The Altai, a Turkish People of Northern Asia

Clément Jacquemoud

The Altai, Inhabitants of the Mountains of Siberia

The Altai are a Turkish-speaking people composed of five small groups living very close to one another in the Altai Republic, a mountainous and forested territory of southern Siberia (Russian Federation) bordering Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia. It is only since the fall of the Soviet Union that Siberia and its indigenous populations have once more become accessible to field research on the part of Westerners. Studies of the Altai people remain few in number, however. [1]

The Altai Republic has some seventy-five thousand Altai residents. The other nationalities represented are Russians (the majority) and Kazakhs. The Russians are concentrated in the capital of Gorno-Altaysk, the only city in the region, while the Altai groups are primarily rural. The Chelkans (with a population of 1,113, according to the 2010 census), the Tubalar (population: 1,891), and the Kumandin (1,162 souls) can be found in the villages to the north, while the Altai-Kizhi (with a population of 68,814) and the Telenghits (3,648 in number) [2] live in the south. All Altai are members of an exogamous patrilineal clan, called söök (literally, “bone”), which serves as the fundamental unit of self-identification. [3]

Although they fell under the influence of Buddhism under Mongol and Dzhungar domination, [4] the Altai are known in classic Russian ethnography for being animists. Shamans are therefore their link between the world of the living and that of the spirits.

Aspergation of milk during the Čaga-Bajram ritual, the Buddhist-inspired New Year’s celebration - Koch-Agatch (Altai Republic - Siberia) - January 2011. Photography by the author.

The Communist era, marked by a forced atheism policy, did not eradicate shamanism in Siberia; it is currently experiencing a revival and takes different forms in the Altai Republic, the Republic of Burayatia, the Tuvan People’s Republic, and the Yakutia Republic. [5] That “neo-shamanism” is strongly influenced by the New Age movement. [6] In addition, Altai “modern shamans” often seek inspiration from pre-Soviet ethnography for the performance of their rituals (FM).

Seasonal Ceremonies in Altai

Since the late 1990s, the Altai have begun once more to perform four major collective ceremonies, based on the cycle of the seasons. And yet, despite their importance, these rituals have not yet attracted the attention of researchers.

The shaman sending the spirit back, at the end of the Čaga-Bajram ritual, the Buddhist-inspired New Year’s celebration - Koch-Agatch (Altai Republic - Siberia). Photography by the author.

They are: the Buddhist-inspired New Year’s celebration, Čaga-Bajram (“white feast” in Mongolian); the Altai New Year’s, T’ilgajak (“the year-melt” in the Altai language); and the rituals of spring, T’iažyl-Bür and of fall, Sary-Bür (in Altai, “green leaves” and “yellow leaves,” respectively).

The shaman smoking after finishing the Tilgayak ritual, the Altai New Year’s celebration - village of Chargaïta (Altai Republic - Siberia) - March 2011. Photography by the author.

During these celebrations, conducted by ritual specialists, the aspergation of large quantities of milk, as well as prayers and offerings (white ribbons hung on trees and white food [7] cast into the fire), are dedicated to the different deities and local spirits.

Offerings of ribbons to spirits, on the way to the ritual enclosure . Tiajyl-Bur (green leaves) seasonal ritual. Koch-Agatch (Altai Republic - Siberia) - June 2011. Photography by the author.

Aspergations of milk on the stones of the ritual enclosure, during the Tiajyl-Bur (green leaves) seasonal ritual. Koch-Agatch (Altai Republic - Siberia) - June 2011. Photography by the author.

The primary aim of these collective rituals is to win the favour of these entities for the coming season and to assure the prosperity of livestock and the abundance of game. These ceremonies also have a political dimension, and the administrative authorities are in charge of organizing their festive aspects (games, meals, competitions).

