Karachays - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion. The Karachays are Sunni Muslims. There was traditionally a mosque in every quarter of the village. The effendis were usually immigrants from Daghestan, Turks, or Kazan Tatars. Many pagan beliefs were maintained in the culture. There were cults associated with trees and stones, for example, the qarachaynï qadaú tashï ("fundamental stone of Karachay"), pieces of which are placed under the corners of a house during construction, and the sacred pine tree ( jangïz terek ) near the village of Khurzuk ( Narody Kavkaza, vol. 1, 263). The Karachays also made sacrificial offerings at the time of driving cattle to pasture, performed rituals to bring rain or sun, and believed in evil spirits ( almastï ) and in Apsatï, the guardian of wild animals (a divinity widely known among the peoples of central and western Caucasia—the Abkhazians, Adygheans, Ossetes, and Svans). The Karachays also worshiped the god Aymush, the guardian of livestock. Among the old Karachay divinities are some deriving from an ancient Turkic stratum. The chief god, Teyri, can be equated with Tengri, the sky god of the ancient Turks. Traces of Christianity have also intermingled with pagan beliefs (e.g., the cults of saints Elias (Elia), Nicholas (Nikkol), and George (Gürge).

Arts. Among the applied arts, the most developed was the making of decorated felt with geometrical designs, stylized ram's heads, and horns. Floral designs were rare. The colors used included black, white, grey, and red. Other applied arts were gold stitching and the weaving of gold galloons for clothing. With the dissemination of factory-produced goods and the decline of traditionally made clothing, these highly artistic products passed out of the Karachay way of life. Today only the tradition of making decorated felt remains. Karachay folklore is diverse and includes the Nart epics (shared with neighboring tribes), tales, riddles, proverbs, and sayings. There is a genre of didactic poetry known as algïsh: in ancient times it functioned as a hymn to the god Teyri, but with time became part of the wedding ritual (the ritual of unveiling the bride in the presence of her parents-in-law). There are also several types of songs: work songs, prayers (for example appeals to Apsatï for a successful hunt), and the song of Inai to accompany the beating of felt. Epic songs recounted events in Karachay history, such as the struggle against the Crimean khan, Abazin-Kyzylbek raids, and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

Medicine. Magical techniques included various spells and rituals, but also more "rational" means such as herbal remedies. Dislocations and breaks were set with bone splints. Ayran was considered a remedy for burns, upset stomach, poisonous stings, and leprosy.

Death and Burial. The effendi would be invited to read the Quran to a dying person. The deceased was covered with a white covering from head to foot and transported from his or her bed on a large piece of felt. News of the death was circulated by a "harbinger of sorrow." Within the village everyone put aside their work and went to the home of the deceased to express their condolences and participate in the funeral. The women wept loudly, keened, tore their clothing, and scratched their faces. The body, wrapped in a felt coat or piece of felt, was carried on a special stretcher to the patronymic cemetery (the privileged classes practiced burial in vaults). If possible the burial occurred on the day of death, before sundown. Six or seven days later the first funeral repast was held, with another on the fifty-second day and then another a year after death. Mourners wore black and men let their beards grow for a year.

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