National traditions of the Kazakhs spring from pagan cultural traditions of the Great Steppe. With the spread of Islam the Kazakhs adopted main religious holidays and traditions of the Arabic East which changed later incorporating local peculiarities.
Kazakh rituals and traditional holidays impress by their color, rich content and full expression of the soul of the Kazakh people – openness, hospitality and aspiration to live in harmony with the surrounding world.
Wedding ceremony of the Kazakh people fully reflects the above-mentioned features of its character. Like many other nations Kazakhs believed in mystical essence of marriage. They used to say: “Three things cannot be guessed in life: the person whom you will enter into marriage with, sex of future child and date of death”. People believed that union of man and woman had been prescribed long before their birth. The process of wedding was divided into several stages; each of them was accompanied by a number of traditions and rituals.
The first stage of the wedding ceremony was matchmaking. It started from a preliminary collusion. With this aim the future bridegroom’s father sent a matchmaker (his relative or the most respected person in aul) to the bride’s father. Kazakhs used to send matchmakers on “happy day” – Wednesday or Thursday. If the bride’s father gave his consent on marriage, the sides agreed on the size of the bride-price – kalyn mal - and the order of its payment. From this moment on the preparation of the dowry was set into motion in the bride's home.
After the payment of the kalynmal, the bridegroom made his first official visit (uryn baru) to the bride’s aul and brought presents in korzhyn (a big bag) to the bride’s parents and relatives. These were expensive clothes for the relatives and sweets for the children. Besides, the bridegroom’s parents sent a mare to their new matchmakers.
Crossing the threshold of his father-in-law’s house the bridegroom had to bow three times – to old women, father and mother of the bride. The bride’s mother gave him a bowl of milk and blessed him. Some of the women threw shashu – candies, dried fruits, sweets - on the bridegroom. This ceremony was called esik ashu (door opening)
Kazakhs preferred to marry their daughters and sons in autumn or in the end of summer when the month of Ramadan passed.
The wedding ceremony was held first in the bride’s house then in the bridegroom’s aul.
Neke qiyu is an important religious part of the wedding ceremony . Usually it took place before the couple’s first wedding night, but sometimes it was held after all ceremonies and wedding night. Neke qiyu was held in the yurt of the bride’s father or in a special yurt. Mullah (teacher of Islam) briefly recited some verses from the Quran and asked the couple to confess the faith of Islam. After then the couple drank water from one bowl. They usually added salt and sugar in water which symbolized happy future of the newlyweds.
Nauryz Meiramy (Nauryz Holiday) is the most momentous, long-expected and favorite holiday of the Kazakh people. Nauryz is the holiday of birth of spring, renovation of nature.
In fact, it is a New Year's Eve which coincides with the day of spring equinox according to the ancient Oriental calendar. Nauryz is also called as Ulys Kuni (The first day of the New Year) or Ulystyn Uly Kuni (The Great Day of the nation).
Nauryz symbolizes spring renovation, triumph of love, fertility and friendship. When the holiday comes, Kazakhs put on festive clothes, pay visits to each other, exchange congratulations, best wishes of well-being and good luck in the coming year.
Celebration of Nauryz is accompanied with all-round joy, games, horse-races and various amusements. Traditionally they cook and roast and make all sorts of tasty meals during the holidays, for they should symbolize well-being and abundance in the coming year.
Nauryz Kozhe is the major ritual drink of the holiday. The drink is made from 7 ingredients symbolizing 7 elements of life: water, meat, salt, fat, flour and cereals (rice, corn or wheat) and milk. They symbolize joy, success, wisdom, health, well-being, speed, growth and God’s protection.
When Kazakhs celebrate Nauryz, presence of the figure of "7" is indispensable - it embodies 7 days of the week - time units of universal eternity. They put 7 bowls with Nauryz Kozhe in front of aksakals ("white beards” or old men). On this day every Kazakh should visit 7 houses and invite 7 guests.
On Nauryz Kazakhs congratulate each other with the word “Koktem tudy!” (Spring came!). Thousands of people enjoy akyns’ (poets) contests – aitys, national sports competitions – kazakhsha kures (wrestling), togyz kumalak - and horse races.
During the Soviet period celebration of Nauryz was forbidden. Since 1923 till 1988 the nation was deprived of this wonderful holiday. In 2001 Nauryz (March, 22) was announced an official holiday and non-working day.
The word “dastarkhan” can be translated as a low table served with various viands. Kazakh dastarkhan has a long history of its own, its traditions and rituals inherent to Kazakh nation only known for a quite particular manner of receiving and serving guests. Dastarkhan is a symbol of hospitality, amiability, home-like atmosphere. It is the place where everybody is welcome.
Kazakh traditions provide for respectful attitude to the guests who were honored to sit at the top of the table (tor). The Kazakh people have never been particularly interested in riches or wealth. They accept each other as friends, and always serve their guests as if they were gods. Festive dastarkhan impresses with its richness and abundance. Yurts were erected in auls (villages) where toi (feast) was held. Women used to process kumys and shubat. Meat was cooked in large pans – taikazans. The number of the guests was not limited. Any person going by such aul could stay there as long as he wished and take part in the feast.
Konakasy is the name of the tastiest food (usually meat) offered to a guest. There was a tradition to come to toi with a present – shashu (kurt, baursaks, sweets and cookies).
