Old customs, songs, gods

In earlier times, the Karachays believed that in addition to ‘God’ Teyri ~ Tanrı, the sky, earth, waters, stones, woods, various illnesses and everything in general had their own governing spirits. The daglis prayed to them after sacrificing some animal for their protection against some lethal illness, dearth, sterility, etc.1

Feasts and customs with traces of the beliefs of that period survive to this day among the Karachay-Balkars. For instance, among the spring customs related to the revival of Nature there was a custom bound to the first spring thunder. The children went from house to house, singing:

In this month, the month of Totur2

May you have honey, butter in your house

May your spring day be


They gathered by tribe or village, all the young and old, saying prayers, good wishes, carrying out rites. They danced around the cauldron in which the meat of the sacrificial animal was cooking, and sang songs to čoppa, Eliya and Sibila, the gods of the crop, lightening and thunder. They believed that these deities were in charge of the quality of the crop.

They jumped over the fire lit for the sacrificial offering, for similarly to so many other people in the world the Karachay-Balkars believed that fire protected people from illness and disaster and filled them with strength and power. They dipped tufts of freshly sprouting grass into water and distributed them.

In the Chegem valley where Totur’s stone is found sacrificial animals were killed and circling round the stone they danced and sang to the glory of the deity. Then an old man of the tribe turned to the stone, saying:

The Sky God above our heads,

The Earth God underneath -

Are all to our help.

If we do wrong, they get angry.

We have come to beseech them

That we shall be accepted.

We are praying to Totur,

Totur, help your people!

Then various games, horse races, dances and rivalries were held. The young ones led by a jester called teke went from door to door and asked for güppe ‘present’ in a humorous form, singing the song of Ozay, the goddess of fertility and other songs.

If you don’t give a present,

May the valley you till turn barren.

They left out no house and added curses to the good wishes, too. With time passing, the sacral character of ozay, güppe, sertmen and other pagan songs fell into oblivion and they became children’s ditties. This festival was called Gollu after the god of the flora and crop of the earth in the Upper Balkar valley.

Similarly to many other ethnic groups, in pagan times the Karachays and Balkars worshipped trees too: Ravbazi was the Balkars’ and Ayterek and J̌anniz Terek the Karachays’ sacred tree. They deified these trees and surrounded them with beliefs. As late as the end of the 19th century, old Balkars would comment: May Allah be your helper, and may I have Ravbazi by my side. The holy trees remained untouched for a long time; the Karachays believed that anyone who touched J̌anniz Terek would be damned and die.

The Karachays and Balkars of yore also venerated rocks and stones. They gave the name of a god to a rock which was believed to represent the deity. Thus, they held ceremonies around the rock or stones of čoppa, Bayrim, Apsati, Astotur, Eliya, praying to the gods to free them from illness, give them good harvest or rain.

In the land of the Karachays and Balkars many stones carried the name of Bayrim, the goddess of the family and motherhood among several Caucasian groups. Princess Bayrim is the protector of the family hearth, the controller of the fate of the members of the household. In Upper Chegem sterile women made pilgrimage to the rock of Bayrim, bringing her delicacies and bird feathers, and prayed to her. Also in Upper Chegem those who had scarlet fever or other illness were taken to the rock of Kirna or Eliya to be healed.

There were pagan festivities connected to Nature and the seasons, e.g. that of Kürek Biyče Princess Spade’. As a drought was increasing, old women and children dressed a spade up like a woman and entering the courtyard of a house, they banged it against the ground, singing:

We are burning, we are dying,

Let it rain, that is our wish,

May Princess Spade grant us rain!

Meat, bread, eggs, etc. were given to the singers at every house. Then the community gathered at the riverbank, Princess Spade was cast into the river and they splashed water at each other. This ritual was called the exchange of water. Later they dressed a donkey as a woman, bathed it in the river and held a mirror to it. The joyful ceremony ended with a great feast and merry-making.

In Karachay-Balkar country the rain prayer was associated with Čoppa, Eliya and Sibila, the gods of rain, lightning and thunder. In Balkaria, there was pilgrimage to Čoppa; round the rock representing the god they circled, danced and sang:

Oyda, Čoppa!

