Tuva (Siberia) – a republic where there are no railways and no cell phones. A mythical country which in its beginning was the result of a geographical error.
The geographical error occurred during the conclusion of the Burinsky Treaty on Borders (1727). It happened that on the part of Russia the border was laid along the Sayan Mountains, and China designated its territory along the Tannu-Ola mountain range, as a result of which a neutral zone of several hundred square kilometers was formed. Only in 1921 under the auspices of the Tsarist Russia, the Red Army troops entered Tuva known at the time as a “no man’s land”. This contributed to the proclamation of the people’s republic in the very center of Asia, or the first state in the history of the Tuvan people – the Country of Red Shamans.
Today the mysterious republic is remembered when it comes to the Minister of Emergency Situations – a prominent representative of his homeland who is called to this position in order to tame and prevent the negative manifestations of the “forces of nature and spirits”. Who else can cope with this if not a native of the republic where shamanism is the official state religion.
Shaman Saylyk-ool who is the religious adviser to the president of Tuva gives out short phrases constantly setting fire to juniper branches and waving them around my head. The terrible smell of grass, the stench of dairy products from which the local alcohol brew is made – Arak, not only for pleasure but also for religious rituals – all this greatly contributes to revelation in conversations, and a slight dizziness. The house of the shaman, his “reception”, is sensational. On the wall hangs a huge painting made by a local artist, “The Shaman’s Ritual, or the Rite of Fire.” Beside is a portrait of the Dalai Lama, apparently torn out from a Chinese calendar. Along the walls on special mounts there is an “exhibition” of all known and unknown to me animal skulls with gaping mouths and excellent white teeth. In the center of the room there is a large wooden armchair tucked into the skin of deer, and grinning wolves serve as armrests. In the chair, of course, the shaman himself is sitting and receives visitors. Speaks in Russian. It’s my turn:
“The lack of any faith is your faith. This is not atheism. Atheism is also faith, it’s faith in godlessness. Faith against God. I mean that those times have long passed when God was in your churches and the spirit lived in every person. You don’t believe only in God, you don’t believe that the airplane on which you fly will make it to the airport, that the train will not turn over, and the car in the mountains will not fall over into the abyss. You don’t believe in the spirits of things. You don’t believe, thus you are afraid. Fear – this is the lack of faith. There will be a disaster when the last of you loses faith in the fact that the Moon or the Sun rises”, Saylyk-ool continuously set fire to the incense burner, rolled his eyes and edifyingly spoke with me, like to an object that “lost his soul.”
“The plane on which I flew or the car that I drove do not even cause confidence, let alone faith. The mountains that Roerich admired are simply beautiful, but not divine. The forces of nature, as a rule, are destructive, and your words echo the truth, but solely in the boundaries of this room with skulls and “incense.” Aren’t there principles that man believes in?”
“The principles of man are the same – soul, birth and death. A person can lose his shadow – the “gray soul”, that binds him to other spirits. Then the spirits take away the “main soul” which is the essence of man. He who has lost the main thing can continue to live but not for long, because his soul has already been torn apart by the spirits. Man must live where he was born. There he must die. This circle is predetermined by Nature. The native land gives him strength. Every two years I go to the mountain of Yellow Lion, to the place where I was born. It is a holy land. I speak with the spirits and ask them for strength. Then I give this power to people.”
Saylyk-ool was born in 1947 in the family of the hereditary shaman Sadu Pasha. Not every member of the family can become a shaman. He can be elected collectively by the community, or the shaman may see in his ancestry manifestations of special qualities and signs. Saylyk-ool had such a sign – as a child his skull was covered with many lumps and ulcers that still exist, allegedly from the touching of his head by the hand of his grandfather-shaman, who said: “At 45 you will begin summoning the spirits, and before that there will be darkness.” Soon thereafter the grandfather was arrested for religious convictions and died in the Krasnoyarsk prison.
“A true shaman is a chosen person. Already from childhood one can recognize him by his behavior and actions. People should not hide the shaman and his abilities. Once when I was only three years old, I still couldn’t speak and could barely move on all fours, I took a copper washbowl and a stick and began drumming, rolling my eyes and screaming. The whole village was terribly frightened, and recognized me as a shaman. But they were forced to hide my gift, including myself when I became an adult. I drank mother’s milk until the age of six, and at seven I started walking on two legs. When I was nine I was sent to school, and at the same time I began to see spirits – or devils as they were called at that time. I thought everyone saw them just like me. But when I found out this is not so I became silent and only occasionally I gave advices to people: don’t go there, don’t do that.”
