Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Traditions and culture in Tusheti

Please click on this map to enlarge. The place name spellings are on occasion incorrect but close enough and who's to say how the village names should be spelt.

This map is kindly donated from the Tusheti national reserve web site


The first and most important festival of the year for the Tush is “Atnigenoba”. Scholars will tell you it starts on the hundredth day after Easter and continues for two weeks. Well if you know the Tush you will smile and disagree - slightly. In principle Atnigenoba does start one hundred days after Easter but again this is an animist festival and therefore any festival days must work around the Christian calendar and in Georgia this is a complex issue. The Georgian Church is, one if not the oldest Christian faiths in the western world and as such the Christian calendar can influence festival dates if there is any conflict of interest. What is clear is the first festival kicks off around one hundred days after Easter and villages in the region will choose their own dates based on an element of tradition and what the elders can agree amongst themselves. A sort of well organised muddle, nothing fixed but at the same time there is a structure to these things. Now at this point I ask you to consider the idea of a bunch of well meaning enthusiastic Christian festival gowers attending an animist (pagan) festival. Well it works and what’s more, it makes sense. So read on.

At each summer village festival (Atnigenoba) there is a host. The “Shulta”, an exceptionally important person who is elected by the village for a year. Elected ,it’s more a question of ‘it’s your turn since your family haven’t done it for years’ or 'your brilliant at this type of thing and the family who should put forward a Shulta can’t do it this year'.In my home village we have the same situation when trying to find someone to chair a committee to run a local fete (a rural English festival). In short the Shulta is the fixer, party maker and catalyst to make it happen. An essential ingredient to a good party and we all know who they are. My accountant isn’t one but my wife thinks I should take the role up as a profession.

Two great men and me in the middle, in the Shenako beer hut. And yes you noticed we are not sober, perhaps that's why we are hanging onto each other.

At an indeterminate time before the great day a posse of men will take to the beer hut, a small house in the village built to brew beer and prepare food. If the Shulta is a man he will take control and manage the proceedings. If it’s a women ,well that can’t happen since the beer hut is a men only affair. This is Georgia and only girls before menstruation age can attend the beer hut. The beer is brewed, a very weak cloudy mixture. Often there will be good stuff for the women and another batch for the men. This elixir is brewed in vast copper caldron's and I think this experience is more about the collective spirit of men working together than the straight forward process of preparing food and drink .It’s all about sharing a few stories and generally having fun. In short this experience is hard wired into all men who want to control the barbecue, except the Tush know how to get drunk with greater style and enthusiasm and they also make all their own beer and ram stew for the festival.

This brew house or beer hut in Upper Omalo has been recently rebuilt. Notice the copper Cauldron in the top right .

This shot was taken just minutes before our Ram met his maker.

From my limited experience each village have their own approach to the proceedings. The sacrificial rams for the festival ( didn’t I mention the rams) are taken to the khatis (shrine) and slaughtered very swiftly by the person who has donated the said ram. You can imagine the situation ‘A village family finds themselves naturally selected since it is generally agreed by the village that this year is their turn to provide a Ram for the festival and they have to find the cash and make the donation’.A tough call if money is short. The ram’s blood is then splashed onto the khakis, a prayer is said and the slaughterer eats some bread ,drinks some Chacha (vodka) ,salty cheese and all the attendees do much the same but in a very relaxed manner while sharing some good stories.

Now for the good bit. The rams are strung up, skinned and generally prepared for the pot. If you find this squeamish turn the other way. A small fire is prepared and the ram’s testicles are barbecued. Great food and not for the girls since this is a boys only event.

The first time around I was slightly shocked. The second, well it all makes sense,especially if you are following the animist tradition and Rams are deeply symbolic in Georgia.

As the mornings celebrations continued some of the lads did a bit of sit down dancing to the penny whistle . Well sitdown dancing is much easier after a few Chacha's

The next bit of the festival proceedings I don’t get but I understand there is another person called a “Khelosani”, He is the appointed person who has the right “to bring out” a banner and ring the bells to inform the beginning of the “Atnigenoba”.Banners are not seen everywhere in Tusheti although Parsma have a pretty magnificent affair. Once the banner (a flag) is brought out, the “Khelosani” blesses it with a cry “aludi. Well that’s the scholar version.

The following three images were taken at a festival in Verkovani. This was a festival where horse riders throughout the valley participated and it's the only record I have of Banners or Flags but it gives one an idea of how they are used.

This example of a banner/flag on the khakis in Verkovani was to play an important part in the festival horse race. I arrived on my own and was promptly invited to drink some Chacha at the khakis which must have been the strongest spirit I've ever drunk, close to aircraft fuel ,so be warned .

