By Zemfira Inogamova
Reprinted by permission of the Publishers from ‘”Keeping the Sacred Secret: Pilgrims” Voices at Sacred Sites in Kyrgyzstan.’, in Nature, Space and the Sacred eds. S. Bergmann, P. M. Scott, M. Jansdotter Samuelsson and H. Bedford-Strohm (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 265–279. Copyright © 2009
Sacred sites and the experiences, hopes and fears that practitioners have about
them in relation to the changing economic and social organization will be the main
focus of this article. I will raise, specifically, the question of power and control over
knowledge of the sacred sites. The hypothesis of the present paper is that every
community has its own local ethics and certain claims that arise in accordance
with it. I will also dwell on issues of how people think about the sites, what kind
of respect they show towards them, and how they maintain control over them. I
will be discussing questions of cultural property rights – one of the main concerns
of local practitioners, many of whom argue that sacred sites have to belong to all
the people who live in Kyrgyzstan and not just to some private owners. This article
will present the concerns of research respondents and will describe the uses of the
sites in direct relation to the kinds of rights people feel they should have, along
with any challenges or limits to the rights they have experienced.
Local practitioners have extensive knowledge of the sites and were put at
the centre of the mapping project conducted in one village in the northern part
of Kyrgyzstan. The project was carried out by members of the Aigine Research
Centre (AiRC) in Kyrgyzstan. In this case the mapping work was a way to find
out how practitioners felt about the idea of mapping sacred sites and how they
thought that their knowledge should be used. Hence my paper will focus on the
experts first, then will talk about the mapping project as another tool used in my
research. This tool helped to reveal the knowledge of cultural practitioners and to
expand the conversation with the local cultural experts beyond the initial aims of
All the unsourced sentences cited in this paper are reproduced from
transcriptions of interviews conducted by me. For reasons of research ethics I
have not revealed the identity of my informants, but my sources will be available
upon a request for transcriptions of field research interviews (April, May, 2006)
made to email@example.com.
This article hypothesizes that there is no general regulation or code of ethics
that could anticipate all the research situations, places and cultural contexts.
Conduct of ethical behaviour should be shaped in accordance with local content
and context. Moreover, even in a local context ethics is emergent: it emerges
on the basis of particular situations and instances. Codes of ethics such as the
Code of Research Ethics, approved by the American Anthropological Association
(AAA), the Code of Ethics of World Archeological Congress, or the Society for
Applied Anthropology’s Statement of Ethics and Professional Behaviours are not
ironclad formulae to be followed, but guidelines for the researchers which help to
a certain extent the conduct of ethically responsible research. The main goals of
the present paper are to reveal the ethics of mapping the Nyldy Ata sacred site and
its regulations concerning visits and displays of reverence at the sacred sites, and
to investigate into the divergence between some of the aspects of AAA ethics and
their local application in Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the Nyldy Ata sacred sites.
Conducting the Research
The purpose of my research project was to describe, put in perspective and analyze
the ethics of mapping the Nyldy Ata complex of sacred sites. The focus of the
study was the Nyldy Ata complex of sacred sites in the Özgörüsh village, which
is located in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan, in the province of Talas. The central
questions were: What is the ethics of revealing the sacred? What does ethics mean
in the local situation? How can we localize the ethics of the fieldwork? What could
be considered wrong or right in Kyrgyz traditional culture? What are the locally
relevant principles and how do they function in the study of mapping?
These questions were investigated through a qualitative research design which
consisted mainly of in-depth interviews, participant observation, observations of
sacred site guardians and pilgrims. Interviews would last between one and two
hours. The definitions of local terms were decided on the basis of the research
conducted in Talas on the sacred sites. A qualitative approach seemed to be the
most appropriate method of dealing with these questions.
I predominantly chose, as research participants, the guardians of the sacred
sites and the pilgrims to Nyldy Ata, because these are aware about the ‘rights’
and ‘wrongs’ – both about making a map of the sacred sites and about forms of
behaviour at mazars – since they respect the regulations when they visit sacred
sites over a period of many years.
One site was sufficient for the study, since I would not have be able in practice
to cover the number of sacred site complexes in Talas, and ultimately the results
of the research project are not applicable to all the sacred sites in Talas but only
to Nyldy Ata. The primary sample was seventeen pilgrims, who came to visit the
sacred sites at Nyldy Ata together with a guardian of the site. This formed the
nucleus of my study; and there was a second sample, of twelve additional sacred
site guardians from the same province, who also visited Nyldy Ata and took part
in a round table discussion.
