Thursday, August 27, 2009


(Picture Source Karakalpak State Art Museum

The Karakalpaks (who call themselves Qoraqolpoqlar) are one of the many turkic peoples of Central Asia. They lived within the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union until it was dissolved in 1991. Today the Karakalpak Republic is within the newly independent Uzbekistan.

The Karakalpaks' ancestors originally came from the Irtysh River areas in southern Siberia. They settled in their current home-land in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD. The Qipchoq people they encountered referred to the newcomers as "Karakalpaks" (black hats) supposedly because they wore black wool or felt hats.

The Karakalpaks' culture has been influenced by their harsh desert and steppe existence. It has also been affected by invaders such as the Mongols, Timurids, Kalmyks, Khorezmian Uzbeks, and Russians who colonised Uzbekistan during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The Karakalpak homeland, Karakalpakistan (Qoraqolpoqiston), lies in the north-western part of Uzbekistan. It occupies nearly 40 percent of Uzbekistan's total territory. Until recently, the major feature of its landscape was the Aral Sea. Today, however, the sea is drying up at a rapid rate due to irrigation methods.

About 2.3 million people live in the Karakalpakistan region. Of these, approximately 40% are Karakalpaks. Other Karakalpak people live in other parts of Uzbekistan and in the surrounding countries of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as well as many expatriates living in The Russian Federation.

The Karakalpak language is part of the Turkic language family. It is related to such languages as Turkish, Kazak, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uzbek. There was no written form of the Karakalpak language until the 1920s. Today it is written in a modified Cyrillic alphabet (the same alphabet used by Russians). Newspapers, magazines, and books are printed in the Karakalpak language. Russian still remains an important second language in Karakalpakstan.

Folklore is divided into lyrical tales and epic poems (zhyr and dostan). There are tales about boys, such as Tarzshi and Aldarkose, whom everybody tries to outsmart. But the boys always manage to come out on top. There are also tales about animals, such as the cunning fox who can trick just about anyone and anything. Other tales involve wolves, tigers, and, occasionally, even God himself.

Among the remarkable traits of Karakalpak culture are the epic repertoires: more than one hundred epics have been identified to date, some reaching 18 000 stanzas. The epic genre (Dastan) fed in depth all the vocal and instrumental repertoires of Karakalpaks.

The epics are almost always about historical events and heroic figures. Epic heroes often turn out to be women. In Kyrk Qiz (The Forty Maidens), the heroine Gulaim defends her homeland from invading Kalmyks. Maspatsha is the story of Aiparshir, a woman of great beauty and tremendous courage.

The Karakalpaks are Sunni Muslims. In addition, they have long been influenced by Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, religious practice and teaching played a minor role in the lives of most Karakalpaks. More recently, however as in other parts of Central Asia there has been some strengthening of Islam amongst the population.

Many Karakalpaks hold onto some religious beliefs that are not formally included in the Muslim religion. These often are about the natural world. They relate to saints or patrons (guardians) who watch out for herds, fishermen, farmers, and so forth.

Four major secular (nonreligious) holidays are celebrated by the Karakalpaks, together with their fellow Uzbeks. Novruz (New Day) marks the beginning of spring, on March 20 or 21. The holiday is celebrated with festivals, contests, game playing, and especially feasting. Schoolchildren celebrate with their teachers and put on skits. The favorite food for this holiday is sumalak, made from young wheat plants. It takes about twenty-four hours to prepare this sweet, tasty pudding. Sumalak parties are always part of the Novruz festivities.

Victory Day celebrations, commemorating the end of World War II (1939–45), take place on May 9 when there are military parades that include veterans of World War II and of the Red Army.

Uzbekistan Independence Day, September 1, has been celebrated since 1991. This day is marked by parades, speeches, and festive events throughout Uzbekistan.

Constitution Day, December 8, is another new holiday. It marks the creation of the Uzbekistan constitution in 1992. Businesses and other work-places are closed on that day. Most people simply stay home and relax.

Parents with a newborn baby visit relatives constantly for the first few months to introduce their infant into the family. Boys undergo circumcision at approximately age five. It is marked by a big celebration known as the sunnat toi.

The major rite of passage in adulthood is marriage. The wedding ceremony, called the kelin toi, symbolizes the joining of families and the continuation of family lines. The kelin toi is marked by feasts, dances, music, and speeches that continue for days. The festivities take place at various locations belonging to both of the families.

Death is marked by ritual outpourings of grief at the home of the person who has died. Mourners come to share their sympathy with the bereaved family. A clergyman (mullah) leads a procession of mourners to the cemetery. The closest relatives perform the burial after prayers are said.

When one person approaches another, the one who is approaching offers the first greeting. Usually, the greeting is Assalomu alaikum! ("Peace be with you!" in a dialect of Arabic). The person being greeted responds, Valaikum assalom! (And may peace be with you, too!). Then men shake hands. They use either one or two hands, depending on their degree of closeness. Women typically hug one another. A rapid series of questions about one another's health and family usually follows.

Respect for older people is taken very seriously. This is true even between people who differ in age by only a few years. A younger person usually bows slightly. One may also cover the lower part of one's chest with one's right hand as a sign of respect.

When visiting, Karakalpaks always bring presents or food. Neighbors constantly visit with one another to chat and snack.

Dating is rare among the Karakalpaks. Marriages are often arranged.

