Библиотека нематериального культурного наследия Республики Башкортостан
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«Cuckoo tea»
Leyla Aralbayeva
Don't call, cuckoo, right in front of me –
Don't call trouble on my little head…
«Cuckoo tea»
(in Bashkir – «Kyakuk syae»)
is a Bashkir ritual holiday dedicated to an inconspicuous gray bird with a beautiful voice – the cuckoo. The holiday was spread in the Trans-Urals, in the northeast, southeast and in the central districts of Bashkortostan. Many peoples of the Southern Urals and the Middle Volga region have similar calendar holidays.
As reported in the «Bashkirskaya entsiklopediya» («Bashkir Encyclopedia»), the holiday is a kind of meeting of spring. Since ancient times the ceremony was held in the «cuckoo month», in the period from the end of April to July: when the earth was freed from snow, covered with the first greenery and vociferous birds flew from warm countries. As ornithologists say, in clear windless weather the mysterious song of the cuckoo can be heard at a distance of up to two kilometers. Every year women, young people and children flocked to the lush greenery of glades and meadows, where the cuckoo's calling could be heard. Adult men did not participate in the holiday. The festivities in the fresh spring nature consisted of fun games, songs, dances, fortune-telling. On the days of the cuckoo's arrival wild edible plants appeared in the meadows: hogweed, sorrel, lop-sided onion – uskun, wild garlic – iyua, lungwort, primrose. Edible plants were collected with ritual songs.
«The organizer of the holiday was usually an elderly woman who knew the rules of the celebration. In some areas she was called "yulbashsy". She dressed in a colorful dress and a red sleeveless jacket decorated with coins, and two headscarves were thrown over her head: one headscarf – with round copper plaques sewn on the edges – was thrown over her head in an unfolded form and covered the entire back, and the other was tied on top like a kerchief. Over the headscarves she wore a cap with a high crown. On the day of the celebration festively dressed women and children gathered on the mountainside or on the river bank, sometimes on the lawn in front of the house»,
– Azaliya Ilimbetova writes in the article «Obraz kukushki v doislamskikh verovaniyakh bashkir» («The image of the cuckoo in the pre-Islamic beliefs of the Bashkirs»).
An important part of the holiday was the tea party. For tea party people brought belish (baked pie made of unleavened dough with a variety of fillings), boortsog (baursak), bliny (pancakes), gubadia (closed round multi-layer pie), honey, chak-chak (deep-fried pieces of dough mixed with honey syrup), eremsek (red cottage cheese) and other food.Some of the gifts were brought to the cuckoo – she was treated to appease. It was necessary to put white products to the trees on which the cuckoos called. Children poured milk, katyk (fermented milk product) or curdled milk on the roots of trees and left chicken eggs there, and tied red ribbons on the branches.
Women prepared tea and food, young people played various folk games: «Ak tirek, kuk tirek» («White poplar, gray poplar»), «Kumer yozek» («Coal ring»), «Yesherem yaulyk» («Hiding the handkerchief»), «Os buken» («Three stumps»), «Ak kayin» («White birch»), «Balga bar» («Go get honey»), running competitions, jumping, tug-of-war between teams of girls and young women, performed dances, songs and takmaks (genre of Bashkir musical and poetic folklore). Competitions in running, jumping and belt wrestling were organized for children. They composed takmaks, danced. The boys, having made a bow and arrow, competed in accuracy. Women performed songs and dances dedicated to the cuckoo.

During the tea party elderly women told instructive stories, legends, fairy tales, beliefs associated with the cuckoo. The tea party ended with prayers, ritual songs. People made wishes and told fortunes, listening to the cuckoo's calling. The girls, hoping to marry a handsome guy, counted how many times the cuckoo would call. If she called for a long time and without stopping – for a beautiful, good guy, if not for a long time – for a bad one. The grandmothers also asked the cuckoo how long they had left to live. If she called for a long time, it meant that she promises many years. Referring to nature and birds, the women uttered good wishes with a request for peace, a rich harvest, abundance and prosperity.
Video of the holiday
The cuckoo's dictionary
The famous Bashkir scientist Firdaus Khisamitdinova in the «Slovar' bashkirskoi mifologii» («Dictionary of Bashkir mythology») collected a lot of phraseological units, phrases, terms that prove the mythologization of the cuckoo in the Bashkir folk culture. Among them are:
· Kyakuk aiyi (the month of May, the month of the first cuckoo's calling)

· Kyakuk memeye/tepeye, kyakuk siskese (blue spurge)

· Kyakuk yemeshe, kyakukbash, kyakuk bashy (lungwort; primrose)

· Kyakuk katakhy/sitege/katasy/bashmagy/sermehe, kyakukchitek (lady's slipper)

· Kyakuk sakyra (cuckoo is calling)

· Kyakuk eiyeu (to swing on the swings)