I have selected the participants to the study from a number of volunteers to
be interviewed among the pilgrims at Nyldy Ata; these included male and female
informants, guardians and residents of the Özgörüsh village. Each informant was
interviewed once and, if a follow-up interview was necessary, I contacted them
again. Most of the questions I asked from the guardians and pilgrims of Nyldy Ata
were open-ended. My focus was on the pilgrims’ reflections, reactions, concerns
and thoughts about the idea of making a map of the sacred sites at Nyldy Ata.
I recorded my informants’ interviews on tape, and the records were transcribed
and used along with my field notes and with the results of participant observation.
Thus the results of the interview analysis will be more representative of the
concerns and thoughts about the idea of making a map of the complex of sacred
sites at Nyldy Ata.
The Cultural Phenomenon of Mazar Reverence in Kyrgyzstan
The visitation of sacred sites is a well-known form of cultural behaviour all over
the world, and in Kyrgyzstan it constitutes a widespread phenomenon as well.
In the Kyrgyz language, sacred sites are called mazars. Mazar is an Arabic word
meaning ‘place which is visited’. There is usually an object of pilgrimage – often
the grave of a Muslim saint. Over time, the word came to be used to designate any
place with a sacred character.1 Further in the present article, sacred sites will be
referred to as mazars.
Shaykhs (guardians of mazars) and zyiaratchys (pilgrims) were predominantly
chosen as key participants in my research project. Shaykh is an Arabic word
meaning ‘elder person’, but also ‘guardian’.Shaykhs are thus guardians of Muslim
mausoleums, mazars and other sacred sites. The term zyiaratchy comes from the
Arabic ziyara, which means ‘pilgrimage’. Zyiarat, in the understanding of Kyrgyz
Muslims at the Nyldy Ata mazar nowadays, means visiting local mazars, rocks and
mountains which are connected to the names of the prophets, of the mashaykhs
(saints or pious monks) and of the kojo shaykhs (master guardians)with a goal
to make certain wishes,to ask for salvation from sins and to pray.
Shaykhs and zyiaratchys were involved in my research project as cultural
practitioners who had visited the mazars and possessed traditional knowledge of
them. The concept of rights and responsibilities related to mazars is related to the
ethical ideas of the local community members. Thus my article will present the
‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of making a map of the mazars at Nyldy Ata and of visiting
and displaying certain forms of behaviour at mazars, since zyiaratchys are strongly
recommended to fulfil certain social expectations while they visit mazars.
Visitors of Mazars
According to traditional understanding, the visitor should come to the mazar
being physically and spiritually clean. (Spiritual cleanness denotes a positive inner
intention and a sincere belief in the healing power of sacred sites; in this context
it might be appropriate to say, not spiritually, but intentionally ‘clean’.) Those
who go to mazars ‘clean’ will be blessed by the pirs (guardian spirits) of mazars.
Specifically, a visitor should be respectful towards other visitors, realizing that
they are at the mazar, and should behave in accordance with the situation. The
majority of the experienced zyiaratchys whom I interviewed were concerned with
people visiting Nyldy Ata and, specifically, with whether or not these people would
fulfill the rules for visiting mazars; for, if they did not, that would ‘disappoint’ the
spirits of the mazars.
Here are the rules which every visitor to a mazar is expected to follow and
fulfill. They do not have a juridical power, but most of the visitors submit to them,
since the social pressure to do so is strong. One should:
visit the mazar on the understanding and realization of the fact that one is
visiting the place where traditional praying is performed;
recognize the cultural importance of the mazar and respect the feelings of
keep the mazar and its surroundings very clean and behave in proper
ways, which prohibit smoking, consuming alcohol, shouting or using foul
take ritual ablution before a visitation;
visit the mazar with covered head and body (long sleeves, long skirt and
follow the suggestions or regulations of the shaykh, if there is one;
avoid things which could destroy or disturb the praying process (including
loud music, alcoholic drinks, and guns for hunting);
for women, avoid visits to the mazar during menstruation.
Why Should One Map Mazars at Nyldy Ata?
