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Legendary shamanologist Mongush Kenin-Lopsan accepts birthday greetings

Legendary shamanologist Mongush Kenin-Lopsan accepts birthday greetingsToday, Doctor of historical studies, famous researcher of shamanism Mongush Kenin-Lopsan becomes  86 years old.  He received many birthday greetings in his legendary little cabin. "The Living Treasure of Shamanism"… in the whole world, only three of the chosen ones were awarded this highest title by the American Foundation for Shamanic Studies.  Among them is also Mongush Kenin-Lopsan, who received this title in 1994 for his contribution to preserving traditional Tuvan shamanism.

He has been collecting shamanic songs for more than 50 years, has stayed in all the corners of Tuva, met with old shamans, was friends with people who remembered old Tuvan customs. His good and difficult path to the world of Tuvan shamanism was blessed by a Leningrad professor, prominent orientalist Sergei Yefimovich Malov.  It is symbolic that  the one who was destined to become a "living Treasure" in the future was born on the banks of river Khondergei, which has been called by the people "Singing River" since times immemorial.

"I was born at the time of the spring move. They quickly erected the yurt under a huge larch tree. A small river Chash-Tal was flowing right next to it. So that I can be truly called a son of nomadism, - he said in one of his interviews. - in the one yurt, we were 10 sisters and six brothers. Our mother was a skilled craftswoman and a story-teller, our father was a hunter,  bone-setter, and knew the old folk tales and blessings; I learned about the beauty of words from him. In the father's line, there was a well-known shaman and folk master  Dulush Donduk. Our son-in-law Sat Shirtikei, a shaman-magician, could dance barefoot in a bonfire, call up rain, and chase away hailstorms. In the mother's line, there were famous shamanesses Sat Sevilbaa and Kuular Khandyzhap. Grandmother Kuular Khandyzhap used to be called Ulug-Kham, or Great Shamaness, by the people, or Deer-Kham Celestial Shamaness, because by Tuvan custom it was prohibited to call respected people by name an as is well known, in the Tuvan milieu shamans and shamanesses were at that time the most respected people.

In 1929 grandma lost her voting rights, and in 1938 her son was arrested and shot; he was declared to be an enemy of the people and a Japanese spy. Twelve days after her son's arrest, they arrested the illiterate shamaness-grandma as well, and she was sentenced for five years of loss of freedom for "counter-revolutionary activities". In 1949, the 63-year-old shamaness was sentenced again for 15 years. Shamaness Khandyzhap was incarcerated in the concentration camp in Chernogorsk. She communicated with everybody without knowing the language. Among the prisoners, she was considered to be a shamaness-goddess, and a clairvoyant. While in the concentration camp, she predicted the date of Josef Stalin's death. After Stalin's death she was released. She died en route to her native yurt. In 1969, she was posthumously rehabilitated. When I was 9 years old, Grandma Kuular Khandyzhap gave me the first consecration and predicted my destiny of a great white shaman."

In his father's yurt, Mongush listened with awe to the legends, tales and epics, repeating the fast speech of sacred phrases. When Tuvan writing appeared, he was one of the first people to learn to write his name in the snow.

Among the best graduates of Kyzyl school, he was sent to Leningrad for further schooling. Kenin-Lopsan was lucky to get into the only Tuvan group in history, which was selected to study at the Eastern faculty of Leningrad university.  "What were your first impressions of the large city?" - I asked. 

-  "My first impression was naïve childlike entertainment. To me it was interesting to stare at the dome of Isakievski Sobor (church). Here, in my native country, I was used to snowy mountain peaks, and there I saw a dome. A round one! As it seemed to me, it looked like a giant yurt. I stared at an unusually arched drawbridge: people walk and cars drive on two sides, and underneath the bridge, there is a steamship. And by the bridge, I saw  somebody about whom I have heard from my father - a lion! A cast iron one! The most memorable for me was when we were issued  rations tickets. That was my first practical activity - to go by myself to buy bread on rations ticket in a special shop on Nevskiy.  For me personally, even the word "bread" is magical, sacred, elevated. At the university, at first they called us  "the silent people" - walk silently and do not speak to anybody - we did not speak Russian too well. After the first year, we started speaking, and already in the second year we were presenting scholarly reports. I even received the nickname "Tuvan Cicero".  The theme of Kenin-Lopsan first student scholarly work was "Air burial of a Tuvan shaman". After finishing the Eastern faculty of LGU, Kenin-Lp0san's classmates went home to brilliant careers and prestigious positions in party  agencies. However, for him such a road was unacceptable. Mongush Borakhovich, speaking in a Russian poet's words, " made his career by not making one". He lectured in Tuvan language and literature, worked as an editor at a local publisher's. his interest in the historical past of his native country, the wish to preserve its treasures and rarities  for posterity, brought Kenin-Lopsan three decades ago to serve at the Tuvan republican museum of  regional knowledge. Here he has been collecting shamanic folklore, old manuscripts and books, ethnographic and archeologic materials. But the main thing in his life has always been creative art. Kenin-Lopsan's pen has authored innumerable novels, stories, legends, verse, translations of works of Russian and foreign poets into Tuvan language. And the most ardent part - publications of the folklore of Tuvan shamanism, where he presents , in poetic form, the algyshes - blessing songs of a hereditary shaman, of a celestial shaman, a shaman's algysh received form a forest sprite, from an unclean power, and others.

