Guardians and shai’yks

This text was published in the book ‘Mazar Worship in Kyrgyzstan: Rituals and Practitioner in Talas’ by Aigine, Bishkek, 2007.

These pages are devoted to shai’yks (q.v.) and guardians of mazars (q.v.) in Talas province.

When Aigine started its activities in Talas in 2004, the main approach was to involve local community members in the research and protection of the mazars in that region. It was soon learned that there are people who not only worship at the mazars but at the same time look after, protect and maintain sacred sites. Within a year, Aigine identified 23 such people and has involved them in the research activities. At the same time, participatory observation was conducted on their life experience. The main difference of Ysyk-Kol from Talas is the low amount of guardians.

Based on this participatory observation and collaborative activity, Aigine has categorized people who serve for mazars into two following types: shai’yks and guardians.

Shai’yks are people who carry out such duties such as looking after a mazar, guiding pilgrims (zyyaratchy) and leading the ritual performances. As a rule, shai’yks know the history, the special features of a mazar, and other related information and narrate them to the visitors and pilgrims. The distinctive aspect of shai’yks is an ability to practice traditional healing at the mazars that s/he looks after.

The guardians are the people who look after the mazars in terms of protecting and cleaning them. These people may not know the history or specific stories of the mazars and they usually do not possess an ability to heal.

Shai’yks and guardians have come to accomplish such a spiritual mission in different times and ways. Readers will find their life stories in the following chapter. We want to emphasize is that at certain times all of the shai’yks were seriously ill, suffering or “lost” and this illness, suffering or self-loss forced them to start visiting and worshiping mazars. Over time, they were able to define their duties at the mazars and to heal not only themselves but also to heal others.

When we started working in Talas most of these people almost did not possess any information about each other. Aigine made a decision to unify the people who conduct the same activities in one area. In March of 2006 Aigine took the initiative to bring these people together. It was then that a Union of Shai’yks and Guardians in Talas province was founded. Certainly, this particular union has definite aims that concern the mazars and Kyrgyz heritage in general. Although, in Aigine’s opinion, one of the main responsibilities of this union was already accomplished: shai’yks and guardians had unified and gained a feeling of being a unified social group with a strong sense of identity as well as getting some public attention.

There are nine women among the 23 guardians and shai’yks. It should be noted that none of the existing social authorities brought shai’yks and guardians to care for the mazars. Rather they organized based on their own inner needs. It is a sign that confirms that in Kyrgyz society, women and men can take the initiative on the same level. Moreover, women as well as men can manage similar work on the same level.

Shai’yks and guardians are similar to other human beings. Some of them would be known among people as aimless people who were addicted to alcoholic drinks. Aigine does not deny or hide this fact. Perhaps these are exactly the reasons that such people start worshipping at mazars and became shai’yks or guardians of mazars.

American scientist Christina Groff after conducting research with people who were addicted to alcohol and drugs came to the following opinion: “if people who are very sensitive and who are in the process of special spiritual search, because of certain external reasons were not able to realize those needs and feelings, they usually become addicted to alcohol and drugs.” As most of us are aware, during Soviet time it was not possible to become a shai’yk of a mazar or to practice healing activities at mazars. In general it was not possible to “walk on the path” which is called kyrgyzchylyk (q.v.). We also have heard such opinions as: is it possible to believe to people who used to drink alcohol and just today became a shai’yk? Aigine would answer this question in the following way: This question is up to the individual (reader).

Our goal is to bring the massage from the people who were able to get over hard drinking and find out their place in the world and in the society.

Mainly the students of the Talas State University conducted interviews with and collected information from shai’yks and guardians. The teachers on behalf of Aigine conducted a series of workshops to train the student in field research methods and techniques.

It is possible to present the information that was received and found out in various ways. We chose to present the interviews conducted by the students with shai’yks and guardians in their entirety with few changes. Thus, a reader will see the product of primary professional work and experience of the Talas students.

It is also important for Aigine to see students teaming up with shai’yks and guardians as the way of cooperation between the two generations.

It is anticipated that communication and exchange of views between the younger generation which just started its search to everyday and spiritual needs with older people about things that are important in our culture would help the young and as well as elder generation to liberalize and widen their world views.