The shaykhs of Nyldy Ata receive and guide visitors to mazars who visit a sacred
site due to social and health problems. Usually a shaykh leads visiting zyiaratchys
to mazars at the complex and gives them certain directions, for example on how to
take part in fixed rituals. He also heals the zyiaratchys who are ill, or addicted to
alcohol or drugs, by using traditional ways of curing such as dem saluu. Dem saluu
is a spiritual and physical empowerment and personal cure. Zyiaratchys believe
that this guidance precipitates the process of getting fit and healthy. Usually,
pilgrims to Nyldy Ata ask a guardian of the complex to accompany them to the
mazars. However, when the guardian is out of the village, visitors have difficulty
in finding the places and performing certain rituals. A number of informants claim
that the maps would be useful for zyiaratchys who come from different parts of
Kyrgyzstan, since they are not aware of all of the mazars located at Nyldy Ata.
The strength of a map is that it can ease the process of visiting mazars for
people who do not know the road; but at the same time a map can weaken the
‘social validity’ of a shaykh, who is a leader in this regard – since a shaykh’s
knowledge of how to perform a certain ritual, which incantations to use while
praying, and how to perform rituals in general is a type of social power. Thus
making a map which describes the healing purposes or the special prescriptions of
a mazar and its specific features will lead to a dissemination of information which
is tantamount to making a guardian less powerful in society. If I am to pay heed
to the responses and wishes expressed on all these aspects, I should say that the
idea presented – namely of making a map of the mazars at Nyldy Ata – was not
supported by all the zyiaratchys who contributed to the research.
To my question concerning the advantage of a map, my informant stated the
following: ‘If we come to pray at a mazar at a certain time with certain intentions
and expectations, we have to realize our wishes on a planned day since our wishes
are stronger and more sincere, because we were prepared for this trip.’ Zyiaratchys
who visit mazars in Nyldy Ata have a strong belief that, if any one of them were
to come to a mazar with bad intentions or with an ironic, skeptical approach (for
instance with the intention of testing the powers of the mazars without having any
sincere belief in the visit itself), the spirits of the sacred site would not help them
to recover or might even harm them.
Sincere belief in the powers and spirits of mazars is one of the strongest
expectations placed in a zyiaratchy – the kind of person who visits mazars and
believes them to aid towards recovery. Specifically, I think that this sincerity of a
zyiaratchy promotes belief in the healing power of the mazar – which is equal to a
belief in recovery. The idea expressed by my informants, that they were prepared
for a trip to a mazar, underlines such pre-existing, positive beliefs.
One reaction to the idea of making a map of mazars at Nyldy Ata was that
mazars are very powerful and pure places which should be preserved for the
present and future generations as a cultural practice. Knowledge about the location
of mazars would ease the process of visiting them and receiving treatment from
traditional healers at sacred sites. Local practitioners and pilgrims think that mazars
have a positive influence on zyiaratchys; hence, sites which are useful for health
should be preserved by creating a map. Legal validity could be acquired only by
creating a map of mazars, which marks the borders of the territories of the private
owners and of the mazars. Practitioners fear that some private owners might buy
large territories which include mazars, to use them as pasture, as cultivated land,
or for other means of exploiting the land. For instance, according to Anthony
Stocks, maps are not just a graphic way to present what would then be taken to
be the ordinary palpable realities of land use; maps can also be pure ideological
According to the idea of local zyiaratchys, Nyldy Ata does not belong to any
private owner or government, but to all the citizens of Kyrgyzstan. However, the
government is privatizing most of the pasture lands and, without a legally powerful
document such as a map, zyiaratchys will not be able to protect their rights from
the private owners of pasture lands.
Why Should One Not Map Sacred Sites?
This section will focus on critical thoughts and responses expressed towards the
proposal of making a map of the mazars at Nyldy Ata. The interviews revealed
that some of the zyiaratchy prefer the map not to be made. They believe that, when
the map is created, there will be a lot more people wanting to visit Nyldy Ata than
heretofore. Eventually, an increase in the number of zyiaratchys would possibly
lead to the construction of a road for transportation. For the visitors to mazars at
the Nyldy Ata complex, bringing transportation implies moving a lot of stones and
making changes. As one of my informants noted, ‘at this particular complex all
material and natural things have their “own” locations and places and there is no
need to remove or to add other things to here. This place should be as natural as it
is now. Also, each stone has its own power that I cannot explain.’
