During my fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan in summer and autumn 2011 I had the chance to visit two centers of the ата жолу movement, which spread from Kazakstan to Kyrgyzstan, attracting more and more people all over Kyrgyzstan. My fieldwork was actually focused on the question how traditional healers in Kyrgyzstan become practitioners, their way of initiation, including dreams, sicknesses and master-apprentice relationships. I was taken to such a center for the first time during my stay in the city of Talas, my translator took me there, telling me that these people are healing as well. We went to the weekly pilgrimage with them and I was able to observe the daily healing rituals that are carried out in every ата жолы center. The second occasion to gain information about this movement was in the city of Naryn, where I went to one of the two centers located in the city, in order to interview the members of the center. I gained all the information given in the text from my own observations on the pilgrimage and the healing rituals and from interviews with the following people: Toktogul and Said baike in Talas (who are shumkars; kyrg. for falcons), and Sofia, Kaerkul and Sary eje in Naryn (who are shakirts; kyrg. for apprentice).
History of the movement
Ата жолу (kz. for “the way of the fathers/forefathers”) is a religious movement founded in 1996 in Kazakstan by Kuul Kytyral Tarybaev, who was, according to Ата жолы followers in Talas, already mentioned by Nostradamus as a man who would be a “Messiah” of Central Asia. The movement came to Kyrgyzstan in 2005, opening its first ордо in Talas. Talas is also the place where Tarybaev went first to spread his message in Kyrgyzstan, since he saw the hero Manas in his dream and was told by him to found Ата жолы and to bring it to Kyrgyzstan. The first time Tarybaev came to Kyrgyzstan, he was not very successful, since he was trying to persuade the former Kyrgyz president Akaev of his ideas and make Ата жолы the state religion of Kyrgyzstan, which failed. After going back to Kazakstan he received another message from Manas, where he told Tarybaev to continue preaching. Finally he established Ата жолы in Kazakstan from where it spread to Kyrgyzstan.
The places of gathering and the аталар
The core places of practiced religion and gathering places for the members of Ата жолы are called ордо (kyrg. for base, place of rest). Meanwhile in every Kyrgyz oblast at least one ордо exists. The ордолор are usually big houses, with one special room, where the religious gatherings take place. The daily prayers are carried out there as well as the daily healing rituals and the gatherings on Sundays before going on the pilgrimage. The walls of this room are decorated with the images of eight аталар (kyrg. for forefathers, ancestors) and that of Tarybaev. These аталар can vary, in the ордо in Talas the images of the following аталар were exposed: Toktogul, Manas, Tarybaev, Aischa Bibi, Tuektuebai, Sueiuenbai, Sarybai, Jambyl, Kainazar. At the ордо in Naryn the following atas were displayed: Aischa Bibi, Tuektuebai, Manas, Arystan, Koja- Ahmad Yassayin, Sarybai, Jambyl, Kainazar and Toktogul.
While entering this room of worship, one must bend in the doorway and when one leaves, you have to bend again. Besides that, you have to walk out of it with your back pointing towards the door, since it is not allowed to turn your back towards the inside of the room. Some of the exposed people in the sacred room were Muslim saints, some Kyrgyz heroes or poets. These аталар play a very important role for the movement. They have a special connection to the members and especially to those people who were blessed by Tarybaev himself. It is crucial to fulfill the will of these honored, dead people, who appear in the dreams of the Ата жолы members and tell them what to do. Fulfilling their wishes, they can be approached to for prayers, own wishes of the ordinary people and especially for healing.
Although there was a certain variation in the statements of different people, the main idea is that the spirits of these people are closer to God than ordinary people. That’s why if one prays to them, they will take the prayers to God and it will be much more likely that God will listen to their requests instead of those of ordinary people. Nevertheless, I was told at the ордо in Naryn also, that it is just important to fulfill their wishes because a Kyrgyz proverb says that if the dead are not content, neither the living will. The general idea is that the members of ата жолы fulfill the wishes of the forefathers, visit the places that these show them in dreams, and in exchange, these spirits help them to cure people and carry their prayers to God. Ата жолы is based on the Muslim faith, its members emphasizing that praying and fasting during the орозо (kyrg. for the Muslim month of fasting) are really important practices. Apart from sick people many persons who have problems with alcoholism visit ата жолы, whose members regard the consumption of alcohol as sin.
The members of Ата жолы
The members of the Ата жолы centers are always composed of people who are “ordinary members”, called шакирт (kyrg. for apprentice) and those people who have a higher position, because they receive messages from the аталар. The former are at the ордо almost every day, clean the house, care for the pilgrims who arrive and may attend the pilgrimage journeys conducted weekly, usually on Sundays, and called зиярат (arab. for pilgrimage). Those persons who are authorized to decide to which Мазар (sacred site; derived from arab. place to be visited) to go and who carry out the daily rituals in the ордо are called аккуу (kyrg. Swan, for females) or шумкар (kyrg. falcon; for male persons). They are people who went to Turkestan and received a blessing from Tarybaev himself, while he was still alive. He “opened their hearts”. This means that only these people have got a direct connection to the аталар. The аталар come to them in their dreams and tell them to which Мазар to go and what to do. “We have to go to five Мазарлар, but if the аккуу gets a бата (in this case: information from the ancestors) to go to another place we will do that as well. аккуулар produce бата “(Sofia eje, Naryn). All of the шакирт got касиет (kyrg. for supernatural gift, spiritual mission) but it is not sure if they can ever become аккуу, now that Tarybaev is dead, because all the аккуу received a stamp on their heart from Tarybaev. According to statements of the ордо members in Naryn, all members of ата жолы receive a касиет from an аккуу or шумкар. The same rules as for other recipients of касиет like healers, fortune tellers or epic tellers are applied here as well. Whoever does not except it, obtains physical or mental difficulties. One шакирт in Naryn told me that she went to the big pilgrimage in Turkestan and received her mission there from another аккуу. When she came back she didn’t want to accept it and got high blood pressure. The касиет can be the mission to heal certain illnesses or also for example the gift to talk to foreign people and explain them certain things. In this case the lady received the mission to be a leader and talk to foreign people. Afterwards she started to lead pilgrimages to the sacred sites and that’s how she recovered.
