‘Kuira’ – A Rags to Ribbons Tale
If there is anything one may learn from the Altai people, it is how to truly interact with the landscape. Probably the most visible expression of this is ‘Kuira’, the ritual tying of ribbons to the lower branches of certain trees. The ribbons used may be white, yellow, blue or green. Each ribbon holds a prayer which the wind carries up to the spirits. Each strip of ribbon should be two fingers width thick, and an arm span in length, folded double, leaving one end slightly longer than the other and then tied to the branch of a tree. The material should be torn rather than cut and must not include the outer hem.
On tying the ribbon, one faces towards the east, and either silently or in a whisper pronounces one’s name, tribe and place one has come from and then makes a blessing to Altai. Kaira is carried out at the new moon and marks a prayer to the guardian of the place to give the traveller safe journey on their road. The ‘road’ may literally mean the road over a mountain pass or into a valley where the visitor is travelling for the first time, or it may be a symbolic ‘path’ such as the beginning of the new life of a married couple.
Many tourists have begun copying this ritual for the sake of curiosity. ‘Arjhan Su’, the sacred spring just outside the capital of Gorno-Altaisk, where the souvenir stalls run for miles along the road, is burdened with multi-coloured and polka-dot ribbons, bits of rag, socks and stockings, plastic bouquet packaging and even condoms. The result is a mess, a far cry from the purity of the sacred site in the photograph here. Recently, at ‘Arjhan Su’ and Seminskii pass in the Ongudai region, blue signs have been erected explaining, that these sites are energetically active and represent places of ritual. They request that visitors respect the sacred meaning of the place and refrain from copying the ritual tying of ribbons. Curiously, one sign continues, that in refraining, firstly the visitors make a small contribution to preserving the ‘environment’ of Altai and secondly they avoid ‘muddying their eternal soul’. The idea is two-fold. In copying ritual for the sake of amusement one makes the aura of the place more dense. Conservation for the Altai people involves protecting the flora and fauna as much as it does the subtle energies that make certain parts of Altai ‘sacred’ and places of prayer and healing. Equally, how can one be pure in one’s own faith when dallying with the rituals of another?
Everywhere in the Altai traditional culture, conservationism and respect for the natural world run parallel to the purity of one’s inner world. A hunter for example, intending to make a kill, carries out a ritual of prayer. Giving of himself through ritual the hunter balances his intention to take from the natural world. In today’s world conservation and nature protection are key paradigms. Conservationists however, are beginning to pose the question as to how the spiritual and sacred aspect of a culture links into the sphere of conservationism. The question is, whether nature is more likely to be conserved if it is considered sacred? In the traditional Altai culture there are no separate concepts of ‘nature protection’ and ‘spirituality’. A spiritual external ecology is as engrained as the understanding of the inner ecology of the human soul.
When I went recently to Arjhan Su, I looked carefully at what was happening there. A middle aged Russian man stood and read the blue and white sign; women and children were drinking and collecting water in bottles from the stream; tourists purchasing souvenirs were milling around the general area. One particular woman quickly tied a piece of red ribbon to a branch and then hurried back to stand in line with her family to have the photograph taken with the ribbon in the background. The scene was a hive of summer activity. The substitute ribbons create splashes of colour among the foliage, and the running water is delicious and refreshing in the burning sunshine. I thought back to my very first visit to the Altai and Arjhan Suu in the year 2000. Then, there had been a few white, cotton ribbons, the one red sign and a handful of guests. I had wandered further up the slope against the current and sat for a while crouched under
It wasn’t just that I was happy in being there. The water itself had a happy quality to it like excited children running through the playground after school. I was reminded of a pure happiness I recognised but couldn’t remember when I had last experienced. On this occasion however, many people now stood all along the banks of the stream photographing, washing and chatting away to each other so that accessing that parallel moment was rather difficult. Looking on though at the visitors, I found myself wondering if it wasn’t all in fact rather fine and wondered why one should claim that something here was being lost. Why should pure, white ribbons and solitary ritual be any more beautiful or worthy than families having some fun and a drink of fresh water, adding their own touch of many factored psychedelia? Amazingly, the healing quality of the water seemed to remain tangible, the banks were holding up reasonably under the trampling and whilst no-one washes their dishes or shampoos their hair in the stream the place should remain, one would suppose, to all intent and purpose “conserved”. The healing quality of the water, or the significance of the place itself however seemed to go unnoticed in favour of a curiosity fix and a quick snapshot.
