The Telengit are one of the oldest Turkic peoples and belong to the southern Altai branch. Official census data estimates the current Telengit population at 2400 people, although by their own estimates that number is closer to 15,000 people. The Kosh-Agach (Ere-Chui) and Ulagan Districts of Altai Republic have the densest Telengit populations.
Ere-Chui –cradle of the Telengit
Kosh-Agach District is situated in southeastern Altai Republic. In the east the region borders Tyva Republic, to the southeast – with Mongolia, China to the south, and Kazakhstan to the southwest. Kosh-Agach District’s terrain is mainly vast highlands. Basins and valleys are scattered among mountain ridges. Kosh-Agach’s climate is characterized by severe winters with little snow, and short, dry and relatively chilly summers. The terrain elevation varies from 1400- 4200 meters above sea level.
The Telengit have been known as “tele” since ancient times. Their ancestors made up one of the twelve generations of the “Gaogyu tribes”, documented in 5th-6th century Chinese annals. According to the legend, Telengits were part of Genghis Khan’s personal guard and were known for their bravery and loyal service. It can be said that this ancient people has preserved its traditions and historic memory. All of the Telengit clan names (seoks) documented in the 19th century are still present today. Even today, membership in one or another seok remains an important component of the lives of its members, especially with respect to spirituality. Each seok and its subdivisions practices exogamy and, as a rule, they have preserved their genealogic legend. Thus, one of the leading Telengit clans – seok kobok – recalls the memory of a legendary ancestor named Jarynak, who, during a flood climbed Kokora Mountain with a few others and waited out the natural disaster. To this day, there remains a cauldron they used to prepare food from Jarynak’s stay on the mountain.
At the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Chuya Telengits were subject to a dual protectorate of Russia and China, paying tribute to both mighty empires. The uncertainty of the Telengit’s status was ended when the Chuguchak Agreement was signed in 1864 and their lands finally became part of the Russian Empire.
Telengits are skilled cattle breeders and hunters and their dwellings are a testament to that. Their houses include a felt yurt (kerege or kijis ail) with a south-facing entrance and a conical tent (alanchik) covered in birch bark, larch bark, or felt. This type of a house is not only still in use by Telengit today, but plays an important role in their wedding ritual.
Altai Telengits engage in livestock agriculture. Within that, yak and camel breeding are still important activities for the Telengit even today. They keep yaks and camels not only for practical needs (meat, skin, wool) but also for transportation of heavy loads. Today, the Telengit still treat horses with reverence and care, calling the horse a kyzhynyye kanady (“human wings”) and erjyne (“jewel”). Horsemeat is considered a delicacy. Following the slaughter of a horse, the head is always hung from a tree. Apart from cattle, the Telengit also keep smaller livestock: sheep and goats. Hunting, a seasonal occupation for the Telengit, in combination with nomadic and semi-nomadic livestock agriculture, is the second most important occupation. In the past, the Telengit hunted in small groups and targeted furred animals, with the skins of which Telengits paid yasak (tribute). Nowadays they hunt elk, wild boar, roe deer, and bear. This holds true despite a ban on hunting in protected areas with strict regimes. Specifically this includes the Ukok Plateau, home to many of the Telengit’s totemic animals, especially birds. They would normally come to the Ukok Plateau only in the summer to conduct rituals.
Meat forms the basis of the Telengit diet, as well as dairy obtained from all types of domestic animals. They eat only processed dairy: sour milk and various milk-based products (curds, butter, cheese, and an alcoholic beverage araka, etc.). The Telengit cooked plant-based foods using grains and wild edible plants. Traditional cereal foods (barley, wheat, millet) were not very diverse and were sparse not only among the Altaian peoples, but also for other Turkic and Mongol peoples.