I propose to conduct an anthropological study to shed light on that revitalization of animism in particular, by describing in detail and analyzing the progress of these ceremonies, which have rapidly become (once again) very important within the Altai religious system. To that end, it is imperative to place the ceremonies within their historical, political, and symbolic context. In addition to the firsthand ethnological data recently collected (participant observation, interviews, photographs, audiovisual materials dating to 2012), [8] I shall take into account the rich Altai oral heritage assembled in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My investigation will thus grant major importance to the oral tradition (legends, epics, myths, histories), which must be studied to understand the contemporary religious acts that shape the Altai seasonal ceremonial cycle.

The Role of the Epic in the Altai Religious System

The epic plays a major role in that regard. Despite long periods spent in close proximity to Buddhism, then to Christianity (after the region was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century), the Altai have always remained animists. In the early twentieth century, however, a messianic religious movement called Burkhanism, [9] appeared in the region and made their deities into the heroes of epics. [10].

Reciting of an epic excerpt at the end of the Tiajyl-Bur (green leaves) seasonal ritual. Koch-Agatch (Altai Republic - Siberia) - June 2011. Photography by the author.

Burkhanism, both anticolonial vis-à-vis the Russian migrants and sharply opposed to Christianity and shamanism, [11] quickly took on considerable scope among the indigenous population. [12] The movement was ultimately banned in the 1930s, a victim in its turn of the Soviet atheism policy.

During my field investigations, I observed that Burkhanism was reappearing in different forms, now drawing inspiration from shamanism and sometimes also from Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism. Many religious societies, sometimes supported by political dignitaries, are at present trying to make Burkhanism THE Altai national religion, marker of an Altai identity that is still poorly defined. [13]

In this context, I believe it is fundamental to identify the ideas from the epic that permeate the Altai system of representations and practices, and to assess the symbolic weight of these texts in the indigenous society of today. On the one hand, the younger generations, in the urban areas especially, often abandon the local language in favour of Russian and are at a loss in the face of texts they do not always understand. On the other, the government of the Altai Republic has elevated the epic to the status of a national monument, and its interpreters have become ambassadors of Altai culture. I therefore have at my disposal many recordings of recitations made in the field. In addition, an analysis of the corpus of Altai epic poetry, collected throughout the twentieth century by local folklorists, is under way as part of my doctoral work.

Contemporary Altai Shamanism

Ritual specialists (shamans, epic singers, diviners, guides for dead souls, ordinary clairvoyants) are said to be endowed with unusual abilities, as a result of their special relationship with the spirits. I will pay particular attention to these neme biler kiži (literally, “people who know something”), in order to grasp their role in the seasonal ceremonies.

A study of body movements and detailed descriptions of the ritual objects used (costumes, drum, shaman’s beaters, the topsor, ikili, and shor [14] of the epic singer, and so on) will provide valuable information on how contemporary ritual specialists shape the Altai imagination. That imagination feeds as well on the archaeological discoveries made in the territory (the mummy of the Ukok Plateau, Scythian sepulchers, Hunnic gold objects), thus allowing the Altai to establish a kinship, largely fictive, with these peoples, and to claim to be the heirs of a territory and a civilization. [15]

Offerings of small figures made of cheese to the fire during the Sary-Bur (yellow leaves) seasonal ritual. Gorno-Altaïsk (Altai Republic - Siberia) - September 2010. Photography by the author.

I will examine offerings to analyze the relationships and interactions that arise on these occasions among the different participants. By observing how these seasonal collective rituals are distributed over the territory of the republic, I will be able to evaluate their sociological and symbolic import among the different Altai groups.
Finally, I will relate these ceremonies to the rites that mark life stages (birth, first haircut, sexual maturity, marriage, death). The objective is to reconstitute the Altai religious system in its entirety and in all its complexity.

Offerings of milk and white foods (starch and sweets) to the fire during the Sary-Bur (yellow leaves) seasonal ritual. Gorno-Altaïsk (Altai Republic - Siberia) - September 2010. Photography by the author.

