In the Old World, Central Asia is the traditional land of pastoral nomads. The nomads of Central Asia live under arid conditions and migrate seasonally in search of water and pastures for their herds of sheep, cattle and horses.
Central Asia, the homeland of Kirghiz and other nomadic tribes, is cut off by great mountain ranges from the monsoonic rains of the Indian Ocean and China Sea, while the mountains and plateaus of Europe deplete the moisture of westerly winds from the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
Consequently, between the Volga River to the Hwang Ho is a region in which forests are found only on the slopes of higher ranges.
In fact, scanty rains and drought preclude the existence of forests. In most of the years rainfall is only enough for the growth of grass. So uncertain is the supply of water that all human life is of an unstable character.
The Kyrgyz are the dwellers of southern Tien Shan and the Pamir’s. They are very closely related to the Kazaks in race, colour, language, speech, custom and the way of life.
The Russians often call the Kazaks also as Kyrgyz as they resemble too much in their lifestyle with each other. The Tien Shan Kyrgyz are called as Kara (black) Kyrgyz by the Russians.
The traditional home of Kyrgyz is the high plateau of Tien Shan and Pamir’s to the East of Kazaks’ territory. Up to the middle of the 17th century, they used to occupy the lower territories but during the last three hundred years they have been pushed to the high plateaus by the Russians to the areas of isolation and relative isolation.
The abode of the Kyrgyz, i.e., Tien Shan (heavenly mountain), is a vast series of elongated mountains. Many perennial rivers descend from the snow capped peaks like Khan Tengri of about 6,000 metres (over 20,000 feet) above the sea level.
Although the precipitation is far less than would be found on mountain ranges of this scale in more maritime areas, the winter snowfall is considerable in all the higher ranges, and there occur valuable occasional summer rains.
These rains help in the development of luxurious pastures. In the summers, there are good grasses in the high altitude pastures (about 3,000 metres) while in the winter seasons the lower altitudes provide good grazing grounds.
Moreover, the snowline oscillates with the seasons, descending below 3,077 metres (10,000 feet) in winter but receding to 3,690 metres (12,000 feet) and even higher during summer when it exposes a belt of country offering rich summer pastures.
The Iii and Syr rivers also descend from the Tien Shan. The Pamir to the south-west of Tien Shan is a plateau, characterized with wide flat valleys over 400 metres above the sea level.
The Pamirs receive less rains and snow than the ranges of Tien Shan. The winter is severely cold, the temperature of January reading as low as -40°C. In winter, however, the weather is dry and violent storms are rare, and both men and herds can stand it.
The summer is cool and is always characterized by cold nights, so that evaporation of the limited water supply is restricted. Thus, the Pamir’s, although too dry for forest, have wide expenses of steppe interrupted by tracts of grass, and pasture is available throughout the year, when “belts of country at lower levels to the north and west are covered in deep snow-drifts for several months.
There are about one million (10 lakhs) Kirghiz people who live mainly in the Republic of Kirghizia. They are strongly Mongoloid in appearance. They are rather short in stature, heavily built, with yellow skin and coarse black hair. They are the mixtures of Mongols and Turkish tribes.
The family consists of father and sons and their wives and servants. The father owns the greater part of livestock and decides the movement of the family. But a number of these families, many of them actually related in male line, form a clan which recognizes the head of the dominant family as its leader and negotiator with other clans.
All men are necessarily members of their father’s clan and must obtain their wives outside that body. The clan rather than the individual is the unit of social and political relations. Traditional pastures belong to the clan, and contributions to payment for a bride are often made by all clansmen.
For the maintenance and defence of its members, the clan is an effective unit. Its poor’s are fed when destitute by the richer members. But, within the clan, the leading family of the chief has considerable power and often controls the greater part of the wealth.
The hostile environment breeds in Kyrgyz certain qualities. They are well-known for courage, hardihood, and the stiff necked pride of the freemen, vigilance, wariness, and sense of locality, keen powers of observation, and the conquest capacity to grasp every detail.
The property of the unlocked tent and the far ranging herd must be safeguarded. They maintain a high standard of honesty. There are two major divisions among the Kirghiz, known as the right and left wings.
The smaller left wing division occupies the Talas basin, while the other is scattered widely to the south and west. Tribal chieftainship is hereditary among the Kyrgyz which is a very powerful institution. There is no privileged class of nobles.
In the winters which are quite severe in Central Asia, the Kyrgyz descend in the valleys with their herds. The winter camps are often very large and a whole tribe is found concentrated at one spot.
Near these camping sites are their fields which are cultivated by the people who stay behind in the summer season. In these fields, they grow barley, millet and wheat both for food and horse fodder.
The rest of the people of the tribe or clan migrate to summer pastures of high altitudes. Clans and families usually keep to traditional areas in their summer migration. This is the prosperous season during which the stock fattens and milk products are accumulated.
The Kyrgyz in need go for hunting also. It is the spring season (April-May) when extensive expeditions for hunting are made into the forest areas. Maral deer is a precious hunt, whose new-grown horns are made as velvets.
