The traditional beliefs of the Altai peoples were influenced by many world religions, in particular Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Mongolian Buddhism (Lamaism).
In many ways they were formed a result of the history of the indigenous population in this region. Their faith has been tested over several centuries by other civilisations and their beliefs, but the ancient traditions are still alive in Altai. According to S.B. Filatov, religion scholar and sociologist, up to 70% of indigenous Altaians continue to follow the traditional folk spiritual teachings.
The following movements are distinguished in these Altai religions: Tengrianism, Aar Aiyy, Burkhanism, and shamanism.
Tengrianism (or Tengrism) is one of the branches of the medieval ethnic beliefs of the Turkic and Mongolian nomads. This belief is based on Tengri, a deified sky that controls the weather and brings fertility to the land. The culture of the ancient Tengrians has not been well preserved, yet some of their holidays and customs have survived to the present day. However at the end of the 20th century, neo-pagan Tengrianism (or “cabinet”) began to spread. Its followers are currently trying to revive ancient traditions.
Chokan Valikhanov, an 19th century ethnographer from Kazakhstan, is the presumed author of the term “Tengrianism”, but this term was introduced into the scientific world only in 1956. The French orientalist, Jean-Paul Roux, proposed it together with the postulates of the religious movement.
In the English-speaking environment, the term Tengrism is used in relation to the Tengrian religion. In a number of Turkic languages, such concepts as “Tengir din” and “Tengirshilik” are still widely used.
Over the years, Lev Gumilyov and Bekzhan Adenula wrote extensively about the history and traditions of the Tengrianism of the Turks. In the Soviet period, the term appears in the book “Az and Ya” by Olzhas Suleimenov, who was a Kazakh poet and Turkologist.
Most scholars associate the emergence of Tengrianism with the spread of major world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. This happened in the 8-10th centuries and Tengrianism has preserved the traditional elements of all these beliefs to this day. In neo-paganism, the theory that Tengrianism is one of the most ancient religions, which originated in the 5th-4th centuries BC, is popular. However, as many scientists say, this contradicts much generally accepted knowledge about the development of world religions and cultures.
Studies of this religious movement are challenging because its supporters rarely built temples. Most of the Tengrist rituals took place in forests, mountains and fields. Of importance are the monuments of the ancient Turkic runic writing, in particular the “Book of Fortune-telling” and the “The Secret Legend of the Mongols”. These are important sources of information about this ancient religious movement.
Several researchers agree that there were two main movements in Tengrianism – folk (shamanism) and imperial (Tengrianism).
The Mongolian academic Sh. Bira, has written about Tengrianism. He believes that the imperial stage began to take shape after the formation of the Mongol Empire.
According to other researchers, Tengrianism spread under the Turkic Khaganate. Shamanism existed long before the Turkic peoples began worshipping the Tengri God. Its roots go back to ancient times. But Tengrianism and shamanism are linked by similar customs in the modern cult also.
Based on the data obtained from the Turkic runic monuments of the 8-10th centuries, scientists now assume that there were two main layers of worldview at the origins of Tengrianism. The first is based on Tengri (Sky) and the second Yer-Sub (Earth and Water). This is the top and bottom of everything that exists. In the later ideas about historical Tengrianism, the anthropomorphic gods, Tengri and Umay – the male and female principles -are also considered.
Scientists, as well as cult adherents, believe that there were no sacred texts in Tengrianism. The beliefs were based on oral epic-traditions and were passed on from the older generation to the younger.
In Tengrianism, Kök-Tengri (Blue Sky) is the creator of all flesh. This is identical, for example, to Para Brahman in Hinduism. The rest of the gods in Tengrism are patrons of the natural elements. Scientists think that the Mongols, in addition to the Tengri, believed in 99 other deities.
The ancient Tengrians had a cult of the worship of Umay (goddess of the Earth) and Erlik (lord of the underworld). It is also known that the Tengrians worshipped Od Ana (Fire), Yer Sub (Earth-Water), Koyash (Sun), Su Ata (Water) and Ay (Moon). There were other deities also, concerned with Air, Water, Tornado, Earth, Wind, Rainbow, Thunder, Clouds, and Rain.
Professor N.G. Ayupov, in his works devoted to Tengrianism, refers to the ideological nature of this movement. In his opinion, the religious movement includes the following main theses:
The main symbols of Tengrianism are somewhat similar to those of Christianity and Islam. According to one of the versions, this is an equilateral cross, “aji”. M. Adji says that Christians borrowed the main symbol of Tengrism in the 4th century, although scientists have not confirmed this fact. There is another theory, which suggests that the Tengri symbol is a solar sign (“shanyrak”) encompassing a circle with an equilateral cross inside.
In the 1990s, the Tengri God gained many admirers. During this period, the main tenets concerning Tengrianism could be heard from the Altai Burkhanists, Kazakhs, Bashkirs, Kumyks, Kirghiz and Siberian intellectual society.
