In such poorly adjusted for life places as Mangyshlak people are particularly stubborn, as far as their traditions are concerned; they furiously preserve and protect it. Their culture is extremely conservative, that is why cultural layers long ago forgotten by neighbours get stuck and linger in them.
I felt it right away at the moment I found myself at Shopan ata (or should I say, fell into Shopan ata). I was roaming about this sacred place and wide cemetery, and I saw things that I had already seen in other countries or… in books on the history of religions.
However, to feel the antiquity of the local cemetery you do not have to flip through books. (And books claim this place to be the most ancient at Mangyshlak!). Koytas (‘sheep’s stones’), eroded and beaten by winds gravestones, are so very archaic that nature begins to take them as its own part. Also there are stones-offerings on tombstones (I saw such ‘offerings’ at the old Jewish cemeteries of Jerusalem and high mountain passes of Tibet). Step monuments looking similar to seven-steps pyramid of Djoser, the pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty, but in miniature. And others in the shape of stupas, which are scattered all around Indo-Buddhist world.
Where did all this come from? Is this all from those Old Testament times, when nations leaving behind scraps of their shadows on pointed rocks went by along the Eastern Caspian area? Or could it get in here later on, when the whole Asia was linked and intertwined by way of millions of invisible dervishes’ paths? Night and day, along those paths roaming Sufis were strolling, carrying sacral ideas and ancient cults from one world to another.
Shopan ata himself, a disciple of the great pir Khoja Ahmat Yassawi, also was such a dervish. Nominally, he disseminated Muhammad’s teachings, but, practically…What did he do?
…Just like Tsar’s offspring searched for fiancées with the help of their bows and arrows as the well-known Russian fairy-tale about Vasilisa the Beautiful goes, Murids of Khoja Ahmat chose places for their future self-sacrificing activity using the same method. Thus, seeking for the place where his arrow had flown to, Shopan ata (he was neither ‘shopan’ nor ‘ata’ at the time, though) found his destiny here, in Mangyshlak.
The arrow of this assiduous man of faith fell down not in the midst of the uninhabited desert at all, but it hit right the center of aul of a rich nomad, whose name was just fitting: Bayan, which means ‘a rich man’. The ambassador of Hazret hired himself out just to him, as shepherd-shopan. Very soon Bayan guessed that this alien was not just a shopan. But Shopan! And, in sign of his respect, he gave him his daughter in marriage. The insightful father-in-law also received a prefix ‘baba’ to his name in course of time, and happily obtained a grave nearby the grave of Shopan ata himself (although, if in turns, it probably was vice versa).
Bayan ata’s grave is a part of the obligatory worship program for pilgrims, the number of which increases each last year. Or rather for female pilgrims. Having climbed up to this highly respected place and seen the main item of cult, I was truly shocked in the regard of culture. Before my eyes I saw a smoky, polished by touch of many hands and covered with streaks of sacrificial fat … linga! I had bumped into hundreds of similar stuff during my travels at the far side of Himalayas!
The phallic kulyptas at the grave of Bayan ata is the most perfect copy of Indian Shaivites’ lingas. When there are no men nearby, a woman eager to have a baby sits down on the top of it and gyrates 7 times. Could it be more frank? The magic of fertility is the most primeval one of all primeval ones. It has been regarded as a half-forgotten survival of the past long since. But, officially, nobody has annulled it until now.
Here in Mangyshlak, at Shopan ata’s in particular, this dark magic is probably more live than in any region of Kazakhstan. And this is connected once again with the nature. It was not at all merciful; inhabitants had to plead it through their numerous saints: ‘baba’. (An interesting fact is that, according to the modern scientific data, both partners are equally ‘to blame’ for the married couples’ sterility, but men will never do the magic practice of this kind).
And, inside the tomb cave of Shopan ata himself, pilgrims (chiefly of female sex again) dance their archaic dance round the dry trunk of the Wish Tree, like enchanted children dancing round the Christmas tree. Women circle round it thrice widdershins, lovingly caress this polished with thousands touches tree, tie white kerchiefs (‘sadaka’) on its branches and believe that their innermost wishes and biggest dreams will come true.
And once again I was amazed by its striking concord with the similar stuff existing somewhere incredibly far away. The ceremonial triple bypass of the holy place is the ‘kora’ of the ancient Bon religion apologists. ‘Sadaka’, a ceremonial kerchief which pilgrims wrap their offerings into at this place amazingly resembles even by its pronunciation ‘khadak’, a scarf, which is given by people in Tibet and Mongolia to their deities and to each other.
Shopan ata’s well is one more amusement for visiting women (again, much less men come to visit this sacred place). Plunge a bucket into it, lift it up, and if there is some water, then you are sinless, and if there is no water, then… nothing can be done about it…
…How alive and enduring the local history is! Every holy place has its ‘operating’ altar, and each devout pilgrim ‘incenses’ 7 pieces of broadtail fat on it. And at the cemeteries they still burn some cheegrass soaked with sheep’s fat near their ancestors’ graves. They do it at sunset in hope that they take active part in the destiny of their long-deceased ancestors. To do this, near many koitases there is a small credence cut out of the same stone in the shape of the square box. (As soon as the fire of sacrifice goes out, some water will be poured into it for birds to come flying and drink it for the peace of souls and please aruakhs by this.)
And at nights, over the towering kulyptases and open sagana-tams of Mangyshlak, over the lights of bitch lamps lighted for forefathers and ready to extinguish there are satellites. Being stuffed up to the gills with ultramodern electronics, they scramble through the scattering of incredibly distant stars…