Olu Vandenbussche

In May 2007 the Central Asian Crafts Support Association (CACSA) invited several international artists and designers to Kyrgyzstan, as part of their objective of promoting and innovating local craft culture through intercultural exchange programs. We spent one month travelling in the northern region of Kyrgyzstan, visiting community-based craft initiatives, participating in workshops and seminars on nomad art, architecture and cuisine, and getting a sense of nomadic life while staying with locals in their summer yurts. This article presents an overview of different aspects of yurt culture which are cultivated within the frameworks of sustainable tourism. It also includes parts of my exploratory research into nomadic textiles. Those further interested in sustainable development strategies and projects within Kyrgyzstan are referred to the links listed at the end of the article.

Nearly all tourist activities in Kyrgyzstan are in some way related to the yurt: the round, moveable nomad dwelling made of felt and wood. There are workshops on yurt construction, seminars on yurt semantics, and demonstrations in dairy production, which is traditionally the communal effort of the women in the jailoo (summer settlement). The textiles on display at museums and those sold at various craft shops throughout the country largely have their origins in nomadic, yurt-based life.

The rich diversity of yurt culture has appealed to people of various backgrounds for centuries, and continues to do so. Many scholars are intrigued by what I like to refer to as “yurt semantics”, the study of the meanings associated with the yurt, its various construction parts, the disposition of the household goods within its interior, and the places where people seat themselves. Without going into too much detail, let’s have a look at some of the symbols and rituals connected with the yurt.

The significance of the yurt for the Kyrgyz people becomes clear when I visited one of the many cemeteries that dot the Kyrgyz countryside. The entrances of the yurt – like their graves face the road so that the deceased can watch the travellers passing by.

First let us consider the yurt in its totality. To the nomads, its circular shape represents both movement and completion, and reflects their own wanderings. These wanderings weren’t linear, with some abstract destination that was never reached, but corresponded to the cyclic pattern of the seasons. Contrary to popular belief, nomads’ journeys weren’t arbitrary; they had clear objectives, such as following game or harvest trails.

Yurts are traditionally situated with their entrances facing south, and during the day one can easily tell the time simply by tracking the patch of sunlight on the floor as it enters through the central smokehole. This has led some scholars to believe that yurts were in fact used as solar clocks by the ancient nomads. Others argue that yurts should be regarded as maps or miniature versions of the universe. They draw parallels between the circular and rectangular shapes found in the yurts’ structure and those found on ancient felts. The latter respectively symbolize the sky and the Earth and can be traced back to the Stone Age where they were supposedly used in the communication between man and nature.

Yurt interiors follow a standard division into a men’s quarter, a women’s quarter and a guest quarter. All possessions are linked with one of these quarters and arranged along the walls in a strict order, which has remained unchanged over the past thousands of years as a sign of continuation of tradition. Certain objects are believed to hold magical powers, like the mirror on the family altar at the back of the yurt, which is supposed to ward off any malevolent energy trying to enter.

Both the inside and outside of a yurt are decorated with magical, protective symbols to ward off any malefic energy trying to enter.

Inside the yurt, even movement and activity bears significance and follows strict rules: movements within its interior are supposed to follow a clockwise direction, in sync with the motion of sunlight, as it makes its way around the yurt during the course of the day. Teacups are passed around in this direction as well, and may never simply be passed across the table. Yurts are even set up in a clockwise orientation in order to generate energy, and dismantled the other way round. The same circular pattern can be seen in certain shamanistic dances, such as the circle dance around the World Tree, by means of which the dancers raise a spiral of energy to carry the shaman’s spirit to Heaven.

Traditionally, the construction of a yurt is accompanied by sacrifices, games and contests which are nowadays enacted on behalf of the tourists. Special attention is paid to the tunduk or smokehole, the most sacred element of the yurt. Some Central Asian peoples allow their children to swing on long ropes, fastened to the smokehole. Because of this swinging, the tunduk becomes more firmly attached to the roof beams, and the wall lattices and beams draw nearer to each other, lending extra strength and stability to the construction.