A number of representatives of the Turkic peoples who historically practiced Islam, regard Tengrianism as a “traditional” ancient religion. Here Tengri is seen as kind of a synonym for Allah. Based on this, many researchers have concluded that Tengrianism and Islam of the Turkic peoples are linked by the same roots. Bashkir religious scholars A.V. Schipkov and S.B. Filatov have suggested that local oral folklore, which has survived to our times is descended from traditions that have survived from historical Tengrianism. A similar situation is observed in the customs of other peoples – for example, B.A. Zakharov, one of the ideologists of Tengrianism, states that many Kalmyks even now recognize both Tengrianism and Buddhism at the same time.
According to neo-pagan canons, the essence of Tengrianism is worshipping the Tengri God. Followers greeted the deity by raising their hands up and bowing low. The characteristic features of Tengrianism include persistence, activity, and mutual aid. The North (for the Yakuts – the East) is the sacred side of the world. The main holiday dedicated to Tengri is held in the middle of June. There is an assumption that this is the “progenitor” of Sabantuy. At the festival, a large fire was made, and sacrifices performed. During the ritual, people asked Tengri for good health, a rich harvest and good luck. The cult followers called their prayers “algys”.
Since the 2000s, various public organizations have been formed to promote the beliefs of the Tengrians. For example, in 2003, the first scientific conference on Tengrianism was held in Bishkek. This was organized by the “Orda Tengri” foundation. In 2014, representatives of the community even declared their wish to make Tengrism the main religion of Kyrgyzstan.
There are Tengrian communities not only in Altai, but also in Kyrgyzstan, Khakassia, Crimea and Tuva.
This belief however, has an ancient history as it was widespread in the region until the end of the 17th century when Orthodox Christianity arrived. In 1696, the Aiyy rituals performed by shamans in the Tuymaada valley were prohibited. Afterwards, people started to forget the old traditions. Only a few ancient settlements had preserved their religious knowledge, but starting in the 1960s, Aiyy customs began to return.
Some religious scholars believe that representatives of this faith are the northern branch of Tengrianism.
Supporters of Aiyy recognize the higher powers and worship one God – Yuryung Aiyy toyon. God is portrayed as a white stallion or an eagle. The creator of all living things has 12 assistant gods – each with its own functions, as well as the spirits of the surrounding natural world.
According to the ancient beliefs of Aiyy supporters, the whole world is divided into three parts: the underworld (Allaraa Doydu) with evil spirits, the middle world (Orto Doydu) with everyday people and the upper world (Yuhee Doydu) inhabited by gods.
The main symbol in the Aiyy teachings is the Great giant tree (Aal luk mas). The tree signifies the trinity of the world.
Aiyy followers perform their prayers to the supreme gods and spirits in the open air, as usually they do not build temples. Blood sacrifices are not performed in the numerous traditional rites, but plants and dairy products are offered to the gods. Fire is an obligatory attribute of the rituals.
Researchers of ancient religions have two views as to how Burkhanism emerged. According to the first opinion, the belief is reformed shamanism, a kind of Altai version of Turkic Tengrianism. It is believed that the religion was not particularly influenced by traditions of other teachings. According to another version, Burkhanism is the Altai form of Tibetan-Mongolian Buddhism.
The traditional faith of Aar Aiyy is an officially registered religion in Yakutia. It was documented as recently as 2014.
Burkhanism originated in Gorny Altai at the beginning of the 20th century. Its adherents called their teachings the “white faith.” This is a contrast to “black” shamanic traditions which included bloody sacrifices.
The traditions of Burkhanism are based on ancient myths. Followers of the teaching believe in the coming messiah, and they consider the Yuch-Kurbustan deity to be their patron (in some sources, it is Ak Burkhana). But along with the existence of the image of a single ruler, Burkhanism has preserved the connection between religion and nature.
People preaching Burkhanism reject dark spirits and any contact with inhabitants of the underworld. It is believed that shamans communicating with supernatural forces bring trouble, and to save one person, they must sacrifice another. That is why Burkhanism followers reject the “black” rituals of shamans, offering prayers only to “white” spirits.
Burkhanists have a code of commandments which they follow. According to legends, they were told to an Altai shepherd, Chet-Chelpan, by three white horsemen who came to him in May 1904. This moment is considered the time when the new belief was born.
Religious scholars suggest that Altai shamanism was seriously influenced by ancient Turkic Tengrianism.
There are no written doctrines in Altai shamanism, neither texts of prayers, descriptions of rituals, prohibitions nor commandments. Teaching is non-verbal when traditions are passed down from one generation to the next.
Shamans in Altai are called “kams”. These are individuals who have obtained their great gifts by birthright and inheritance. Kams know how to heal people and how to communicate with the spirits and souls of the dead. Just like with other nationalities, a shaman in Altai is a guide between the world of the living and the world of the deceased. There is no special hierarchical specialization amongst them, whereby one shaman can perform only one task – for example, to call forth bountiful harvests and nothing else.
The main ritual in Altai shamanism is kamlanie. During this ritual, the shaman invokes spirits and communicates with them. The ceremony is accompanied by the playing of the tambourine with traditional dances. The kam, when in a trance, can leave the real world and go to the underworld. On this journey, the kam is accompanied by an assistant – the Ker-tyutpa beast.
Many traditional religions of the Altaians were strongly influenced by Tengrianism. At the same time, some beliefs, such as Burkhanism and shamanism, contradict each other. The religions described above originated in ancient times, but still have followers today.