God after God

Put an end to the drought,

Send us rain,

Soak the soil,

Tree, who ripens the seeds,

Tree who orders rain,

Tree who embraces the whole world,

Open wide the gates of rain,

Let the sky thunder and roar,

Let it rain now!

In Karachay land they prayed to J̌anniz Terek for rain. Like in the majority of Turkic groups, however, the supreme God of the Karachays was Teyri ~ Tengri. “It is he who the rain god obeys,” they said and they prayed to him for rain:

Great Tengri, dear Tengri

Send us clouds, Tengri,

Let it rain, Tengri.

The customs, sacrifices, supplications of the pagan times were all connected so similar desires: asking for plenty, health and good luck for the people. The earlier customs and prayers were also aimed at these wishes. All these rituals and customs reflect the unlimited faith in the power of the word; they believed that the word could provide wealth and security and conversely, may also deprive one of these assets.

In olden times the Karachay-Balkars lived by hunting, so Apsati, the lord of the mountains, wilderness, beasts and hunting had a great role in their beliefs, rituals and folklore. Apsati’s image lives on in the memory of the people transformed. Earlier it was probably a white mountain goat adored by the people, turned later into a formidable deity with a human face and a long white beard, ‘god of the deer’. Hunters also venerated Apsati’s daughter Baydimat-Fatimat, fearing her curse.

The hunters slayed sacrificial animals for Apsati and solicited his support. In Upper Chegem before the spring stag hunt they offered sacrifices at the rock symbolizing Apsati, danced it round and sang prayers and wishes.

Peculiar stories survived in Karachay-Balkar folklore about Apsati and his sons. One is called Apsati’s guests. Songs concerning hunting (e.g. J̌antugan, Biynöger) have been sung for ages. They narrate how Apsati took revenge on the hunters Biynöger and J̌antugan because they had hunted at the wrong place and killed more than appropriate.

In addition to Apsati, the Balkars also worshipped a god called Astotur, the god of wolves, hunters and herdsmen. There was a rock called Astotur’s stone in the Chegem valley. Setting out for a hunt, the hunters left an arrow and part of their provisions at the rock, praying:

You are the protector of Apsati

You understand the tongue of stags,

You know when we’re well fed and when we hunger,

Give us a lot of deer,

Call Apsati,

Hearken to our entreaty!

Back from the hunt, they left some of the booty at the rock.

Astotur was held in such high esteem that horsemen passing by always got off their horses there out of respect. There is a saying to this day:

Get off the high horse,

Get off the short horse,

Get off the horse at Astotur.

In the song Astotur Prince Batok did not believe in the power of the rock and placed a blow at it with his whip. From the depth of the rock a bee flew out and stung the prince, who collapsed dead.

In the old times, there were special Karachay-Balkar customs to sue a girl in marriage, but the majority of these songs and prayers did not survive. Orayda was being sung when the procession went to claim the bride and take her to her new home.

There was no wedding feast in Balkaria without singing the Tepena. It was a joyful ceremony with dancing, singing and prayers including Orayda. Tepena contained prayers and good wishes, while the song called Sandirak included tricks and sparkles. They ridiculed personality traits that were unworthy of a human being such as cowardice, jealousy, avarice, arrogance and greed. The lyrics of the Sandirak sometimes turned from wit and humour into cursing, or praying. Like the jester, the singer of Sandirak may even mock or tease old people, too, and may belch forth blasphemies at a wedding, but it is all food for lauhter, no one is offended.

Earlier, the songs Tepena, Sandirak and Gollu accompanied by dancing had a definite performing style, rules and time. These got blurred in time and now they can be sung and danced any time, either as children’s ditties, lullabies, manis or oraydas. They got commingled with other tunes and dances and found their way to the repertoire of wedding songs and dances.


Singing has a salient role in the rich Karachay-Balkar folklore. People without songs are deaf and dumb, they say.

They have work-songs, too. The ‘farmer’s song’ was sung working in the fields and on the way there and back. In the autumn, people in old times sang Erirey – a song in praise of work and industry asking for plenitude and blessing – while they danced behind the oxen tied to the thrashing machine. They thought that singing to Erirey their hearts would lift, spirits would rise, work would become easy and fast and the crop would multiply for Erirey was the god of harvest and well-being in earlier times.

