If you choose to stop for a while in Buryatia on your Trans-Siberian trip, you may want to experience some encounters with the diverse creeds of the people – may be visit a Buddhist temple or even attend a Shamanic ceremony …
Trips and Tales (Part 73)
In terms of his Buryat heritage, ‘G’ is 32 years old, 31 by Western – or just non Buryat – reckoning. It’s not down to some weird time-zone anomaly dropping a year over the international date-line; just that those first nine months of pregnancy are counted too. Well, sure enough, you are “alive” – even if not born, aren’t you?
With hindsight I didn’t ask about the Buryat attitude to abortion. I assume that there must be one, or indeed several – as in our society; but that sounds fundamentally pro-life from where I’m standing. If you recognise an “inconvenient” foetus as a person from the off, then that would surely make it harder to, bluntly, “bin-it”. Surely?
Talk of such a weighty topic invariably leads to others: creeds, faiths, what have you. ‘G’ is a “modern”, city-Buryat but his heritage is still an important part of his existence.
That existence looks out at the world from a Buddhist perspective, with tolerance towards other systems of belief. An acknowledgement that we are all essentially heading to the same place, even though our paths may be different. How refreshing. It’s hard to imagine that kind of tolerance here in a society that jostled through the ages with a clamour of factions, all keen to convince us that only they had the “inside track”, the “true” truth and the path to the Almighty.
So, ‘G’ is accustomed to a pantheon in miniature: embracing Buddhism, Shamanism and the Russian Orthodox Church primarily, but also historically touching upon Jewish and Muslim faiths too. The national tolerance can also extend to a pick and mix mentality, curiously sampling the beliefs and traditions of others in the same way that we sample foreign food. He speaks of a Buddhist friend who may on occasion pop down to the local Orthodox Church because he likes their ceremonies. Well, they do a spectacularly bearded costume, chant and incense combo there. So sure, I can see that.
Interestingly, Shamanic beliefs seem to pervade all, though not necessarily at full volume. Yes, there are modern Shaman that perpetuate a lineage dedicated to their religion proper. But outside of their footsteps there is still a background level of “custom” that diffuses and permeates, even through modern secular society. Through the city-dwelling rank and file that may go camping or hiking for instance, leaving spilled vodka, milk or coins as offerings to the Woodland, Lake and Mountain Spirits as they go. I remember ‘L’, city girl, telling me something similar: of tiny rituals to ensure fine weather or a good day’s trekking ahead.
Aside from these casual, cast offerings to the spirits of the land, these ancient beliefs are brought into sharper focus with the sudden presence of the striking “Oboo” (or “Ovoo”): rocks, piles of shale and, interestingly, “absences” – cavities in stone, all declared sacred shrines. These are decorated, surmounted in ribbon and flag-adorned tree-branches – and in the case of Mongolian Oboo – horse skulls, and may stand ten feet high. The effect is imposing: imagine rounding a corner to be confronted with one of these ribbon-flapping mountains at sunset, a little eerie!
Travellers are supposed to circle them three times clockwise as a mark of respect, adding a stone to the pile (and therefore power to the shrine’s associated spirit), and perhaps an offering too: milk, vodka again, butter and perhaps a ribbon tied to one of the extremities, all to curry supernatural favour.
‘G’ tells me of other assumed modes of behaviour when presented with representations of supernatural entities: not to throw rubbish into a fire (thereby offending the fire spirit) or to touch fire with a knife, or even to sit with the soles of your feet exposed to it. Similarly, not to offend water spirits with your presence by daring to swim whilst drunk, or by similarly dumping your rubbish into water. It’s a real minefield of supernatural etiquette out there. Tread carefully.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 74) Igor, Buryat Shaman
[Photo by Monstrue]