Humanity fears the unknown and the uncertain, and starts to feel powerless if it
cannot interpret them in a certain way. This is one of the cultural and social taboos
about ‘leaving things as they are’, which my informant derived from her collective
memory. Taboos are an integral part of holiness. By observing certain taboos, one
accepts the ‘power’ or ‘sacredness’ of a place. Places might not be sacred, but
knowledge conveys sacredness; and knowledge about certain taboos, and strong
expectations in regard to a place, make visitors behave in a culturally and socially
specific way. For instance, mazars and mosques are places where people perform
the worshipping of spirits and of Allah in one case, and only that of Allah in the
other. But at both places, irrespective of the belief in spirits or in Allah, people
observe and follow certain rules of behaviour and conform to expectations. At
mazars, most of the visitors perform a zikir chaluu ritual accompanied by praying,
which is designed, according to them, to bring their wishes closer to God or to
the ‘owner’ of the mazar; and there is a similar pattern to the zikir ceremony
of the Sufis. At mosques, worshippers of Allah perform the namaz, which is
also accompanied by certain prayers. But those who visit the mazars consider
the mazar a sacred place, and, similarly, those who pray to Allah perceive the
mosque as a sacred place. Thus the understanding and interpretation of the notion
of ‘sacredness’ can only occur at an individual level.
Moreover, my informants believe that constructing a road will provide easy
access to all kinds of visitors, including tourists. According to the words of
zyiaratchys, there is a certain number of visitors who come to the mazars in order
to take tests for the consistency of the springs, to try to establish what makes them
medically efficacious. Specifically, their goal was to analyse the spring waters in
order to discover why they are useful against certain diseases and not others. ‘If
the purpose of the tourists’ visits will be research that might be useful for us, then
I do not mind them coming here and testing our water, since some of the non-local
visitors of Nyldy ata would take water with them for testing, I guess’, said one of
Some of the zyiaratchys were concerned that the more people from other places
of Kyrgyzstan gain access to a map of the Nyldy Ata complex of mazars, the
more such maps could be used by individuals for a range of purposes. One of my
informants claimed: ‘You never know how many buzuk oiluu (evil minded) people
with suspicious intentions can visit mazars if they have a map in their hands.’
Another respondent, adding to the same idea, stated the following: ‘some of the
visitors come with their beliefs in Kudai, and others come here with negative moods
and try to test the real power of the mazar. Such kinds of negative intentions
might scare the powerful pirs [spirits] of mazars and [the spirits] might leave the
mazars for good.’ In other words, my informants believe that the spirits of the
mazars respond to any negative approach or intentions and they might desert such
places if people do not believe in them. According to Anthony Stocks, ‘land is often
the home of spirits, it is not just spirit owners of the various “natural” elements that
enter into production, but also human-like societies of spirits that interact with the
living and, of course, the spirits of the dead, especially ancestors’.
The main consequence of the spirits leaving the mazars would be deprivation of
an opportunity to receive cheap treatment for those zyiaratchys who cannot afford
to see a doctor and to stay in hospital. My respondents believe that spirits make
mazars powerful, since they possess special healing abilities when visitors ask
them for help. In other words, without these spirits, the mazars will resemble other
ordinary places. In this regard, one of my informants stated the following: ‘one of
the exceptional powers of the pirs of the mazars is that through their prayers to
them, traditional healers can cure the pilgrim who is experiencing the process of
kyrgyzchylyk. Because the doctors cannot heal such a patient who is diagnosed with
kyrgyzchylyk.’ According to the definition of a clairvoyant informant in Talas:
Kyrgyzchylyk is an inherited strong capacity which is not visible. Such a strong
capacity could be inherited only by a spiritually clean person who has a ‘clean’
mind and soul too. All kinds of strong capacities, such as an extrasensory
perception, the abilities of clairvoyants, traditional healers, forecasters and
manaschy11 are considered as the main types of kyrgyzchylyk.
According to Gulnara Aitpaeva, “in a broad sense, kyrgyzchylyk means the totality of
traditions and customs inherent in the Kyrgyz people since early times. In relation
to mazars, kyrgyzchylyk is usually understood as a diverse spectrum of extrasensory
bilities, which a person receives congenitally and which help him or her to heal
and help people.”