Livestock breeding had the key role in the life of the Karachay-Balkars, there is therefore a wealth of animal-related beliefs, rituals, wishes, customs and prayers. One of them is Dolay, sung while churning butter. They believed that butter would separate more quickly from milk and be more plentiful when this song was sung. Dolay was the god of domestic animals. Before the livestock was driven to the summer pastures, a sacrificial animal was killed, and the people asked the Great Tengri, Dolay, Makkuruš, the god of goats, and Aymuš, the god of lambs and shepherds to allow them “to have a lucky journey, wolves should not attack us, no human or animal should be harmed”.

The songs sung during weaving and felt-making were also old work-songs. Some say that Inay was the god of wool working and hand-woven cloths, but later it was forgotten and the name only survives in the refrain of a tune. Before starting work, the oldest woman said a prayer. Hard and monotonous work with the wool was made easier to carry on by singing. Inay was a song helping women with their work and including wishes and prayers as well. While they worked on the loom or fulling wool, they were sure their prayers would be listened to and the felt or woven cloth made with inay would be durable, and the person using it would be healthy.

Heroic songs

The Karachay-Balkars sing a lot of heroic or historical songs. People narrate the major events in their lives and sum up their history in them. The songs concerning the heroes are connected to the following themes: 1. oppression, onslaughts, 2. rich people, princes, 3. World War II (Great Patriotic War).

The plague of 1790−1800 claimed many lives among the Karachay-Balkars. A new plague broke out in the North Caucasus in 1808−1814. The songs of the ‘mountain folk’ entitled Al Emina ‘first plague’ and Ekinči Emina ‘second plague’ narrate these events.

Several songs were born of the Caucasian war (1817−1864). Hasavka and Umar are about the fight between the tsar’s troops and the Karachays. Ulla Hož narrates the atrocities and massacre committed by the tsarist soldiers in the Adyghe village of Hozh. The daglis’ songs include some created during the Russian-Turkish war (1877−78) and the Russian-Japanese war (1904−05).

The migration of some Karachay-Balkars to Turkey in the 19th century is perpetuated by the songs Stambulga Ketgenleni Jirlari ‘Song of the migrants to Istanbul’ and Muhajirle ‘migrants’. They speak about the hardships and sufferings of the migrants, the pain of separation from home, their homelessness.

As regards their topics, the folksongs on oppression and warfare divide into two groups: 1. songs on raids and pillaging against the Karachays, e.g. Tatarkan, Saribiy ile Karabiy, Jandar, Zavurbek, etc., and 2. songs of the Karachays attacking their neighbors, e.g. Čüyerdi, Bekmirzalar, Song of J̌an­sohs, etc. They are about the feudal period, about the young champions killed while trying to take back the stolen livestock or other valuables (first group), and about the Karachays’ raids and plundering (second group). The people’s sense of judgment does not praise the latter but criticizes them.

In their songs about the valiant warriors who opposed the princes, the wealthy, the tsar’s soldiers, the daglis or ‘mountain folk’ narrate how the rich treated the poor like animals, humiliated them, forcing them to work for starvation wages or naught. In these songs the humaneness and valiance of honest champions are praised by the people (Atabiy’s song, Kanamat, Barak, Abrek ulanla, Gapalaw, Bekbolat, etc.).


By theme, the Karachay-Balkar ballads divide into three groups: love, family live and collective life. In the ballads, the conflict is between Good and Evil, the good-hearted and the wicked, true and false, love and hatred. The heroes’ fight with the Evil usually ends sadly. In some songs on love the lad or the lass dies (Akbiyče and Ramazan) or the enemy separates them (Kanšavbiy and Gošayah), or a loving spouse (or sweetheart) dies of a lethal illness (J̌anim oglu Ismail). One of the sad songs on family life is Kahraman Bašhanuk: the wife of prince Bašanuk Sarayda leaves her husband and elopes with her lover, but the prince catches up with them and killes them. In Kubadiyleri, the nine brothers of the Kubadiy tribe are overcome by a deadly disease because they were selfish and breached the rules of the community. Unlike many other ballads, this one has a happy ending because the brothers repent their sins and recover from the illness. Some ballad themes are complex, including strains of love, family and communal life and history (Kanšavbiy ile Goshayah).