Traditions and rituals
For the most part, the Telengit have preserved their customs, traditions, rituals, and moral and environmental values. Ethnic flavor is a part of their everyday life, as well as in their material and spiritual culture. They have preserved a rich folklore and the ancient techniques for sewing their traditional clothing. All of their religious rituals, traditions and customs are linked to caring for nature and maintaining harmony between people and the environment. In the last decade they revived the “Chaga-Bayram” folk holiday. Altaians have been celebrating Chaga-Bayram – a New Year celebration – since ancient times. During the period of atheism and universal bans on indigenous customs, Kosh-Agach inhabitants secretly observed the holiday and conducted their rituals. Chaga-Bayram is a family holiday when people clean their homes and purify themselves internally and spiritually. Chaga’s celebration depends on the Cosmos. When Mechin jyldys (constellation Pleiad) passes the moon, Telengits start the Chaga-Bayram celebration.
“San Salary” ritual
This rite is performed during a new moon, and preparations begin long in advance. Stones are placed on hilly terrain to the eastern side of the house. A flat stone the size of a large plate prepared for lighting a fire. As soon as the first rays of sun are seen, the traditionally dressed master of a house and his family go to the chosen site. They burn juniper (archyn) and then put offerings of dairy products and meat in the fire and sprinkle it with milk. Bowing, they walk around the fire four times. The master walks in the lead and gives blessings, spraying them with milk. Those following him, ask for their wishes to come true in the New Year. The blessing should be spoken aloud only by a specially gifted person, capable of lauding the Master of Altai’s lands. They also tie white, yellow and blue ribbons on the trees. After the ritual people return home and treat guests with traditional dishes and give each other presents. They always ask: “Jyldy kandyj chykkan?” (“How was your year?”). And the response should always be “Iye”, meaning “in good health”. Later they celebrate with traditional festivities and traditional sports.
Ritual life of Telengits is quite complicated and rooted in deep antiquity. Wedding rites are the most stable components of their traditional everyday culture. The custom of giving leather vessels to the bride’s parents is an important part of Telengit matchmaking ceremonies, and as is the role of bride’s maternal uncle in giving his consent for the marriage.
Shamanism and shamans and a closely related assortment of rituals have a central position in the Telengit belief system, reflecting the animist and magical beliefs of this people. The cult of nature and its forces is still seen in the veneration of spirit-masters of the surrounding land (eezi). Special worship is made at mountain passes; when passing through the Telengit leave offerings to the mountain’s spirit-master – stones or branches, building cairns called oboo. In speaking about the veneration of nature one cannot but mention Altai Telengit respect for natural springs, rivers, and lakes. They call a river’s mistress-spirit Suu eezi. It is believed that each river, spring, lake, or healing spring (arzhan) has its own mistress that can appear as a girl, woman, or old woman. The biggest rivers – Katun, Chulyshman, Chuya, and Bashkaus – have strict and cunning mistresses of noble khan descent. There are many legends about them. It is said that in the war years the river mistresses saved the Telengit by dragging their enemies into whirlpools. Animal cults are also related to shamanism. During the tajylga and yjyk rituals, a shaman acting as an interlocutor between the worlds, can make an animal offering to a specific spirit or deity: Ul’gen’ or Erlik.
Altaian shamanism embraces the ideas of upper and lower worlds, spirit-helpers, clan spirits, and guardian spirits. Most shamans (kams) view the world in three layers: an upper world ruled by master Ul’gen’, a middle world as the human world and an underworld ruled by master Erlik. Shaman’s drums have drawings of these two worlds divided by the thin border of the middle world. If most of the drum was devoted to the heavens, i.e. the upper world, then a shaman could easily communicate with it. Depending on which world is closer to a shaman, shamans are subdivided into “black” and “white”, depending on whether they address Erlik or Ul’gen. The drum plays a special role in shamanic ritual. A shaman’s drum is very important, in that it helps the kam set off for travel in different worlds. Each shaman has a mentor, the spirit of a shaman who lived in the past, most often a blood relative. The spirit decides when a shaman will become a kam (bashtanar), and tells the shaman who, when and where will produce ritual belongings: clothes, drum, dishes, kamchy (whip) etc., as well as in which herd his horse is grazing, or where and by whom an animal will be caught, or a desired tree will be felled to make a necessary item. A person approached by a new kam may be told that he should do something for him, or that he has an animal in his herd that the kam needs, should fulfill the kam’s request. A kam also uses juniper during rituals, burning its branches and pronouncing the required words, thus purifying and releasing a person from the negative influence of these or those forces.