When a yurt is constructed, special attention is paid to the tunduk (central smokehole). Only men are allowed to handle the tunduk and it is traditionally handed down from father to youngest son.

The above example serves to illustrate the playful, creative approach nomads had towards practical issues. Another example is that of the leather drinking flasks or kukur which had leather figures applied, not so much for decoration as to protect from knocks. Because of their smart usage of materials and clever design of objects, addressing multiple issues at a time (durability, portability, space limitations, etc.), I believe that nomad art and architecture are still very relevant to contemporary (sustainable) design.

When for instance, we stop to examine the yurt more closely, it becomes clear that this “simple” dwelling is actually in many ways superior to modern, western-style homes. To begin with, it’s extremely flexible, not just because of its portability, but also because it makes use of space in the most efficient way imaginable, allowing the whole area it encompasses to become useful living space (as opposed to western homes which have lots of “waste space”: e.g. rooms which are left unused for the greater part of the day). A yurt can also be used for multiple purposes: for formal gatherings, informal dinners, as a living space, a workshop or a place of worship. In this respect it is aided by multifunctional objects like tent bags made from carpet or appliquéd felt that can be stuffed with clothes and used as cushions, or blankets which are used as improvisatory beds and seats and can easily be stored away. It’s also possible to spread these different functions over several yurts which are then connected to form a larger living unit or “meta-yurt”.

An example of yurt mimicry is that of designers of so-called “innovative” office concepts who are developing (time- and money-consuming) technologies that merely simulate the lighting conditions and ventilation systems found naturally in yurts (see for instance Philips’ concept of “dynamic lighting” at http://www.dynamiclighting.philips.com).

The traditional nomadic kitchen – as can still be found among the rural population of Kyrgyzstan – beautifully mirrors the old life: itinerant, dependent on animal husbandry, restricted by harsh weather conditions and geographical limitations. Although it might not immediately appeal to our taste, it serves as yet another example of the ingenuity of the Central Asian nomads, transforming their limited resources into a variety of dishes suiting different occasions and responding to various needs of both a nutritional but also logistical and ceremonial nature.

The nomadic diet consisted almost entirely of dairy products and meat. Men were exclusively responsible for the slaughtering of the animals, whereas the women collaborated on dairy production. Depending on the region, they would process the milk of different animals (sheep, goats, yak or camels) and turn it into butter, ayran (salty yoghurt) and qurut (a round-shaped cheese made of dried, sour curds). Without exception the milk would be boiled before consumption and fermented using whey, pieces of cheese, melon seeds, branches of juniper, silver rings or coins.

When fresh food wasn’t available, as in winter or during food shortages due to bad weather conditions, the nomads would eat qurut. This was also taken as a “trail food” by those who embarked on long journeys, since it was rich in vitamins and calories and could easily be prepared by crushing and mixing with warm water and bread.

Today, the Kyrgyz are still very proud of their national drink called koumiss (“silver drink”). It is a slightly alcoholic beverage made from mare’s milk that has been left to ferment in a chinach, a pouch made of animal skin. This is smoked over a fire of pine branches in order to lend the koumiss its typical taste and smell. In the nineteenth century, Russian scientists discovered the curative properties of koumiss and it has been used ever since to treat various ailments, ranging from tuberculosis, anaemia and chronic lung diseases, to gynaecological and skin diseases. Special sanatoria have been built where patients receive treatments consisting of lots of fresh air, exercise and koumiss. The Kyrgyz themselves accord magical properties to the drink, consuming it at every occasion, believing the joint drinking of koumiss will bring them health and happiness.

Like all Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan has a very rich textile tradition comprised of such diverse disciplines as kurak (patchwork from recycled textiles), saima (embroidery), ikat weaves and plain weaves, woven cii mats, felt and leather products. However, most discussions on Kyrgyz textiles focus exclusively on felt production and more specifically on two types of felt carpet known as shyrdak and ala kiis.

Why is this? First let me remark that each of the Central Asian countries more or less has its own specialisation: Kazakhstan for example is best known for its knotted pile carpets, Uzbekistan for its “atlas silk”. Both shyrdaks and ala kiis are unique to Kyrgyzstan and are produced exclusively in the northern oblasts (provinces). Maybe this has to do with the fact that cii (cypergrass) does not grow in the south, making it impossible to fabricate the cii mats which were traditionally used in the process of felting.