I can only presume the gentleman holding the flag is the Khelosani.At the time I thought they were simply village elders.

After the race the winner here was presented with the flag. He then rode up onto the hills looking down on the festival to display his trophy. A brilliant race and make no mistake this lad took his life into his own hands to win a race of magnificent horsemanship and bravery .

Kakha Khimshiashvili provided this picture

This photo was taken in the summer of 2009 in the village Dano and the following day the village festival was held.
One of the important aspects of the festival preparation is the flag.In this instance the flag was taken from the village depository and a young man from Shulta family took the flag to a shrine somewhere high in the mountains. The tradition is the flag should spend a night in the shrine and next morning is taken back to the village and festival begins. Kakha took this picture from a great distance hence the scale of the image. The boy is running as swiftly as he can in the belief that the flag should reach the shrine as soon as possible, if he managed to reach the shrine without stopping his village will have good luck for the following year.

From my very limited experience the cry ‘aludi’ ,which sounds more like aluday, is also sung as chorus by all the men attending the ritual slaughter of the ram. This cry is sung out three times by the assembled men with deep resonance, ringing out across the valley. The men continue to make their cry of ‘aludi’ while toasting the day’s celebrations with Chacha and preparing the rams for the pot. I’ve included a picture earlier in this section illustrating a musician ,who when I last attended such a festival played the sweetest melody as we all took part in this ancient ritual

This ritual in Shenako of throwing men over a wall ,if they don't have sons, might sound amusing but in the summer of 2008 one chap broke an arm ,another was concussed and a third had a very swollen ankle after his flying activities . I was sleeping off the Chacha and luckily missed this event. My advice is if you are a man, stay well away or make sure you have a son at hand to prove your position.

With all this speak of rituals I'm missing out on the main and possibly the most important aspect of the festival . The feasts!

I'm sure there is a rhyme and even a reason to the order of these things but it's very difficult to work out when you are in the thick of the festival . In short on festival days men and women eat separately .After the mornings Ram slaughter the meat is prepared and lunch is layed out in a long line with revelers squatting on a trunk. Subsequent feasts might feature a special breakfast for men only. Women might have their own fun during spontaneous affairs and Khinkali is made by all the village later in the festival .

In Shenako the festivities can last between 3 to 4 days or was I so drunk I lost or gained a few days. Who can tell ,each day blends into another as the celebration gets a full head of steam.
Festival feasts

The following pictures are an illustration of some of the magnificent feasts I've attended and some of the personalities who attended .

Gaumarjos ( the Tusheti toast)

This is a typical selection of food provided at the festival but without the meat. If you are a vegetarian, have no worries. You will eat like a king - or queen for that matter .

I found this picture from a file of discarded images but thought it might help illustrate Chacha drinking during festivals . Most families will have their own Chacha horn for drinking local vodka in fact I have two.The drinking horn has tremendous significance throughout Georgia but at the village level ,during festivals time, the horn is used for toasting and helps endorse the connection with the all important Ram.

I came across my wife and daughters having a fantastic time at this spontaneous women's party.later the accordion came out and the women used their bread making bowls as makeshift drums.
This lad dancing in the center of the picture is not local ( he's from Chechnya) and the night before he got into a scrap after making a pass at local girl. All is now forgiven as our hot headed Chechayan gets on down but in another time he might have lost his life to flirt with a local girl.

Here are the men getting down to business eating and drinking and if drinking is not your bag- think of an exit strategy .

Another feast on yet another day and as always the men stick with the men.

In this picture the Tamada ( toast master) is telling us men folk why life is so wonderful and we all drink to that. Most of the toasts seemed to lack imagination but boy are they from the heart.

This is our Chechnya lad on festival day strutting his stuff on a local Tush horse. The sight to see was him as he took off like a bullet after asking me if he could talk with my daughters. And just talk he promised .

Here are the ladies of Shenako getting down to the the festivities. The cheese, pickle , bread, salad veg and Rams meat was wonderful and all washed down by either Chacha or beer. I never saw a jug of water on offer .

The women have all the fun at another grand picnic. You can see our Shulta pouring more drinks in the background.

More spontaneous partying by the women, keeping cool in the midday shade.

After our Chechnya lad had finished riding the girls took over racing around the village.
During the main festival day lads will race around the festivities getting ready for the afternoons racing event.

