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The son of their close neighbor went to serve in the army. Yet he returned home safe and sound to much rejoicing, only to die two months later. After that my grandmother swore never to touch the stones again. My grandmother still remembers how it all started. When children took ill, people would not know what to do.

To visit to a good doctor was costly and the distance too far; so people looked for more immediate help. There were some elderly people in the village who could help, but not much. From just touching a person she slowly switched to healing with the help of the ashes, knives, paper, etc. My grandmother remembers that at that time she started having constant headaches.

She tried taking some pills but developed allergies to them which caused her face to swell. She said that she had seen her grandfather do it but was afraid to try herself.

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Finally she gave in. My grandmother says that since then her head never was cold, and the constant headaches stopped. When the daughter started having constant headaches, medicine did not help. Again her mother convinced her to have her blood drawn, which relieved the pain. I witnessed the blood drawing on one of these visits. The procedure involved the use of glasses, buttons, a piece of cloth, matches, a little bucket, and a razor. Then she wrapped the buttons in two small pieces of cloth, placed them close to the cuts, and lit them with the matches. After that she quickly put glasses on top of the flaming buttons.

Once the buttons were covered, blood started coming out of incisions. She repeated this procedure several times making cuts in different places. After a considerable amount of blood had been drawn, she stopped the procedure and wiped her back with a piece of cloth soaked in alcohol. It is not easy to watch the procedure of blood drawing especially if seeing it for the first time. Furthermore, for a person used to ideas about the importance of a sterile environment, the procedure would be disturbing. Towards the end she felt quite tired and looked exhausted.

She mentioned that sometimes she gets sick for a while herself, because she gives all her energy to the patient. Later, I found out that she is the sole supporter of her family. Her youngest son and his wife and children stay with her, but there is no job in the village for them. They keep a small number of sheep and have some cattle. People who visit her bring tea, bread, candies or cookies; some of them leave money. It is called a mazar, or a shrine, a term used to refer to graves of venerated Muslim saints.


The activities at the shrine pointed clearly to the fusion of Islamic belief and practice on the one hand and traditional, non-Islamic practice on the other. The shrine consists of two low hills which are joined and people say resemble from a distance a resting camel.

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It is visited by many people, often from distant parts of Kyrgyzstan. One can also meet married couples who cannot have children and for whom this is their only place of hope. Experienced ones bring their patients, because it is a general belief that there is a greater chance of a cure if the performance is conducted at the holy places where the spirit of the ancestors is strongest. There is a small three-room building next to the shrine. People who bring food or slaughter a sheep for sacrifice use the building as a place to gather other pilgrims, share their food and recite the Quran at the end of the ceremony.

A local mullah Muslim religious authority maintains the place and makes it his task to take people around the shrine. The major part of the ceremony consists of going around the hill, making some stops on the designated areas along the way and reciting the Quran. There are several caves in the mound where candles are set at nighttime. There are many legends about Kochkor Ata and why that place became sacred. Some people say that Kochkor Ata was a Muslim saint and was buried in that place after his death. Since then, the place of his burial became a place of pilgrimage for many people.

Others connect the history of Kochkor Ata shrine with Kyrgyz folklore. There is another legend told by a man from Cholpon Ata, who said that Arslanbab a mazar in Southern Kyrgyzstan had seven children.


In the age of the Internet, Korean shamans regain popularity

It is worth noting that in the Soviet period, as part of the effort to discourage Islamic practice, the authorities undertook severe measures to prevent worship at mazars. I went to Kochkor Ata with my family. We brought some bread, fruits and vegetables, and some sweets to the shrine. Since we went on Thursday, the local mullah was expecting a large number of people to come that day. We were the third group to enter the house near the shrine. It was full of visitors already. A group before us had slaughtered a sheep not long ago and the meat was boiling outside in a big qazan cauldron.

We were invited to join others for the meal.

