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Tyva and the Altai

Tyva became part of the USSR only in 1944.  Located in a mountainous and remote part of southern Siberia on the border with Mongolia, and west of Buryatia, nowhere else in the world is so far from the sea as Tyva. Here the winters are bitterly cold and the summers very hot. Tyva has both taiga and steppe, medicinal springs and beautiful lakes, semi-desert and snowy mountains. The Sayan Mountains in southwest of Tyva give rise to the river Yenisei, one of Siberia’s main rivers which flows to the Arctic Ocean.The Tyvan speak a Turkic language, but their ethnic heritage is complex and includes Turkic, Mongol, Samoyed and Ket elements, reflecting the great number of ancient powers that have historically dominated this part of Central Asia

The Xiongnu ruled over the area prior to 200 AD. The Xianbei defeated the Xiongnu and they in turn were defeated by the Rouran. From around the end of the 6th century, the Göktürks ruled the area until the 8th century when it was conquered by the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Khanate ruled during the 8th and 9th centuries and established several fortifications within Tyva. In 840 AD the Kyrgyz conquered the region and established a khanate that lasted until the rise of the Mongol empire in the 13th century. The Tyvans became part of the Dzungarian state ruled by the Oirats until 1755, after which the area became part of the Chinese empire. Tyva declared independence in 1912, and in 1914, while attempting to break away from China, Tyva became a protectorate of the Russian Empire. During the Bolshevik takeover and Civil War in Russia, Tyva was alternately occupied by Red and White armies. In the 1920s Mongolia tried to re-establish control over Tyva, and in 1924 an agreement between Russia, Mongolia, and Tyva established the Tannu-Tyva People's Republic. In the two decades after 1924 Tyva was nominally independent, and remained so until 1944 when Stalin granted Tyva's "petition" to accede to the USSR and it became an oblast within the USSR. Today Tyva is a republic within the Russian Federation with a population of around 350,000, two thirds of which are ethnically Tyvan, the rest being mainly Russian. Some Tyvans also live in China and Mongolia. 

Traditionally, Tyvans are cattle-breeding nomads tending to herds of camels, reindeer, yaks, sheep and goats who live in yurts, round tents covered with felt or deerskin that can easily be dismantled and moved to follow seasonal pastures. Like other pastoralists, Tyvans traditionally eat mainly dairy and meat products, and drink an alcoholic drink made of fermented mare’s milk called araka.

The Tyvan people have remained fairly isolated within their mountainous region, and in the countryside people still live a nomadic, pastoral life close to nature. Extended families live in yurts without electricity and fetch their water from streams. However, since the collapse of the
USSR, the republic has faced social problems with high drug abuse and crime rates.Tyva is a Buddhist nation, but shamanism was widely practiced in Tyva until the forties and fifties when the Soviet government enforced campaigns to eradicate religious practice.

Like elsewhere, shamanism went hand in hand with animism, and according to traditional Tyvan beliefs, every mountain, every lake or river, and every medicinal spring has its own spirit owner, which owns the place, and is in command of the animals and birds living there. It can protect people who live there or cross the area, and to win the spirits’ favour, sacrifices were performed.

The features of the landscape and the creatures inhabiting it are also settings and characters in Tyvan mythology, which describes and explains the world. Tyva has nine sacred springs, nine sacred mountains, the holiest of which is the
Bear Mountain, Khaiyrakan, and nine sacred celestial objects – the sun, the moon and the seven stars of the Great Bear.Like other animistic peoples, Tyvans traditionally held a great respect for nature, which they treated as sacred. They did not pick flowers and avoided felling trees, but if they nevertheless felled one they would pray to the tree’s spirit and ask its forgiveness[1].

Little piles of stones can be found at crossroads and other prominent places along Tyvan roads. Travelers today still add stones to little these as they make prayers to place spirits.

Tyvan animism and throat singing
Tyvan animism attaches spiritual importance not only to the visual aspects of a natural object, such as a mountain or a river, or an animal, but also to the sounds they can produce, the imitation of which allows humans to assimilate their spiritual power.
Tyvans are famous for their throat-singing, which is a unique form of music involving singing while producing multiple tones. It differs greatly from normal singing because two or more notes are produced simultaneously. At times, it can sound as if a tone is not produced by the singer but comes from a different direction or above the head of the person listening. Throat singers can make sounds that resemble the sounds made by animals, such as the whistle of a bird or the rhythm of a cantering horse. Throat singing is practiced in some other parts of Siberia, including Khakassia and Bashkortostan, in Tibet, by the Xosa in South Africa, the Inuit in Northern Canada and the Ainu in Northern Japan.Throat singing is a type of sound mimicry and a non-verbal way of interacting with the natural environment. It is practiced by shamans, who also use drums to reach a type of trance, or ecstasy and communicate with the spirits and the natural environment. Throat-singing is traditionally reserved for men, in fact female throat-singing is traditionally thought to be harmful to the singer and her family.