Apart from national pride, gender too determines to a certain extent the substance of textile-related activities: a strict division still exists between so-called “male” materials such as metal and leather – which can only be processed by men – and “female” materials like wool, though it must be said that men assist in the more strenuous stages of the felt production. Taking into account the fact that workshops are mainly led and attended by women, it isn’t hard to understand why the focus is on felt products made out of wool.

Textile production is traditionally a communal activity with several women collaborating on larger pieces, although – under the incentive of tourism – more and more women are starting to individually fabricate carpets in order to maximize profits. Any hierarchy which might exist among them – with experience as the main criterion – will show during production. Take an ala kiis for instance: its design is laid out by the most experienced woman, while the others fill it in with tufts of coloured wool. Details are left for the children to complete.

Coming from a background in design, I was naturally very interested in the use and significance of colour within Kyrgyz design. It turned out that colour was a very important feature of Kyrgyz textiles, with a vast symbolism reflecting Kyrgyz cosmology. When attempting to “read” a shyrdak design, one has to take into account the meaning of the colours used: a meaning which may vary according to the proportion of the different colours and their juxtaposition. Colour is an important element in yurt construction as well. Here, it serves to demonstrate the various relationships between the yurt and the surrounding world and has an additional magical protective function.

Red, for instance, symbolizes life andmovement. It is considered a positive colour and is obtained through the use of madder or a synthetic dye. In the past, the wooden lattices and roof poles of yurts were coated with a mixture of clay and horse blood to keep any malevolent energy from entering the yurt. The typical white colour of the yurt isn’t merely a consequence of using white wool as a basis for the felt wall and roof coverings, as is often thought. To the nomads white reflects status, and historically, wealthy nomads would coat their yurts with lime or white clay mixed with powdered bone to obtain this sought-after effect. As I pointed out earlier, some scholars regard the yurt as a miniature version of the universe. Their hypothesis is supported by the fact that – especially in Mongolian yurts – the roof poles are often painted sky blue and the entrance door a bright green, representing the endless steppe on which the nomads used to wander.

The above examples indicate a preference for bright, vivid colours. However, most of the plant dyes available locally provide muted yellows, browns and greens which do not appeal at all to Kyrgyz aesthetics. Besides, most plants used for dyeing are scarse and hard to locate . This explains why Kyrgyz women so happily adopted synthetic dyes from the late nineteenth century onward. Of course, these pose problems of their own: good quality dyes are both expensive and hard to find, and the cheaper (Chinese) ones have a tendency to run.

Under the incentive of Western tourists’ preferences for “natural” colours (based upon the false assumption that natural colours are more “authentic” because they supposedly reflect the harmonic relationship of nomads with their surroundings, a relationship which – as we have seen – is expressed in a different manner), natural dye specialists have recently been brought to Kyrgyzstan in an attempt to reintroduce natural dyes.

In addition to being more people and environmentally friendly, shyrdaks made from naturally coloured wool sell better and find access to international markets more easily since they comply with international (environmental) standards. However, this does not imply that synthetic dyes are losing popularity. In fact, as Tiffany Tuttle rightfully observed during her field research in Kyrgyzstan,1 Kyrgyz women seem to have lately adopted two sets of aesthetic criteria when it comes to colour use: one that sells better and one that reflects their personal tastes.

A never-ending story – cracking the code to shyrdak reading.

Kyrgyz carpets make for extremely interesting study materials: their designs, colours and motifs reflect changes and patterns on different levels, in the lives of the shyrdak makers themselves and in their nomadic society as a whole. By carefully studying shyrdaks one can discover interesting things about Kyrgyz nomads’ world views, lifestyles, interactions with other peoples, scientific and technological advances, socio-economic realities, and so forth. However, shyrdaks are intriguing not merely for the stories they tell, but even more so for the secrets they conceal. It’s extremely difficult to crack the code to a shyrdak reading for a variety of reasons.

