Manas - the legendary hero of the Kyrgyz. «It was a long time ago, and now the eyewitnesses have gone…» With these words the Manaschi begin their songs telling of the exploits of Manas - Legendary hero of the Kyrgyz, and of a world long gone.
Traditional central Asian literature took the form of songs, poems and
stories performed by itinerant minstrels (akyns in Kyrgyz). The Kyrgyz
have an entire cycle of such legends, 20 times longer than The Odyssey, about
a hero called Manas. Akyns who can recite from these are called manaschi.
There have been a number of very famous manaschi - including Bokonbaeva,
Toktogul and Togolok Moldo — all of whom have streets named after them
The complete epos has three parts — Manas, Semetei (about his son) and Seitek (his grandson). As in most oral traditions nothing was written down for many years and manaschi would often improvise. The first written account (in Russian) recording some fragments of the epos were provided by the Kazakh Chokan Valikhanov in 1858. The first full written version appeared only in the 1920"s. It has now been translated into many languages — reflecting in part the number of nationalities that were settled here in Kyrgyzstan during the soviet period — and several novels and books for children based on the poem have also been written.
Manas was a Khan (lord or chieftain) of the Kyrgyz, reputedly born in the Talas region. The narrative of the epos revolves around his exploits in trying to carve out a homeland for his people and fighting off the opposition of neighboring hordes; consolidating his forces; his marriage to the fair and wise Kanykei — the daughter of a Samarkand khan and the future mother of his only Semetei; the burial feast for the dead chief Koketey (whose mausoleum is supposed to be at Koshoi-Kogon — near Naryn) where the opposing forces of the heroes meet each other for the first time; the great campaign victory and mortal wounding of Manas, which is followed by a civil war; the fight for the throne; the expulsion of Kanykei and the baby Semetei and finally the destruction of everything created by Manas hard work and struggle.
UNESCO declared 1995 as the Year of Manas, and the government celebrated the «1000 years of the Manas Epic». (Quite how they consider the epos to be 1000 years old is a good question … although the first mention of the Kyrgyz appears to be in a Chinese document from around 200 BC, it was only in the 800"s when the Kyrgyz became united into a powerful nation which could muster a fighting force of some 80000 men — and this is the period into which the story of Manas is usually placed). A grand festival was held for the celebrations culminating just out side Talas, 15 km east of the town in the picturesque valley of Kirnkol, where legend says he is buried (and Muslim pilgrims come to pray).
Here there is also a newly constructed Manas Museum showing exhibits illustrating incidents of his life's story and in the grounds of the museum is the mausoleum (gumbez) reputed to be that of Manas. The official records apparently show that it is the gumbez of Kanizyak-khatun, the daughter of Chagatar the emir of Abakun. In 1969, however, it was renovated and inside they found the remains of a very tall man, over 2 metres tall, which some claim to be the remains of Manas. In the epos, it says that Kanykei, and his friend and counselor, Bakai, — aware of the prevailing tradition of the times for the enemies of a great man to destroy and obliterate all record of their foe, — arranged for a false inscription to placed over the final resting place, so that it appeared to be that of a young girl (apparently, a fiancé of the hero).
A picture of the mausoleum in Talas can be found on the back of the 20-som notes. Overlooking this modest last resting place is a hill which served as a lookout post used by locals to monitor and control access to the Talas river valley.
It appears to have been built in 1343 AD, and is typical of the type of mausoleum that was built throughout Central Asia for centuries. It is not particularly large, measuring 4.38m by 4.48m. Built of baked bricks and clay mortar and is capped by a 16-sided pyramid. The entrance arch is framed between pillars and decorated with terra-cotta tiles. There are carved decorations — geometric patters such as 8 pointed stars and circles.
There is, however, a different tradition that they arranged for the body to be removed to another site and residents of the Batken region in Southern Kyrgyzstan claim that his body lies in Kara-Too, in that district. The story goes that Kanykei and Bakai found a hiding place for the body ahead of time in the remote and difficult to access Jergetal Mountains, the only path to which crosses over the Batken Pass. Kanykei, being a princess from a Samarkand khan would probably have been familiar with the countryside.
Outside the Philharmonic in Bishkek is a Statue of Manas, on his magical horse Ak-kula, slaying a dragon. Below him are statues of his wife Kanykei and of the wise man and counselor, Bakai. Around the square carved in red granite are busts of several 20th century manaschi.
There are two versions of the epos translated into English: the first by Arthur T Hatto and, a more recent one, by Walter May. Theodore Herzen, who was born locally of German parents, created a whole series of lithographs illustrating the story and an English version, translated by Daniel Prior, of a book containing some of these and telling the story of Manas is available in some of the bookshops. There is also a large exhibition of some of them in the Museum of Fine Arts in Bishkek.