The traditional Karakalpak dwelling was a dome-shaped tent known as a yurt. A yurt has a wooden frame; huge pieces of felt cloth are thrown over the frame and then carefully arranged. Today most people live in mud brick houses or moden Soviet style buildings.

Whilst European-style furniture is found in Karakalpak homes. However, most people relax and sleep on thick, dense quilts called kurpas. Kurpas are often placed on raised platforms that are built into the room. The family sits on these platforms for meals and recreation, such as watching television. Kurpas are easily moved and stored. Large wooden cabinets known as sandals are used for storage.

Karakalpak families are usually large. Households of extended families (parents and children plus other relatives) are common. A family of four generations may live in a single home. A group of families descended from a common male ancestor is called a koshe. Several koshe make up an uru, a kind of clan.

Marriages are arranged through consenting sets of parents, most men and women marry early. A woman is given a dowry (gifts and money for her new married life) by her parents. She is also presented with bride gifts by the groom's parents. The new wife moves in with her husband's family.

Women do most of the cooking, cleaning, and child care. Men are usually responsible for buying groceries, preparing certain feast dishes, and doing home repairs, especially electrical work or carpentry.

Karakalpaks often wear a mix of traditional and Western-style clothing. Traditional women wear the kiimeshek, a long capelike dress with a head covering. Older women wear white, and younger women wear red. Tunic-like shirts and baggy trousers are also worn. With a man's typical summer outfit consists of loose trousers and a koilek. This is a long, loose white shirt with an open collar and no buttons.

Some type of hat or head covering is almost always worn because of the extreme temperatures and strong sunlight. Men wear silk or cotton embroidered skullcaps (duppi). They also wear the thick wool hats (qoraqolpoq), from which the Karakalpak got their name. Women wear long cotton or woolen scarves (rumol) that cover their heads, ears, backs, and shoulders.

Grain is a staple food of the Karakalpak diet, especially rice, sorghum, barley, and millet. From these grains, tasty breads, noodles, and dumplings are made.

Fruits and vegetables include onions, carrots, plums, pears, grapes, apricots, and all kinds of melons and squashes. Pumpkin is often used in turnovers known as samsa. Milk products include yogurt, butter, cream, and cheeses.

Boiled beef, mutton, and smoked horse-meat are among the favorite meats. Beef and mutton are ingredients in palov, a Central Asian favorite. Palov recipes use rice, meat, carrots, garlic, steamed quinces (a kind of fruit), and mutton tail fat (dumba).

Despite being muuslims most men are fond of drinking Vodka and (Pivo) beer especially at celebrations.

Almost all children receive a high-school education. Some then go on to technical and university training. Karakalpakistan has only one university, located in Nukus.

In the past, Karakalpak bards (performing poets) roamed from village to village, reciting stories and verses. They were accompanied on instruments such as the two-stringed dutar, and the qobyz and ghypzhek, which were played with bows.

Two Karakalpak poets of the nineteenth century—Azhiniaz Kosybai uly and Berdakh Kargabai uly—are among Central Asia's greatest writers. Modern Karakalpak writers have adopted Western literary forms such as novels, short stories, and plays.

Most of the work in Karakalpakistan is agricultural. Almost 70 percent of the population is rural. Manufacturing jobs are centered around agricultural industries. These jobs include ginning and baling cotton, and pressing cotton seeds for their oil. Silk manufacture is also a significant part of the agricultural economy. Farmers feed silkworms mulberry leaves, bringing the cocoons to regional collection centers. Farm workers work twelve to fifteen hours a day at harvest time.

Volleyball and soccer are popular at school. Boys also engage in a type of wrestling known as Qurash. It involves grabbing one another on the back of the neck and the thigh. The object is to force the opponent to lose his grip, and thus lose his balance. Women and girls are rarely, if ever, encouraged to participate in sports.

Plays in the theatres, on humorous or historical themes, are popular. Pop music is important to Karakalpak young people. Like elsewhere modern entertainment such as movies and television programs especially action movies and soap operas are popular.

Adults entertain themselves by getting together with friends at conversation sessions known as gap, which means "talk." Men and women meet in separate groups. They eat, play games, sing songs, catch up on news, and offer each other advice.

Children enjoy an elaborate game of riddles called askiia. Two children try to out-smart one another with a series of questions about a particular thing. One child starts with a description. The other must ask questions about what is being described.

Karakalpak rugs are narrow and not usually used as floor coverings. They are hung as doorway coverings at the entrance to a yurt (tent). They are also used as wall coverings or saddlebags. Bright blues, yellows, and greens are the main colours.

Traditional Jewellery is mostly silver. Blue stones, such as lapis lazuli, and red stones are often added. Necklaces, earrings, and bracelets are the most common kinds of jewellery. However modern gold Jewellery is today also valued highly.

Other craftsmen specialize as woodworkers (especially carvers). Some of the most skilled craftsmanship goes into carving house doors and support beams for buildings. Central Asian woodcarving has unique floral (flower) and geometric patterns.



  1. This is such an interesting and informative blog. This type of information is hard to find on the Internet these days. Please keep posting!

    Here is a great Karakalpak language site that I think you might enjoy (I know I did!): Qaraqalpaqsha wiki browser

  2. Hi! My name is Eleonora, and I am from Karakalpakstan. I am currently studying in South Korea and I run blog about my life both in Uzbekistan and Korea, if you are interested you may visit:

    When did you visit Karakalpakstan?