importance. Agriculturally, wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, and tobacco are the most important crops. Cotton and silkworms for silk production also are grown.

Trade. Kyrgyzstan trades with one hundred other countries. Within the CIS, its largest-volume trading partners are Russia, Kazakstan, and Uzbekistan; outside the CIS, they are Germany, China, Turkey, the United States, and Korea. In 1998, Kyrgyzstan's exports came to $513.7 million (U.S.), and its imports equaled $841.5 million (U.S.). Kyrgyzastan's major exports are precious metals, power resources, tobacco, and cotton, while major imports include fuel and energy, commodity goods, equipment, and machinery.

Division of Labor. The law states that those under eighteen cannot work, but children often help their parents in the fields and by selling goods. At harvest time, village schools often close so that the children can work.

Jobs are scarce, and people take whatever is available. Russians tend to work in cities, where service sector jobs are available. Uzbeks typically work in the bazaar, selling goods. Many Kyrgyz grow crops and tend livestock. These divisions of labor are often a result of where people choose to live.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Because of the economic hardships endured since independence, Kyrgyzstan has a very small upper class and a large lower class. While ethnic Kyrgyz may be in either class, it is more rare to find other ethnic groups in the upper class, which consists mainly of politicians and community leaders.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Speaking Russian and dressing in a Western manner, having a two-story house, a Mercedes, or a BMW are all signs of wealth. Poor knowledge of Russian is considered a sign of lower-class status.

Political Life

Government. The Kyrgyz government is basically democratic, with three governmental branches: the president and his advisers; the Parliament, which has two houses; and the courts. Parliament is made up of the Legislative Assembly and the Assembly of People's Representatives. In February 1996 a referendum was passed that expanded the president's powers with respect to Parliament, but Parliament has shown its ability to function separately from the president.

Leadership and Political Officials. As of 1996, there were fifteen political parties active within Kyrgyzstan. The parties with the most support are the "Bei Becharalar" Party with thirty-two thousand members, the Communist Party with twenty-five thousand members, the Party of Protection of Industrial, Agricultural Employees and Low Revenue Families with fifteen thousand members, and the Democratic Party "Erkin Kyrgyzstan" with nearly thirteen thousand members. Other parties include the Social Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Women, the Democratic Party of Economic Unity, and the Agrarian Labor Party.

Political power is closely linked to wealth, both locally and on a national scale. Corruption and buying votes, as well as ballot box stuffing, are common during elections. Kyrgyzstan was the first Central Asian country to hold a presidential election after independence.

Social Problems and Control. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) is primarily responsible for the prevention and investigation of crime. Because of Kyrgyzstan's economic difficulties, funding for these activities has dropped since independence. Organized crime and drug trafficking are considered the most high-profile crimes, and this is where Kyrgyzstan's crime prevention resources are being utilized.

The national police force, or militzia, is underpaid and understaffed, so bribes and invented fines are common. Corruption and nepotism are widespread. Many people feel that the rich can do what they want and that the poor are helpless. The media have much more freedom than in other parts of Central Asia.

Military Activity. Kyrgyzstan has a small national guard and navy but no air force. Kyrgyzstan has signed accords with both Uzbekistan and Kazakstan for joint air defense. Military activity has been limited to dealing with an Islamic fundamentalist group in the southern region of Batken; the group began fighting in August 1999.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

The first program to offer social assistance was the National Program to Overcome Poverty. Its goal is to eliminate extreme poverty by developing entrepreneurship, particularly among women. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are central to the implementation of the program.

Under this program, the Kyrgyz government has set up employment promotion companies. Their programs include infrastructure development, social assistance, public education, vocational training for youth and women, and assistance for rural migrants in urban areas.

There are also numerous international organizations working with and supplying funding for projects in Kyrgyzstan.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

In 1995 there were three hundred NGOs in Kyrgyzstan. Fifty of them covered gender issues, and eighteen specifically targeted women. NGOs often are seen as vehicles for obtaining foreign aid and grants, and there have been problems with corruption. However, many small NGOs play important roles within their communities. Counterpart Consortium provides important training and assistance to developing NGOs.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Historically, women had a fair amount of equality with men in the Kyrgyz culture. Soviet policies maintained this equality, providing women with jobs outside the home and a role in politics. Today women still work outside of the home, primarily in education and agriculture. However, women hold few managerial or political positions. In addition to these jobs, women are responsible for all work inside the home. Men are dominant in business and politics.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. While Kyrgyz women are not sequestered, like those in many other Muslim societies, they tend to have less status than men. Age is the most important determinant for status, however, and an older woman will be given respect by younger men.