Then I remembered something the Altai elder Nikolai Shodoyev writes in his book “The Altai Bilik” on Altai folk wisdom about changing times. I quote here from the English translation: “The historical chronology of the Altai Bilik is divided into four eras (yurguldi) and each era is marked by a certain colour (blue, black, yellow and white). Just as ‘heavenly information’ (suus-aidilga) concerning a person’s fate or purpose in life is located at the centre of the soul, so the fate and historical purpose of a nation manifests itself through stages in different epochs. The first era ‘yurguldi’ is called the blue (kyok – dark blue or chankip – light blue) era. This is the ancient (kumuran) time – the time of the God ‘Ulgen’ and his mother ‘Ak’ (the Blessed White Lady). In those times, the place that is now referred to as Altai was called Umar-Dimar (maternity-paternity or Mother-Father), and was covered by sea…..The third era is the one we find ourselves in today, the ‘yellow ‘sari’ era’. The colour yellow symbolises the simultaneous influence of good and evil and fluctuating energies in a person’s consciousness. It represents the triple nature of one’s behaviour, soul and consciousness. The yellow Age itself is split into three times. The first is the time of Oirot khan, ‘oirot khan tushta’, and the Russian Tsars, ‘Arasei khaandar’ – the Telengit-Altai and the Russian civilization. The second is ‘kurch dyang’ – ‘the sharp rule’ – the soviet era, and the third, ‘chukur yei’ – is the many coloured, motley time of contemporaneity.”
The world motley jumped out of the page at me when I first read Nikolai Shodoyev’s book because ‘motley’ is a word that describes this time exactly. Whereas once one may have owned three items of clothing now we have three wardrobes full; if once we ate meat and milk, now we eat complex meals and ingredients that become harder to digest. Whereas once we knew one place well, now we dart through many. If once, everything had its place, now a thing may be placed or found anywhere. It is distracting and becomes harder to concentrate. It can obscure the perception of meaning. Always, man has left the mark of his inner world on the landscape, making it ‘cultural’. The motley psychedelia at Arjhan Suu reflects the inner world of many a modern day traveller and the sacred site depicted on the previous page depicts the inner world of an indigenous population observing the wisdom of a traditional culture.
One image is colourful and light-hearted but confusing, lacking focus or connection to the sacredness or power of place. For most visitors to Arjhan Suu, where they have just come from, where they intend to go next, the quality of the water have no import at all. It could be any ribbon; it could be any place. The other image is simple and pure because it has clear deliberate intention; because it is a ritual. It matters, where you have come from, where you are going and why, when and where the ribbon is tied and by whom! How many people I wonder, read the request on the sign to refrain and thought, ‘Oh well, it’s only the Altai faith and it’s only one more little bit of rag” as they played their part in determining the cultural values of our new century.
How I feel about these two black and white photographs and the places in them is how I sometimes feel inside. I have the desire to release all busy thought and return to the one most essential idea. Or with those I love, to ditch the bitty, fleeting feelings and concentrate on the essential aspect of the relationship. Even an altar can get cluttered and you have to remove everything and light just one small candle.
I see my love for Altai as one, carefully tied, pure white ribbon; my fear of her rejecting me as a strip of smelly sock, or a gaudy, fluorescent, plastic, bouquet bow, and so on and so, as you see, the branches do become burdened. It takes, concentration and confidence to determine your true relationship to something and just stay with that one white ribbon. But if you can, the world takes on a rightness to it; things begin to make more sense; and it is certainly a more ‘sustainable use of one’s energy’. More than wanting my children or grandchildren to have the chance to see a rare bird, flower or beast, do I wish for them the chance to touch the cultures that can help them find the way to that place inside so that they might feel the relief of it, or see that nature can provide the ethical basis and guidance for their entire life.
That is why one might be a little sad at Arjhan Suu, despite the vibrant colours. Sad for the endangered habitat in this motley time, of the inner way of indigenous cultures. I think of friends even, at times overwhelmed by the shadow of sadness and despair who could receive blessing at Arjhan Suu, and yet the value system reflected in the rags there, is making the likelihood of others discovering that to be possible, so much more remote.
The Altai ritual ‘Kuira’ reminds one also, that it is indeed extremely relevant on one’s journey and even important to the Earth that we communicate to her where we have come from through time, (our ancestral line), where we have come from on our road and where we intend to go next as we explore her curves.
It is the quality of the inner world, that lies at the core of the Altai indigenous culture rather than evidence of a simple, ribbon ritual that has been so beautifully captured in this photograph by Joeren Toirkens. Every time I look at it I feel some relief and even hope that the future here will be a rags to ribbons tale.