Nomad Intellectuals: Traditions of the Kalmyks Which Will Surprise You

У кочевников-калмыков была собственная письменность, "небесное письмо" тодо-бичиг. Фото: Максим АверинФото:
У кочевников-калмыков была собственная письменность, "небесное письмо" тодо-бичиг. Фото: Максим АверинФото:

Naming a newborn, it was necessary, first of all, to shield them from bad luck. Protecting a helpless child in a nomadic life, where diseases, enemies, and wild animals were a threat, was not an easy task. In order not to attract the attention of evil spirits to the baby, the Kalmyks gave them a name-talisman. For example, Mu kөvүn ("Bad boy") or Har manzh ("Black novice"). Since the paternal name was the second name, the combinations sometimes turned out worse than any taunts: Shalvr Khulkhachevich – "Pants of a thief". Sometimes a whole family was named this way. For example, Mu chonos – "Bad wolves".

“The wolf is an ancient totem of all Mongolian peoples. They say that once a gray wolf descended from heaven, met a noble doe on earth, and these peoples descended from them. Therefore, among the Kalmyks there are many families that originate directly from this predator – ‘Black wolves’, ‘Big wolves’, ‘Yellow wolves’, ‘Small wolves’ and others,” says Evgeny Bembeev, Candidate of Philological Sciences. “Each Kalmyk family has nine generations, ideally you need to know them all. Of course, now few people are capable of this, but every Kalmyk should know their seven direct ancestors.”

At first, a child would play with rattles made from sheep vertebrae. True, there were more elegant options – for example, the ones made from hare bones. The baby could not only listen to their tapping against each other, but also pull the string, and touch the small "ornaments". To grab the smallest, you had to try – doesn’t it sound like fine motor skills exercises of ancient times?


Традиционные калмыцкие головоломки требовали сметливости. Фото: Ольга Ладыгина
Традиционные калмыцкие головоломки требовали сметливости. Фото: Ольга Ладыгина

As soon as the child grew up a little, it was time for other games. The same sheep ankles, boiled and carefully peeled, were called shaha ("shagai") and were used in a variety of ways. Suspended on a horsehair rope passing through holes in the tubular bone of the front leg of a sheep, they became an ingenious puzzle. You had to "go through three passes" – to pass the shagai pieces through the loops so that they were all side by side. At the same time, not only the speed with which the child coped with the task was taken into account, but also the effectiveness of the solution. The fewer steps they used to unravel the loops, the more praise they received. So from a very early age, young Kalmyks trained logic and spatial thinking. There were also many other intellectual games of various kinds at the disposal of children – for example, the “tuula” puzzle and the like, where it was necessary to disassemble and reassemble a certain figure from different parts.

“The Kalmyks were very fond of playing chess,” says Evgeny Karpenko, an employee at the Unique Kalmykia Museum. “The board was made of felt, so it was easy to roll up, and it weighed little. The figures themselves were carved from wood or bones. Pawns were ‘rams’, bishops were ‘camels’, rooks were ‘bulls’, the king was ‘khan’. Of the names familiar to us, there was only the horse (eng. ‘knight’). Other differences can also be named. For example, a pawn that reached the opposite edge of the board could become any piece, but not the queen, and the number of castlings was strictly limited.”

Intellectual development should not lag behind the physical. Shagai could be used in a variety of games that train speed, agility, and accuracy. For example, knocking them out with a bat or clicks, throwing them up and catching them with one hand or both, running blindfolded between towers built of shagai pieces, etc.

Simultaneously, there were military weapons classes with bows, daggers, swords. By the age of 10, a little Kalmyk, as a rule, was able, if necessary, to take part in hostilities. At 12, he was considered an adult, accomplished person. To get the right to be called a man, he had to pass a test – to kill a wolf at a gallop with a blow between the eyes. The accuracy of the blow was important: before accepting a young man into the brotherhood of adult warriors, the prey was carefully examined and evaluated.


Современные калмыки предпочитают пасти скот на "железных конях", но по-прежнему играют в альчики и при случае могут убить волка. Фото: Константин Чалабов
Современные калмыки предпочитают пасти скот на "железных конях", но по-прежнему играют в альчики и при случае могут убить волка. Фото: Константин Чалабов

The upbringing of girls was no less, if not more versatile. They were taught all the subtleties of "women's" occupations – from the age of five, Kalmyk women learned to set up a yurt, cook, sew, and embroider. Looking at the type of headgear called kamchatka, where patterns embroidered with gold thread and beads curled over black velvet, one could appreciate the skill of a girl. Such hats were worn until the age of 12 and were made on one’s own.

The skills of Kalmyk women were not limited to needlework.

“A girl was certainly taught to read and write,” says Evgeny Karpenko. “She had to know the basics of legislation, sing, dance, and play musical instruments. And on top of that, to be able to survive in harsh nomadic conditions – to graze cattle, to ride a horse, to wield weapons, if necessary, replace a man not only in civilian life, but also in a combat situation.”