To begin with, there’s the loss of traditional ways of life and ceremonies which used to influence the decorative arts: shamanism for instance was replaced by the Islam throughout Central Asia (although some traces of shamanism can still be found in the rituals and magical protective elements connected with animal husbandry and the construction and decoration of yurts). Craft production itself faced extinction during Soviet times, when Central Asian artisans were forbidden to operate private businesses and produce handicrafts in an effort to modernize the region and bring it into conformity. Luckily, some underground craft production continued and in the case of Kyrgyzstan the revival of craft culture has been essential to the development of community-based sustainable tourism (CBST) as a primary source of income for many, following independence from the USSR in 1991. Despite the apparent craft revival, contemporary shyrdak makers use but a limited repertoire of designs, and few seem acquainted with their exact names and meanings. Some claim this has always been the case and that in the past, only a select group of female design specialists, known as oimochus,2 could interpret motifs. The oimochus were supposedly also the only ones able to design motifs, a quality associated with supernatural powers (“second sight”) and were therefore accorded similar respect as shamans. Each village used to have one or two oimochus and the other women would visit them whenever a new design was needed. According to some researchers the oimochus would draw designs incorporating symbols fitting for the occasion, while others protest that their drawings were based on intuition rather than on a strict application of appropriate symbols and that we should read shyrdaks in this intuitive manner as well.

While I was in Kyrgyzstan I made a small excursion to the ancient city of Osh, located in the south and close to the border with Uzbekistan, where I stayed with the family of Gulnara Kadirbayeva, a design professor who specialized in shyrdaks. There I had the opportunity to study a rare book on the subject dating from 1948. It contained motifs of varying complexity, ranging from simple designs and compound motifs to so-called tabard motifs constructed by arranging simple and/or compound motifs at two or four ends of a cross. 3 All motifs were stylized representations of parts of the landscape, celestial forms, plants, animals, people, or household objects. Abstract motifs were a necessity because of the technological limitations of felting, whereas other techniques (e.g. saima – embroidery) allowed for more intricate designs.

From Gulnara I learnt that the interpretation of shyrdak designs depends on many factors, including the position of the interpreter: the motif for kukur (drinking flask) below becomes kochkor (ram) when viewed from the other side. The design is in blue, which generally speaking is a negative colour referring to death. However, in this constellation where it is used together with orange (the colour of hope), it obtains the significance of a prayer.

While speaking about Kyrgyz textiles, I have occasionally mentioned their commodification for the sake of tourism. This is often cited as the main cause of their alleged “deterioration”. However, apart from the simplification of motifs in order to speed up production and the standardization in the layout of products for reasons of portability, most changes I perceived seemed to be for the better. For instance, by freeing carpets from their ritual and ceremonial context, tourism has given women the opportunity to freely experiment with new colours and techniques resulting in a greater variety of colour combinations and novel products. The biggest concern with regard to traditional Kyrgyz textiles therefore seems to be the preservation of the symbolic knowledge associated with them, held on to precariously by the living oimochus.

I’d like to end this brief introduction to yurt culture with a warm appeal to all nature lovers to abandon your houses and start living in yurts! Apart from obvious advantages such a as portability, adaptability to individual needs and tastes, resistance to harsh weather conditions, low cost…), yurts also offer practical, inexpensive, low - tech solutions to environmental issues such as space limitations, waste management, etc.. The lack of physical boundaries within yurts, their circular shape also help people to re – connect with their surroundings in this highly individualistic age. For those among you who can’t miss modern comforts, companies such as Rainier Yurts (http://www.rainieryurts.com) offer yurts that come with electricity, plumbing, heating, even Internet and are easy to set up. Should you still have doubts about the aptitude of these ancient dwellings for our highly technological times, it might help to realize that yurts are already commonly used in Europe and North America as guest cottages, home offices, artist’ studio’s, yoga retreats and restaurants.

Further reading TUTTLE, T. L., Old designs for young people: Art, innovation and cultural continuity in Kyrgyzstan, Washington State University, Washington, 2005. http://www.aidtoartisans.org http://www.catgen.com (CACSA) http://www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg http://www.helvetas.kg

Related: http://hexayurt.com/