On the basis of my research results, it can be concluded that an illness related to
kyrgyzchylyk is a pre-initiation process, a stage before accepting the duties of a
certain type of kyrgyzchylyk (which were mentioned above). People who inherit
kyrgyzchylyk go through a period of ‘illness’ (consisting of physiological and
emotional experiences), and this illness can be healed only by another clairvoyant
or traditional healer. Medical doctors cannot help at all in such cases. As for the
traditional healers, they cure these people, usually at mazars, and they have a
strong belief that the spirits of the sacred sites will help to heal a person who is
being initiated into kyrgyzchylyk.
One of the advantages of mazars is that they are pure places where pirs inhabit
and help to cure the zyiaratchy who has the ‘diagnosis’ of kyrgyzchylyk. This is
important for the zyiaratchy, because doctors cannot treat such a patient by using
modern methods. In the words of my respondent, even if a zyiaratchy goes to
see doctors, usually they are not able to diagnose the illness and therefore they
are not able to treat him or her; on the contrary, their meddling with various
medications might make a situation even worse. As for the traditional healers,
they can recognize ‘symptoms’ of kyrgyzchylyk and they also know how to treat
them, since these were part of their own initiation experience.
To Construct or Not to Construct a Road to the Nyldy Ata Complex
One result of my interviews is the conclusion that people perceive the road
construction in a negative way. In the Kyrgyz language, the practice of mazars
visitation is called mazar basuu. This literally means ‘walking to the mazar’. It
is not called mazarga baruu, ‘going to the mazar’. Thus a pilgrim is expected to
walk to a mazar and not to drive by some kind of transportation. It is important to
take into consideration that the cultural practice of mazar visitation has survived
from ancient times, when there was no transportation. However, Kyrgyz people
have used horses as one type of transportation for ages, especially when they had
a nomadic mode of life. In other words, going to a mazar by horse would be also
mazarga at menen baruu; one cannot say, mazarga at menen basuu (‘walking to
a mazar by horse’), which logically, contextually and grammatically would be
inaccurate in Kyrgyz language. In this case respondents mean walking a distance
from the main road to the mazar itself, since it would be physically impossible to
walk to a mazar from distant places in Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, zyiaratchys strongly
believe that, if one walks to a mazar by foot, one will receive more blessings from
the spirits of the mazars.
As for my question, ‘What would be the consequences of building a road?’,
I have received the following answer from several respondents. ‘Building a road
would basically mean that a very holy place as the Nyldy Ata complex will be
spoiled in the same way as the Manas Ordo [one of the biggest complexes of
sacred sites in Kyrgyzstan] was “spiritually spoiled”. It was spoiled by drunken
and unclean visitors who were not in the mood for visiting the mazars but who
were taking part in wedding parties.’
In most parts of Kyrgyzstan, the wedding ceremony is accompanied by the
ritual of visiting a mazar. For instance, in Talas young couples visit the Manas
Ordo, in Karakol, which is in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan. In Bishkek some of
the couples visit the mausoleum of Baitik Baatyr (hero). The guardians of mazars
and the zyiaratchys of sacred sites were not only upset but even disgusted by some
wedding guests. Since most of the drunk people behave in a way that does not
comply with the expected behaviour on visiting mazars, guardians and zyiaratchys
feel insulted. One of my respondents said, ‘the more “dirty” [bulganych] and
prayerless people visit mazars, the higher our fear that spirits who inhabit these
places will leave them’. By saying ‘dirty’, respondents mean a person who
is drunk, without ritual ablution and not fulfilling expectations that a visit to a
mazar requires. Socially, the guardians of mazars have a right to suggest to a
drunken person, or to anyone whose behaviour does not comply with the social
expectations, to visit the mazar at another time, when they will be ready. They
might be asked to do so as courtesy to other pilgrims, since they might disturb
their prayers. But, legally, any person who can afford to buy a ticket may enter the
territory of a mazar.
During the interviews, a mazar guardian mentioned that he had seen an ayan
concerning the initiative to construct a road to the mazars in Nyldy Ata,. An ayan13
is a sign which gives knowledge of future events.14 Ayan is a dream which serves
as a sign to undertake a specific action on the basis of a vision that a person sees
in their dream.