The story of Anu Khatun who fought together with her husband has survived to this day. She was shooting from a bow, until she dislocated her thumb, and then organized a surprise attack to distract the enemy. At the cost of her life she saved her husband Galdan Boshughtu Khan and the surviving handful of warriors.

Women's share

To get one of these smart and beautiful women as a wife, a young man had to prove that he was worthy of her. Moreover, the first "test" took place immediately before the wedding.

“A Kalmyk who wanted to have a bride had to solve the national puzzle nyarn shinzh (eng. “shrewd thinking”) by first removing the rings strung on an elongated ‘bracket’, and then putting them back on,” continues Evgeny Karpenko. “If a young man failed, he was refused. At the same time, he had to compensate for the expenses of the bride by giving her family a saddled horse. After all, the test took place already at the stage when almost all the preparations for the wedding were completed.”

But most often there were no problems – the Kalmyks knew this puzzle from childhood, only a stranger or a fool could experience difficulties. And a stranger, if he really wanted to get a Kalmyk woman as his wife, could figure out the toy ahead of time. As for the fool, it was unprofitable to accept someone like this into the family, considering the harshness of living conditions. Whether at war, hunting, or protecting the herd from wolves, you needed to make the right decisions quickly, otherwise you wouldn’t survive.


Традиционное калмыцкое бракосочетание - не только праздник и религиозный ритуал, но и проверка жениха. Фото: Максим Аверин
Традиционное калмыцкое бракосочетание - не только праздник и религиозный ритуал, но и проверка жениха. Фото: Максим Аверин

The next "test" took place directly at the wedding, when the guests had satisfied their hunger. The most respected of them, who was sitting at the head of the table, would take a rib, put a vertebra on it with bones extending to the sides, and begin to test the groom for his ability to give witty answers.

“As a rule, he would point to a vertebra, asking what it was, Maria Dordzhieva, an employee at the National Museum of Kalmykia, reveals the details. “A young man would at first answer briefly. For example, ‘this is the forehead of my horse.’ Then the old one would clarify whether this was really so, and then the groom had to strain his imagination and say something like ‘oh, sorry, this is the forehead of my horse, which can gallop across the whole world in three jumps.’ The satisfied old man would answer, ‘You have a good horse, I wish I had one like this.’ After that he would point to the offshoots of the vertebra, repeating his question. The young man could call them the wings of his eagle, capable of flying to the sun. This went on until the conversation touched on every detail of the bones. Only after it was clear that the groom had his way with words would he be left alone.”

The next test was for strength and agility. The groom was given a dish on which lay a mutton shoulder, which he was supposed to pick clean. Having done that, the young man had to break it in half with a blow of the middle finger in order to prove that he would be a worthy successor to the family. Sometimes the bone turned out to be thin, then there were no difficulties. If it was thick, the groom could use a trick – when cutting off the meat, he could carefully scratch it in the right place to make it easier for himself. It was possible, of course, to avoid eating the shoulder, but in order to avoid ridicule, they tried to do without it.

“Looking at a shoulder that was picked clean, they usually made predictions,” says Maria Dordzhieva. “A deep and wide recess at the base of the bone promised the young couple a lot of children. The lengthwise protrusion was a ‘camel path’, one part of the shoulder blade was a ‘ram paddock’, the other was a ‘horse paddock’. Depending on their type, width, and thickness, people predicted how much cattle a family could have. Looking at the opaqueness, they decided whether a snowy winter was coming – if the bone turned out to be transparent, then no. The thicker it was, the more snow it predicted.”

Kalmyk women were respected. Even a noble man had to give a hand to a woman who was about to get off a horse, and her status did not play a role – she could come from the most common family. The legislative document of the Oirats (the Kalmyks are the descendants of these people) – the Steppe Code – even gave a woman the opportunity to get a divorce. Of course, only for a serious reason – for example, because of the cruelty of her husband. But the ex-wife received not only freedom. She was entitled to compensation depending on the damage she suffered.


Калмычки славились своими умениями. Фото: Татьяна Шуликова
Калмычки славились своими умениями. Фото: Татьяна Шуликова

Often, being forced to settle in an unusual place for themselves, for example, in a city, the Kalmyk family survived due to the skill of women. All of them were skilled seamstresses and embroiderers with specific skills. For example, the ability to work with silk – clothes made from this fabric were worn under armor. First of all, the material had antiseptic properties. Secondly, due to its strength, in case of injury, it entered the body along with the tip of an arrow or a spear. As a result, it was possible to reduce blood loss, and the foreign body was easier to remove.

Outerwear was sewn from a variety of fabrics, but invariably decorated with embroidery. Depending on the pattern and color, people around immediately saw what kind of family a person came from and what their social status was. That is why wearing someone else's clothes was considered very shameful – it served as a kind of document, like the whiskers, the paws, and the tail do for Matroskin the Cat. If, for some reason, it became necessary to put on something that was not their own, the Kalmyk had to spit all the way and loudly announce to everyone, "These are not my clothes!"