· Kyakuk sakyrta sygiu (spring games on the field during the initial period of cuckoo's calling)

· Kyakuk tyokyoryogyo (insect eggs laid on grass stems)

· Kyakuk ayagy (salsify)

· Kyakugarba (cart; dray)

· Kyakuk beshmege (marsh gentian)

· Kyakuk kyuze (forget-me-not)

· Kyakuk khabany, kyakuk uty (Maltese-cross/flower of Bristol/Jerusalem cross)

· Kyakuk syae (cuckoo tea)

To this list can be added the expression «kyakukten khakaulaniu» – «stopping of cuckoo's calling» (literally: «the cuckoo has become a burr»).
The «Cuckoo» dance
«The dance called ''Kukushka'' ("Cuckoo") was an integral part of the ancient holiday "Kyakuk syae" ("Cuckoo tea")», – Lydia Nagayeva writes in the book «Bashkirskaya narodnaya khoreografiya» («Bashkir folk choreography»). This dance was very popular in southeast Bashkortostan. In each village the names of famous performers of this dance were called on holidays. With the loss of the ancient meaning of the holiday the dance began to be performed on other holidays both by women and men. «The men performed the dance with great humor, as if ironizing the habits of the bird, while the women danced seriously, thoughtfully, bringing to the fore the lyricism, the melancholy of the image», – the author writes.
In ancient times in the female dance «Kukushka» («Cuckoo») the motifs of worshipping the bird, cajoling it, fear of its «prophetic» calling were more clearly manifested.
«The most important thing during the "Cuckoo tea" ceremony was the performance of a dance in imitation of the cuckoo. And our people were very observant. The cuckoo will see that she is being imitated, and will not bring trouble, people thought», – says Guzel Mamina, Honored Artist of Bashkortostan. On the professional stage she is the only performer of the dance «Kukushka» («Cuckoo»). Being a soloist of the Bashkir State Philharmonic, she danced this dance for more than 20 years, now she is engaged in its description.
Video of the dance. Guzel Mamina
At first Guzel performed the dance «Kukushka» in a colorful, spacious dress with ruffles, later the artist Natalia Stepanova developed a sketch of a new outfit. Because the cuckoo itself is gray-bluish in color the dress was sewn from blue silk, and the vest was made silver.
«Lydia Islamovna Nagayeva said that when you are spinning you need to fill the entire stage, so we made a skirt not from six, but from twelve wedges. The skirt turned out to be wide, during turns and twirls it fills the entire stage, – Guzel explained. – In Bashkir dance every movement, every turn of the head, hands, every tapping with a heel has meaning, you need to convey the essence, and not perform a set of movements».
According to the artist, during the Great Patriotic war, when the men went to the front, the rite of «Kyakuk syae» («Cuckoo tea») found a second life. The women no longer told fortunes how many years they would live, but prayed that their husbands, sons and brothers would return alive and well.
Legends and songs in honor of the cuckoo
Bashkirs treated the cuckoo with great reverence. In ancient times many birds – the crane, rook, cuckoo – were considered sacred by the Bashkir people. Holidays and works of art were dedicated to them. The most important thing in the archaic rite of «Kyakuk syae» was the desire of people to propitiate the cuckoo, to tell fortunes in order to find out their fate, to attract prosperity, good luck, happiness, to avert celibacy and death.

Here is one of the versions of the song dedicated to the cuckoo in a literal translation into English:

Don't call, cuckoo, hey, right in front of me,
You'd better to call on a tree,
Don't call right in front of me –
Don't call trouble on my head.

In the fertile expanses the cuckoo, hey, is calling,
Maybe it's an unhappy young cuckoo.
No matter how much you sigh, friends, or cry,
And you will not take away what is intended by the Lord.

When you walk in fertile places,
You can hear cuckoo's calling on a branch.
The cuckoo is calling, and I'm sobbing,
Asking for years of life on my unhappy little head.

The cuckoo's voice is melodious and pleasant, but people have always perceived its calling with caution, with anxiety. There was a popular belief: «If a cuckoo calls, sitting on the roof of a house – it's for the worse: trouble will come to the house. If a cuckoo arrives in the village – there will be a famine». According to scientists, the ritual holiday «Kyakuk syae» originates from pre-Islamic beliefs and dates back to pagan animal worship. The ancient cult of birds among the Bashkirs is associated with the belief in the ability of the souls of deceased people to turn into birds, scientists believe.
«The taboo against killing a cuckoo was motivated by the fact that a cuckoo is a person in bird form. Therefore, it is impossible to ruin it»,
– writes Azaliya Ilimbetova and cites the Bashkir legend «Kyakuk» («Cuckoo») as confirmation.
«In very ancient times one of the Bashkir clans was attacked by enemies. A batyr (hero, brave warrior) named Kekuk gathered all the horsemen and marched against the enemies, leaving at home a beloved girl named Karagash (Black-browed). No one came back alive from that battle. Karagash did not believe in the death of Kekuk. When her parents wanted to marry her to an un loved person, she decided to run away. But she was captured and imprisoned in zindan (prison-dungeon). Then she prayed: "I would like to fly like a bird to my beloved!". The girl's wish immediately came true – she turned into a bird and flew out through the window of the dungeon. Flying from tree to tree, from mountain to mountain, she began to call her beloved: "Kek-kuk! Kek-kuk!". Since then she has been flying around the world, plaintively repeating the name of her lover. If she does lay an egg, she doesn't have enough patience to hatch – she's always looking for Kekuk. This bird, which constantly calls "Kek-kuk!", people began to call the cuckoo».

