Childbirth Traditions in Kyrgyzstan
Each culture has different customs and rituals to welcome the birth of a child, and Kyrgyzstan is no exception.
While a Kyrgyzstan wedding is a grand affair, many Kyrgyz women see childbirth as their primary purpose in life. To not give birth to children, particularly a son, is a source of great shame. Childbirth is their contribution to carrying on the family line and brings them recognition and honor in their community. In past times, it was not uncommon to have ten or more children in one family.
According to Kyrgyz tradition, a series of rituals must be followed before and after the birth of the child. Childbirth traditions in Kyrgyzstan are carried out with the aim of protecting the child from evil and bringing good fortune into his or her life.
In the days when the Kyrgyz people still led a nomadic lifestyle, infant mortality was common. Hence long before the expectant mother gave birth, she began to be very carefully protected from evil forces with the help of tumars, special amulets holding scraps of paper with prayers scribbled on them.
Childbirth in Kyrgyzstan always took place in the female half of the yurt, where day and night the fire burned to scare away evil spirits.
When the woman went into labor, men and children left the yurt and the midwife (kindik-ene) took charge. During childbirth, the woman would kneel and hold tightly onto a pillar, considered a sacred part of the home that symbolized the “Sacred Tree of Life”. The midwife slowly rocked the woman from side to side in an attempt to jolt the child into the best possible position. The midwife also reassured the expectant mother and advised her how to breathe, etc.
If the mother did not have sufficient strength, her husband was called to help. Grabbing her from behind, he would press down on her stomach.
A difficult childbirth signaled the disfavor of the goddess Umay, the patron of pregnant women and babies, and the work of the evil spirit Albarsta who was said to devour infants. In such situations, the Kyrgyz asked for help from the mullah Kuuchu who, striking a whip around the woman in labor, tried to drive the Albarsta away.
After the birth of the child, the midwife poured oil into the fire and gave thanks to the goddess Umay. On the first day after childbirth, the new mother was given boiled milk; on the second and third days, tea and porridge. On the fourth day, the husband slaughtered a sheep and fed his wife a rich meat dinner known as kalzha.
Suyunchu (Joyful News) and Korunduk (Seeing the baby)
Birthing traditions in Kyrgyzstan also dictated that when the happy news of the birth of the child, called suyunchu, was spread to all relatives and neighbors, gifts should be given to the bearers of such good news. Those who were first to visit the baby should also present the mother with a special gift, called korunduk.
Koyuu (Naming the Baby)
Before bestowing a name on the child, he was carefully examined, with special attention paid to any unique characteristics. These characteristics, such as a birthmark or the season in which he was born, would influence the decision of an appropriate name.
The groom’s parents or a respected elder would choose the newborn’s name. Kyrgyz believe that a name has tremendous power in deciding a person’s fate. For example, calling the baby Umut (Hope) or Salamat (Health) predisposes the child for a happy, healthy future. Women were forbidden to name the child.
Taboos Related to Infants
Superstitions affected every aspect of the Kyrgyzstan lifestyle, including the care of infants. Several taboos were strictly observed:
Prohibition 1: An infant could not be kissed on the heels, as this would cause him to grow lazy and moody.
Prohibition 2: It was forbidden to state his exact age, as doing so could cause the evil eye to harm him.
Prohibition 3: After dark, you should not call the infant by his or her name, because the evil spirit Albarsta could hear you, learn the baby’s name and bring harm to the child.
Prohibition 4: If you tickle a newborn, he will cry at night.
Prohibition 5: Kyrgyz believed that evil spirits could touch the baby’s clothes in the dark, and therefore the baby should always be carefully cleaned.
Prohibition 6: To prevent the evil eye from bringing harm to the child, he was not shown too much love or showered with compliments.
It was also considered a bad omen to weigh the child, measure his height or say that he was handsome.
Belief in the need to deceive evil spirits to protect the child was very strong, and several Kyrgyzstan traditions revolved around this. Sometimes the Kyrgyz performed the ritual of “imaginary theft”, where the child was temporarily transferred to other people who had been designated for this masquerade even before delivery.
If boys often died in the family, then a baby boy might be dressed in a girl’s outfit, given a female name, plaited braids, etc., in hopes of confusing the spirits. If only girls were born, then the female child might be given a masculine name such as Uulbolsun (let a son be born). It was believed that this would increase the chances of the next child being a boy.
After exactly 40 days from birth, the baby was placed in the portable cradle known as a beshik.
According to Kyrgyzstan birthing traditions, an elderly woman would do this while asking God to give the newborn health and long life. Before putting the child in the cradle, he was washed with with 40 spoonfuls of warm water and received his first haircut. His first shirt was called “dog’s shirt” (it koinok) because it was first worn by a dog so that all the sorrows and evil intended for the child were passed to the animal instead. During the cradle ceremony, this shirt was replaced with a special piece of Kyrgyzstan clothing called a kirk koinok (40 flaps). The new shirt was made of 40 flaps of various materials which had previously been collected from the elderly and from neighboring families with many children, to ensure the newborn would have a long life.
One final custom was observed on this day, when 40 cakes in butter (may tokos) or 40 round loaves of fried break (kirk chelpek) were baked and distributed to 40 children.
First Steps and Tushoo Kesuu (Cutting the Rope)
Tushoo kesuu is an ancient Kyrgyz tradition that is still observed today. This rite is performed when the child is one year old and begins to take his first steps.
Tushoo kesuu usually starts in the morning: the child is placed near the yurt, and his legs are entangled in a rope made of sheep’s wool. The rope should have 2 twisted threads, one white and one black, as a symbol of Good and Evil. Opposite him, adolescents from 8 to 12 years old start to run towards the child. The one who is first to reach him and cut the rope receives a special gift and a knife prepared especially for the ceremony. This activity is often repeated several times, as Kyrgyz believe that observing this ritual will help the child to confidently stand on his own and secure a happy future for him or her.
Muchol Jash (Birthday every 12 years)
For many Kyrgyzstan people, every 12 years a person’s birthday holds special significance (muchol jash), for this is the end of a full zodiac cycle. Thus, the child’s 12th birthday holds great importance. Parents and relatives give their blessings and gift the youth with a red shirt or shawl, a symbol that the transition from childhood to adulthood has begun.
The Kyrgyz had their own calendar of 12-year cycles, so that significant milestones fell on years 13, 25, 37, 49, 61, 73, 85 and 97. They believed that at these times of transition from one cycle to the next, a person needs to be more attentive to his health and what is happening in life. This is a potentially fateful time, accompanied by trials and difficulties.