Songs of the Soviet era

The daglis’ songs created in the Soviet period may be divided into the following thematic groups: 1. the Soviet period and the civil war, 2. life and work in the kolkhoz, 3. World War II, 4. deportation (1943−57), 5. love songs and manis, and 6. humorous songs.

The partisans are coming, Song of the partisans in the hills, etc. narrate how the Soviet power penetrated into the land of the Karachay-Balkars. The songs about the young people sacrificing their lives for Soviet power during the civil war praise their heroism, their love of poor people, their loyalty to Lenin and the party. The songs of kolkhozisation also recall the poor serfs killed by the mighty landowners. The ones about life and work at the kolkhoz proclaim that the foundation of life is work, the source of all good and joy. They detail kolkhoz life and the emulation at work. The ones who are in the vanguard of the contest for excellence at work are widely eulogized.

There is a multitude of songs about World War II, e.g. Song of a soldier, Song of the homeland. They call for the hatred of the enemy, for courage, heroism, they speak about the valiance of the men and women, their love of the country, the perpetuation of their names in the songs for ever.

Love songs, manis, plaintive and cursing songs

Love songs and manis have a salient place in Karachay-Balkar folklore. In most love songs the lass or lad speaks about her/his unquenchable love, the beauty, goodness, humanity of her/his beloved, e.g. Tavkan, Aktamak. Girls and young men sing tariguvs ‘plaintive songs’ about unrequited love or about being separated from their lover. These are also called süymeklik küy ‘enamoured song’ whose customary topic is the forceful separation of the lovers.

The iynarla or mani songs have three kinds: 1. those sung by girls, 2. those sung by boys, 3. those sung alternatively, also called aytiš or ‘responsorial song’. Unlike the four-lined manis of independent contents, the iynar songs narrate stories.

Some love songs and manis contain curses. When the entire song is a curse, it is called kargiš ǰirla ‘cursing song’ or kargiš iynarla ‘cursing mani’. In them the young girl or lad curses her/his lover who has broken her/his heart with wicked words or just toyed with her honour. Some love songs curse those who tore two loving hearts from one another or who harmed them. Most cursing songs and manis are however humorous:

Ay, I take back all the curses

I laid on you,

I don’t love anyone more dearly than you, sweetheart,

I am dying for you.


The Karachay-Balkar laments have two groups: 1. laments over death without concrete date, 2. laments tied to the deportation.

Lamentation is the duty of the deceased person’s relatives, those of his/her age, all his beloved, while some people invite professional mourners. When in Karachay-Balkaria a widely respected, well-known person dies, the most outstanding mourner is called in to lament. In the Baksan valley when the beloved Ismail of the Orusbiys lost his life, he was buried in the traditional siyit ‘burial ceremony’ and a funeral poem was composed in honour of him. In the lament people give vent to their sorrow, listing the deceased’s humane qualities, goodness, and services rendered to his people:

The ice of the Elbrus is glowing,

Ismail has died, black is donned

by the marvelous daughters of the Great Bahsan who wear silk.

He has grown red wheat in stony soil,

He has driven German cows for the poor,

He has fed the poor villagers with free donations.

There are laments about girls who killed themselves as they were not allowed to marry the ones they loved. The dead girl tells her sad story, lists her grievances, the names of those who harmed her and words her last will (Zariyat, Lüba).

Daglis who have seen a lot of hardship sometimes lament over themselves, mostly when lovelorn (Madina’s lament, Lament of a girl, etc.).

The Karachay-Balkar people, who – like so many of the ethnicities in the Soviet Union – had suffered the hardships of World War II, were expelled from their homeland, “a new trouble to top the troubles”, as the popular poet of the Karachays Semenlanı Sımayıl put it. Fearing nobody, the poets of the deportation kept singing about this unspeakable tragedy, about the pains and non-healing wounds. The sürgün songs ‘songs of the deportation’ about the hard days of exile are an eternal memento of the people’s suffering for future generations. The daglis’ plaintive, sorrowful laments about the humiliations and tribulations still give the creeps to those who hear them.