Within the household women are often the seat of power, making everyday decisions about running the household. It is common for them to hold positions of power in schools as well. In politics and business, however, men have greater power.

Marriage, Family and Kinship

Marriage. Arranged marriages were once common, but are no longer. While couples may choose each other, they often know each other for no more than a few months before they are married. People are expected to marry in their early twenties, after they have finished secondary school, and to have children quickly.

The bride must have a dowry, consisting of clothing, sleeping mats, pillows, and often a handknotted rug. The groom is expected to pay a bride price in the form of cash and several animals. Some of the cash may go toward furnishing the bride's dowry, and often the animals are eaten at the wedding feast.

A typical wedding lasts three days. The first day consists of the bride and groom going to the city with friends and classmates to have the marriage license signed. The bride wears a Western-style wedding dress, and the couple's car is decorated with wedding rings or a doll in bridal clothes.

On the second day the bride and groom celebrate separately with their friends and family. There is food and dancing through the night.

On the third day the bride and her family travel to the groom's family's house. The bride is expected to cry, because she is leaving her family. At the groom's house there are more celebrations and games. Gifts are exchanged between the couple's parents. At the end of the night, a bed is made from the bride's dowry. Two female relatives of the groom are chosen to make sure that the marriage is consummated and that the bride was a virgin.

If the groom is the youngest son he lives with his parents and takes care of them in their old age. The new bride is known as a kelin, and it is her responsibility to take over the household duties from her mother-in-law. If the groom is not the youngest, the couple will live with his family only until they can provide the couple with a house.

An alternate marriage tradition is that of wife-stealing. A man may kidnap any unmarried woman and make her his wife. Usually the girl spends one night alone with her future husband. The next day she is taken to meet her mother-in-law, who ties a scarf around the girl's head to indicate that she is now married. She may run away, and it is legal to sue the man who steals her, but it is shameful to do so and unlikely that another man would marry her. Often a lesser bride price is still paid after a girl is stolen, but a dowry is not provided. Girls may be stolen when they are fifteen or sixteen years old.

Polygamy is not practiced, but it is common for people to have lovers when they are married. It is more acceptable for men to do so, and they may refer to their mistresses as their second wives. More than one in five couples get divorced.

Domestic Unit. Because of the tradition of the youngest son taking care of his parents, it is common for a family to consist of grandparents, parents, and children. Individuals live with their parents until they marry. Most families have three or more children, with larger families common in rural villages. Members of the extended family also may visit and live with the immediate family for months at a time.

Inheritance. The youngest son lives with his parents until their deaths, at which time he inherits the house and the livestock. He may decide to share this livestock with his brothers, and is expected to do so if they are in need. Daughters do not inherit from their parents because they become members of their husbands' families.

Kin Groups. Tribal ties were important just after independence, but now regional ties are more important. Favoritism for those from the same tribe or region is common.

There are three main tribal branches: the ong, sol and the ichkilik. Within these branches there are many smaller tribes.

Tribes become important during marriage. Two people from the same tribe may not marry, unless they do not share a common ancestor for seven generations.


Infant Care. Infants are primarily cared for by their mothers or other female family members. For the first forty days of an infant's life, he or she cannot be taken outside the home or be seen by anyone but the immediate family. Infants are strapped into their cradles much of the time and quieted when they make noise. When a mother visits another woman the mother usually will take her infant along. A child is rarely taken from his or her mother without the child's consent, and sometimes bribes are used to make the child reach out to another family member.

Child Rearing and Education. Children are expected to be quiet. They are not brought to parties or official functions, and so are prevented from disturbing guests. Girls begin to take on household duties when they are six or seven years old. By the time she is sixteen, the eldest daughter may be responsible for running the household. Boys are considered rowdy and active and often have fewer household chores.

Education is mandatory for both boys and girls. Public schools are found in all towns and villages, and they offer schooling from first to eleventh grade.