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After we finished the meal, the mullah recited The Quran and took all of us outside the building. He led us to the hill, where we started our journey. There was a certain path one had to follow. After the recitation people kissed the stone and touched it with their foreheads. These spirits interact with people and influence their fortunes. Thus when traditionally minded Koreans are inexplicably sick or have a run of bad luck in business or a daughter who cannot find a husband, they consult a shaman. In an election year, like this one, the most famous shamans are fully booked. Politicians, whether Christian or Buddhist, flock to them, asking, for instance, whether relocating their ancestors' remains to a more propitious site might ensure victory.

Spirits of trees and rocks are displaced and haunt humans because they have nowhere else to go.

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No wonder the country is a mess. Shamans were demonized by Christian missionaries and driven underground during Japanese colonial rule. The military governments that followed the Korean War disparaged them as charlatans and often banished them from villages, burning their shrines. But today, even many who regard shamanism as superstition acknowledge it to be an important repository of Korean culture, because the rituals have preserved traditional costumes, music and dance forms.

Recent governments have documented and promoted the rituals as "intangible cultural assets. There are an estimated , shamans, or one for every South Koreans, according to the Korea Worshipers Association, which represents shamans. They are fiercely independent, following different gods, sharing no one body of scriptures. And they are highly adaptable. When the Internet boom hit South Korea, shamans were among the first to set up commercial Web sites, offering online fortunetelling. Many younger shamans maintain blogs on the Internet.

If you look into the subcategories, you find 10, deities," said Hong Tea Han, a professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul who researches shamanism. It never rejected anything but embraced everything, making endless compromises with other religions and social changes. That explains why it has survived thousands of years. Under the pro-American military governments of the s, there were shamans who took General Douglas MacArthur as their deity.

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  • When MacArthur's spirit possessed them, they donned sunglasses, puffed on a pipe and uttered sounds that some clients took for English. View all New York Times newsletters. Shamanism's eclecticism has influenced Korean attitudes toward religion, helping make South Korea one of the world's most pluralistic countries, said Yang Jong Sung, a senior curator at the National Folklore Museum of Korea.

    Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity coexist peacefully. Koreans, regardless of religious affiliation, perform Confucian rites for dead ancestors. Christmas and Buddha's birthday are national holidays. Christians climb mountains at night, when spiritual power is believed strongest, and pray for their children to pass college entrance exams, their husbands to win bigger contracts or for the United States to deter another North Korean invasion.

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    • When the People's Republic of China was formed in and the border with Russian Siberia was formally sealed, many nomadic Tungus groups including the Evenki that practiced shamanism were confined in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. In many other cases, shamanism was in decline even at the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, among the Roma. Geographical factors heavily influence the character and development of the religion, myths, rituals and epics of Central Asia.

      While in other parts of the world, religious rituals are primarily used to promote agricultural prosperity, here they were used to ensure success in hunting and breeding livestock. Animals are one of the most important elements of indigenous religion in Central Asia because of the role they play in the survival of the nomadic civilizations of the steppes as well as sedentary populations living on land not conducive to agriculture.

      Shamans wore animal skins and feathers and underwent transformations into animals during spiritual journeys. In addition, animals served as humans' guides, rescuers, ancestors, totems and sacrificial victims.

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      Shamanism in Central Asia also places a strong emphasis on the opposition between summer and winter, corresponding to the huge differences in temperature common in the region. The harsh conditions and poverty caused by the extreme temperatures drove Central Asian nomads throughout history to pursue militaristic goals against their sedentary neighbors.

      This military background can be seen in the reverence for horses and warriors within many indigenous religions. Central Asian shamans served as sacred intermediaries between the human and spirit world. In this role they took on tasks such as healing, divination, appealing to ancestors, manipulating the elements, leading lost souls and officiating public religious rituals. The use of sleight-of-hand tricks, ventriloquism, and hypnosis were common in these rituals but did not explain the more impressive feats and actual cures accomplished by shamans.

      Shamans perform in a "state of ecstasy" deliberately induced by an effort of will. Reaching this altered state of consciousness required great mental exertion, concentration and strict self-discipline.