Another version of the legend tells that Kekuk was the son of a water king who married the daughter of a terrestrial king. After some time Kekuk plunged into the water to see his parents and did not appear again. Kekuk's young wife wandered along the shore in anguish and sadness. Once, while combing her hair, she made a wish inwardly: «If he doesn't come back, there's nothing for me to live in the world, it would be better to turn into a bird!». And her wish was fulfilled – she was reincarnated as a bird. It happened so quickly that she managed to braid only one plait, while the other remained unplaited. It is said that for this reason the cuckoo has one wing tousled and lowered down. The young woman's life was spent in sadness and constant search for her husband. That is why the cuckoo is called a sad bird. She still calls her husband: «Kek-kuk!».

The compilation «Bashkirskie narodnye pesni, pesni-predaniya» («Bashkir folk songs, songs-legends») also contains the song «Kyakuk» («Cuckoo») with an interesting legend. However, its details – the absence of mythical characters, the ban under Sharia law – indicate that this legend belongs to a later time.
«In the old days two young people – a guy and a girl – fell in love with each other and saw each other stealthily, exchanging glances. But there was no way to meet, to stand next to each other − Sharia forbade. For such cases young people were severely punished. But the lovers were drawn to each other.

One spring, when the grass sprouted in the meadows and flowers bloomed, the girls under the supervision of old women and elderly women went to the lake to collect wild onions. And the guys, having agreed through intermediaries with their girls, began to wait in the nearby willow thickets. After giving the old women small gifts and offerings, they got their consent to play on the lawn with the girls (at that time they especially liked to play the game "White poplar, gray poplar"). While the young people were playing, the old women, enjoying the warmth and beauty of the evening, combed their hair and reluctantly talked to each other, and the guys along with their girls scattered in various directions. Young lovers – the guy and the girl – also went to the bank of the Khudolaz (a river in the Baimaksky district of Bashkortostan, originating from the Irendyk mountain range) and sat down under the coastal poplars. Suddenly a cuckoo landed on a poplar tree, called a couple of times and fell silent. Then guy looked at his girlfriend and said:

− I'll ask this cuckoo how long I have left to live.

− Don't! – The girl was frightened. – You can't. And what if it only calls once or twice again. It will be hard for us.

But the guy began to persist and asked the cuckoo how long he would live. The cuckoo called twelve times and flew away. The guy was twenty years old at that time. So, according to the cuckoo, he was going to die at the age of thirty two. The girl was sad, and the guy tried to seem cheerful, joked with her, and then took her to friends and began to play the game "White poplar, gray poplar" together with everyone.

After frolicking a lot, the girls went home, and the guys decided to swim in Khudolaz. They rushed noisily into the water, and then guy took a sip of water and drowned. He was brought to the village and buried. His beloved girlfriend composed a song in memory of the guy, which became known as "Kukushka" ("Cuckoo").

Don't call, cuckoo, hey, next to me,
It is better to call on a crooked birch tree.
True guy will give no sign of it,
Even though his soul is filled with sadness».

The song «Kekukkay» («Cuckoo») is also in the collection of Karim Diyarov, but its history is not directly related to the cult of the cuckoo. In it the cuckoo rather expresses the image of female loneliness.

