The Epic of Manas is a traditional epic poem dating to the 18th century but claimed by the Kyrgyz people to be much older. “The end of oral epics in Central Asia has been prophesied since the nineteenth century, but oral performance of Manas plays “an important role in Kyrgyz cultural identity.
Attempts have been made to connect modern Kyrgyz with the Yenisei Kirghiz, today claimed by Kyrgyzstan to be the ancestors of modern Kyrgyz. While the folk-memory has never officially been found by ethnographers, it is real for many Kyrgyz’. So in my opinion, the legend is real (See my post Ancient Kyrgyz)
In one of its dozens of iterations, the epic poem consists of approximately 500,000 verses, Kyrgyz historians consider it to be the longest epic poem in history because it has the most lines, though , the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata and the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar are both have more words.
Manas is the classic centerpiece of Kyrgyz literature, and parts of it are often recited at Kyrgyz festivities by specialists in the epic, called Manaschi
Manaschis tell the tale in a melodic chant unaccompanied by musical instruments. Manaschis who know all three episodes of the epic (the tales of Manas, of his son Semetei and of his grandson Seitek) can acquire the status of Great Manaschi.
Great Manaschis of the 20th century are Sagymbai Orozbakov, Sayakbay Karalaev, Shaabai Azizov (pictured), Kaba Atabekov, Seidene Moldokova and Yusup Mamai. A revered Manaschi who recently visited the United Kingdom is Rysbek Jumabayev. Urkash Mambetaliev, the Manaschi of the Bishkek Philharmonic, also travels through Europe. Talantaaly Bakchiyev combines recitation with critical study. Adil Jumaturdu has provided “A comparative study of performers of the Manas epic.”
The plot of Manas revolves around a series of events that coincide with the history of the region in the 17th century, primarily the interaction of the Turki-speaking people from the mountains to the south of the Dasht-i Qipchaq and the Oirat Mongols from the bordering area of Jungaria.
The epic forms the heart of Kyrgyz identity and Kyrgyzstan celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Manas in 1995. The epic poem’s age is unknowable, as it was transmitted orally without being recorded. However, historians have doubted the age claimed for it since the turn of the 20th century. The primary reason is that the events portrayed occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. The eponymous hero of Manas and his Oirat enemy Joloy were first found written in a Persian manuscript dated to 1792.
Changes were made in the delivery and textual representation of Manas in the 1920s and 1930s to represent the creation of the Kyrgyz nationality, particularly the replacement of the tribal background of Manas. In the 19th century versions, Manas is the leader of the Nogay people, while in versions dating after 1920, Manas is a Kyrgyz and a leader of the Kyrgyz.
This opens the possibility of Manas having spoken a dialect of Turki similar to that of the Kazakhs and Nogay people today.
The Players (Manas vs. Joloy)
The Turkic peoples are a collection of ethno-linguistic groups of Central, Eastern, Northern and Western Asia as well as parts of Europe and North Africa. speaking related languages belonging to the Turkic language family.
They share, to varying degrees, certain cultural traits, common ancestry and historical backgrounds. In time, different Turkic groups came in contact with other ethnicities, absorbing them, leaving some Turkic groups more diverse than the others. Many vastly differing ethnic groups have throughout history become part of the Turkic peoples through language shift, acculturation, intermixing, adoption and religious conversion.
Turkic groups differ significantly in origins and genetic makeup from one group to the next. Despite this, many do share cultural traits and historical experiences. The most notable modern Turkic-speaking ethnic groups include Turkish people, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Kyrgyz people. (Tajiks come from Iranian stock)
Oirats are the westernmost group of the Mongols whose ancestral home is in the Altai region of western Mongolia. Although the Oirats originated in the eastern parts of Central Asia, the most prominent group today is located in Kalmykia, a federal subject of Russia, where they are called Kalmyks.
The Khitan people were a nomadic people from Northeast Asia who, from the 4th century, inhabited an area corresponding to parts of modern Mongolia, Northeast China and the Russian Far East. They spoke the Khitan language, which appears to be related to the Mongolic languages.
The Khitan were less politically united than the Turkic tribes, but often found themselves involved in the power games between the Turks and the Chinese dynasties of Sui and Tang. It is estimated the Khitan had only around 43,000 soldiers—a fraction of the Turkic Khaganates.
As the Liao dynasty, they dominated a vast area north of and including parts of China. After the fall of the Liao dynasty in 1125 following the Jurchen invasion, many Khitans followed Yelü Dashi’s group westward to establish the Qara Khitai, or Western Liao dynasty, in Central Asia, which lasted several decades before falling to the Mongol Empire in 1218. (See my post Mongol Empire and Division for what happeed next)
Uyghurs of Moghulistan
Moghulistan (also called the Eastern Chagatai Khanate was a Mongol breakaway khanate of the Chagatai Khanate and a historical geographic area north of the Tangri Tagh mountain range, on the border of Central Asia and East Asia. That area today includes parts of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and northwest Xinjiang, China. A khanate nominally ruled over the area from the mid-14th century until the late 17th century, although it is debatable whether it was a continuation of the Chagatai Khanate, an independent khanate, or a tributary state to Ming Dynasty China.
The Story of Manas
The epic tells the story of Manas, his descendants and his followers. Battles against Khitan and Oirat enemies form a central theme in the epic. The epic is divided into three parts, each consisting of a loose collection of episodic heroic events.
- Book 1 – Manas
- Book 2 – the deeds of his son Semetei,
- Book 3 – the adventures of his grandson Seitek.
The epic begins with the destruction and difficulties caused by the invasion of the Oirats. Manas’ father Zhakyp becomes a man in this time and is an owner of many herds without a single heir. His prayers are eventually answered, and on the day of his son’s birth, he dedicates a colt, Toruchaar, born the same day to his son’s service.
The son is unique among his peers for strength, mischief, and generosity. The Oirat learn of this young warrior and warn their leader. A plan is hatched to capture the young Manas. They fail in this task, and Manas is able to rally his people and is eventually elected and proclaimed as khan.
Manas expands his reach to include that of the Uyghurs of Moghulistan on the southern border of Jungaria. One of the defeated Uighur rulers gives his daughter to Manas in marriage.
At this point, the Kyrgyz people chose, with Manas’ help, to return from the Altai mountains to their “ancestral lands” in the mountains of modern-day Kyrgyzstan. Manas begins his successful campaigns against his neighbors accompanied by his forty companions. Manas turns eventually to face the Afghan people to the south in battle, where after defeat the Afghans enter into an alliance with Manas. Manas then comes into a relationship with the people of mā warā’ an-nār through marriage to the daughter of the ruler of Bukhara. (See my post Khanate and Emirate of Bukhara for their story)
The epic continues in various forms, depending on the publication and whim of the manaschi, or reciter of the epic.
Manas is said to have been buried in the Ala-Too mountains in Talas Region, in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. A mausoleum some 40 km east of the town of Talas is believed to house his remains and is a popular destination for Kyrgyz travellers.
Traditional Kyrgyz horsemanship games are held there every summer since 1995. An inscription on the mausoleum states, however, that it is dedicated to “…the most famous of women, Kenizek-Khatun, the daughter of the emir Abuka”. Legend has it that Kanikey, Manas’ widow, ordered this inscription in an effort to confuse her husband’s enemies and prevent a defiling of his grave. The name of the building is “Manastin Khumbuzu” or “The Dome of Manas”, and the date of its erection is unknown. There is a museum dedicated to Manas and his legend nearby the tomb.