Singer-storytellers (kaichi) have a special role in the religious and artistic traditions of the Telengit. Altaian kaichi are well-respected people. They are invited to celebrations and weddings. If a singer-storyteller comes to a village, then people from all over arrive: not just from the neighboring areas but also from the remote regions. Kaichi were also respected guests of hunters, who believed them capable of speaking with the spirit-master of taiga and with animals. One of the main conditions for recognizing a storyteller as kaichi is his/her ability to sing an epic heroic legend from beginning to end using throat singing accompanied by a two-stringed instrument, the topshuura. Mastering the art of kai begins early in life. There is no memorizing in this tradition – the plots are lively and the task of a storyteller is to convey events to a listener as vividly as if he sees them himself. The tonality, rhythm, and tempo of a performance change depending on the plot. In July 2004 the village of Ulagan hosted the first international Kurultai – a gathering of storytellers. Guests from Japan, Khakasia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kalmykia, Bashkortostan, the United States, Tyva Republic, Turkey, and Moscow all took part. Beginning and experienced storytellers came to visit the Telengit from each district of the Altai Republic. People sang about the Earth and her heroes. The festival held seminars and master-classes on throat singing and playing traditional musical instruments.
Kosh-Agach is one of few places in Russia where the performance of folklore, throat singing, and heroic story telling has been preserved in modern times. The inter-regional folk holidays “Al Oiyn” and the folklore festival “Jaear” are held in Altai Republic. All holidays are held with theatrical performances based on the plots of Turkic heroic epic poems. For this reason, those who preserve traditional indigenous culture bear a great deal of responsibility. In 2000, the Telengit Cultural Center was established in the Kosh-Agach District in Altai Republic. The main purpose of this center is the study and promotion of Telengit culture, lifeways, crafts, household wares, and clothing. The Telengit Center has a folk ensemble known as Tala (“space, grandeur”). The group works to improve folk instruments and collects and performs ethnic music of different styles, kai, and folk songs. The ensemble holds a second place award from the Beliy Mesyats Third International competition-festival in Ulan-Ude and first prize from the Twelfth International Turkic Youth competition-festival in Ufa (2004). The Center collects various genres of folklore. It conducts conferences and roundtables on the preservation of the Telengit language and traditional rituals. There is a workshop for the production of traditional clothing and souvenirs. There is a museum that acquires new pieces and exhibits every year. The Telengit Cultural Center publishes a “Chuidye tayedagy” (in Altai language) insert for Chuiskie zori, the regional newspaper.
The most vivid and amazing contributions to Telengit history were the finds of Scythian culture near the Pazyryk area in Ulagan region, as well as the world-famous find on the Ukok Plateau in Kosh-Agach District. In Ukok researchers found a buried woman, who later became known “the Ukok Princess”. Soon after the “princess” was found and excavated, an earthquake took place and numerous troubles befell the local people.1 Residents of the settlement nearest the epicenter say report a quake of approximately 8.0 on the Richter scale. School buildings, hospitals, and many houses were destroyed. The entire village of Bel’tyr was basically destroyed. Thousands of people believed that both the earthquake and a wave of suicides in Altai Republic were the revenge of the “Ukok Princess” for the intrusion upon her rest. Altaians demanded in vain that authorities return the Ice Lady for reburial. It is clear that Gazprom’s current plans to lay a natural gas pipeline to China through the Ukok Plateau, home to numerous tombs of Telengit ancestors, provoke great indignation and the active protests of Telengits. Today’s spiritual leader and herald of the Telengits’ interests is the Ere Chui (“Sacred Chui”) Telengit Small-Numbered People’s Association of Communities, led by chairman Roman Tadyrov.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
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Source of information and photos: Ere-Chui (“Sacred Chui”) Association of Obshchinas of the Telengit Small-Numbered Minority People