Olcha Dongak - the keeper of Kyzyl yurt-museum: Our ancestors lived to the age of 100 years
Maxim Kochetkov, Velikaya Epokha, epochtimes.ru, translated by Heda Jindrak
15 October 2012
permanent link: https://en.tuvaonline.ru/2012/10/15/olcha-dongak-the-keeper-of-kyzyl-yurt-museum-our-ancestors-lived-to-the-age-of-100-years.html
The yurt-museum is located not far from national Museum in Kyzyl; it complements the cultural treasure-house of original expositions, immersing the visitors in the daily life of Tuvans.
- What is the main difference between a yurt and other types of dwellings?
O.D.: A yurt is, first of all, a typical nomadic dwelling. That is why it is easy to take it apart and transport it, then reassemble it again in two hours at the most, depending on the size of the yurt. The yurt and its interior furnishings are made from light materials by hand, in conditions of home craft production, and everything is adapted for nomadic way of life. The rugs are traditionally made from white sheep wool, and decorated with colored embroidery. Chests and headboards of beds are also decorated with embroidery.
The chests always come in pairs in Tuva - two, four, six, eight…
- The chests always stand opposite the yurt entrance, but to whom do they belong?
O.D.: Those on the right belong to the lady of the household and the children, those on the left belong to the master of the household. The master sits closer to the door, he protects the living space and watches the livestock.
- You invited us into the yurt, and led us into the left half right away. On the other side, if you judge by the placement of the hearth, a child's bed is visible. It appears that we are now in the men's part of the your, right?
O.D.: That is correct! The left side of the yurt from the entrance is the men's part, and this is where visitors are brought. Close to the door, there is an area for storing rolled-up felt, luggage bags, clothing, horse-riding equipment, riding and cargo saddles, and hunting equipment. This is where young livestock is kept in winter. The right side of the yurt is the women's part, and this is where things belonging to the women and children are kept. Behind the hearth, directly opposite the entrance, is the place of honor ("tor"), where guests are seated, and the head of the family. This system of division is observed to this day. The walls of the yurt are used for hanging things, mostly felt and fabric bags with salt, tea and crockery, as well as dried stomachs and guts filled with butter.
- There is a fire in the center of the yurt. What about the smoke?
O.D.: My father used to say that they burned white grass. What is white grass? They used to take of the peel, then there is no soot, and the smoke is white. Later Tuvans began to use iron stoves with long chimney pipes.
- How characteristic for Tuvans is the swastika pictured on the central pillar, which supports the dome?
O.D.: The swastika, called "kass" in Tuvan is very widespread among the folk. It is considered to be a beautiful ornament which brings good luck; it is a Buddhist symbol, and it is sacred.
- Is that a statue of the Buddha opposite the entrance on the chest?
O.D.: Yes, opposite the entrance, which is oriented to the East, at the Western wall of the yurt, in the most honored place, there is a small Buddha statue. Not every yurt had statues, most often you could see a picture of somebody who is most honored by the family. Altars always held clean drinking water, or holy water, to bring happiness, luck and prosperity.
- Why did you say that statues of the Buddha weren't seen very often?
O.D.: It depends on the faith. Of course, if the family is devoutly Buddhist, brings offerings, changes water every day… It also depends on the family's means. It was not easy to get statues like this.
- Tell us, please, about some rituals.
O.D.: To prevent natural disasters, to make the cold and hunger pass, to have rich harvests, to keep children from getting sick, to have the livestock breeding well, and such things, one takes the ritual spoon - "nine eyes". It has nine concavities. It is used to dip milk and to sprinkle it near the yurt, quietly asking a request, addressing Mother-Earth and Father-Sky.
- Isn't such a ritual associated more with shamanism than with Buddhism? Why did the people need shamans?
O.D.: In Tuva, originally precisely paganism was more characteristic, that is, shamanism. Appropriate rituals secure the connection with spirits of the ancestors and their help, connection with spirits of nature, or, you could say, with nature. Shamanic rituals are meant to protect from disease, evil eye, curses, slander, and to purify the living space. Possibly the livestock did not do well over the winter, or did not breed well. Shamans also perform rituals for this purposes.
Buddhism came to Tuva later, and coalesced with shamanist rituals, in any case in many families. It is a very widespread phenomenon, that they can't tell you right away where Buddhism ends and shamanism begins, and vice versa. Look at, for example, juniper. It is used to smoke-purify the location. This easily obtained plant has a very pleasant smell. So it is used during reading Buddhist prayers as well as during shamanist rituals. Juniper smoke is in wide use among the people. For example, if I have a bad dream, I perform a certain gesture for chasing away evil spirits three times, with burning juniper in my hand. Young people do it too. They may even "purify" themselves before an exam, and it is possible to clean any defiled place this way.