We went together to visit the Yellow Lion mountain and to gain strengths, and I had to again observe the ritual of “sacrifice”. This time the victim fell the banknotes of the Bank of Russia which I passed on not from hand to hand but through an intermediary and in the absence of the shaman himself. As they explained to me, this is not the fear of bribery but rather a ritual in which the “spiritual relationship” between the shaman and the person is preserved. Being a representative of another world I perfectly understood that you need to pay and get paid for your work. However it was hard to comprehend the logic of the ritual, the spiritual relationship, and I regarded it only as a method of religious extortion.
It also seemed strange that our driver, a young Tuvan who dreamed going to Moscow only to watch the movie “The Lord of the Rings”, was not admitted to the ceremony. At 30 degrees below zero (-22°F) he stood obediently on the bank of the river far from the fire and perhaps admired the sunset.
“You can walk only in the place I show you. Do not cross the line. Otherwise the spirits will capture you. You will understand this, if not now – later. Do not talk to me, but do what I tell you”. These were the last instructions of the presidential shaman.
At sunset Saylyk-ool began his mysterious but simple preparations: first he lit up the “incense burner” and prepared juniper twigs for the future fire.
“The balm” spread around with surprising speed. Then he got out a wooden horse with a horn on its forehead. He showed it to Yellow Lion while making a strange sound. Then a wolf skull appeared in the shaman’s hands; he clapped the animal’s jaws and seemed to be pleased with the behavior of the former wolf. The next item was a bottle of Arak, and a variety of foodstuffs ranging from sausage to candies. Every item was shown to Yellow Lion.
Finally the shaman set fire to the wood. All this happened in absolute silence. It seemed nature was shushed. Not a single sound, not a single bird. Stillness. Only the sticks crackled in the fire, and now and then the shaman made sounds similar to “woo-woo-woo” or “ho-ho-ho”. After yet another sighing and muttering he pulled a shaman costume out of his bag. The last item was a tambourine. The shaman carefully unwrapped it, stroked it with his hand and placed it close to the fire, because it seemed to me that the frozen skin of the tambourine would soften and not tear during the ritual. At this time the shaman began to “talk” with the fire. What were they talking about was difficult to judge. But Saylyk-ool’s intonation did not raise any doubts: he swore or at least spoke in a raised voice continually pointing his hand towards Yellow Lion. At that moment when the sun just disappeared over the horizon, he jumped up, grabbed the tambourine and began to frantically perform the “dance of the shaman”. And all of a sudden a huge flock of black birds rose from the Yellow Lion mountain, with croaks and rustle wings they flashed over the shaman and flew away. He began to shout louder, beat the tambourine louder, rolled his eyes and fell on his knees – his cries turned into a howl of a wolf or a dog. The picture seems a bit eerie for those not initiated into shamanism.
Having performed sacred moves according to certain rules, the shaman approached me, poured some Arak from his bottle into the palm of his hand and splashed it into my face. This didn’t cause much optimism and did not add to my strength – maybe that’s why he poured half a glass of Tuvan vodka, handed it to me and said: “Your medicine”. I had no doubt in the “medicine” and drank it immediately. It was anything but least of all it tasted like alcohol. A terrible taste of sour milk mixed with some grass and the smell (only the smell) of a typical Russian moonshine. Just out of respect for religion I suppressed in myself a natural desire…
“Now go away,” said the shaman, “I must be left alone.” I had no choice but to make company to our driver who was still silently standing by the river looking into the black mist. What he saw there – the tambourine of the shaman or the “rings of the lord” – I didn’t even want to know.
From ancient times the Sayan Arak drink, or milk vodka, was considered a symbolic drink which was used not only by people but also by spirits who took it as an alms from man. However milk vodka is not valuable for the sacred world, unlike for example plant hallucinogens which in the view of ancient civilizations have magical properties for both spirits and people. It is believed among shamans that taking Arak drink, and sometimes hallucinogens, brings together and is one of the ways of contact between the two worlds: the human and the sacred.
Saylyk-ool came back excited and for the first time since our acquaintance the smile never left his face. It turned out that for me the ritual was not finished yet.
“The spirits said: you are a good man and haven’t lost your main soul yet. It’s your shadow only, your “gray soul”, that got lost in the Kingdom of the Dead. I asked the spirits – they will find it, and we will return your shadow and leave something in return to the spirits… Now look at the moon – this is our father. The father of all the shamans in the world. Bow to him three times… Now look at the Pleiades – this is our judge. He has the right to pardon or punish. Bow to him too. The big bear protects your spirit, the spirit of man, like a guardian angel. Bow down… There is Orion, he is the king of animals, plants and our king. Bow down…”
“Who is the mother? I asked.”
“The Sun is the mother, but she is not visible now.”
Source: The article appeared in “Медведь” journal №59, 2001. Author: Олег Климов. Photos: Олег Климов. Translated into English by ©Excellence Reporter.
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