“It was believed that hair was the focus of human strength, so you could not walk around with your hair undone,” says Evgeny Karpenko. “Unmarried girls wore one braid; married women, two braids that were thrown over their chests. In the left, according to the legend, the strength of the husband was concentrated; in the right, the Kalmyk woman’s. Thus, a woman combined the power of the whole family. The cap also consisted of two parts – on one half the history of the husband's clan was ‘encoded’, on the other her own. Each detail of the ornament was one way or another connected with the ancestral roots.”

Some women decided that having a family was not for them, and paid special attention to martial arts. They later took part in battles or guarded noble people. Moreover, women were considered even more ruthless than men: you could beg for mercy the latter, but it would not work with the former.


Калмыцкие воины были грозной силой. Фото: Баир Боваев
Калмыцкие воины были грозной силой. Фото: Баир Боваев

Way of the Warrior

In the 16th century, the Kalmyk army was very formidable and well prepared, surpassing many others. In 1608, Kho Urlyuk sent his ambassadors to Vasily Shuisky. In 1654, Daichin Taishi and his son Monchak turned to the Russian Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich with a request to allocate land to them, and the sovereign immediately realized what prospects such cooperation opened up. He handed over to the Kalmyks the spacious steppes near the Caucasus, allowing them to roam along the banks of the Volga and the Akhtuba rivers. This way Russia was provided with reliable protection along the southern borders, and the taishi rose and soon received the title of khan. However, he did not take the title of khan, this was done already by his son Ayuka, who took the title from the Dalai Lama.

Negotiations between two rulers were held at the highest level – the Russian tsars had not only interpreters capable of translating from Kalmyk into Russian, but also a whole Ambassadorial Prikaz.

“In the 17th–18th centuries, the Kalmyk language was a kind of ‘lingua franca’ of the entire area. It was spoken by all the surrounding peoples,” says Evgeny Bembeev, Candidate of Philological Sciences. “The Mongolian peoples had their own writing system in the 13th century during the time of Genghis Khan: one of his close associates created it on the basis of the Uighur script. The ancient Uighurs wrote horizontally, but the writing of the Mongols became vertical – the Tengrians worshipped the sky, and therefore the writing moved from the sky to the earth.”

Until the middle of the 17th century, all Mongolian peoples used this script, later the Oirats had separated. It was at that time when the Buddhist monk Zaya Pandita appeared, who became a kind of Cyril and Methodius to the Kalmyks: he developed the "clear" or "heavenly" script – “todo bichig”. Now this writing is almost lost; it has to be restored using the archival documents from the times of Aleksey Mikhailovich and Peter I.

“Most of the Kalmyk files are stored in St. Petersburg, at the Institute of Oriental Studies, the Asian Museum, etc. There are also some abroad – in Dresden, Munich, China, a lot of them are in Mongolia. They can be found even in Istanbul – the Oirats maintained diplomatic relations with the Ottoman world,” says Evgeny Bembeev. “The very principle of writing is alphabetic, the alphabet consists of 25 characters, each of which has an average of three spellings, so in fact it turns out to be about 75. However, in any case, mastering them is easier than, say, hieroglyphics, or Arabic script.”

The Kalmyk epic "Dzhangar" was once written in todo bichig, standing on a par with such famous epics as the Finnish "Kalevala" or the Kyrgyz "Manas". By the way, it was with the Kalmyk Khongor Batyr that Manas fought.


Филолог Владимир Бембеев возвращает в Калмыкию культуру "ясного письма". Фото: Ольга Ладыгина
Филолог Владимир Бембеев возвращает в Калмыкию культуру "ясного письма". Фото: Ольга Ладыгина

With all the successes in the diplomatic field, the Kalmyks remained excellent warriors. Every little thing was used to succeed in battle – even the horse hair that decorated the tips of the spears played a role. Firstly, they helped to confuse the enemy, not allowing them to follow the movements of the tip. Secondly, they made it possible to literally entangle their weapons.

The Oirats did not shun military cunning either. According to one legend, one time they had to conquer Polish Modlin Fortress, famous for its impregnability. After bloody battles, the army retreated, leaving only the corpses of people and horses under the walls. When the gates opened and the defenders of the fortress came out to remove the bodies, arrows flew at them. The Kalmyks spent more than a day sitting in horse carcasses, waiting for this moment.

Of course, it cannot be said that the people lived only off battles. The foundation of their wealth, like that of any nomads, was cattle breeding.

“Our ancestors approached grazing in the steppe very wisely,” notes Khongor Mandzhiev, an expert at the Chornye Zemli (eng. Black Lands) Reserve. “They had four types of animals in their herds: horses that went first and grazed during the winter, that is, they dug up the snow with their hooves, thus giving the rest an opportunity to get to the plants. The horses ate only the tops, so the rest also had something to munch on. Cows came next, they ate the middle part of the plants, as well as grasses that are not suitable for horses. After them came the turn of the sheep, these ate up the rest almost to the very root. Camels were the last to eat what the rest could not eat, such as camelthorn. In the spring, on the land liberated from the ‘steppe mat’, grasses grew again, and everything began anew.”

In our time, the descendants of former warriors prefer more peaceful professions. But they still pay great attention to the development of intelligence and try to give their children the best education.

See also "Kalmykia: Land of Tulips and Nomads"

Olga Ladygina