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March, 10

Sacred Cigarettes and Ribbons around the Trees: Is There Still Shamanism at Baikal?

The traditional religions of the indigenous peoples represent a rather versatile set of myths, beliefs in spirits, magic, totems, etc. Buryats living in the Baikal Region also revered the spirits of rivers, lakes, forests, had a well-developed mythology.

Unlike many other ancient cults, the intermediaries in communication between humans and spirits – shamans (the word originates from the Evenki “saman”) - lived among them This religion is traditionally referred to as shamanism.

Rites, prayers and other magical performances in the Buryat shamanism were quite diverse and had a special order. There were collective, individual prayers and the rites of sacrifice which were mandatory or optional, regular or irregular.

Collective prayers were called “tailgan” and “sasli”. Tailgan is a public prayer involving all the inhabitants of a nomad camp (“ulus”) or all nomad camps of one family. Tailgans were the rites of sacrifice, usual sacrifices were sheep and horses, all this was accompanied by a ritual performance and sprinkling. Tailgans were arranged beginning from the end of May and until October. Each tailgan was dedicated to a particular deity or a group of ezhins patronizing some or other element or phenomenon, let’s say, the spirits of water. The most significant of all tailgans was Ekhe Tailgan – “Big Tailgan” - that gathered together all the inhabitants of a certain locality.

Sasli, or dugaabari, was a collective prayer without a bloody sacrifice that involved sprinkling by white food - milk and dairy products, tea and alcohol. Sasli, on the one hand, was a separate ceremony, on the other hand it was also a part of tailgans and was arranged before each more or less significant event.


Buryats also have sacred places where the public prayers are held, you can see them in easily visible places, often near the road. They can be distinguished by columns – “serge” or “barisa” - tied round with colorful scarves and ribbons, as well as by the trees tied round with ribbons and scarves, as well as by the sacred stones – “obo”. The local population (not only Buryats) passing by a sacred place stop and show their respect by dripping alcohol, tying “zalaa” ribbons to the sacred pillars called “barisa”, throwing cigarettes, matches, small cash. In addition to these places, shamanists could hold public prayers just in the open air or at home, or on the street.


The central place in the rites of the Buryat traditional religion is taken by the shaman. By the time when Christianity and Buddhism reached these places, shamanism of Buryats had quite a complicated hierarchical and ceremonial system. In order to become a shaman, a man had, first of all, have the heredity – “utkha” (shaman’s root), i.e. have an ancestor-shaman. The confirmation of his “chosenness” was any distinctive mark on his body - “tengeriyn temdeg” (a divine sign): an unusual spot on the skin, two-forked fingers, oddities of behavior. You couldn’t become a shaman at your own wish. Spirits came to the chosen ones by themselves, not submitting to anybody’s will. During their lives shamans received initiations, depending on their abilities. There were a total of nine degrees of initiation of the Buryat shamans. Depending on his rank, the shaman could have his own tambourine, an iron crown, a military cloak and hold all the more complex ceremonies. The highest rank – “zaarin” (9th initiation) - was a rarity already in the century before last. 

According to legends, the shaman of the ninth initiation could rise up to the air and soar above the trees.

Interestingly, the Buryats who have adopted Buddhism or Christianity often continue to comply with some or other traditions inherent to shamanism. Moreover, the local Buddhism took some of the rites and practices of shamanism and made it a religious standard. This is largely the echoes of the times when shamanism was prosecuted, and pre-revolutionary authorities recognized only Buddhism and Christianity as official religions. Cases of ditheism were frequent those days - when a person nominally became a Christian, went to church, but also performed pagan rituals. To some extent, the vitality of shamanism is due to the religious tolerance of the Siberians, whoever they are by nationality: Buryats, Russians, Evenks, or someone else. 

The most serious blow to the shamanism was incurred by the Soviet anti-religious policy: many shamans were repressed, some traditional rites were banned, the very conditions that gave birth to this religion changed, the idea of nature being something sacred remained in the past. Thus, the continuous tradition of shamans was in a large part lost, the breakdown of the traditional Buryat culture led to the disappearance of many customs and practices. Many things of what is now considered the traditional shamanism were derived from new age religions, Buddhism and many different religions and beliefs.

Still, it was impossible to completely get rid of millennial traditions. Many elements of shamanism remained in the lifestyles, languages and customs of Buryats. The reinvented shamanism all the same remains an important part of the culture not only of Buryats, but also of all the inhabitants of the Baikal Region.


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