Laments encourage people to hold out in the hard times of exile without losing humanity or blaming destiny, drawing strength and courage from one’s truth. The sürgün songs are the popular narratives and historical records of the Karachay-Balkars, incorporated in their song stock for centuries to come.

Daglis were always ready for fun and bantering. There are no villages in Karachay-Balkaria without funny songs. Some of them are restricted to a certain village or valley, others spread from place to place to become part of the favourite tune repertoire (J̌örme, Sandirak, Gollu, Boz alaša, etc.). Some of them are also dance tunes. In the humorous tunes traits like laziness, jealousy, selfishness and similar despicable characteristics are condemned.

Religious songs

The Karachay-Balkars often sing zikirs, ‘religious verses, prayers’ in the mevlids, at other gatherings or just to themselves. Old people claim that most zikir texts were learnt from religious books from Daghestan. Those who went on pilgrimage to Mecca (haǰ) taught the fellow villagers at home the zikirs they had learnt during the journey. The books brought back from the pilgrimage by the haǰis were further sources of zikir texts. Again other zikirs were written by poets of the Karachay-Balkar land, e.g. by Kâzim, which are still popular.

The majority of zikirs take their themes from the Bible and the Quran. The Arabic word zikir means ‘mention, remember, notice’; the zikirs center on the name of Allah, the Most High, and his prophets, as well as the basic principles of Islam; they penetrate the soul and mind of the singers and their audience, helping them to proceed as true adherents of Allah along the path designated by faith:

With the faith and religion

We are proceeding to the next word

Day and night, without stopping

We keep saying: Allah, Allah.

The zikirs of oral tradition can be divided into four groups: 1. zikirs repeating the names of Allah and extolling him and the religion of Islam; 2. zikirs on the prophets; 3. zikirs on the religious duties and conditions of Islam; 4. zikirs as food for thought for the Muslims.

The zikirs frequently declare the fundamental thesis of Islam: “There is no God to be worshipped but Allah, and he made the holy Mohamed his prophet.”

La illaha illallah

Muhammadun Rasullulah …

Let us protect our religion,

Let us worship magnificent Allah.

The zikirs guide people to the observation of Islam’s rules which lead them along Allah’s path to paradise already on earth. The oft-repeated advice includes: be patient, be persistent, good-mannered, do not be deceived by the vanity of the world, be loyal to the faith, do not be stingy or envious, do not cheat others. They contain several other admonitions as well: be straightforward and honest, keep the guidelines and moral advice of Islam.

The repetition of zikirs imprints it on the believer’s mind that by keeping Islam’s moral rules, they will be Allah’s beloved people. On the day of the last judgment the good and bad deeds of all people will be weighed and the worshippers of omniscient Allah will also be called to the book to account for their deeds on earth:

If you can distinguish between forbidden and useful things,

Tragedy will not be your lot.

Don’t do forbidden things in the world

For on Doomsday you’ll be put on the scales.

The zikirs on religious obligations teach that namaz ‘ritual prayer’ and fasting are important duties:

Carry out the ritual prayer with a prepared heart,

Believers won’t go to hell.

Keep the fast, pray incessantly,

And you will go to heaven.

Most zikirs admonish that you are responsible for your life; if you live in sin, you must repent; you must not forget about death and the vanity of the world, you must not deceive yourself. They make people think about where and why they have come from and whither they are going, and tell them that their most important task is adherence to religion and the veneration of Allah. They stress the importance of remembering the exalted Allah day and night:

The radiance of the zikir is high,

You can’t see it with your eyes…

Do not count the number of remembrances

Sing a lot of zikirs.

Keep saying endlessly in this world: Allah, Allah.

This crop of the Karachay-Balkar people root way back in the past, representing a special local colour of a rich international phenomenon.

Picture 3. Karachay husband and wife in Yakapinar, Turkey

1 The data in this chapter are cited from Köşoğlu (2002).

2 The month of Totur is March for the Karachays.