Recently Kazakhs celebrated one of their most important holidays – Nowruz. It is the Kazakh new year, and its origins date back several hundred years. Kazakhstan is located in the heart of Asia, along the Silk Road, so many new ideas and traditions were brought to Kazakhstan by the traders who took this path. Nowruz in particular is said to originate from Persia, where it was tied to the ancient Zoroastrian religion and the spring equinox. While Zoroastrianism isn’t practiced in Kazakhstan, its holiday continues on and is still celebrated each year just after the equinox, whenever the amount of daytime exceeds the amount of nighttime. This holiday tradition is practiced in other regions of the world, such as the middle East and the Caucuses, and it is therefore multinational holiday.
In Almaty, the main day of Nowruz celebration occurred on the 22 of March. The city of Almaty has two main roads that contain pedestrian-only sections, Arbat Street and Panfilov Street, and that’s where I started my tour of the Nowruz festivities. Here I came across a youth orchestra composed of flutes, percussion instruments, kobyz and dombra. At first glance I thought the kobyz was a violin, but the players held the instruments in a different way and they were seated. These were my first clues that this was not a violin, and it turned out to be an instrument native to Kazakhstan. The modern day kobyzs have closed resonating cavities, like violins, but the original shape of the body looks more like two bowls. The second instrument, the dombra, looks like a pear-shaped acoustic guitar and it has only two strings. Dombra players are very dexterous and play with incredible speed and rhythmic patterns. I was surprised so much could come from only two strings! The concert was a very delightful experience.
While the instruments appeared somewhat familiar, the clothing the musicians wore were more exotic. Both the boys’ and girls’ costumes contained several pieces and they were all adorned with beautiful golden swirling patterns. These patterns are meant to attract onlookers’ attention right away, and this is said to ward off evil spirits. Ornamental patterns in general are a popular form of decoration throughout Kazakhstan. The national flag, traditional costumes and yurts, for example, exhibit such patterns. Even day-to-day objects, such as rugs, street lights and buildings contain these classic ornamental patterns. Both the boys and girls also wore hats unlike what we see in America. Girls, for example, wore long, felt cones covered in swirling patterns with a feather at the top. These hats look very similar to what Kazakh women traditionally wore during wedding ceremonies.
Further along the city streets, I saw many other attractions. Kazakh men dressed up as nomadic warriors and ladies dressed in beautiful traditional costumes strolled around for pictures. Yurts of all sizes stood around the streets and sometimes a banquet was being served inside. One dish that every Kazakh knows will be served during Nowruz is Nowruz Kozhe. This is a soup composed of seven ingredients. The number seven is a special number that is connected with the new beginnings and the Kazakh New Year, and for this reason there must always be seven ingredients in this dish, although they are not always the same ones. Typically, the ingredients are milk, water, salt, meat, a grain of some sort, corn and yogurt. In these ingredients, milk and meat are always present. Milk represents what is new to come whereas meat represents the past.
Overall, Kazakhs celebrated Nowruz much like people all over the world celebrate their main events – large, festive gatherings with music, performances and food. For anyone wishing to travel to Kazakhstan, Nowruz would be a great time to visit since one would see many Kazakh customs in a short period of time.
By: Esus Oberlaender
Program: Russian Language & Area Studies, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Term: Spring 2019