Although Soviet rule destroyed much, there has been a revival of both Buddhism and shamanism in the post-Soviet period. A missing generation of lamas and shamans has created a kind of cultural gap, and only the future can tell whether or not it will be possible to bridge this.

The revival and institutionalization of religion and/or shamanism also has political undertones and can be seen as a search for a unifying national ideology. Relations with
Tibet have been established and the Dalai Lama visited Tyva in 1992. Shamanism has also been institutionalized, as shamans have become organized in associations with strict rules regarding the acceptance of new members and identity cards, and an official price-list for shamanic services.[2]Colin Thubron, traveling to Kyzyl at the end of the nineties, visited Doongyr, the Association of the Tambour, a society of shamans in Kyzyl. He finds himself ‘overcome by a creeping gloom’, and feels that the thread with the past has snapped, and that in becoming institutionalized, these shamans have lost touch with their ancestors and lost their credibility[3].

The Altai mountains
The Altai mountains in southern Siberia are a world heritage site. The mountains provide the source of the great rivers of western Siberia – the Ob and the Irtysh. The Altai region has steppe, forest-steppe, mixed forest, subalpine and alpine vegetation and dramatic alpine landscapes with blue lakes and rivers, and is home to numerous endangered species, for example the snow leopard. Communication and travel in the taiga of the Northern Altai has always been extremely difficult because of the heavy snowfall and hilly terrain.There are a number of tribes on the northern slopes of the Altai and
Sayan mountains who speak Turkic languages and several of these tribes are known collectively as the Altai. As an ethnic group, the Altai are divided primarily into two groups: the southern group (consisting of the Kizhi, the Telengits, the Telesy, and the Teleuts) and the northern group (consisting of the Tubalars, the Chelkans, and the Kumandins). There are around 70,000 Altai and most live in the Gorno-Altai Autonomous Region.Like other parts of southern Siberia, the Altai mountains have fallen under the successive domination of different nomadic civilisations and empires, later to be ruled by China and Russia.
The Altai tribes were originally semi-nomadic taiga hunters and fishers. Turkic influence brought livestock rearing and in the 19th century Russian peasants brought agriculture and farming.
The Altai traditionally relied heavily on the horse, which was the chief means of transportation. The Altai horse is, like other Siberian horses, a hardy breed used to its harsh environment and essential to the people who rely on them. Horses have always been important to the tribesmen and nomads in this mountainous region. A sure-footed horse is important, as they must travel over steep mountain trails and cross fast-moving streams and rivers.

Traditionally, the Altai tribes were shamanists. In the late Tsarist period many Altai converted to Orthodox Christianity but retained many of their shamanist practices. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Burkhanism, which was a new religion with a messianic element and a national unification movement, became very popular in the Altai. After the fall of the Soviet empire, in a quest for a national identity and unity, shamanistic, Buddhist and Burkhanist traditions compete in the process of creating a new Altaian national identity[4].

There is a conflict between intellectuals who tend to favour Buddhism because of its systematic philosophical content and the links it provides with the wider Buddhist community in neighbouring countries, and ordinary people, who tend to find Buddhism ‘un-Altaic’ and feel more at ease with the non-institutionalized shamanistic traditions[5].

Khakasia is located north of the Altay Republic and Tyva, next to the Sayan and Altay Mountains. Its capital is the city of Abakan. Two-thirds of the country is mountainous. The Khakas language is Turkic. Most Khakas are Russian Orthodox, however shamanist beliefs and traditions survive in Khakasia.The modern Khakas nation is a union of several tribes with a mix of Turkic and non-Turkic ethnic elements. When the Soviets came to power in 1923, the Khakas National District was established, and various ethnic groups were artificially "combined" into one—the Khakas. The republic of Khakassia in its present form was established in 1992.
The Khakas people traditionally practiced nomadic herding, agriculture, hunting, and fishing. Herding sheep and cattle is still common.

The Shor are a Turkic speaking minority of
Southern Siberia who live to the east of the Altai tribes. Today there are about 16,000 Shor and about 9,000 still speak their native Turkic language.Like the Khakass, the Shor are a union of several tribes with a mix of Turkic and non-Turkic ethnic elements and before the 1917 Revolution the Shor used separate clan names. During Soviet times the Shor national identity was created and a standard written Shor language was developed.

The tribes who became the modern Shor were primarily taiga hunters and fishers. With Turkic influence also came limited use of livestock, and there was also some agriculture. The Shor were mainly settled and lived in log huts.

The Shor were skilled at smelting ore and forging iron, a skill which no other native people of the region possessed. In fact, the Shor region is rich in iron ore, so much so that a large iron industry was developed here in the 20th century.

[1] Kyrgyz Z.K., "Tyvinian Traditional Aldysh Yoreeldery", Kyzyl, 1990, p. 63-64
 Agnieszka Halemba, Contemporary religious life in the Republic of Altai: the
interaction of Buddhism and Shamanism

 Colin Thubron, Through Siberia, 1999, p.102
 Agnieszka Halemba, Contemporary religious life in the Republic of Altai: the
interaction of Buddhism and Shamanism