Kazakhs Revive ‘Nauryz’

Their Beloved Rites-of-Spring Celebration

By David Witherspoon, Edge

Soviet leaders suppressed the traditional Kazakh holiday of Nauryz for decades.

The Kremlin did all it could to wipe out ethnic distinctions, believing they hindered the formation of a pure Marxist ideological state, and of a single “Soviet ethnicity”. Soviet leaders considered Nauryz, a celebration of spring, to be ethnic because only Central Asians and residents of the Caucasus observed it.

It wasn’t until 1988, on the eve of the break-up of the Soviet Union, that Nauryz became a holiday again.

It’s hard to describe Nauryz in a nutshell because it’s so multifaceted. But one thing’s for sure: It’s a beloved event to Kazakhs. Some call it the traditional New Year, but a rites-of-spring event is more appropriate. It starts on the vernal equinox day of March 21, when the hours of sunlight and darkness are about equal.

The ancients saw the equinox as renewal – the end of the harsh winter and the beginning of spring. The milestone gave special cheer to those on the steppes, where howling winds and below-zero temperatures made life tenuous. The green grass that sprouted meant that the nomads could feed the livestock on which they based their existence. Now renewal means cleaning your house, settling your debts and forgiving those who’ve wronged you.

Nauryz celebrations today are a mixture of old and new, ranging from preparing rich food to rock concerts. In fact, these days it seems that anything goes in marking Nauryz, with the prevailing rule being the more festive, the better.

An American couple remembers being in the southern Kazakhstan city of Shymkent when Nauryz arrived a few years ago. Residents went around the city putting a new face on everything – cleaning yards and streets, painting fences and trimming trees. Then they put up gaudy decorations that seemed to have no theme. Some looked like Christmas decorations. There were even caricatures of the Disney cartoon character Shrek. Well, he’s green, after all – the color of spring.

Two fixtures of Nauryz are feasting, starting with a tasty yogurt-like dish known as Nauryz kozhe, and the erecting of yurts, or traditional nomad homes. In recent years, very ornate yurts have replaced traditional ones at many Nauryz celebrations.

Assel Tleuov, a 25-year-old public affairs specialist with the United Nations Development Programme in Astana, remembers going to Nauryz celebrations as a child with her grandfather, the mayor of the district in Kostanai Province where she lived. As mayor, Grandpa was invited into the best yurts – which meant the best food. Tleuov recalls that while her grandfather chatted with his friends, she and her brother raced through the crowds to find the next exciting sight or smell.

These days, Nauryz centers around home rather than the town square – at least in Tleuov’s family. “My aunt makes that Nauryz kozhe, we make shashlik (grilled lamb) in the yard, and enjoy the day on our own,” she said. Nauryz observances of old used to feature a polo-like game called kokpar – and many cities have revived the tradition, to the delight of residents.

The object of the game is to get a sheep’s carcass – the ball – down the field and into the opposing team’s goal.

It’s a rough sport. The rider who grabs the carcass will find opponents trying to pull it away from him. If he breaks loose from the pack, carrying the carcass toward his opponents’ goal, he may find a blocking formation of rival horseback riders awaiting him.

The rough contact between the opponents can resemble a rugby scrum – and can generate similar bumps and bruises. Another horseback tradition that has been revived on Nauryz is kyz kuu, the Catch and Kiss. It involves a male rider trying to chase down a female rider before her horse gets to a finish line.

If he wins, he gets a kiss. If she wins, she gets to beat him with a horse whip. (Not too seriously, though, as the object of the game is to have fun.)

For the whipped rider, of course, there’s always next year – if the object of his affection hasn’t gotten married by then, of course.