The predominant form of cultural expression among the Kyrgyz nomads is the narration of epics. The art of the Akyns, the Kyrgyz epic tellers, combines singing, improvisation and musical composition. The epics are performed at religious and private festivities, seasonal ceremonies and national holidays and have survived over the centuries by oral transmission.
The value of the Kyrgyz epics lies largely in their dramatic plots and philosophical underpinnings. They represent an oral encyclopaedia of Kyrgyz social values, cultural knowledge and history. The pre-eminent Kyrgyz epic is the 1000-year-old Manas trilogy, which is noteworthy not only for its great length (sixteen times longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), but also for its rich content. Blending fact and legend, the Manas immortalizes important events in Kyrgyz’s history since the ninth century. The Kyrgyzs have also preserved over forty “smaller” epics. While the Manas is a solo narration, these shorter works are generally performed to the accompaniment of the komuz, the three-stringed Kyrgyz lute. Each epic possesses a distinctive theme, melody and narrative style. Akyns were once highly respected figures who toured from region to region and frequently participated in storytelling contests. They were appreciated for their proficiency in narration, expressive gestures, intonation and lively mimicry, so well suited to the epics’ emotionally charged content.
During the 1920s, the first part of the Manas trilogy was recorded in written form based on the oral interpretation of the great epic singer, Sagynbay. The epics remain an essential component of Kyrgyz identity and continue to inspire contemporary writers, poets, and composers; even today, the traditional performances are still linked to sacred cultural spaces. Although there are fewer practitioners nowadays, master akyns continue to train young apprentices and are helped by recent revitalization initiatives supported by the Kyrgyz government.
Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2003)
© Text: UNESCO, Image: Kyrgyz National Commission for UNESCO