The Kyrgyz keep few livestock, although their summer pastures are very rich but the scantiness of winter feed restrict the size of herds. Most of the Kyrgyz horses are of smaller and hardier Mongolian breed. The climate and topography of much of the Kirghiz territory is too severe for the camel, which is rarely used.
They use yak as the beast of burden. The yak, protected by a heavy winter coat, flourishes on the extremely poor scrubby pastures of high mountain areas. It moves very smoothly and speedily on rocky slopes and narrow paths. On many of the high passes of Central Asia, the Kyrgyz supply yak trains for the transport of caravan goods.
The tent of Kirzhizs, locally known as yurt, is generally circular in shape with vertical walls and dome shaped roof. The wall frame consists of a collapsible trellis set upright in a circle and standing about four feet high.
It is constructed of willow rods held together with leather thongs, passing through holes drilled where the rods cross. In a narrow small gap left in the cried, a door frame of stouter poles is fitted.
Lashings of horsehair rope which pass spirally down from the hoop and round the trellis strengthen the frame, and over it a number of large sheets of felt are stretched and lashed in position.
The roof ring, which lies directly above the fire pit, is left uncovered as a smoke hole. In bad weather and at night when the fire has died down, this too is covered with a sheet of felt.
The floor of a yurt is covered with felting, and the inner face of the trellis is often lined with reed matting decorated with wool, while woolen rugs are laid face down over the dome before the felt covers are put on so that their pattern may be seen from within. Similar rugs are laid on the floor. Over the central fire pit is set an iron tripod from which cooking-pots are suspended.
The bedding felt and skin covers and pillows of sheep’s wool are rolled up under the walls. Married sons and children who share their parent’s tent sleep on the left, while poor relatives, dogs and lambs lie near the door
When honored guests come, well-furnished couches are prepared for them at the rear part of the tent. Leather and wooden chests containing grains, sugar, tea and big leather bags containing milk products are kept near the side-walls which show the wealth of the owner of the tent.
In colder and more exposed places many groups replace their felt tents by more solid huts (kstau) in winter. The materials may vary from stone in the mountain foothill country to timber branches and bark on the forest border in the north, but the majorities are built of turf. These winter huts are usually rectangular in shape.
The erection and dismantling of the yurt is the work of women and poor dependents. Two or three camels are needed to carry a large tent when packed for migration.
When a party is moving frequently the whole tent is not erected. In such a situation the doomed roof alone is set directly on the ground to provide shelter for the night.
Winter rarely consists of more than three to five huts, but the aul of a clan may be strung far along a valley bottom each only a few miles from the next. From November until mid-April the habitation remains fixed, although the pasture may change.
Religion and Faith:
The Kyrgyz are Muslims by faith. Their food, clothing and lifestyle are considerably influenced by their faith. They wear a long dress known as kaftan (coat) which is a long, padded coat with wide sleeves and a narrow upright collar, reaching to the ankles. The coarse cotton and woollen cloth for the kaftan is usually purchased from the cities.
The poor Kyrgyz weave their own cloth from camel hair. In cold weather, three or four of these wool-padded kaftans may be worn one over the other and with a shorter sheep skin jacket on top. Wide, thick woollen trousers are tucked in tall boots of heavy leather. These boots with pointed toes and sharp iron heels are adapted for riding but very difficult to walk in. When expecting to ride on a long journey heavy leather breaches are worn.
Long distance travel everywhere involves the abandonment of herds, food stores and tent. Consequently, at such occasions, the Kirghiz is dependent on the hospitality of other groups he encounters. At such occasions, he can usually rely on the hospitality of the isolated encampments. The convention of hospitality ensures a welcome for the traveller.
When intending to cover a considerable distance, the traveler receives a fresh horse from his host of the previous night in exchange for the one on which he arrived.
On the return journey, he brings back each horse one after the other to the camp from which it was taken and finally recovers his own at the last stage of the journey. On long journeys in empty country, food in the form of hard cheese and dried flour or baked cakes can be packed away in large quantities in the leather begs which hung from the saddle.
The Kyrgyz, as stated in the preceding paras, are Sunni Muslims, but they still observe many earlier beliefs and rites. Boys are circumcised and men usually shave their heads. Fasts are observed in the month of Ramzan and the local Mullahs or Tataris wander from aul to aul to lead prayers and recite the Holy Quran.
They also perform minor ceremonies. At the occasion of Idul-Azha, they sacrifice horse, sheep or goat to symbolize the offering of Prophet Abraham and his son Prophet Ismail. But they have no mosque, and women are not secluded or veiled.
The Kyrgyz barter horses and sheep for cereals, clothes and utensils. They also purchase flour, barley, sugar, coffee and tea.
In Central Asia where the Kyrgyz live, the traditional mode of life has proved to be highly sustainable. The Kyrgyz use their limited resources very carefully and judiciously.
They use their intimate knowledge of animals, plants, climate and seasons not to exploit nature but to co-exist with it. Their life is closely affected by environment but they have developed social and economic institutions to live contended and peaceful in their harsh environment.