The Manas Epos – A Review

The Manas Epos – A Review

The Manas Epos: Across the Millennium by Sindhu J., Chennai: Emerald Publishers, 2005. pp. 86, HB. Price not given. ISBN 81-7966-147-4.

The resolution of the General Assembly of the UNO concerning celebration of anniversaries in 1994-1995 recognizes the Kyrgyz Manas epos as a “vitally important connecting link that supports and unites the peoples of the Middle Asia region all along their centuries old history.” It also recognizes that this epos is “not only the source of Kyrgyz language and literature but also the basis of cultural, moral, historical, social and religious traditions of the Kyrgyz people” just as it favours “the dissemination of humane ideals and values of the humanity.”

Sindhu J.’s book celebrates the millennium of the heroic epos, Manas, which is rightly called “a poetic history and encyclopedia of Kyrgyz people” (p.25). It seeks to contribute to international collaboration and mutual understanding (cf. p.79) besides elucidating more than a thousand years of Kyrgyz history, culture, humanism, spiritual values, and care for others (cf. pp.80-81).

She justifies writing The Mamas Epos: Across The Millennium on the ground that not much is known about the epic tradition of our Central Asia neighbours despite India’s trade and cultural relations with them since antiquity. It is, therefore, culturally enhancing and academically rewarding to explore the Central Asia’s riches “both independently and with reference to our own literatures”. (pp.4-5).

Sindhu’s book highlights various features, notions, ideas, customs and traditions of different epochs and centuries from ninth to eighteenth, including the wars against the Chinese and Uighur tribe, the advent of Islam and conversion of heathen communities to Islamic faith, the wars in Turkestan, the politics of Central Asia in the 17th century, the rise and control of Communism, and the life in Soviet era. It draws on the epos for a lot of historical data about different regions around Kyrgystan, its rivers and lakes, towns, ethnic life, local customs, rural economy, mineral resources, horses and camels etc. just as it points to the values which are most common for all people: social justice, honesty, humanism; love for homeland, national traditions, and customs; respect for human rights, national unity and tolerance; peaceful coexistence with neighbouring states; and people’s aspirations and hopes for the better future. She celebrates Manas not only for the various aspects of Kyrgyz life in the past and now but also for the national pride of the Kyrgyz people after seventy years of Soviet rule (p.4).

Since Manas is essentially episodic and oral, with emphasis on immediacy of effect before a visible audience, its singers, called Manasci, (traditionally, jomokchu), have preserved in about two million verses (p11) the conventions of recitations just as they have kept alive over a thousand years old Kyrgyz mythological tales and traditions, woven round the feats and courage of Manas and his battle-friends in their struggle for national independence. The bards have also preserved the life and deeds of Semetey, son of Manas. Now, as the epic of human survival with props for “proper mental growth, balance and psychic health” (pp.3-4), its approximately sixty versions preserved in the manuscript form in the National Academy of Sciences in Kyrgystan, help to establish the Kyrgyz national identity. Sindhu’s study, however, derives from over 250,000 verses of Manas as translated into English by Walter May (1995).

In ch.2, she reviews the Turkish epic tradition with a view to contextualizing the oral/written text of Manas and examining it geographically, historically and culturally to underscore the Kyrgyz search for identity.

The Kyrgyz epic is born out of the heroic efforts of Kyrgyz tribal lords who, in AD 840, successfully fought the Uigurs and destroyed their capital of Bei-tin. Praises of this victory form the core songs out of which the monumental epic finally emerges. It is a trilogy, a biographical cycle of three generations of heroes, i.e. Manas, his son Semetey, and grandson Seitek, in over 25,000 lines. The main episodes (i) in Manas (11170 lines) relate to: birth of Manas and his childhood, his first heroic deeds; his marriage to Kanikei; his military campaign against Beijing; and death of Manas, and destruction of his achievements. In Semetey, the second part (15017 lines), the main episodes deal with: Kanikei taking Semetey and fleeing to Bukhara; Semetey’s childhood and his heroic deeds, his return to Talas; his marriage to Aichurok; his fight against Kongurbai; and his death (or mysterious disappearance). The episodes in the third part (9488 lines) relate to: destruction of Semetey’s family, and capture of Aichuerok and Kulchoro; Seitek growing up; fighting against the internal enemies; Seitek’s marriage: and his defeat of the external enemies and death.

The epic, a mixture of prose and poetry, appeals as an epic of Return, like the Odyssey or Aeneid, just as its oral performance (p.37) reveals a society which values poetry and music, and feasting and singing (p.35 and p.39), be it someone’s birth, marriage, or death (p.50).

In ch.3, the Manas epos reflects a traditional patriarchy which values kinship and family. To be important and acceptable in a family, a woman must be skilled and resourceful. She must be a faithful wife, bear male children, be affectionate mother, look after the domestic chores and be a fighter in absence of her husband. Otherwise, her position would be lower than a slave’s (pp.40-42). She would be beaten, disfigured, turned out into the street, or driven back to her relatives. The epos also reveals the importance of loyal horses and cattle, rather than money, in the rural economy of the nomadic tribes.

In ch.4, Sindhu describes the influence of Manas on various aspects of present day Kyrgyzstan. “Yurta-style of life” is still prevalent in art, architecture, and daily life (p.71). Older traditions still prevail in both rural and urban communities. “Krut” and “Kumyss” are still served at home and in hotels. “Hunting” as in the epic time is still in vogue with the same old tools. The best known Kyrgyz writers evince the same old lyrical quality (as in Manas) in their modern prose (p.75). Sindhu refers to several works of fiction published in 1960s and 1970s to point our the deeper influences of Manas.

She also finds several points of comparison between the Manas and the Indian classical epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana (p.83). She notes that the poems about Ilios and Odysseus have ceased to inspire heroic values among the Western people and lost their original dimensions as oral tales (pp.81-82) but the Kyrgyz and the Indian epics are still moulding the lives of their people (p.83).

The Manas Epos: Across the Millennium testifies to T.S. Eliot’s statement about the pastness of the present and the timeliness of the past. The Manas epic is the first piece of Kyrgyz oral literature to be recorded and translated into other languages and is rightly viewed as an epitome of oral creativity. It continues to be sung with acting which is an ample proof of the Kyrgyz attachment to its past just as the millennium celebrations of Manas have received world-wide interest in Central Asia. Sindu J. deserves praise for familiarizing the Indian audience with the Kyrgyz epic.