Thus, in many legends of songs associated with the cuckoo there are dramatic plots, motifs of sadness and loneliness. However, the most popular on the Bashkir stage was the cheerful song kyska-kyuy (short tune) called «Kyakuk» («Haizar kyakuk»), which was first performed by the famous Bashkir singer, propagandist of folk songs, People's Artist of Russia and Bashkortostan Flyura Kildiyarova. Thanks to her many little-known songs became the property of the whole people.
«At the end of the 70s of the last century the folklorist Fanuza Nadrshina on television hosted a program dedicated to Bashkir folk songs. I learned this song from her», – the singer said.
From a folk rite to an ethno-festival
The holiday «Kyakuk syae» («Cuckoo tea») is extremely popular today. It is held in many villages, is popular in schools, kindergartens. It is put on with pleasure by folklore groups. This ceremony was performed by students of the Faculty of Bashkir music of the Ufa State Institute of Arts named after Z. Ismagilov, professional artists of the Bashkir State Philharmonic, numerous folklore lovers.
In the first volume of the book «Bashkirskoe narodnoe tvorchestvo» («Bashkir folk art»), dedicated to ritual folklore, a variant of the modern holiday is given. All the main components of the ceremony are preserved, the only difference is that the chairman of the women's council acts as the leader-«yulbashsy». The holiday itself consists of modern sports competitions, games and an amateur concert. The holiday ends with the awarding of the winners.
In 2014 for the first time in Bashkortostan a two-day ethno-festival «Kyakuk syae» («Cuckoo tea») was organized. It took place in the Nurimanovsky district – in the tourist ski center «Pavlovsky Park». The folk rite has become an event tourism action. It was held by the Tourism Center of the Republic of Bashkortostan with the support of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Republic of Bashkortostan, the Union of Tourism Industry of the Republic of Bashkortostan, the House of Friendship of Peoples of the Republic of Bashkortostan, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Bashkortostan and the administration of the Nurimanovsky district. The initiator and creator of the ethno-holiday was the director of Tourism Center of the Republic of Bashkortostan Natalia Nikolskaya.
«It is a traditional holiday of the Bashkir people, which came from pagan times. This is a unique heritage of Bashkir culture, as it contains a dance, a cuckoo song and various tea traditions. Such wonderful holidays, elements of Bashkir culture should definitely be popularized, create on their basis attractive events for tourists, to which guests from all over Russia and from abroad would come»,
– the organizer of the holiday noted.
At the ethno-festival at the entrance to the park guests were greeted by a huge strict cuckoo in a national costume.
«We made our cuckoo ourselves. The bird's head is made of papier-mache, and the decorators of the opera house helped with the tailoring of its wonderful costume»,
– Natalia Nikolskaya said.
Three republican historical and cultural centers took part in the holiday – «Temyasovo» from the village of Temyasovo of the Baimaksky district, «Saitbaba» from the village of Saitbaba of the Gafuriysky district and «Saraily» named after Kanzafar-bey from the village of Saraily of Blagovarsky district. All day long the participants of the holiday in bright national costumes performed, treated and created a mood. Near the yurt the grandmother was weaving keyez (patterned felt carpet) on a loom. Residents of the Gafuriysky district set the table in their yurt and treated all comers. Amateur artists of each historical and cultural center showed their own version of the folk rite «Kyakuk syae» («Cuckoo tea») in the form of a theatrical concert – with games, songs and dances. Souvenirs with the symbols of the cuckoo holiday were created – small magnets, mugs, photo frames, T-shirts.

Teas from various herbal collections, honey, national dishes – kumis, talkan (flour from fried barley or wheat used for the preparation of drinks, dishes and cereals), eremsek, chak-chak, kazylyk (horse meat sausage) could be tasted at exhibitions-fairs. The phytocenter of herbalist Mikhail Gordeyev offered different varieties of tea, especially recommending «cuckoo tea», which has a powerful general healing effect and has a good effect on human reproductive function.
The culmination of the holiday was a colorful «Cuckoo carnival». Following the two-meter cuckoo, all the participants of the festival in national costumes marched through the park towards the stage.

In the evening the results of the competitions for the best recipe of Bashkir tea and the best cuckoo costume were summed up. All participants were dressed in hand-sewn cuckoo costumes. The festival ended with a concert of the popular band «Suraman» and a folk disco in the open air. The soloist of the group Azat Bikchurin showed on stage how in ancient times the kurai instrument was made from the stem of an umbelliferous plant. The modern interpretation of the cuckoo dance was performed by the «S-ART» dance school (head – Ivan Buksha).

However, at the ethno-festival the cuckoo songs in the Pavlovsky forest were not heard either during the day or in the evening. But the participants of the festival started a tradition: in the final they depicted a cuckoo, calling ten times in chorus.

The ethno-festival «Kyakuk syae» is held annually, at first the venue was «Pavlovsky Park», later the ancient rite passed to other areas. The event combines a cheerful and noisy «Cuckoo carnival», a souvenir exhibition-fair, a seminar of herbalist Gordeyev «Cuckoo tea – recipe and women's health», the work of a phytobar and a tasting of Bashkir tea, contests «Best recipe for Bashkir tea», «Best tea ceremony», «Best cuckoo dance», «Best cuckoo song», «Best cuckoo costume», «Best cuckoo totem», «Best cuckoo cereal», «Best cuckoo souvenir», a concert of folklore groups, an ethno-disco.
Author (compiler):
  • L. Aralbayeva, 2021
  • L. Aralbayeva, I. Nurmukhametov,
  • A. Starostin.
  • TV and radio company «Bashkortostan».