According to the ayan which the guardian had, it was not good to construct a
road to Nyldy ata. In his view, it was a sign that spirits of the Nyldy Ata complex
do not allow him to build a road. A guardian had the idea of building a house
in Nyldy Ata and of healing people there. However, he had seen the ayan again
concerning such intentions. According to the ayan, it was not allowed to build
anything at the Nyldy Ata complex of mazars.
Research in Nyldy Ata shows that some of the pilgrims spend a night at one
of the mazars. Sometimes they stay for one, two or more days. Usually guardians
of Nyldy Ata recommend that pilgrims pray to Allah, make wishes during the
night and spend a night at the mazar. Asceticism – such as spending the night
in a draughty place with basic rather than more sophisticated home conditions
– increases the pilgrims’ belief in recovery, since, according to their explanations,
Allah will bless them for their sacrifices of all kinds.
Thus, on the basis of the interviews, I noticed that there is a fear among
zyiaratchys that, if a road is constructed, there would be access for large numbers
of people to visit Nyldy Ata. The fear is that Nyldy Ata would become similar to
Manas Ordo, where people come for weddings, consume alcohol, swear, vomit
and smoke. Zyiaratchys prefer the strict observation of strong rules and social
expectations when visiting the mazars at Nyldy Ata.
Should Tourists Visit Mazars?
The distribution of a map might attract not only zyiaratchys but also tourists who
are interested in culture and would like to gain more knowledge about the mazars
in Kyrgyzstan. In the interviews, respondents expressed their preference for tourists
(non-local visitors) who come with good intentions and with at least modest beliefs in
the special qualities of mazars, or with certain positive wishes. However, zyiaratchys
were concerned about tourists who do not believe in the spirits or the power of mazars
and still visit one, as if it were a place of entertainment. As one of my informants
maintains, the visitors who do not have a sincere belief in the power of spirits and of
mazars are considered unbelievers; such visitors are not wanted at the sacred sites.
In short, most of the visitors to the Nyldy Ata complex feel very comfortable with
the idea of tourists coming the mazars as long as they follow and fulfil the rules
governing the conduct of visitors. But some of the zyiaratchys were against the idea
of tourists visiting the sacred sites, specifically Nyldy Ata, since tourists do not have
adequate knowledge of the rules of behaviour to sacred sites, and the violation of
these rules could be perceived by the spirits of the mazars as disrespect.
According to my informants, mazars should not be privatized by the government
or by private land owners in Kyrgyzstan. However, there is no legal basis for that
view. Aigine conducted a seminar with administrators of the provincial government
in Talas and presented them a draft of a project on the ‘Preservation and Protection
of Mazars in Talas Province and Rules Required for a Visit to mazars’, which was
elaborated jointly between the guardians of the mazars and government workers
in the town of Talas, who were involved as stakeholders connecting the shaykhs
with government officials.
The Ethics of Revealing the Sacred
For the zyiaratchys, keeping sacred knowledge secret is very important. According
to the conversations I had with my informants, keeping the sacred a secret will
help to preserve the character of the mazars.
According to my research results, the zyiaratchys think that each mazar has
its own spirit, which can have different visions. However, the zyiaratchys who are
capable of seeing the ‘owners’ or ‘spirits’ do not reveal these visions to visitors
who are not capable of seeing them. They are bound by a taboo against revealing
the vision of the ‘owners’ of the mazars, and they are expected to keep secret the
sacred phenomena they witness. ‘Abbot called for caution and exposed the risks
inherent in visualizing place specific local knowledge and making it available
for public consumption, without ensuring sufficient control of the process and
outputs by legitimate custodians of such knowledge.’ Most of the zyiaratchys
claim that people cannot, and do not have to, visit the mazars for the purpose of
entertainment. That would harm not only the environment of the mazars, but also
them personally as well. The pirs of the mazars could get angry with them, or
abandon the mazars and leave for other places.
According to Adylov Düishönkul, the method of treatment that traditional
healers use during consultation with their patients perfectly combines the elements
of rationality and mystery. By using the element of mystery during the healing
process, a healer has the opportunity to create a sacred image of a mazar spirit
who possesses special capacities. Belief in this sacred image leads to belief in
the power and special capacities of a spirit. Accordingly, the spirit which possesses
special capacities is able to treat a zyiaratchy by using them. As Clingerman
suggests, ‘if nature is found always already in place, then our understanding of
nature arises in the act of interpretation that sets apart a place (in time, space, use,
and communal membership, among other things) from other places’.