In special occasions, like at birth of a long-awaited child, Kazakhs slaughtered a white camel and cooked different dishes from its meat. This ritual is called “ak tuyenin karny zharyldy”.
Sogym is a kind of cattle meat which the Kazakh people would eat in the winter. On the day of livestock slaughter (usually horse) the hosts invited their relatives, neighbors and friends to try the dish. Zhol ayak is a ritual providing for treatment of the neighbors before the host’s long journey.
Yerulik. The word yerulik stands for “following the arrived”. It has a deep meaning. It is well-known that herdsmen constantly followed their animals and moved from space to space – from winter camps to spring pastures, from summer pastures to autumn fields. Usually in summer many auls chose one and the same place to settle for its green grass and clean water. Some people arrived there earlier, some of them –later. Those who settled earlier would treat the next people to arrive at the dastarkhan. Treating the newcomers gave the latter an opportunity to have a rest and eat something before their yurts would be erected. Until today Kazakhs have adhered to the proverb “Korshi hakysy, tanir hakysy” (Neighbor’s wish is the God’s wish)
A person to Kazakhs is a whole Universe that deserves understanding and respect. That is why, perhaps, the culture of treating one at the table is closely linked with the traditions of mutual help and support for one another.
Beshbarmak is the most popular Kazakh dish. First they cover a round or an oval dish with small round flat pieces of boiled paste followed by small bars of boiled meat. Then comes onion cut in rings and scalded with hot broth; all this strewn with a green mixture of fennel, parsley and coriander.
The most honored guest is usually offered a boiled sheep's head – koi basy. The guest is to dress it and distribute among the other participants of the dastarkhan. Each part of the head is attached particular significance and meaning: young men are treated with ears for them to be attentive, girls - with a palate (it is believed that this would make them more diligent). Thus the guest cuts meat in small pieces and shares it with the others.
Here too one has to mind certain habits and superstitions. For instance, hipbone and crust are offered to most honored guests while the breastbone goes to the son-in-law or daughter-in-law, cervical vertebra - to married women, pregnant ones first and foremost.
Certain bans are also to be observed. Thus even the most honored guest may not be treated with a "koi-basy" if his father is present at the table.
Children may not be offered brains (they might become weak-willed), just as an elbow bone - to a young girl (she might be "left on the shelf"). Adopted sons were treated with tibia.
Low round table (ustel) covered with a cloth was a traditional dinner table of the Kazakhs. Nowadays this table is used mostly in rural areas. They sit on felt pillars or blankets. Tea is usually poured by daughter-in-law who sits by samovar.
Kazakhs carefully guard women, future mothers and cook their favorite dish. Young women are treated with tibia, brisket, older women are given hipbone and other parts. Daughters-in-law are treated special dish – betashar tabak.
Kazakh dishware is remarkable for various traditional ornaments and paintings. Kumys was poured in a big bowl decorated with silver or in small painted bowls. Meat was put on a wooden dish with wide edges. Breadstuffs were painted with juice of various grapes. Tea was poured in small drinking bowls – kese. Astau – wooden container – was used for dough making. Dairy drinks airan, shubat and kumys were brought in special bowls – tegene. Wooden ladles (ozhaus) were usually decorated with sliver, bone or carving. Every family had wooden spoons which were called kasyk.
Sapty ayak is a wooden bowl with a handle. For removing dishware there was used ayakkap – felt or wooden cover. Foodstuffs and dishware and other household items were kept in kebezhe – a wooden cupboard decorated with carving, paintings, silver or bone. Wood was also used for making buckets, tubs (kubi), mortars (keli) with pestles (pispek). As for metal dishware, cast iron pots, kazans, were widely spread. Kazans were of different sizes. Tea was normally boiled in copper or cast iron jugs – kumgan, more prosperous families had samovars.
Big dinner dish is called tabak. In ancient times it was made of wood and decorated with different ornaments in the bottom and edges. There were four types of tabak – main, middle, honorary (for special guests) and small. It should be noted that certain parts of carcass were put in each tabak. For instance, they put koi-basy and hipbone in the main and honorary tabaks, tibia – in middle and other parts of carcass – in small ones.
Leather dishware and household items were also widely used in the Kazakhs’ everyday life. Thus, saba – a cone-shaped bag made of horse leather – was used for preparing kumys and butter.
Kazakh tea ceremony
The part tea plays in the Kazakh dastarkhan is altogether remarkable. Tea is brewed in a special porcelain teapot – akkuman. Water is boiled in samovar. Kazakhs say the tea brewed in water from samovar has a peculiar taste. Traditionally it is only up to girls and women to pour the tea. And they do this wonderfully though it is far from easy. For one should see to it that the guests' drinking bowls be always full, there must be no confusing them, there must be no remains of tea leaves on the edge of the bowls. Even if the guest gives to understand that he has already quenched his thirst he must not be left unattended - the hostess must offer him a so-called syi-ayak - a tea bowl of honor. Tea is normally accompanied with cream, butter, jam, dried and fresh fruit, nuts, cakes, other sweetmeats.
Kazakh dastarkhan not only satisfies your thirst and hunger, but it is a philosophy of hospitality, family and social relations. People learn much about one another at a dastarkhan. And the word "hospitality" means not only a heart meal accompanied by merrymaking and laughter: it means above all a cordial conversation with the guest.