At the end of the festivities it's time to make Khinkali. This is a type of meat dumpling made from the ram slaughterd at the beginning of festival. Khinkali is the national dish for Georgians and some of the finest Khinkali can be found in Tusheti. This picture was taken in Gogrulta with Socrat and his grandson, Lily is in the background making the Khinkali. Not a festival occasion but excellent Khinkali demonstration. Note the wooden tray.

This is Lily demonstrating the art of Khinkali making. A shot not taken at a festival but it helps illustrate how the dumplings are made.

Khinkali is normally made by all the women folk in the village. Because of a clash of Christain calenders in the summer of 2008 this Khinkali was made at home as a family affair and with only one candle.

The village women from Shenako collectively making Khinkali for the festival .Notice the bottles for rolling pins and the cups to cut out the dough disks.

Crafts in Tusheti

Tusheti is not simply a place for festivals, although they are appreciated when the occasion rises. The region has a rich tradition of craft and a culture synomonus with the mountains. Sadly this is where our story lacks the lustre and brilliance one would have hoped for.
In the race to adopt a modern way of life many of the crafts have now slipped away with the passage of time.Partially due to economic considerations but also because of pressure from Russia when it yeilded power.

Although a significant number of Tushetians make a living from the moutains as sheperds, weaving and especialy carpet weaving has almost died out.

Tusheti carpet and Kilm making is hard to find. My wife found this Kilm in Pasma being aired out in the sun.

I'm told that there is a carpet maker in the Alvani at a place called the "Carpet House" and Marani (wine cellar) . The Marani in Alvani is apprently a good example of traditional winemaking, where almost all traditional household winemaking implements and vessels are still preserved. Visitors can taste the wines aged according to traditional practices and in addition, visitors have an opportunity to taste honey and locally made honey vodka - Santlis araki. Santlis means honey wax and araki is vodka in general .The same family operates a carpet house on the second floor of their building. Tushetian sheep wool is processed, dyed with natural dyes and used for the manufacture of carpets, tapestry and other handicrafts.
The Alvani Marani /"Carpet House" is located about 3-4 km distance from Alaverdi cathedral, so you can take a trip and kill two birds with one stone.

Contact Lili Murtazashvili Phone: +995 55 91 21 45

What is more common are the carpets thrown over the horse and often sported by the young lads hurtling around the mountains on their magnificent steeds.

The PomPoms are a common decoration to the horse carpet.

This working saddle made by Socrat illustrating Tusheti craftmanship in leather.You can just make out a felt in grey used with most saddles but sadly the felts arer no longer made in Tusheti.

The two preceeding images of felts were found by my wife in Parsma as villages hung their bed linen out to air on arrival for the summer festival.

This out of focus image pictures an elderly lady selling her Tushetian slippers (Chitti) in Pasma 2007. Perhaps one of the last vestages of traditional dress in Tusheti. On occasions people will sew PVC soles to thier slippers. I can vouch they are extreamly comfortable and great for the winter .I've sewn leather soles to mine and they are wonderful
In modern Georgia it is difficult to find examples of traditional Tushetian dress. There is a small museum in Upper Omalo where impliments are displayed but to my knowleged Tusheti does not have an ethnographic museum of its own,which is a shame. There is a folk museum in Tibilisi but it's always been closed when I've attempted to visit .However I'm told by my daughter it is well worth the visit.

The following pictures illustrate some of the costumes my wife and I have been lucky enough to find on our travels in Tushti. I've noticed young Georgians are starting to wear traditional dress at weddings so there is hope that Georgia can hang on to its traditional dress and not loose a thousand years of tradition abd rich culture.

If I remember correctly the coins on this jacket are dated from around the 40's and 50's and judging from much of the other marterial I think this jacket is about 50 years old.

The embroidery panels are woven on a similar loom to a Kilm.

My wife is quite tall but I think she does a fair job as a cloths horse although she is very self consious in this picture . In it's day this garment must have looked wonderful with the mixture of madder , weild and indigo dyed material.

I thought this shot might be interesting since it illustrates a combination of the kilm in natural wool and the traditional jerkin.

Kakha Khimshiashvili has been good enough to help me clarify a number of points and has also provided a couple of very interesting pictures.

This is a picture by one of Georgia's most renowed painters from XX century,Tengiz Mirzashvili. He had a passion for Tusheti and painted a number of paintings of the region.

Tengiz Mirzashvili died in 2008

This image of a mourning family in Shenako was kindly donated by Irma Chvritidze. Sadly I don’t know the date of the picture but it illustrates the dress of the Tush ,possibly in the early 20th century, and the ritual of laying out the cloths of the deceased for close family to mourn.
In the top right hand corner there appeares to be a funeral pyre but I may be wrong.

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