Tuva, Land of EaglesThe Foundation's 1993 Expedition to Tuva
By Bill Brunton
© Shamanism, Spring 1994, Vol. 7, No. 1
The Shaman's Tree and a Magical Flower
Along Tuvan roads, at crossroads, passes over low mountains, and other prominent places past which people travel, there are piles of stone, called ova. These are added to, stone by stone, by travelers as they make prayers to spirits of the place for safe travel, protection from illness, and so forth. Sometimes, small saplings are thrust into the stone piles. On these are tied bright bits of cloth, each representing a prayer as with the piles of stones. Trees are also used for these "prayer ties." Sometimes offerings of food and money are also left at these places.
Here and there in Tuva are special trees with multiple trunks coming from a single root. The number of trunks is a multiple of three if the tree is to have special significance. At a pass along the road to western Tuva from Kyzyl there is such a tree: one with twelve trunks. It is considered very special and is called a "sharnan's tree." As we pulled off the roadway, we saw an ova on the side of the road and prayer ties in the branches of nearby trees. The shaman's tree here was standing alone in a meadow across the road from where we parked. On our way over to it, it began to rain, accompanied by rolling thunder. The tree was festooned with many ribbons and other offerings. Some of these trees are the abodes of the souls of dead shamans who have remained in the Middle World. They are considered very powerful. Mo recounts the following experience with this shaman's tree that also shows how spontaneous actions can lead to the unexpected.
On that certain day. we were headed for the shaman's tree (Bai Euish), a sacred tree with twelve trunks growing from one root. Those who live in this area feel that their lives are dependent on the life of this tree, and they make offerings to it. It is covered in strips of cloth tied to every branch. Rosa (one of the young Tuvan healers) says that this is the home of her spirit teacher. She says that she sees and talks to her just the way we are talking now. Her teacher is an old woman, dressed in a dark blue cape with holes in it. I ask if she will introduce me to her teacher.
Rosa and I walk to the shaman tree and stand in silence. People are all around us and all around the tree. The other two female shamans who are traveling with us are touching the tree, chanting and singing. As I start to step closer to the tree, Rosa takes my arm and points to the base, and says, "She's there. She is sitting there."
I stay at the tree until everyone leaves to follow Kenin Lopsan to a field nearby, where he begins to lecture on the plants to be found there. I sit for some time next to the place pointed to by Rosa. Nothing much happens. I feel very peaceful. It is a beautiful day, even with the rain.
I wander over to join the group. As I walk through the field, I become transfixed, literally, by a flower that is growing there. It looks like a small purple and gold lily. It hangs upside-down on a long stem. The field is covered with them. The stamens are a rich orange-rust color. My hand reaches out to touch the pollen-laden stamen, and the color paints my fingers. It seems appropriately and deeply correct to paint my face with the pollen, just for the fun of it. I see a branch has been broken off with three flowers on it. I take them with me. We pick no flowers here. Tuvans hold that when a wild flower is picked, a child dies. As I join the group, really into this thing now, I paint stripes on the faces of Norman, Larry, Bill, and Gaby (Gabriele). Kenin is telling a story. It is the story of the Golden Eye Flower: the flower I have in my hand! When a marriage took place with a member of a far-distant tribe, this flower was the symbol of the connection, promising good will and pure intent.
Rosa tells me later that her teacher was very glad to meet me, and she saw her teacher come into my body and swirl all around me.Sleeping in a Yurt and Healing the Land
After a long, bumpy ride following a track across the steppe, we arrived at a remote location in western Tuva just as night fell. The two yurts that were to be our overnight quarters were situated among green hills overlooking a majestic valley. Our arrival stimulated the usual warm milk offering and the demise of a sheep. Treated to yet another large meal with its accompanying araká and other distilled spirits, we were hosted in the best Tuvan fashion. Our Foundation party and five Tuvans were together in one yurt. The Norwegians and the rest of the Tuvans were in the other. So many bodies together gave the yurt a special "animal" intimacy. The small wood stove made the space cozy. Positioned like spokes of a wheel, we settled into the earthen floor in bedding secured from a hotel, and slept. Before morning the lack of a fire in the stove showed us how cool nights are on the central Asian steppe, even in the summer. Gaby, a light sleeper, reported that "during the night there was terrible noise: outside from straying pigs and dogs, and inside from snoring companions."
The morning broke chilly and indistinct for those of us up early not quite enough light to photograph the still sleeping yurts against their backdrop of steep hills. With the full light of day, life returned to the camp. After breakfast we ascended a large hill (called "white mountain" by us because of its outcropping of white quartz) looming over the yurts and conducted a drumming to heal the land. We had been asked to do this blessing ceremony there. The drumming was very powerful for me. I could feel all the "nations" being carried along with us there by the pulsing drums that beat as one. I felt this intensely. I flew out over the Earth and then to the Sun, who gave me a message of love and healing to be shared. Mo's experience on this sacred hilltop bears repeating too.
From where I was sitting, the horizon was literally a circle. I had never seen that before. I knew this was an important day for me. This ritual was about land. This ritual was about drums. This was my ritual. In the circle, with all of us together, I began to drum a certain rhythm and sing. And it was as if something cracked open inside me and moved through me. The Tuvan shamans, Moon Heart and Pauline, drummed in sync with us for the first time. The circle pulsed together. It was a beautiful experience, having a visceral sense of the miracle of our coming together in this remote place, for this particular ritual, from Austria, California, Minnesota, Finland, Canada, Norway, and many places in Tuva.
Rosa says that she saw an amazing sight during the ritual. From every person, plant, and animal on the hilltop, a shaman, dressed in white emerged in the center and began to dance clockwise around the circle. Each dancing shaman had a yellow (or shiny orange) disc on its chest and ribbons falling from multicolored sleeves. There was an eagle-feather headdress and snakes were coming out of the top of the arms. She saw many black cords coming from each shaman's back. She told me, "As you began to sing, your face changed, and a spirit came through you. Your face became red and was surrounded by yellow feathers." Although at first uncertain, she concluded that the spirit had come from the sun.
We were joined on the top of the hill by our Tuvan colleagues, members of the families hosting us in their yurts, and people from other yurts in the area. We were also visited by a local shaman named Oorzak Sagan, who said. "Last night. I heard the drums in my heart, and I knew I was to come."
The son of the master of the yurt in which we stayed had been sent to get him, but met him in the forest, already halfway to where we were. He was very supportive of the work we did in this place, saying that the blessing we did here would spread across the land. He also predicted some of us would return to Tuva. Kenin Lopsan called this ritual and others we conducted "initiations." He vowed to join us in our circle after this one.
A Shaman's Grave
In the western part of Tuva, near the towns of Kyzyl Mazalyk and Ak-Dovurak, there is a reminder of the special place shamans hold in Tuvan culture. There, at the base of an enormous hill, is the grave of a shaman. As if keeping a vigil, the grave dominates the area visually. The shaman's earthly remains rest in a rectangular wooden box supported by four wooden posts. The lower jawbone of a bear shares the scaffold with the shaman's bleached bones. A weathered drum stick has fallen to the ground beneath the airy grave.
Please consider joining the Circle and receive the Foundation's journal, the Shamanism Annual as part of your benefits.
You may also be interested in these CD and Videos: