Chynara Bosunbaeva
Programme Specialist National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO

The oral tradition of the Kyrgyz people is the basis of a unique intangible cultural heritage that reflects Kyrgyz cultural identity. Oral heritage, developed over centuries, depicts the history and culture of the Kyrgyz people. Their creativity has been proven to survive exclusively in an oral form for many generations. This oral tradition represents a unique layer of traditional knowledge, making it a valuable source of cultural and traditional values and evidence of the development
of the sociopolitical history of the Kyrgyz people. Kyrgyz oral heritage takes a wide variety of forms, including songs, fairy tales, proverbs, and riddles. These can all be different in terms of content and structure. Depending on the genre, oral tradition can reflect history, legends, fairy tales, or lore, which can be important in educating younger generations about the value of peace, attitudes toward nature and people, and love for the motherland. Many traditional oral works portray the main characters as defenders of their native land, arousing a sense of pride, and also depict the rich nature of the Kyrgyz land, nourishing love for their home. Some elements of oral tradition such as songs and folktales tell the stories or the specificities and peculiarities of the everyday life of Kyrgyz people. Folktales also reflect the esthetic views of the Kyrgyz people and teach us to recognize beauty, rhythm, and skillful use of language.

Epic heritage is the most treasured and unique oral expression of the intangible cultural heritage of the Kyrgyz people. The epics have been transmitted entirely in oral form since the early ages and this is still practiced today by Manaschy and Dastanchy, the bearers of the element who recite these epics. Some Kyrgyz epic heritage pieces are famously large—the “Epic of Manas” trilogy is one of the greatest examples of epic poetry and one of the longest epic poems in the world. A
special place in the treasury of the intangible cultural heritage is, however, occupied by smaller epics, differing in themes, genres, plot, and music.

A young Manaschy recites the “Epic of Manas,” an incredibly long poem that has been transmitted orally for generations. © National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO

The “Epic of Manas” describes the feats of the legendary eponymous hero who fights many enemies and reunites his scattered people. The second and third books, respectively, are dedicated to Manas’s son Semetei and Seitek, Manas’s grandson. This epic trilogy is composed of folktales, legends, and myths that widely depict the history of the Kyrgyz people and all aspects of their life such as traditions, customs, rituals, morals, their relationship with nature, religion, and worldview. Manas affirms Kyrgyz people’s cultural and ethnic identity, and is widely visible in modern Kyrgyzstan—the flag of the Kyrgyz Republic features forty rays of sun, representing the forty tribes that Manas united to form the Kyrgyz nation, and there are many other statues and landmarks across Kyrgyzstan dedicated to the legendary figure.

Small epics have become a repository of traditional knowledge, and as such are one of the key elements in heritage preservation since they contain a huge quantity of the national memory of the Kyrgyz people. Small epics differ by genre, and stylistic and poetic techniques. They are recited in a special way by “akyn” storytellers, who accompany their recitations with musical instruments. “Art of Akyns, Kyrgyz epic tellers” was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008 as a predominant cultural expression that combines singing, improvisation, and musical composition. Depending on the genre, akyns can recite small epics verbally using theatrical methods including gestures and body language, singing the entire epic or performing some parts using traditional Kyrgyz musical instruments, or most popularly using mixed methods and techniques of verbal and musical recitation.

“Janyl-Myrza” is the hero of a small epic, a brave woman who devoted her life to protecting her native land. The epic demonstrates the special place of women in Kyrgyz culture © National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO

Kyrgyz small epics are characterized by a variety of plots, representing heroic, mythological, social, and lyrical genres. Heroic epics describe a hero’s fight against invaders and the protection of the Kyrgyz nation. One of the most famous is Kurmanek, a hero who fights a rival tribe of Kalmyks. Janyl-Myrza is another well-known heroic epic, and is perhaps the most unique because Janyl-Myrza is a female hero who protects her people from rival tribes. The epic depicts her as
brave and displaying strong leadership qualities.

Mythological epics contain elements of the mythological beliefs of ancient Kyrgyz. These epics depict the struggle between humans and nature as well as containing evidence of worldviews such as totemism and animism. The story of “Kojojash” is one example that describes the harmonious coexistence of humans with nature and the idea of sustainable use of natural resources. The plot of the epic “Kojojash” is based on deep folk wisdom. Meanwhile, the epic “Er Toshtuk”
is a classic example of the early tribal system with descriptions of the mythological perception of the ancient Kyrgyz people.

Social epics reflect the everyday life of Kyrgyz people as well as describing social utopias. The epics “Kedeikan” and “Mendirman,” for example, describe the social views and struggles of Kyrgyz people of their time, class differences between rich and poor, conflicts between commoners and the ruling elites, and ordinary people’s struggle for justice and wellbeing.

Lastly, lyrical and romantic epics such as “Ak Moor,” “Sarindji-Byokei,” and “Kishimzhan” reflect social and domestic problems. These epics revolve around tragic love due to social inequalities and norms, or reflect the social problems across different stages of the history of the Kyrgyz people.

Thus, small epics are significant historical and cultural phenomena that have been safeguarded and transmitted over many generations. Small epics cover different cultural and social aspects of the Kyrgyz people and remain one of the best examples of their cultural identity.