Higher Education. Primary and secondary education are free and nearly universal within Kyrgyzstan. Higher education is highly prized but expensive, and there is little financial aid.


The most important element of etiquette is respect. Respect is given to elders and authority figures. Verbal respect is given by using the polite pronoun and endings, and by using the titles eje (older sister) and baikay or aga (older brother). People always use these polite forms, even with close friends and relatives.

Respect also is shown physically. Men and women alike will give up their seats to elders on public transportation. A person's position at a table also shows his or her status. Men and women usually sit on opposite sides of a table, with the eldest and most respected at the head of the table, farthest from the door.

Strangers do not usually acknowledge each other while passing on the street. Any close contact, however, such as sitting near each other on public transportation or making a transaction at the bazaar, will open the way to introductions. It is common to invite new acquaintances into the home.

Friends greet each other differently in the north and the south. In the south, men and women both greet friends of the same gender by shaking hands, often with the left hand over the heart. The opposite gender usually is ignored. Greetings are a series of questions with no pause and spoken over the other person's greetings. Older women and female relatives often will kiss on the cheek while shaking hands. The Arabic greeting assalom aleikum is frequently used between men.

In the north, greetings are shorter, and only men shake hands with each other. Assalom aleikum is used only by a younger man to an elder, as a form of deep respect. Good-byes in both the north and the south are brief.

There is less personal space than in the United States, and strangers brush against each other in public without apologizing. People tend to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, and physical affection is common between members of the same sex. People usually don't form lines. Pushing to the front of a group for service is normal and inoffensive.

In the more conservative south, men and women often occupy separate rooms at large celebrations. Boys and girls do not commonly befriend each other.

Bread is considered sacred by the Kyrgyz and must never be placed on the ground or left upside down. It is never thrown away, and leftovers are fed to animals.

At the end of a meal, a quick prayer may be said. This is from the Qur'an, but it honors the ancestors. The hands are held out, palms up, and then everyone at the table cover their face in unison while saying omen.


Religious Beliefs. The Kyrgyz consider themselves Sunni Muslim but do not have strong ties to Islam. They celebrate the Islamic holidays but do not follow Islamic practices daily. Many areas were not converted to Islam until the eighteenth century, and even then it was by the mystical Sufi branch, who integrated local shamanistic practices with their religion. Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians tend to be Orthodox Christians.

Religious Practitioners. In the past, the Kyrgyz people relied on shamans as healers. Some theorize that the manaschis were originally shamanistic and that the Manas epic is derived from calling on ancestor spirits for help. There are still professional shamans, called bakshe, and usually there are elders who know and practice shamanistic rituals for families and friends. The Islamic mullah is called for marriages, circumcisions, and burials.

Rituals and Holy Places. Both graves and natural springs are holy places to the Kyrgyz people. Cemeteries stand out on hilltops, and graves are marked with elaborate buildings made of mud, brick, or wrought iron. Visitors say prayers and mark the graves of holy people or martyrs with small pieces of cloth tied to the surrounding bushes. Natural springs that come from mountainsides are honored in the same fashion.

Death and the Afterlife. Burials are done in Islamic fashion, but funerals are not. Contrary to Islamic law, the body will remain on display for two or three days so that all close family members have time to arrive and say good-bye. When someone dies, a boz-ui must be erected. This is the traditional home of the nomadic Kyrgyz, a round, domed tent made of wool felt on a collapsible wooden frame. A man is laid out inside on the left, while a woman is laid on the right.

Only women are allowed inside the boz-ui to lament, while men mourn through the tent wall, from the outside. The wife and daughters of the deceased sit by the body to sing mourning songs and greet each person who comes to view the body. A wife wears black, while daughters wear deep blue. As each visitor pays respects, the mullah recites from the Qur'an.

The burial usually takes place at noon. The body is washed and wrapped in a shroud, then cloth, and then sometimes a felt rug. The body is displayed outside the boz-ui and a final prayer, the janaza, is said. Only men go to the cemetery for[fj] the burial, but the women visit the grave early the next day.

Every Thursday for the next forty days the family must kill a sheep in remembrance. At this time, those who could not attend the funeral may come to pay their respects. At the end of the forty-day period there is a large memorial feast called kirku, where a horse or a cow is killed.

