Anthropologist’s Homecoming Highlights Unique Kyrgyz History and Culture

Date: 16 June 2015
A recent book launch in Kyzyl-Jar village in Jalal-Abad province, southern Kyrgyzstan, highlighted unique aspects of Kyrgyz culture and celebrated hometown anthropologist Dr Elmira Köchümkulova.
Köchümkulova leads the Cultural Heritage and Humanities Unit at the University of Central Asia (UCA), and authored the two books being launched, Respect Graces the Living, Lamentation Graces the Dead: Kyrgyz Funeral Lamentations and Lamenters and Kyrgyz Herders of Soviet Uzbekistan: Historical and Ethnographic Narratives.
Author and Kyzyl-Jar native Köchümkulova sings a specially commissioned song dedicated to her late grandmother, Kumu, whose life history is narrated in Kyrgyz Herders.
After completing her high school in Kyzyl-Jar and university in Bishkek, Köchümkulova received a scholarship to study at the University of Washington in the United States. Armed with little else than a suitcase and her musical instrument, the komuz, she received three degrees, returning to Kyrgyzstan and joining UCA 10 years later. A specialist in Kyrgyz nomadic traditions, Köchümkulova adapts western ethnographic methodology to the study of Kyrgyz cultural experiences and oral traditions.
Funeral lamentations, koshoks, are one of the oldest genres of Kyrgyz oral tradition.  Practiced primarily by elderly women, koshoks are in danger of being lost to influences of fundamentalist Islam, rapid urbanisation and globalisation. Respect Graces the Living presents rich koshok texts and includes a DVD with 30 audio examples and rare video footage of Kyrgyz funeral customs and koshok performances.
 “When a woman loses her beautiful older sister, she can’t just say she was beautiful. She expresses that beauty with a song, saying ‘She was a white swan in a lake, and a moon-like beauty among the people. Now the white swan flew away from the lake, and the moon-like beauty left the people,’” elaborated professional lamenter, koshokchu Toktokan Chancharova. “Koshoks are our ancestral tradition. Every Kyrgyz family should have this book. Heads of village and district administrations should have it on their desks, and teachers should use these two books in literature and history.”
Kyrgyz Herders of Soviet Uzbekistan, co-authored by Köchümkulova and her father Mamatkerim Köchümkulov, documents the experiences of Kyrgyz herders in Soviet Uzbekistan from 1941 to 1995 and highlights the Soviet experience, relations between nomadic Kyrgyz and sedentary Uzbeks of the Fergana valley, and the role of Kyrgyz women in family and society. The book includes photographs of nomadic families in the Yspy jailoo (summer pasture) from the 1970s by Köchümkulov and a DVD documenting a 2009 trip to the jailoo.
“We used a different approach in presenting the experiences of Kyrgyz herders of Soviet Uzbekistan. The rich life histories and unique experiences of our ancestors serve as the basis of our work,” said co-author Köchümkulov. “I’m happy to see the photos I took in the jailoo in the 1970s are now a valuable ethnographic archive.” 
“Kyrgyz Herders importantly describes the historical and contemporary interethnic relations between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks who lived side by side in peace in the Fergana Valley before and during the Soviet period,” said historian Dr Kyias Moldokasymov, who wrote the foreword to book.

Aksakals (community elders and former herders ) review the two new books and other publications in UCA’s Cultural Heritage Series, a collection of works aimed at preserving Central Asia’s unique and diverse cultural heritages.
The event attracted over 300 people from the region, including Shyrdakov Anarkul, Head of the Education Department of Aksy district; officials of Kyzyl-Jar village government; the Head of the Teachers’ Professional Union of Aksy District; staff from area high schools; and community members, including lamenters and former herders, who contributed to the research underpinning the books.
“UCA is a Central Asian university and a key component of our mission is to help the different peoples of Central Asia preserve and draw upon their rich cultural traditions and heritages as assets for the future,” said Muzaffar Djoburov, UCA Chief Operating Officer, who also attended the event.
“To ensure our heritage is part of contemporary discussions on culture and identity, we must take the study of culture beyond the museums and universities of big cities and engage with it as a living being, practiced and adapted by people, people like these, who generously participated in the research,” said Köchümkulova.
The event included an exhibition of photographs from the books, a screening of the ethnographic film Three Women in the Jailoo from Kyrgyz Herders, and a musical performance, including komuz performances by Köchümkulova and her 13 year old son Erbol.
Respect Graces the Living, Lamentation Graces the Dead: Kyrgyz Funeral Lamentations and Lamenters and Kyrgyz Herders of Soviet Uzbekistan: Historical and Ethnographic Narratives are published by UCA’s Cultural Heritage Book Series, a collection of works aimed at preserving Central Asia’s unique and diverse cultural heritages. They were published with support from The Christensen Fund as part of the project “Preserving Cultural Heritage and Promoting Research in Central Asia: Support to Local Scholars”.
The project is implemented by UCA’s Central Asian Cultural Heritage and Humanities Unit to promote understanding across cultures and generations by supporting Central Asian scholars in original and high-quality research, publishing and disseminating their work to regional and international audiences. Under the project, UCA is supporting the publication of six original titles by scholars from the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan. For more information,  please visit:
To purchase the books, and other books in the UCA Cultural Heritage Book Series, please contact:
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