Kazakh family traditions

Kazakh culture and national traditions

Training be a mother-in-law

Kyeli kyim
According to ancient Kazakh tradition, the mother-in-law wouldn't let her daughter-in law go home until a year had passed. During this period it was her duty to educate the new bride on her new duties. Surely this must have been a difficult period for the new bride. First, as mentioned earlier, she had to invent and use correctly new nicknames for her husbands parents. Second, she had a number of specific household duties to perform: to get up early, open the tundik, bring in the water, heat the yurt, prepare warm water for her father-in law to pour, and she was to close tundik late night. During the day she had to prepare the tea, process kumiss and cottage cheese, make kurt, wash the linen and the dishes, milk the cows and horses, gather "Kizyak" (processed dung used as fuel), and prepare lunch and dinner: in brief she had to do lots of work to do. She would not be able to go to bed until very late, and only after she had done all these chores. Should a guest come to visit at night, the young wife would also be expected to graciously entertain, leading to 17-18 hours of hard work during a typical day. Third, she had always to bow to her father-in law and mother-in law. Fourth, during the "testing" year, she mustn't show any trace of ill temper. If she failed to get up early, i-t, was within the right of one of her brother's-in law to beat her with a kuruk, a device designed for capturing unbroken horses. Should she be struck by her brother-in-law, she was not to become offended, but rather rise immediately and begin her tasks.

Household training of the sort described here was believed to be only the way to bring up a daughter-in law to be industrious and kind, and only upon the delivery of her first child could she graduate from this sort of "schooling." At this point the mother-in law would reassign her ceremonial location in the yurt away from the door and to another location, stating that "Before you were young, now you are a mother. You have passed the test and are now and equal member of this family." Then she would kiss the young bride; and no longer would she be required to bow to other members of the family. The mother-in law would also give her a knife and a bowl, and let the young wife cut any piece of meat she liked to boil. It likewise meant that she could slaughter cattle and treat guests on her own, because she was now able to be a hostess.

That day the mother-in law would also place the "kimeshek," an old-fashioned women's headdress (of white calico) on her daughter-in-law's head. The kimeshek would have been sent by her parents, who also wished their daughter to have a baby as soon as possible. A kimeshek was also known as a "kyieli kyim," which means "sacred cloth" in English. Should the kelin never have children, the kimeshek would be kept in the trunk indefinitely. Saukele as you know, was for the new bride, but the kimeshek was for a new mother. Both the kimeshek and the saukele were white, a favorite color of the Kazakhs. The kimeshek was a larger headdress, however, because it would hide the most beautiful parts of a woman from every man but her husband, Concealing the thick black hair and a white long neck of a woman was its primary purpose. On the other hand, kimeshek was also liked by women because it was warm and kept a woman's hair from interfering with her food preparation during the day. Often, though, as a new bride became accustomed to her new household, she was not required to wear this headdress.

In the Kazakh tradition, Torkindeu was very important. With the exception of her brothers, no one else from the bride's family was permitted to visit her during her year of "training." Yearning for her parents and other relatives, she might weep and say: I'd like to ride a horse, but it has no shoes.I'd like to wear a coat' but it has no collar, I'm weeping because I've nobody to visit me. Torkindeu was the occasion of the kelin's first visit to her relatives after her relocation to her husband's household. The Kelin would go there with her husband and a Djien. A djien is a nephew or niece from the bride's family. With them they bring presents for her parents and other relatives. She visits them for a month, because she hasn't seen them for a year. Her parents and relatives would also slaughter a sheep for this occasion. When the young couple returned home, the kelin's parents and relatives would give them a horse with a foal, a cow with a calf, and forty goats. For the djien they would also present a one year old skewbald horse. Kazakhs never spared anything from their daughter and djien. They would say: "The prophet also respected his son-in law" or "Never beat djien, otherwise your hands would shake" or "My mother's and my husbands brothers are all wealthy people, how can I be poor?" According to Eastern tradition, after the father's death his sons and daughters would equally inherit his property. In Kazakh tradition, on the other hand, the youngest son would inherit all of his property and cattle. Most surprising in our tradition is that a son or daughter was forbidden to marry anyone with the same surname as an ancestor of the preceding seven generations. This was done out of respect for previous generations as well as a belief that the quality of future generations depended upon new bloodlines.