On the first anniversary another memorial feast is given, called ash or jildik, which takes place over two days. The first day is for grieving, and the second is for games and horse races.

The Kyrgyz believe that the spirits of the dead can help their descendants. Ancestors are "offered" food in prayers, and people pour water on graves when they visit so the dead will not be thirsty. It is forbidden to step on a grave, and cemeteries are placed on hilltops because high places are sacred.

Medicine and Health Care

Many people still go to the hospital for most illnesses, as they did before independence, but health care is limited by lack of funds. Food and medicine are not provided by the hospital, so friends and family must bring these in daily.

Traditional beliefs blame cold for most forms of illness: Sitting on cold stones or the ground can result in grave illnesses or hurt a woman's reproductive organs; drinking cold beverages will result in a sore throat or a cold; being exposed to cold drafts is considered the cause of most minor illnesses. People treat illnesses by wrapping a blanket or a shawl around the affected body part to keep it warm. Some home remedies that derive from shamanistic beliefs are still practiced as well. Certain grasses are burned because the smoke is believed to purify the air and to prevent sickness. The air above and the waters of Lake Issyk-Kul are attributed healing properties, and swimming in the lake is a popular cure for tuberculosis.

Secular Celebrations

Secular holidays include International Women's Day (8 March), May Day (1 May), Constitution Day (5 May), Victory Day (9 May), Last Bell (mid-June), Independence Day (31 August), First Bell (1 September), and New Year's Eve (31 December). Most holidays are celebrated with parties at work and at home that involve eating, drinking, dancing, and singing.

New Year's Eve is more elaborate, and many of the traditions come from Russian practices. There are costume parties, as well as performances at schools. At these performances, Det Moroze (called Ayaz-Ata in Kyrgyz) and his granddaughter give presents to good children. Det Morose wears a robe trimmed in fur and rides in a horse-drawn sleigh. Naughty children are chased by the witch Baba Yaga. People decorate yulkes, or fir trees, with garlands, ornaments, and lights, and set off fireworks at midnight. Kyrgyz people follow the Chinese zodiac, where each year is assigned an animal, and people whose sign is the same animal as the incoming year must wear something red and then give it away for good luck.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. Support for the arts mostly comes from selling pieces or paid performances. There is little to no funding available from the government.

Literature. Kyrgyz was not written until the twentieth century. The Kyrgyz oral tradition included several epics about mythical warriors, including Manas, Jayin-Bayis, Kurmanbek, and Er Tabildi. The epic Manas is most widely known, and is still widely performed by manaschis. It is not a memorized piece; the best manaschis take the outline of the story and improvise verses, which have a distinct rhythmic beat and are accompanied by expressive hand gestures. Thirteen versions and four million verses have been recorded.

During the twentieth century, novel-writing in the historical and romance genres developed. The best-known Kyrgyz novelist is Chingiz Aitmatov, who is known for his critical novels about life in Soviet Central Asia.

Graphic Arts. Traditional crafts are taught in school, and the graphic arts are well developed. In most cases artisans create objects to be sold either as souvenirs to tourists or as heirlooms for people's homes. Some are displayed in the National Gallery or in museums abroad. Most of these are done in wool or silk, including the wool carpets called shirdaks and alakiis, embroidered wall hangings called tush-kiis, and small animal or human figures. Wood, horn, leather, and clay are also used. There are a number of painters as well, whose works are sold mostly to foreigners. These often have traditional Kyrgyz themes but often use modern and postmodern styles of painting. Galleries and art exhibits are almost exclusively in the capital city.

Performance Arts. Kyrgyz folk singing and music lessons are frequently offered in schools. There are several Kyrgyz children's performance groups, which feature traditional songs and dance as well as performances using Kyrgyz instruments. The best-known instruments are the komuz (a three-stringed lute), oz-komuz (mouth harp), the chopo choor (clay wind instrument), and the kuiak (a four-stringed instrument played with a bow). There also are adult folk, classical, and operatic musicians and groups who perform in the capital regularly. Popular television shows feature Kyrgyz pop and folk singers and musicians. There is a small but active film industry.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences. Scientists teach at the university level, but funding for research is limited. Most scientists have moved to other professions for financial reasons.


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