Religious Beliefs and Practices. The Balkars are Masgaba Khanbali (Sunni Muslims). Islam took a long time to become established and only definitively triumphed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Traces of pagan concepts can be seen in rituals: at times of drought people say prayers; they douse each other with water; they dress up dolls or frogs and "drown" them in water. The household is protected from the evil eye by means of a horse's skull; a horseshoe is nailed over the threshold for good luck; people and livestock wear amulets and talismans ( dua). During a lunar eclipse the Balkars make noise with metallic objects so that the monster Jelmauuz will not devour the moon. To prevent harm to livestock that have strayed from the herd, they have recourse to the ritual of "binding the teeth" of predatory animals. Balkar mythology, like Balkar art as a whole, has preserved to the present day components of diverse epochs: the high godhead of the ancient Turks (Teiri or Tengri) and lesser deities that have been adapted to the Caucasian milieu. The most recent addition is the Islamic eschatology with its terminology and customs.
Arts. Together with other peoples of the Caucasus, the Balkars inherited the heroic epics of the Narts, preserving both the sung and the prose versions. The performers of the N art songs are men called zhekuao.. There are also professional keeners, ritual lamenters called sarïnchïla. In the Soviet period the singers, both male and female, have formed professional musical and theatrical ensembles and independent collectives: the repertoires of O. Sottaev and A. Biychekkueva include about a thousand folk songs, and Z. Altueva knows hundreds of lyric songs. Balkar literature includes the works of folklorists, bards ( zhïrchï), and writers of various genres. The first works appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century (Orusbievy, K. Mechiev, M. Abaev). Among contemporaries the following stand out: S. Shakhmarzaev, K. Kuliev, I. Otarov, T. Zumakulova, Z. Zalikhanov, etc. Among prominent scientists are the geophysicist M. Zalikhanov, the nuclear physicist S. Eneev, and many professors of medicine, biology, etc.
The Balkar musical instruments that merit mention are the sïbïzghï (a kind of flute), the sïrïyna (a reed instrument), the qobuz (accordion), the qïlqobuz (similar to a violin), and the khars (a rattle, to beat out time). Rare indeed is the mountaineer man or woman who cannot dance such popular dances as the abezek and (Lezginka), dances for couples such as the ayaq byukgen, and group dances such as the tegerek, tepzey, and the sandïraq.
Medicine. In the fight against illness, believed to result from the machinations of spirits, some Balkars use magic techniques such as casting spells and divination. Methods derived from Oriental medicine are also in use (bloodletting and the use of heat, fats, and potions). There were also bonesetters and midwives. Scientific medicine is making advances: medical workers practice in all villages and in the larger settlements; in the cities there are clinics and hospitals. There have been notable successes in the area of surgery.
Death and Afterlife. For the dead, wakes and funeral banquets (ash) are held on the seventh and fifty-second days; there is a monthly ritual ( chëk ) and a yearly one, at which time the maulut is read—the Balkar-Karachay variant of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. Belief in an afterlife takes the form of distribution of gifts to the have-nots ( sadaqa ) and payments for the support of the mosque ( zekat). Certain dietary restrictions are observed.
See also Karachays