Enshi beru, otau bolu
We have already discussed traditions beginning with Zharxs Kazan. Accordingly, when children married and began to have their own children, the parents would ask them to move out. They would give them cattle, dishes, felt and other items necessary to furnish a yurt. All relatives contributed to the establishment of a this new household, and this giving was marked with its own little celebration, One of the reasons of separating from the children was that some sons used to become overly dependent upon their parents and become idle. It was believed that a separation was necessary to teach a son how to protect and feed his own family. Having their own yurt, the young couple had then to invite relatives and neighbors and prove that they could survive without the aid of their folks. Daughters-in-law were very friendly, during this period, being sure to send meat home to her in-laws were they unable to attend a family gathering. Related families, or the aul, were required to obey the Aksakal, or the oldest man of the community. When the young couple moved into their own yurt, the husband's father would present him with a camel. This symbolized that when moving to another place (as the Kazakhs were nomads), he mustn't stay behind the caravan. His mother would also give them a cow with a calf, which meant that they could feed their children with milk, sour cream, yogurt, kurt, and butter. If the young couple could successfully handle their cattle, it was expected that they would live in easy circumstances.

Other traditions

In earlier times Kazakhs had many traditions; most of them are no longer followed, of course. Here is a list of some of them.

Ishet kuda tusu
There were close friends who shared almost everything. They would say: "If your wife would give a birth to a daughter and mine to a son, we would be kinsmen." This meant that they wanted to pass their friendship along to the next generation. After saying this they would take off their shirts hug each other, and take an oath. Later if children came to the friends in the manner anticipated, they lived as kinsmen. Their yurts would be close, so they could bring up their children together. In such cases, the bride's parents wouldn't ask for kalyn mal (the dowry) or other typical gifts from the future groom's family. They would consider that they had a son and a daughter. Cattle and food were often held in common by these families; their children grew up together; and minor transgressions were easily overlooked. We could use such traditions today, because one day we hear that someone is married, the next day that they have divorced. Kinsmen often argue and fight amongst themselves, which makes us all remember the friendlier traditions of early days.

Fate is often unkind to a human being. If a young girl's parents died before she was grown, she might be brought up by relatives. When she matured, a man might observe and follow her. Usually these were men who hadn't married or who were widows. Such a man might make an agreement with the girl" s relatives to feed and nurture her. After taking her home he would keep this promise, but later he would also marry her. Yet, there would be no wedding ceremony of the types we described earlier. Kazakhs called this practice "Kolbala."

Ui synygy
In ancient times Kazakh men would marry several times. Even if a man lost a wife early after a marriage, he would likely marry again quickly. Were he to marry a virgin in subsequent ceremonies, he would have to pay almost a double "kalyn mal." Women of the aul would condemn this practice and gossip, demanding him to give "ui sinigi," which is kind of penalty. Only poor parents would view such a liaison as desirable, for they may have been living from hand to mouth. Poorer families might not even be able to move with their neighbors and kin to another pasture because they hadn't a camel or a horse to transport their yurt. So, the "selling" of a daughter may have been their best way to improve family prospects.

Karsy kuda
If two friends each had two daughters or two sons, they might have all four of their children intermarry. In such a way they became kinsman; this practice was called "Karsy kuda." This often happened among families who couldn't afford kalyn mal. The brides in each case would likely feel happier and more at home in the groom's yurt as she was already well acquainted with her future in-laws. Less affluent kinsmen or matchmakers often lived close to each other on the steppe. They could borrow each others horses or camels when it was needed, and they could milk each others cows. Should one kinswoman be absent for some reason, her relative might perform her duties for her. Children from poorer Kazakh families would be very important. They were required to do much hard work, and were capable of great endurance.

In early times if a beautiful and clever young woman became a widow, her in-laws and their relatives may have wanted her to marry again within the family, thus making her again the tokal (the youngest wife). They would say: "although her husband died, it doesn't mean she must leave this place. One day the poor would be rich, and a young girl would be a lady." If the widow had a few children and she owned many cattle or she was rich, many men might want marry her. However, if her parents were aristocrats, they would take her back. Otherwise, the groom's family would try to keep her because they had paid kalin mal to obtain her in the first place. Furthermore, as it was the Kazakh tradition to have two or more wives anyway, remarrying another brother was an acceptable way to keep her in the family. It was bad for the widow to have to marry the deceased husband's youngest brother, however. For, after meeting a girl of his own age, he could leave the widow. On the other hand, if the widow was persistent and didn't want to marry anyone, she could stay alone or with her children in her yurt. Her in laws and relatives would respect her, and help to raise her children.

Ericti kundes
We aren't sure about aging patterns among other peoples, but Kazakh women appeared to age more rapidly than the men. Perhaps the reason was that they were used to doing all the hard work about the house and raising the children. Poverty may also have contributed. One way for a wife to find help in sharing the burden of running a household was to find a suitable and well-bred second wife to voluntarily marry her husband. Sometimes the first wife might also encourage her husband to marry her sister, hoping that this might also ensure good treatment of her children. The first wife would thus become the Baibishe (senior wife), and more recently married ones the Tokal. The taking of a second wife often, though, created a friendly rivalry in the yurt. The baibishe was happy to direct the work of a new wife or wives, but sometimes she became jealous of her husband's attention to a younger and more glamorous woman. Kazakhs would say. "A husband for the tokal, the cattle for baibishe".

