Epic Manas, Kyrgyzstan

Manas monument in Bishkek

Epic Manas - Legendary hero of the Kyrgyz

“It was a long time ago, and now the eyewitnesses have gone …” With these words the Manaschi begin their songs telling of the exploits of Manas – Legendary hero of the Kyrgyz, and of a world long gone. Traditional central Asian literature took the form of songs, poems and stories performed by itinerant minstrels (akyns in Kyrgyz). The Kyrgyz have an entire cycle of such legends, 20 times longer than the Odyssey, about a hero called Manas. Akyns who can recite from these are called manaschi. There have been a number of very famous manaschi - including Bokanbaeva, Toktogul and Togolok Moldo - all of whom have streets named after them in Bishkek.

The Manas epic is not exactly a single work ... but rather an encyclopedia collection of folk myths, fairytales, legends, songs and poems which have been combined and grouped together around a central character - Manas, his son (Semetei) and grandson (Seitek). It has been suggested that many of the episodes may have begin as separate verbal compositions - which were after assimilated into the Manas epic.

The complete epic is a trilogy - each part describing the heroic deeds and struggles on the heroic character - "Manas", "Semetei" (about his son) and "Seitek" (about his grandson).

The first part of the cycle stands alone and has a tragic ending ... all the heroes who participated in the Great March on Beijing perish - including Manas himself. The second part of the cycle depicts how Semetei deals with the heroic deeds of the next generation in fighting the enemies of the Kyrgyz people. Once again there is a tragic ending with the hero and his companions dying - but this time at the hands of a foreign army - but by internal strife and a treacherous plot devised by Semetei's rivals who usurp power and oppress their own people. The final part of the cycle describes Seitek's struggle to restore justice and the triumph of god over evil.

As in most oral traditions nothing was written down for many years and manaschi would often improvise.
As a result, there is no single definitive version of the epic. There are two "classic" versions which have been recorded and written down - those of the manaschi Orozbakov and Karalaev - and, although they have many features in common, there are considerable differences between them.

The first record that we have of Manas is in a Tajik manuscript which dates from the end of the 15th, and/or beginning of the 16th century - which praises the deeds of various Muslim sheikhs. It does not mention the epic as such but tells about the hero, Manas, describes some of the episodes in the epic as if they were historical events, and the characters are depicted as historical persons.

The first written account (in Russian) recording some fragments of the epic were provided by the Kazakh Chokan Valikhanov in 1858. The first full written version appeared only in the 1920’s. It has now been translated into many languages - reflecting in part the number of nationalities that were settled here in Kyrgyzstan during the soviet period - and several novels and books for similarities with characters in other epics (for example in similar Uzbek and Kazakh epics).

Manas was a hero of the Kyrgyz, a protector and champion of his people. The image of Manas in the epic, however, varies from episode to episode. At times he appears impulsive and irresponsible (according to Valikhanov) - but at others he is portrayed as a great and noble hero, protecting the weak and vigorously fighting the Kalmyks - traditional enemies of his people. In one episode, his father scolds him for being a waster and spendthrift, in another he is a farmer growing wheat in the Ferghana valley.

Reputedly born in the Talas region although he is supposed to have grown up in the region of Andijan (currently in Uzbekistan) "running to fat" through "eating half-baked bread and unripe green apples". He is a mischievous boy, getting into all sorts of trouble and constantly playing tricks. His father sends him to help a shepherd - hoping that he will settle down ... but, on the contrary, he forms a gang of (forty) teenagers that kill lambs and hold a feast, play tricks and a make a nuisance of themselves. The shepherd begs his father to take the boy back.

At 12 he was a practiced archer ... at 13 experienced in combat with a spear, abducted young girls and fought strong and brave athletes making them exlaim "kuki" in pain ... at 14 he raided villages where his enemies lived, stealing horses from them, at 15 he was the soverign of many people from the river Chu to the river Talas ... he is a giant of colossal height and with enourmous strength.

Although he reigned over many of the tribes, he was not, himself, born into a noble family - that of a Khan (lord or chieftain). At one point in the epic his father, Jakyp, says: "I am not a khan, but no worse than a khan. I am Jakup Khan." When Manas sends his father to ask for Kanykei as his bride - his offer of marriage is rejected by her father, who says: "My daughter deserves to be married to a khan's son. Let your son marry a plebian's daughter." Offended by this rejection he declares war on his proposed father in law - defeats him and takes Kanykei by the right of conquest.

The narrative of the epic revolves around Manas' exploits in trying to carve out a homeland for his people and fighting off the opposition of neighboring hordes; consolidating his forces; his marriage to the fair and wise Kanykei - the daughter of a Samarkand khan and the future mother of his only Semetei; the burial feast for the dead chief Koketey (whose mausoleum is supposed to be at Koshoi-Korgon - near Naryn) where the opposing forces of the heroes meet each other for the first time; the great campaign victory and mortal wounding of Manas in single combat, which is followed by a civil war; the fight for the throne; the expulsion of Kanykei and the baby Semetei and finally the destruction of everything created by Manas’ hard work and struggle.

The Long March episode tells of his campaign against the Chinese and includes an attack on Beijing, where Manas views the city walls through a "spyglass" and marvels at their height and impregnability.

The picture presented in the epic is of a dispersed people - family units, clans, tribes - coming together and uniting in the face of common foes. The main characters: Manas, Almambet, Bakai, Kanykei, Syrgak, Chubak, Semetei, Seitek, Kulchoro - are depicted as true heroes with qualities such as honesty and faithfulness, courage and bravery, just and selfless, staunch in their fortitude and endurance, freedom loving and patriotic - ready to lay down their lives for the benefit of the nation.

Although at times they appear "too good to be true" with superhuman qualities and strength, they also exhibit real human foibles - Manas is offended by his father's criticism and leaves home, he doesn't listen to Kanykei's foreboding warnings ...

The epic is a source of information about many aspects of Kyrgyz life, customs, traditions, morals, religious rituals, geographical knowledge, medical knowledge and diplomatic relations with neighboring communities. There are numerous mentions of picturesque mountain slopes covered with green fir tree forests, peaks capped with snow, deep gorges and crystal clear mountain streams, with waterfalls generating colorful rainbows - although some of the descriptions are apparently pedestrian.

Many everyday events are described including feasts, competitions, weddings and funerals. One feature is the element of humor and enjoyment ... the characters are often presented in humorous situations. Virtually every opportunity is taken to organize a feast - accompanied with sports and competitions. In the Orozbakov version, every race seems to be given its own song ... in some cases, even, two songs.

There are also magical elements similar to fairytales ... magic armor and weapons, the use of magic in battles against their enemies, giants and giantesses - including a one-eyed "cyclops", dragons and other mythical beasts ... He is given magical weapons such as his sword, a spear, a handgun called Kelte (apparently firearms first appeared in Central Asia in the 14th century) and magic armor. Just as the case with Arthur's Excalibur, Roland's Durendal and Siegfried's Balmung, each of Manas' weapons was given a personal name.

In many ways the action, however, seems to revolve around a series of battles - and these may be the oldest layer in the mosaic which make up the complete epic - but there little in terms of lasting results. The picture is of a nebulous group of peoples, one generation after another, each living for the present day and not thinking of the future, repeating the same conflicts and struggles. A series of contrasting emotions - love and hatred; joy and sorrow; unselfishness and greediness; faith and treachery; forgiveness and vengeance - spur the characters into action.