Kalmyk Cultural Heritage Documentation

October 31st, 2014 by

Creating a shared resource for the endangered culture of the Kalmyks

Almost four centuries ago ancestors of the Kalmyk people trekked across central Asia to form a Buddhist nation on the edge of Europe. Today Kalmyk communities are scattered across Eurasia, with the largest group in the Republic of Kalmykia. A new project will document Kalmyk heritage to produce an open-access online resource to help Kalmyk communities revive their endangered culture.

Early in the 1600s, several groups of Mongols travelled thousands of miles west in search of new pastures for their herds. The migration of the people who became known as the Kalmyks was prompted by tensions between Mongol communities. Their journey lasted more than a decade and they travelled around 3,000 miles to settle in the wide pastures west of the Caspian Sea. Here they formed the Kalmyk khanate.

In 1771, more than half the Kalmyk population attempted to return to their original homeland of Dzungaria, a region of central Asia then depopulated as a result of the Qing-Dzungar war. Only a third of those who set out on this return migration survived the perilous journey. Those Kalmyks who remained on the southern edge of Europe were incorporated into the expanding Russian Empire.

Today the Kalmyk communities living in the Republic of Kalmykia and the neighbouring region of Astrakhan (part of the Russian Federation) are remarkable in being the only Buddhist nation in Europe. Kalmyk culture, however, has long been considered critically endangered by Western scholars. Existing Western research on their distinctive way of life has been directed chiefly at the relatively small Kalmyk diaspora in the USA.

Now researchers at the Mongolia & Inner Studies Unit of the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, have started work on an ambitious project to document the cultural heritage of a people who are estimated to number around 300,000 worldwide. The objective of the project is to provide Kalmyk communities with a resource that can be used to compare, revive and popularise their endangered culture.

Making use of audio and video, the Kalmyk Cultural Heritage Documentation Project will document Kalmyk culture in its broadest sense, including traditional songs and melodies, musical instruments, dances, oral literature, cuisine, crafts, festivals and many other. This unique body of knowledge will be deposited in open-access digital archives so that it can be shared worldwide.

The five-year project is being funded by Arcadia, a charitable fund dedicated to the preservation of at-risk cultural heritage and the environments. The principal investigator is Dr Uradyn Bulag, a social anthropologist known for his research into transnational studies of people, politics and culture – and particularly for his work on Mongolia and Chinese minorities.

“The project will focus on the Republic of Kalmykia and the adjoining Astrakhan region which is home to more than half the worldwide Kalmyk population. It will also look more broadly at Kalmyk communities in China and elsewhere in order to understand the inter-connectedness of Kalmyk culture in the Eurasian context,” said Dr Bulag.

“From the outset the project will involve local Kalmyk scholars and students. We hope that the resource we create will provide a means for long-separated communities to understand, communicate and exchange cultural information with each other.”

Throughout history, the Kalmyk people have been repeatedly displaced and oppressed. Many of the Kalmyks who attempted to return to Dzungaria in the second half of the 18th century perished. Those who survived the trip found themselves divided into various segregated settlements by the powerful Qing Empire.  In the late 19th century they suffered major devastations in the Muslim rebellions in Xinjiang.

The increasingly marginalised Kalmyks who remained in south west Russia were drafted by the Russian government to fight various wars of conquest which exerted a heavy toll. Between 1943 and 1957 the entire community was exiled to Siberia and Central Asia, charged with betraying the Soviet motherland by collaborating with the invading German army.

The fractured nature of the Kalmyk community – and the shifting identity of groups within it – represents a challenge to those seeking to document their culture. “In terms of the project, we are defining as Kalmyk the people who separated from the Oirats of Dzungaria in the 17th century, travelled to Russia where they formed the Kalmyk khanate, and later scattered,” said Dr Bulag.

“We hold that these people have a common culture even though, as a result of historical migration processes, some of them later adopted other identities and are now no longer called Kalmyk. In China and Mongolia, for example, they are known as Torghut.”

Under the Soviet Union, observance of traditional cultural practices was discouraged or banned. With the collapse of Soviet regime, opportunities opened up for minority cultures to rediscover themselves.

“The Kalmyks in Russia lost many of their traditional knowledge bearers in exile and, when were allowed to return in 1957, they found themselves living as a minority in the autonomous republic that bears their name. In these circumstances, post-Soviet Kalmyk cultural revitalisation has been slow and ineffective,” said Dr Bulag.

“We hope that the Kalmyk Cultural Heritage Documentation Project will help to redress the balance by capturing and archiving an endangered culture and thus breathing new life into its richly distinctive practices.”

The team contributing to the project reflects its ambitious transnational reach. Dr Bulag and Dr Borjigin Burensain (University of Shiga Prefecture, Japan) will be overseeing the gathering of material among Oirat/Kalmyk groups in China. Dr Baasanjav Terbish and Dr Elvira Churyumova (both University of Cambridge) will be working in Kalmykia in collaboration with local Kalmyk scholars.

The project benefits from the expertise of Professor Caroline Humphrey (University of Cambridge) who is renowned for her work on Mongolian cultures.

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