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  • “Tengri Is a Worldview”: How Artisans Are Reviving Kazakhstan’s Cultural Heritage

    Closeup of someone embroidering a colorful border on pale blue fabric sewn to a wooden frame.

    Photo by Ronald Villasante, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “We start our day with rituals. We thank the spirits of this great land. We greet all the ancestral spirits and our god, Tengri.”

    An acclaimed textile artist and designer from Kazakhstan, Aizhan Bekkulova is passionate about reviving Kazakh cultural traditions. In 2012, she founded Kazakhstan’s Union of Artisans, with a mission to preserve and promote traditional arts and crafts—from wood and bone carving to embroidery and felting.

    Many Kazakh artistic and musical traditions are rooted in ancient beliefs. Prior to the arrival of Islam in the Central Asian nation, nomads worshiped Tengri, seen as both an all-encompassing god and a personification of the universe. Through their spiritual practices, nomads sought to honor and protect their god and, thus, the natural world.

    From 1936 to 1991, when Kazakhstan was a republic of the Soviet Union, many of these practices came under threat. As part of its broader “Russification” policy, the USSR prohibited Kazakh cultural traditions, including those related to Tengri. After more than fifty years of suppression, numerous artistic, musical, and spiritual practices were forgotten.

    Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Bekkulova noticed that many Kazakh artisans struggled to sell their work; the population had grown largely uninterested in traditional crafts. Disheartened, Bekkulova switched career paths from film production to cultural preservation.

    “My goal was to make Kazakhs proud of their cultural heritage again,” she recounted. “Now that we’re independent, we’re rediscovering the Tengrist worldview.”

    In 2020, the Union of Artisans entered a collaboration with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage to research, promote, and sustain Kazakhstan’s cultural heritage and creative industry. In the years since, the organizations have led a number of craft and storytelling workshops.

    Camera and sound: Albert Tong, Mykal Bailey, Sonia Harnish, David Barnes, Pruitt Allen, Elliot Senatov, Nadya Ellerhorst
    Editing: Nadya Ellerhorst

    On stage, people in elaborate outfits in purple, teal, pink, and orange line up and applaud, while a woman in front tosses a handful of candy toward the seated audience.
    Aizhan Bekkulova (right, tossing candy to the crowd) concludes her showcase in the Soul of Tengri fashion show.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    As part of this ongoing collaboration, Bekkulova helped organize a program at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. During the second week of the Festival, Soul of Tengri: Kazakh Traditions and Rituals showcased the work of eight Kazakh artists while highlighting the history, evolution, and legacy of nomadism in Kazakh communities. The program culminated in a fashion show at the National Museum of Asian Art.

    When I stopped by, the atmosphere was lively and joyful. Children were learning a traditional throwing game called asyq atu. Meanwhile, dozens of visitors threaded needles, readying themselves to design patterns and felt carpets. A line formed as people waited for an empty seat or extra needle.

    After trying my hand at traditional embroidery (known as bizkeste), I stopped to marvel at the stunning objects on display—from Tamara Kapkyzy and Bolatbek Beisbekov’s felted carpets (syrmaq) to Botakoz Zeinelkhan’s embroidered clothing. As a weaver myself, I was especially drawn to Mereke Aidarsha’s vibrant and intricate baskur—handwoven textiles that are traditionally used to decorate yurts.

    While visitors learned these traditional crafts, the woodcarver Dauren Minsharipov demonstrated how to play the qobyz, an ancient shamanic instrument that is deeply rooted in the Tengrist worldview. Traditionally, these string instruments are carved from a single piece of wood. “This way, we believe that it preserves the spirit of a tree and gives the instrument more power,” Minsharipov explained.

    A man, seated outdoors, plays a wooden lute with a hollow bowl body, two thick strings, and a bow.
    Dauren Minsharipov plays the qobyz, an ancient shamanic instrument.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    The long-necked, wooden instrument produces an incredibly deep and rich sound with only two thick horsehair strings. Inside the qobyz’s bowl, carvers affix small mirrors to drive away evil spirits. Instrument makers also attach metal ornaments that facilitate communication with ancestors. I asked textile artist Azhar Altynsaka about the instrument. “The qobyz was used for healing, cleansing, and protection,” she told me.

    Traditionally, only shamans were allowed to play the qobyz. During the Soviet era, however, no one was allowed to play. Shamanism was forbidden. As a result, many Kazakh instruments were sent to Russian museums. “The magical way of playing it was lost,” Altynsaka told me. Today, the qobyz is used for both spiritual and secular purposes.

    Minsharipov first learned how to carve these instruments from Zholaushy Turdygulov, known as Kazakhstan’s Stradivarius. “When I heard the sound of qobyz for the first time, I fell in love,” he reminisced. “I want to preserve the traditional making of it and pass it down to a new generation of artisans.”

    For Altynsaka, embroidery is also a deeply spiritual practice. Both of her grandmothers were textile artists, and she learned to embroider at a young age. “We, Kazakhs, believe that when a woman embroiders, it’s a sacred gift,” she said. “When you embroider, you create an amulet—a protection amulet, an amulet that attracts abundance. It’s really a ritual.”

    She began her career as an economist. Ten years ago, she volunteered as an interpreter and editor for the Union of Artisans. Over time, she fell in love with traditional crafts and decided to pursue a degree in fiber arts. In addition to showcasing her own work, Altynsaka also served as an interpreter during the Festival.

    A woman gestures with both hands outward in front of a display of woven textiles, carved wooden figures, wooden instruments, and clothing on mannequins.
    In addition to showcasing her own work, Azhar Altynsaka also served as an interpreter during the Festival.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Seated outdoors, a woman smiles at the camera, a large gray wool textile with white and red appliqué work in her lap.
    Tamara Kapkyzy demonstrates syrmaq carpet felting.
    Photo by Joshua Davis, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    A woman plays a two-string wooden lute, sitting in front of a turquoise quilt with yellow embroidery.
    Weaver Mereke Aidarsha shares her musical skills on the dombra.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Through workshops, demonstrations, and performances, these artists built connections with visitors from diverse backgrounds. Every morning, they began the program by sharing a traditional Tengrist ritual. One morning, they were approached by two Native American visitors. “We started talking about our ritual and worldview,” Bekkulova shared. Over the course of the conversation, they realized that there are myriad similarities between Kazakh and Mohawk traditions. Both communities, moreover, have struggled to protect their ways of life.

    “Something like ninety percent is the same of what we have in the Tengrist philosophy and what they have in the Native American belief system,” Bekkulova recounted. “We were shocked and amazed by this.”

    Programs such as Soul of Tengri are instrumental in preserving, reviving, and reimagining cultural traditions. The Smithsonian is excited to continue collaborating with the Union of Artisans to create further opportunities for cultural exchange.

    Joshua Kurtz is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where he studies Judaism and spiritual care.

    Soul of Tengri was a pop-up program of the Smithsonian Artisan Initiative and made possible by support from Chevron.

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