In 1982 Kenin-Lopsan defended his candidate dissertation on the subject of "Themes and poetics of Tuvan shamanism. Attempt at historical-ethnographic reconstruction." I understand how many obstacles and difficulties he had to surmount; at that time, research of similar subjects was de facto prohibited; it was permitted to write about such things only from the position of militant atheism. He somehow traced the theme as if from the inside, as only a grandson of a great shamaness, a son of a story-teller, and a man with the soul of a shaman could.

After the successful defense of the candidate dissertation,  Kenin-Lopsan attempted to go to work at the Tuvan NII of language, literature and history. He used to tell how he came to see N. A. Serdobov, the deputy director of the institute with an application, who right away asked about his plans of study. Serdobov was a man of ascetic appearance, with a hard expression in inscrutable eyes, , and in my imagination was always associated with the idea of a Jesuit, who wants to look even holier than the Roman Pope. His entire appearance left no doubt but that he is an even more orthodox  Marxist-Leninist than Salchak Toka, who had often been called "Tuvan Stalin". Serdobov sharply reprimanded Mongush Borakhovich. He said that at the time  "when steel cosmic ships roam through the infinite reaches of the Universe"…(and now almost like a text of a famous film personage), Kenin-Lopsan insisted on occupying himself with politically harmful nonsense. In 1931, in Tuva there still were 725 shamans, but as time went on,  a statement appeared in one of academic publications, where a  scholar-ethnographer wrote that that the very last of Tuvan servants of the ancient cult, who had been hiding out in remote taiga, brought him his shamanic equipment and renounced shamanic practice.

We are reminded of a paragraph written by Kenin-Lopsan 20 years ago: " I have lived a long time in the world, and I know both the truth and deceit. Now, even if one travels throughout Tuva, can a living shaman be found?"

That is a very worrisome statement. Now, these days, when there is a revival of the ancient culture, things are different. In 1987 in Novosibirsk Kenin-Lopsan published a monograph "Magic of Tuvan shamans", in 1994 "Traditional ethics of Tuvans", in 1995  "Algyshes of Tuvan shamans" and other articles and books on this subject.

In Sankt-Peterburg, Mongush Borakhovich defended his doctoral dissertation, devoted to Tuvan shamanism.

The work of his life - that is the concern of preserving the spiritual potential of his people. The keeper of treasures. In both the direct and indirect sense. He is the keeper of the material and spiritual treasures of Tuvans. He spent most of his life working at the museum, collecting and preserving priceless treasures of many generations. Just in itself that is a great contribution. However, he is not just the keeper, he is also the carrier, collector and researcher of these treasures. It won't be a mistake to say that today in Tuva there is nobody more knowledgeable about the spiritual life of the Tuvan peole than our hero.

The history of way of life, mores, customs of Tuvans, their psychology and soul is expressed in the art of Mongush Kenin-Lopsan, most of all, through his creative art. As a poet, publicist and prose writer, created, one can say, an original  artistic chronicle of the life of the Tuvan nation.  The originality of Kenin-Lopsan's prose is that it is factually accurate, ethnographically salient, compositionally  focused, with romantic pathos, in a special autobiographic form, composing the traditional world view of the Tuvan people.

In his creative work, since the early 1990's, M.B. Kenin-Lopsan has shown himself more as a scholar. Of course, these were the results of all the preceding work of many years, work which is also multifaceted. Kenin-Lopsan is a scholar, he is a folklorist, ethnographer, shamanologist, mythologist, ethno-pedagogue,  art expert, expert in regional lore. More than a thousand informants worked with him.

The writer also took part in the writing of "Ocherki Tuvinskoy literatury", which was published in 1964. He translated as literary works stories "Chizhik" (a bird) and "Khaiyndyrynmai Bagai-ool" the epic "Tanaa-Kherel", which were published in 1985 and 1986.

Kenin-Lopsan's  labor of many years bears witness that all the aspects of his scholarly  activity were  dictated by the spiritual needs of the people. He is more of an applied scientist, formed in the thick of national life. The texts he colleted and the research facts which he was the first to describe, will definitely, with time, gain even deeper and wider meaning.

Without any exaggeration it can be said that the research feat of the scholar Kenin-Lopsan, a lone craftsman, is equal to the work of whole micro-institutes. If one tries to characterize Kenin-Lopsan's multifaceted work in one word,, to define his credo,  this is what I would say: Kenin-Lopsan is a writer and a scholar, who scientifically and artistically created and preserved the traditional world view of the Tuvan people.  Even though the writer's and scientist's work seems to have many facets, in reality it is intertwined  organically into a single knot and serves a single aim - to recreate the traditional world view of Tuvans.

Perhaps this explains partially the writer's and scientist's creative freedom from the ideological situation of different times. M.B. Kenin-Lopsan as a writer, folklorist, ethnographer-shamanologist from a storyteller and shamanic family, I think, is truly unique in Tuvan history, and not just in Tuvan history. A man who preserved the spiritual heritage of the people and sealed it in eternal words - that is a keeper of those treasures, which can’t, unlike material riches, be either lost or destroyed.

Mariana Devlet, Zoya Samdan, translated by Heda Jindrak
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