Of course, all of the above mentioned traditions may or may not have been useful for the Kazakhs, but in either event they were the traditions of our forefathers. We should take from them ideas and practices useful today in modern life where they would be useful. Especially nowadays we need our generation to be respectful, kind, and merciful; all of which visible in the traditions of our forefathers.

The funeral

Sooner or later everybody must die: even our forefather Korkyt couldn't escape from death. Kazakhs would say: "People are born and die;" or "Persons are born to die;" or "Death would waste a wealthy man's cattle." These proverbs underscored the white and black stripes of life. Kazakhs not only respected people or relatives in their lifetime, but when they died they would also be given great respect.

One Kazakh proverb is "If your dead ancestors are not satisfied with you, you won't be rich." Following we describe several traditions involving death.

When a person became aware that he wouldn't recover from a serious illness, all his relatives would gather to say farewell and to ask forgiveness for previous disagreements. The ill person would then tell kinsmen how to distribute his property upon his death; request a burial, location, designate someone to prepare his body for its final rites, and instruct his friends about what sort of tomb or dome he wanted. If he had children he would also ask his trusted relatives to take care of them. Kazakhs felt great responsibility to fulfill the last requests of a dying person and to attempt to do everything that was asked.

Iman Uiru
Involved the attendance of a mullah to help bless and make decisions for a sick person in such poor health that he or she was unable to make his final communion himself.

In the Kazakh tradition, nobody was allowed to ask about a sick person's health in the evening. Sometimes when a person was expected to die, though, there would be moments when he would talk, joke and eat something. Kazakhs called this "Boi jasau" or "Boi jazu." Special food called "atau kere" or "jai kese" would be prepared. Perhaps contemporary bad expression in Kazakh, "Kerendi ish" came from this. People today say this when they are nervous.
In cases when a mullah attended a dying person's communion, "communion water" would be poured into his mouth, and prayers would be said. When there was a sign that he had died, the wife, children and relatives of the deceased person would cry aloud. The mullah would close the dead person's eyes, bind his jaw, and cover his face with a white cloth. After this they would take off his clothes, wrap him in a white fabric and put his body inside the screen of the yurt. Wealthy people might place him in a separate yurt.

In Kazakh tradition, the deceased person's body would be kept for three days, for in early times they considered that the soul of the deceased person would remain in the yurt for two days, departing for heaven on the third. So too, it often took several days for relatives living in remote places to come for the funeral. During these days, the body would be guarded by the old people of the family. At night a candle would be lit. Famous Kazakh scholar Shokan Valikhanov made an extensive study of the Kazakh funeral ceremony and he explained that in the Kazakh ancient tradition, a dead person's soul would visit his home and children for about forty days. Thus, his wife or other close relative would leave the door open and light the candle for the deceased to better see the threshold upon visiting. She would also spread a white felt and place a kese (teacup) of kumiss upon it for the spirit.

Earlier we stated that the purpose of setting fire and lighting a candle in general was meant to drive away grief and distress. When a person died his friends would say "Let the ground be soft for him." Some zhigits would invite people to the memorial service, but before this they had to prepare all the necessary things involved in a funeral, Many people from different clans would gather, and the old people and the mullah would choose the person to wash the dead person, if the deceased had not already specified them. Typically five or seven men were involved in the washing if the deceased person had been male. All involved in this ceremony had to be familiar with the rules of washing, and a relative had to always be present. All involved had also to be about the same age as the deceased. After the washing, they would place his body on a white cloth, or wrap him and bind him in three places. Then the body would be wrapped in a rug or white felt, and finally covered with a robe of pure silk fabric.

Then the mullah performed a memorial service and he would remove the silk garment from the deceased's body. Relatives would give gifts or "pidiya" to symbolically atone for mistakes or sins the deceased may have committed in his or her lifetime. Usually such gifts were made to a very poor person. Those who washed the deceased's body would be given his good cloths, and after this his body would be carried to the grave. Women would typically not be allowed to go to the grave. Rather, three men would place him in the grave, and three others would stand outside. Following this they would remove the three bindings used to hold the shroud in place and tie them upon themselves. All other witnesses to this event would then come and drop handfuls of earth into the grave. Following the complete interment, the mullah would pray. If the dead person had been old, his. relatives would then return and distribute pieces of cloth to every women who had been to the funeral.

The next part of the funeral ceremony was called is - syit beru. Here the relatives of the dead gave his clothes to fifteen or more people, or they would distribute money to the representatives of different clans. The mullah who had performed the memorial service would also be given a horse or a cow, and the men who had dug the grave would also be paid.