A Rich but Threatened Cultural Singularity

It should be noted that certain shamanic rituals have recently been invented solely for non-indigenous observers (New Age tourists, groups of ethnologists) and constitute a sort of showcase, economically profitable, for outsiders. In addition to that phenomenon, which can be considered a “local response to Western demand,” other changes are under way within local religious practices. For the last decade, for example, Altai has seen the spread of evangelical Protestantism on a large scale. Some ritual specialists are now converts and have redefined their animist activities. Hence, a converted shaman continues to offer her cures; a Christian epic singer has created an epic on the life of Christ and has brought it out on DVD; other converts use throat singing to recite psalms. These religious reconfigurations, which deserve to be studied with the greatest attention, are contributing to the transformation of a culture that must be documented as soon as possible, since these changes are coming quickly.

Following the recent development of mountain tourism in the region (the creation of imposing tourism infrastructures) and of the previously mentioned mystical tourism, Altai runs the risk of offering only a caricature of itself. Commercial exchanges with Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China are intensifying the circulation of merchandise in that border zone, which has become a commercial crossroads. Within that context of strong socioeconomic pressure, intense Russification, and globalization, it appears more urgent than ever to bring to light a cultural heritage in danger. In accordance with the objectives of the Barbier-Mueller Museum Cultural Foundation, and through a comparison of the recently collected data with texts from the oral tradition, I wish in this study to document Altai ritual practices in their post-Soviet context, while also taking the historical dimension into account. My aim is to provide a new understanding of the religious issues at stake among contemporary Altai and to bear witness to the sociocultural upheavals now confronting this still little-known population.


FM = Field materials gathered by the author during two stays in the Altai Republic: August 2010–September 2011 and June–September 2012.

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[1Broz, Halemba.

[2Source :
As minorities, the Chelkans, Tubalar, Kumandin, and Telenghits have been granted the status of “Small Populations of the North” and as such benefit from extensive land and hunting rights (Donahoe).

[3Broz, Diakonova, Ekeev, Halemba, Potapov, Vinogradov.

[4Grousset, Heissig, Humphrey, Potanin, Roux.

[5Hamayon, Sagalaev, Stépanoff.

[6Many Europeans, particularly young Russians, have come to experience initiations or courses of treatment with an Altai shaman, a phenomenon that mirrors the craze for South American shamanism currently visible in France.

[7In Buddhism, the colour white symbolizes purity and renewal. White foods are dairy products (cheese) and those made with flour.

[8I have spent sixteen months doing field investigations in the Altai Republic (August 2010–September 2011 and June–September 2012), funded by two grants from the Franco-Russian Center for Research in the Human and Social Sciences in Moscow. I also received support from the Pentecostal-Charismatic Research Initiative (PCRI). Furthermore, since 2005 I have travelled regularly to the region at my own expense.

[9In Mongolia, the term burkhan designates the Buddha or any other deity.

[10The epic intermingles legend and history: it evokes the memory of the great medieval empires, but is at the same time pervaded by the fantastic, relating the extraordinary adventures of a hero with superhuman powers. These kaj čörčök (“throat-sung tales”) convey rules, social norms and values found in all Altai populations, who believe they ought to serve as inspiration. The epic is strongly linked to an animist representation of the world (nature populated by spirits, territories and locales associated with these spirits). These very long songs (up to forty thousand lines), delivered by throat singing with musical accompaniment, were formerly performed in winter during evening gatherings (Hamayon). Their very ritualized recitation was supposed to bring good luck on hunts and to cure illnesses (Funk). Ideally, epic singers (kajčy) inherit their abilities and texts through the paternal line. Their aptitudes can make them the rivals of the other fundamental ritual specialists in Siberia: the shamans.

[11Vinogradov, Znamenski.

[12Anokhin, Danilin, Krader, Sherstova, Vinogradov, Znamenski.

[13The ethnonym “Altai,” currently a subject of intense debate, is an invention of Soviet ethnography.

[14The topshur is a two-stringed plucked instrument, the ikili a hurdy-gurdy, and the shor a flute.