Tuvans - Religion and Expressive Culture

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Religious Beliefs and Practices. The traditional religions in Tuva are Siberian shamanism, traces of which can still be found in the countryside, and Tibetan Lamaism, which entered Tuva in the second half of the eighteenth century and still persists among older people. In 1931 there were more than 4,000 lamas and two dozen lamaseries. After purges instigated by graduates of the KUTV during the 1930s, the lamas were dispersed and repressed, some of them were shot, and nearly all the lamaseries were destroyed. Recently, however, a Buddhist community was officially registered in Tuva. Efforts are underway to rebuild the great lamasery at Chadan.

Arts. Tuvan culture is noted for its rich oral epic poetry (as are other Turkic cultures) and especially for its music. There are more than fifty different musical instruments. In Kyzyl, music and drama are performed in an ornate theater with Oriental architectural influences. In the countryside, traveling ensembles often perform outdoors. Perhaps the best-known Tuvan movie star is Makhim Munzuk, who played the title role in Akira Kurosawa's Oscar-winning film (1975), Dersu Uzala (The Hunter). The most unusual Tuvan art form is overtone singing ( khöömei , also known as "harmonic" or "throat" singing), in which a low, throaty voice—usually a drone lasting up to thirty seconds, sung after a melodic line of text—is accompanied by a "second voice"—that is, harmonics of the drone—produced by the same singer contorting his lips, tongue, soft palate, and throat muscles. Overtone singing, practiced almost exclusively by men, has at least five styles—from sügüt ("whistling"), through khöömei ("hoomei," the Anglicized Tuvan name given to the entire genre), to hargyraa ("rattling"). Overtone choirs are being formed in Europe and North America, and overtone singing is finding its way into the repertoire of a wide variety of musical groups.

Tuvans have a highly developed stone-carving art that is deeply rooted in their history. In the twentieth century stone carving has focused on small (hand-sized) renderings of animals and humans in a style reminiscent of the Scythian. The medium is pyrophyllite, a material like soapstone. Other carved materials include wood and bone. Gold-and silversmithery also have a long tradition. There is a constellation of crafts involving animal skins—tanning, currying, pressing wool, and so on—that result in ornate utensils, clothes, and footwear.

Medicine. Herbal treatments were developed over the centuries by shamans and were augmented by Tibetan medicine as practiced by lamas. Since the 1940s conventional Western medicine has been dominant. Recently there has been a revival of interest in herbal remedies and medicinal plants.

Death and Afterlife. Although Lamaism is not publicly practiced in Tuva today, belief in reincarnation and the influence of karma is strong, especially among older people. When a person dies, the funeral is held within five days. The influence of shamanism can be seen in the timing of subsequent ceremonies, on the seventh and forty-ninth days after death: the soul is believed to remain in the dwelling of the deceased for seven days, at which time it departs for the kingdom of the dead (in the realm of darkness and shadows), reaching its ultimate wandering point only on the forty-ninth day. A ritual candle ( chula ) is kept burning by the family of the deceased during this six-week period. Tuvans do not decorate the dead nor the grave, as they believe the body goes back to Mother Nature, and the soul needs no decoration. Today Tuvans, like Christians, often have an annual feast on a particular day to honor the dead ancestor.

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