Family members would then invite people between seven and forty days after his death. For visitors they would slaughter a camel or horse. As beru was held one year later. A horse which would be slaughtered would be specially chosen for this event, and it had to be well fed and better than the one ridden by the deceased during his lifetime. The family of the deceased person would grieve for the whole year. When the year was up, the time of As beru came and the family of dead would then try to forget about their loss. Sometimes Kazakhs treated as beru as toi. Wealthy people might organize it as a feast where people might have fun watching horse races, different games, and competitions between poets and the singers of folksongs. Everyone would bring something he could afford to contribute to the event, e. g one sheep or bowl of kumiss. Now we describe some other traditions concerning the funeral.

Every year before fasting for the Islamic holiday, relatives would invite the mullah to read the Koran in honor of the dead. Another important artifact of the funeral ceremony is the selection and construction of a tomb. Different shapes are possible: cone shaped or square, some with a dome. Dome and cone shaped tombs looked like a yurt, but the poor could only afford square ones. Before death, an individual would tell his family what kind of cemetery to build for him. Some might ask that their tomb not be covered, so their bones would feel the sun and the rain.

After having heard that his relative died, many people would cry loudly and hug members of their family. In some places they did this for forty days. In order to do this, family members of the dead person had to remain at home. Should they be out and busy, a boy might serve as watch in case of approaching visitors. In ancient times a black ribbon might be attached to the house of the dead as a signal of mourning to passers-by.

We think there were probably few cultural groups who paid more homage to the dead than the Kazakhs. Even the evening of the day when a person died found the preparation of special foods for guests, such as "konak asi" or "besbarmak," a dish to be described later. Some visitors to the death scene would weep; older people would give advice and try to keep things calm as they also called upon god keep the deceaseds children happy. It was also important for Kazakhs to have many children and relatives to mourn for them upon their passing. When many people cried, it suggested the respect held for the deceased. If only a few were visibly affected, observers might say: "How pitiful! He hasn't any son or daughter to remember him, poor fellow. Family members would lament in different ways, remembering remember out-loud how clever, helpful, and generous he was. An illustrative lament was:

Why was he wrapped
in a cloth without sleeves and collar?
Why he did enter the house
without doors and honorable places?
Every step taken with you was as a feast
For whom did leave us, my dear?
May the earth your brothers have covered you with
be as a warm blanket. Meanwhile, his beloved wife might keen:
During the horse race it was clear that the horse would sweat
When relatives come now, however who will meet them?
I can't tell my sorrow to our children,
the way I used to tell you. How can I live without you,
remembering about our good times together.

For the most part, deceased persons would be extolled for their better qualities, since losing a beloved person was always a great sorrow. Sometimes, though, the funeral ceremony contained an element of criticism. To illustrate, let me tell you one story about one such funeral. Once an old man (Bazarbai) died. He had many children and he was thought to be respectable, yet when he died only two elder daughters-in law, two daughters and his old wife wept. According to observers, however, as many as twenty women were related to the deceased and expected to cry. This led to much gossip. Two of his daughters-in law for example were criticized for not knowing the Kazakh language, the other kelin was a professor who believed that she was too important to sit on a blanket made of cloth pieces, an attending brother was a minister - yet none of them showed sings of mourning. This led the great gossiper of the aul, Zhaken, to say: "Oh poor Bazeken (the pet name of a deceased person), it is as if he had no children. His sons weren't influenced by his life (or didn't have influence on their wives?). You know, Bazeken spent all his life grazing sheep in inclement weather in order to pay for their education and to support them - all to no avail."

In this way we can see that keening rituals were important for Kazakhs as testimonies of respect. Among some clans wives and daughters would loosen their hair during their lamentations, and sometimes even scratch their faces. They wouldn't wear earrings, rings, or other jewelry, and didn't wear their best or brightest cloths for long periods of time. Among many families, men returning from burying a lost relative or friend might cry out in a loud voice, beginning with "Oh bauirirn ou (brother by blood...).

Above we described various aspects of the funeral ceremony. These ceremonies were fairly uniform and resistenl to change in ancient times because they had both religious and traditional features. Of course, the same could be said of similar ceremonies practiced by other cultural groups in ages past. But nowadays slight alterations in burial practices can be found. For example, when the deceased person's body was wrapped in his own clothes, they may have brand new or worn. Earlier recipients of these garments from the body didn't usually care what cloths they were given, for just receiving them was an honor. Nowadays many who might be eligible to receive such wraps wont take them unless they are new, forcing the family of dying or recently deceased individuals to buy some new cloths in advance of the funeral. We think this is wrong. The funeral is not a feast, and mourners ought to consider the deceased's financial situation and the future needs of his children first. Anyway it is important for everyone, especially for Kazakhs to respect national traditions.