The weekly pilgrimage
The core practice of ата жолы is the pilgrimage to Мазарлар (sacred sites). Мазар is an Arab word and means “place to be visited”. Throughout Kyrgyzstan many sacred sites can be found, which can be either manmade, like mausoleums of Muslim saints or natural sites, like springs, mountains or holy trees and bushes. On each Sunday those members of ата жолы, who are authorized to do so, visit about five or six places with people that come in order to be healed from health or social problems. I could observe such a pilgrimage in Talas. Early in the morning those people, who will accompany the pilgrimage gather in the main room of the ордо with all the people who come in order to be cured. Speeches are held about the benefits of going on pilgrimages and about the right way of living. Then everyone does namaz, men and women separately.
According to my observations, the procedure at each site is the following: First of all the ill people put down актык (kyrg. for whiteness) at the sacred sites. These are square white pieces of cloth that are taken by the participants with them before going on the pilgrimage. After having offered these, prayers are read. After this, батачыгагуу is done. This means that the saint, who is associated with the Мазар is invited to speak to the people through the аккуу. The аккуу tells the diagnosis to each person and after that tells him or her, what can be done in order to be cured. The advices can vary, some of the people have to take the актык with them again and place them under their pillow while sleeping for a couple of days. The important part is, that not the person who is doing the батачыгагуу is the one who gives recommendations and diagnosis, but the spirit of the ата associated with the pilgrimage site. Usually, the Kyrgyz word бата is used to describe the process of receiving a blessing or good wishes from someone, but in this case it means the process of passing on the information one has received from the forefathers.
After having received the бата from the аккуу or the шумкар everyone prays to the saint. After that, the next мазар is visited. During the journey from one sacred site to the other, suras from the Qur’an are recited from a person, who is an ordinary pilgrim. Besides, the аккуу, who is accompanying us in our bus, prays in Kyrgyz. During the зиярат certain rules have to be observed, otherwise it will not be successful for the participants. It is important that women wear skirts and not trousers and that they cover their heads. While being on the bus from one sacred site to the other one mustn’t sleep. In Talas the explanation for this rule was, that the forefathers are already on the bus, before one reaches the site and that they will be offended if one sleeps. Besides that one must observe all the instructions the аккуу or шумкар gives.
These weekly pilgrimage journeys are called the “small pilgrimage”. If a pilgrim is not cured from his or her sickness, he has to go on the “great pilgrimage” to Turkestan in Kazakstan. It is the place where Tarybaev himself lived and gave blessings and it is a town where many shrines of saints can be found, it is said that there are 41 of them. The ордо in Talas offers such a pilgrimage journey to Turkestan every month.
The дем салуу and шамчагуу ritual are carried out every evening in the ордо, regardless to the fact that there are ill people or not. If not, the members just do it for themselves.
The шамчагуу- ritual is conducted like this: first the fotiha and iazik from the holy Qu’ran are read by a шумкар or аккуу, then this person starts to light 21 шамдар (kyrg. for candles), which are in a pot. Seven of them are lit to the honor of the matrilateral ancestors, seven for the patrilateral ancestors and seven for the ancestors of the spouse. It is important to honor all of them. Then the person will walk around with the pot three times through the room anticlockwise, in order to purify it. Afterwards the participants purify themselves, everyone strokes over the candles and then over the whole body, beginning with the head and the arms and ending with the legs, hitting the floor with the hands after finishing. This ritual is conducted in order to purify the participants from bad energies and bad thoughts. In the second part батачыагуу is made, to see what problems the patient has.
The дем салуу- ritual is made, to drive out sicknesses of the patient’s body. Every physical disease is said to be possibly cured with it. The patient sits down for that, with stretched legs. Then the treating person puts his hand on the patient’s hand and his foot on one of the ill person’s legs, then on the other. After this the шумкар presses the person’s head and leg for several times. In the second step he or she takes a камчы [ritual leather whip] and hit both shoulders of the patient and then his back. After this he (the шумкар) hits the floor with the камчы, to get rid of the ill energy. During this process at least three suras from the holy Qu’ran have to be recited silently. If the sickness is very serious, it is necessary to recite more. In case that a patient is seriously sick, it is possible to perform шамчагуу- ritual also during daytime, but otherwise it is only allowed to do it in the evenings, everyday at half past six. The дем салуу- ritual can be never performed during daytime. These rituals can be only done in ордо, because apparently it is the only place which is pure enough for conducting them.
Voices of ата жолы
“It is important to follow the Muslim duties, like performing the daily namaz (the Muslim prayer). Allah is the same for all people, but heaven and hell exist only for Muslims.”(Toktogul-baike, ата жолы Talas)
“When you are sick, it is the soul who is sick, so you have to find out why it is so. Often sicknesses are related to the wrong behavior, like drinking alcohol, keeping alcohol in the house or lying. We have many holy people in Kyrgyzstan, if one makes pilgrimages to their graves and prays one can recover from sicknesses. The souls of our аталар go to Allah and carry our prayers to him. Sometimes there are barricades to gaining happiness, i.e. when people can’t earn money or they have health problems.” (Said-baike, ата жолы, Talas)