Beyond, I entered a shrine-like museum. In its central painting Manas was conjured as a steel plated prodigy – part wizard, part Arthurian hero – whose hosts gathered behind him in a spectral forest of banners, ascending at last to the pastel clouds of heaven
As the central character in an oral epic – often trumpeted as the longest in the world – Manas is credited as having unified the forty Kyrgyz tribes before inspiring them to score unlikely victories in battles against numerically superior military opponents, including the Chinese and the Uighurs.
Thubron goes on to ponder the historical accuracy of the legend (“Did he even exist or was he a conflation of half-mythic war leaders?”) as he fumbles around the musty corridors of the impressive Manas Ordo complex in Talas, Kyrgyzstan.
Such skepticism would seem justified, given that the warrior-King’s achievements are never blemished with specific dates by the time-weathered Manaschi that chant the epic. Furthermore, no creditable historian has ever produced evidence for the national saviour’s existence.
The complete list of tired, asinine schemes dreamed up by candidates for the presidential elections (October 30, 2011, is the tentative date) and government apparatchiks in recent months is too lengthy to post here, but if their ideas share something in common, it is that most of them begin with the letter ‘M’.
Back in April, Neweurasia [en] reported on an initiative to rename Ala-Too square – where over 80 protesters were gunned down by government troops on April 7, 2010 – Manas square. By mid-July, that had morphed into a decision to tear down a monument to freedom standing on the square, and replace it with a statue of “Magnanimous” Manas, as part of the country’s latest effort to re-brand.
Fast forward to August, and, perhaps sensing they had been understated in their adulation of the mythical warrior king, the country’s power-brokers began debating an old idea with new vigour: to name or not to rename the national capital, Bishkek, after You Know Who. (Clue: That's not Lord Voldemort, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, or Kurmanbek Bakiyev)
Many of the capital’s bloggers, though, don’t share their rulers’ and would-be-rulers’ enthusiasm. In a, brief, ironic post, Isken Sydykov challenges his country’s government to go one step further and re-title everything in the legend’s honour [ru]:
In light of our government’s decision to demolish the Statue of Liberty and replace it with a monument of Manas, and in connection with the initiative of Mrs Umetalieva to rename Bishkek Manas, I came up with the quite brilliant idea of renaming everything Manas. The capital city can be Manas, the president Manas [of the country] Manas, intersections between [two] streets – both called Manas, and hotels called Manas on the shores of Lake Manas
At that stage, the blogger suggests, Kyrgyzstan would be in a good position to do a remake of the film “Being John Malkovich” : “Being Manas the Magnanimous”. The author of this Global Voices post suggests that Mel Gibson could be persuaded to play lead.
This isn’t the first time the country has indulged in Manas mania, of course. A blog by Dennis Keen, known to the World Wide Web as KeenonKyrgyzstan, takes readers around a decaying tourist trap devoted to the Magnanimous one, and provides a sense of the hubris associated with the UNESCO-declared year of Manas, way back in 1995:
The epic is a bedrock of Kyrgyz culture. It is an ancient document, an encyclopedia, they say, of the Kyrgyz way of life. It is at the center of the Kyrgyz soul. So when a world body took the center of their soul and gave it international recognition, the Kyrgyz went a little crazy. Manas classes became required in school, statues of the horseback hero went up everywhere, and in Talas, the guy’s apparent birthplace, a grand complex was built near his mausoleum and the party of the millennium was planned. The world’s first three-story yurt was thrown up in haste; leaders from all over the world were invited […] In the end, hundreds of dancers reenacted the epic in front of thousands of people, and for one day, Talas felt like the center of Kyrgyzstan. For one year, Kyrgyzstan felt like the center of the world
In those heady days, as noted in a recent article on EurasiaNet, Manas was a central component in first President Askar Akayev’s drive to promote cultural diversity, tribal stability and inter-ethnic harmony. It was stressed, for instance, that Manas’ wife Kanikay was of Tajik origin and that his best friend and advisor was Chinese (Akayev was preparing to sell off chunks of sovereign territory to China at the time), while many of his soldiers were not Kyrgyz in the strictest sense of the word.
(N.B. As already highlighted on GV, Manas acted as a reference point in some anti-Uzbek “verses” [ru] that surfaced on a right-wing website after the cataclysmic events that shook Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010. The site is still in use, although rarely updated).
Furthering an ideological shift from national liberation to nationalism, authorities in Bishkek have removed a prominent statue called “Freedom” and will soon replace it with a statue of the mythical hero Manas. Manas, of the eponymous Kyrgyz-language epic poem, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years as Kyrgyzstan struggles to define an identity
He then adds:
That task has taken on renewed urgency since ethnic pogroms against minorities — who make up 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population — last year. But in this multiethnic state, Manas – unlike Freedom – is unmistakably Kyrgyz
Kyrgyzstan’s blogging community, it seems, is not against Manas per se, for the legend itself stands as a wonderful representation of the oral gifts and rich imagination embedded in the country’s traditions. Rather bloggers fear further Manas-pulation, the cynical use of the epic by the eternally ambitious, and populist rhetoric that provokes conflict between ethnic groups, ignores the state’s economic woes, and sacrifices change for tradition.
Colin Thubron began writing Shadow of the Silk Road in 2003. Almost nine years and two coup d’états after he set out on his own epic, lyrical journey, the concluding remarks to his Kyrgyzstan chapter – “The Mountain Passage” – have acquired a striking prescience:
The pilgrims [at the Manas Ordo complex in Talas] kiss the soft walls. If they could read the Kufic, it would not trouble them. A legend can lodge anywhere, and Manas, like the Yellow Emperor, swims in his own stream of time. A nation, as the philosopher Renan said, is bound not by the real past, but by the stories it tells itself; by what it remembers and what it forgets,” he writes.