There are several reasons for keeping sacred knowledge secret – such as
keeping a monopoly over knowledge which equals social power. Dissemination
of the knowledge that some zyiaratchys or shaykhs possess might lead to a loss
of power. As Trevor W. Purcell states, ‘A spiritual healer may explain a persistent
headache not as resulting from physiological phenomena, but from a reluctance
to accept the power of an ancestor and believe in them. The plausibility of this
explanation rests on an intuitive understanding within the symbolic structure of
the healer’s culture.’ Purcell also claims that, by making a conceptual separation
of knowledge from culture and by problematizing knowledge and its application,
scholars are inserting culture/knowledge into the contemporary discourse as a
component of power relations, beyond the notion of a cultural division of labour,
beyond race and beyond ethnicity.
Most zyiaratchys experienced the social and political system of the Soviet era.
During this period the practice of sacred sites visitation was prohibited, but this does
not mean that people did not practise mazar visitation. Attempts to keep the sacred a
secret are a relic of the Soviet period, since during that time people would withhold
any information regarding their beliefs for the sake of securing their safety.
Most of my informants believe that the pirs of Manas Ordo in Talas left that
place and moved to clean and pure locations such as the Nyldy Ata complex of
mazars. To my question, ‘Why are you visiting such far-away mazars when you
have another big one in Manas Ordo?’, one of the zyiaratchy from Talas answered
that, because of the many weddings celebrated at Manas Ordo, many people
consume vodka, smoke cigarettes and have fun there, which makes the mazar less
powerful. The pirs of mazars can leave certain places and move to other ‘more
pure’ places. As I have mentioned before, most of my informants claimed that the
powerful spiritual hosts of Manas Ordo left that place and moved to Nyldy Ata in
their search for pure and clean places. Specifically, places are ‘clean’ in the sense
of not being spoiled not only by vodka and smoking, but also by bad thoughts and
ironic attitudes towards the mazar and its visitors. For example, as one guardian
mentioned, ‘the visit to a mazar might be harmful if the visitor does not acquire
the knowledge that one is not allowed to urinate near sacred places, because one
might be paralysed forever or one’s mouth might be physically curved’. Guardians
assume that the spirits of the mazars become angry through such actions on the
part of visitors and might punish someone who urinates at the mazar.
Such a cultural explanation as to why one cannot urinate at mazars can help to
keep sites physically clean; it urges the visitors to follow this rule through fear of
making the ancestors angry. A physically dirty place with a bad smell cannot be an
appropriate environment for healings, since it creates negative perceptions of the
place instead of instilling the belief in its healing powers.
The Blessing Mazar: Concluding Remarks
As a first result of the mapping project, we were able to hear the ‘voices’ of local
practitioners such as the shaiykhs and the guardians about their hopes, fears and
concerns. There are strong beliefs on the part of Kyrgyz people in the power of
mazars and of their ancestors, as well as in the phenomenon of visiting sacred
sites. These practices are in general conducive to the preservation of the ecological
and cultural environment, which is essential for local survival.
Thus I support the opinion expressed by Stephan Dömpke in his article ‘YssykKöl
– A Sacred Land in Central Asia’ to the effect that ‘traditional populations
historically have had at their disposal comprehensive and time tested knowledge
about sustainable forms of the use of natural resources and the protection of
biological diversity. This knowledge has been connected to cultural systems,
worldviews and practices that render meaning and values to it, and because of this,
ensure their tradition from one generation to the next.’
During my research and interviews I heard the word ‘blessing’ many times. It
could be a blessing of the spirits, a blessing of Allah or a blessing of the ‘owner’
of the mazar. Blessing, in Kyrgyz, is bata, which could be a sign of acceptance.
People take part in rituals in order to define their roles in society and to feel as a
part of this society. The practice of mazar visitation is not only a cultural practice
of people who inhabit central Asia, but one of the ways of learning the law and
moral teachings of the Kyrgyz people.
Emil Shükürov claimed in his article that it is important to emphasize that
holy places satisfy the spiritual needs of human beings, which are sometimes
more important than the material ones. On the basis of this research, I would like
to conclude that the zyiaratchys in Talas have their locally relevant and locally
‘sound’ ethics. In other words, ethics must be conceived in accordance with
particular situation. Ethics has a strongly situational character.
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