- That means that different traditions are used together without conflict?
O.D.: If you don't count the times of Stalinist repressions, we have always had freedom of religion. Somebody goes to the shamans, another to the lamas. Of course, there is also orthodox Christianity in Tuva, an Orthodox church has been built in Kyzyl. May city people go there. Three religions co-exist here peacefully, freely.
- But why don't you have a shaman's drum and coat in the yurt here?
O.D.: Things, exhibited in this yurt are supposed to reflect the most characteristic equipment of usual way of life. Shamanic paraphernalia are only in families of shamans, only there you will find a shaman's coat, drums, beaters. Ordinary people should not have shamanic objects.
Here you can see various things which used to be characteristic for well-to-do people. For example a chess set, very beautiful carved. Chess came to Tuva from Mongolia and China. The rules are exactly the sane as anywhere else in the world.
And this is a four-string bowed instrument, it is called byzanchy. The strings are horse hair from the tail. When professional musicians play, it sounds like a violin. And this is a bridle for the horse. A bridle, of course, was in every family, but those in a well-to-do family had beautiful patterns, depicting, for example, flowers, or swastika ornaments. It rang melodically.
- Many things in the yurt are used for preparing and using food, right?
O.D.: The kettle has a universal character. It is used to cook meat and to roast barley, and when it is cooking, it has to be stirred all the time with a special stick, so that the skins would burst. Barley is used to make a folk dish dalgan. First, the barley has to be pounded in a large wooden mortar, (sogaash), winnowed, then roasted in a cast-iron kettle (without butter), and pounded again. The it is winnowed again, getting rid of the shells, and only then is it ground in a hand-operated stone mill (deerbe). This is nomad food, which they take along on hunting trips, long journeys, and travel. Dalgan (talgan) is light, very filling, and it has medicinal properties - it is good for the digestive tract, against diabetes mellitus, and it slows aging. It is an ecologically clean food, very tasty.
There is a gadget for pounding brick tea and rock salt. Not far away from here is a small place Tusta, associated with mining rock salt, "tus" is salt in Tuvan. It was kept in small pouches made of a bull, horned arkhar, or other large horned animal scrotum. All kinds of domestic animals were bred in Tuva - sheep, goats, cows, camels, yaks, reindeer. But the most valuable animal was and still is the horse.
- But why are no reindeer to be seen around Kyzyl? Or is it only in these times?
O.D.: We are in the West, but the reindeer are herded in Eastern Tuva, near the border with Buryatia. Central Tuvans do not know reindeer. And the use of traditional yurts is not characteristic for reindeer herders. They have conical huts. They also have an original dialect. They have their own names for some things.
- Let's return to the foods. It is, of course, meat, but what else?
O.D.: an ordinary Tuvan family had five to fifteen cows. The milk was used to make cheese, cottage cheese and cream. If the milk was to be fermented, there was a special distilling apparatus, which is also among the exhibits of the yurt-museum collection. They fermented the milk in wooden casks, called "toskar". The steam from heated fermented milk condensed, and folk milk vodka - araka - was obtained this way. Araka was kept in leather flasks, made from skins of large horned cattle. Often such flasks have impressed national ornaments. Araka could be kept in such a flask for a year.
- But how did they wash themselves?
O.D.: They would place the yurt next to a river, where they washed in the summer. But in winter they used a type of leather bath-tub, resembling a boat. Or it could be made of wood.
- Are large families characteristic of Tuva?
O.D.: Yes, families used to be larger. A child's cradle is exhibited in the women's part of the yurt. It is fastened with ropes, so that you could rock the baby and breast-feed at the same time. There was a lot of work for everybody- even for children - to collect wood, watch livestock, bring water. Such chores had a good edifying effect. It was a culture allowing one to raise healthy progeny, to live a long time, and to be well organized. It was not allowed to drink araka until one turned thirty. There were no drunks. Our ancestors lived to the age of 100 years, they were very industrious, wore natural wool clothes, used rock salt, which we have already mentioned. Note that even now old women and men have white teeth , because they use rock salt for food and for mouthwash. In general, rock salt is a medicament. A person's health depends in many ways on salt. It is mined in some mountains, right from under a surface layer of grass.
- Yes, these are interesting traditions, remarkable and edifying folk experience. Thank you!
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