What is White Month?

Rinpoche Bagsa Temple lit up in white fire to celebrate White Month.

Rinpoche Bagsa Temple lit up in white fire to celebrate White Month.

The White Month holiday (Sagaalgan), emerged from nomadic culture on the steppes of Mongolia. Originally it was celebrated in autumn, when the production of so many milk-based foods which saw the nomads through the rigors of winter, drew to a close. White Month therefore features “White foods”, which are of course milk based. These foods include: Airag – fermented mares milk, YUM! Salamat – sour cream mixed with flour and fried. It is to die for! Sour cream, cottage cheese, cheese similar to Brinza, and Tarasoon, “milk vodka” all fall into the white food group. You must not forget Buuz, the crowning culinary treat in Buryat culture.

Glorious homemade buuz crafted by us in celebration of White Month.

Glorious homemade buuz waiting for the steam pot. Lovingly crafted by us in celebration of White Month.

With the influence of Buddhism waxing in the 1700’s among the peoples of the steppe, the holiday was moved to the first month of the Lunar Year. Sagaalgan starts on a different date every year depending on when the first new moon of the year falls, which makes it a “nomadic holiday” on the calendar. It can start anytime beginning in mid-January to roughly mid-March.

Before the White Stupa. A woman pays her respects on the first day of White Month (Sagaalgan), or the Lunar New Year at the Hamgyn Hureh Temple in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia.

Before the White Stupa. A woman pays her respects on the first day of White Month (Sagaalgan), or the Lunar New Year at the Hamgyn Hureh Temple in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia.

Because of the change, Sagaalgan is now the celebration of the lunar New Year. The ideas of a clean start, and cleansing oneself from the sins of the last year fit in nicely with the idea of White Month. White itself is a “color” that represents peace and good fortune in the family according to Buryat belief. So turning from sins to a clean start should bring peace and a better future to the family.

Casting dough full of last year's sin into the prepared bonfire.

Casting dough full of last year’s sin into the prepared bonfire.

The people's collected sins awaiting the first sparks of the "Cleansing Fire". (Дугжууба (Dugzhooba) The Cleansing Fire. What does this have to do with cold? It was -30 C out. Even in my fur and feathers (down) After being out for hours, I was COLD. This is a ritualistic fire into which Buddhists throw dough which they have rolled ov

The people’s collected sins awaiting the first sparks of the “Cleansing Fire”. (Dugzhooba)

At roughly the same time at all the Buddhist temples across the city, bonfires flare up to pierce the frigid night sky.

At roughly the same time at all the Buddhist temples across the city, bonfires flare up to pierce the frigid night sky.

Lamas return to the temple after completing the ritual burning of sins.

Lit by flare of fireworks, lamas return to the temple after completing the ritual burning of sins.

On the evening before Lunar New Year begins, people gather at their local temple for the ritual of Dugzhooba, (Дугжууба) or, the “Cleansing Fire”. This event will make quite an impression on any person who manages to wait out the cold to see all the sins of last year burn in a bonfire. Through out the day leading up to the lighting of the fire, people visit the temple to pray and throw bags of dough into the bonfire. The dough is mixed at home and rolled over the body to collect the sins of the last year. This year while watching people approach the fire, I noticed several take dough out of their purse or pocket, and dab off any uncleanliness or sin they may have collected on their feet on the way to the temple. They then cast it amongst the straw and wood to be burned later.

Worshipers pray as they circle the remains of the fire.

Worshipers pray as they circle the remains of the fire.

Visiting family is a vital part of White Month. Buryats value their family connections. Relatives that people in the west would consider distant, are close relatives to the Buryats. Much of White Month, which truly is a month long celebration, is spent visiting relatives. Gifts are exchanged and the prerequisite white foods are set upon tables across the Buryat homeland. Laughter abounds at the table as families catch-up, feast and admire any new babies who have made their appearance. Cup after cup of tea disappears in between toasts to the New Year and health of the family. And just when you think everyone has had their fill, another round of eating and toasting begins! (And then, yet another!)

A young lama in training smiles after an all night vigil of prayer at the Ivolginsk temple the night before the beginning of Sagaalgan.

A young lama in training smiles after an all night vigil of prayer at the Ivolginsk temple the night before the beginning of Sagaalgan.

Look for part B of this post coming soon to a blog near you. Here is a teaser:

Sagaalgan Adventures

The pocket into which I had (safely?) slid my passport was EMPTY! After triple confirmation, I quickly scanned the faces of the Buddhist supplicants crushing in from all sides…

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The Gates of Sagaalgaan

Entry gate to the Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude, all done up Buryat style. Another fine example of Steppe Bling.

Entry gate to the Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude, all done up Buryat style. Another fine example of Steppe Bling.

The gates of Sagaalgaan (White Month) are about to open! White Month is celebrated across the Southern Siberian steppe, Mongolia and parts of China where ever the remnant people of Genghis Khan’s great empire reside. Known as Shagaa in Tuva, Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia and Chagan Sar in Kalmykia, and Sagaalgaan in Buryatia, White Month hastens in the first month of the Lunar New Year. I am not sure what the Lunar New Year is called across the rest of Asia, but it is celebrated throughout Asia. If you know what the Lunar New Year is called in Korea, Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, India, China, or any other Asian country, please leave me a comment below!

Serpant Khan; lord of the Lunar New Year.

Serpant Khan; lord of the Lunar New Year.

This is the year of the snake, which explains this giant ice serpent lording itself over Soviet Square in the center of Ulan-Ude. As the New Year approaches, you always know what next years Wild Kingdom representative (shout out to Marlin Perkins!) will be, as images of it materialize everywhere in plastic, plush, poster, and confection. I was severely tempted to purchase snake embellished porcelain tea cups several days back. I bet your grandmother does not have porcelain ware with snakes in her hutch.

White Month is sure to be a grand month-long celebration. There will be family to visit and feast with, concerts to attend, ceremonies at local Buddhist temples, Shamanistic rituals, and white foods (any milk product, and mutton counts as a white meat) consumed by the stomach-full. White Month also serves to welcome the spring sun to the steppe. (We are in the fit of a cold spell with lows in the -40’s.) After February, it’s all downhill to summer, only March, April and May remain between hardy Siberians and the God blessed month of June!

Stay tuned to this White channel, where I will endeavor to introduce to you the joys, foods and spiritual perspectives of the Buryat during White Month. (Previous years White Month posts: 1. Melody of the Western Buryats, 2. White Month, and 3. Buryat Dance Troupe Ulaalzai.) And, for your enjoyment, images from White Month across the Mongolian World!

Tuva

Shamans lead a ritual during Shagaa in Kyzyl, Tuva. (Alexander Kryazhev RIA Novosti)

Shamans lead a ritual during Shagaa in Kyzyl, Tuva. (Alexander Kryazhev RIA Novosti)

Buddhist Ritual Dance for Shagaa in Kyzyl, capital of Tuva. (found on Sib-infor.ru)

Buddhist Ritual Dance for Shagaa in Kyzyl, capital of Tuva. (found on Sib-infor.ru)

Kalmykia

Traditional steppe greeting with white silk for an honored guest. Kalmykia. (Nikolai Boshev, Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Traditional steppe greeting with white silk for an honored guest. Kalmykia. (Nikolai Boshev, Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Dancers celebrate Tsagaan Sar in the capital city of Kalmykia, Elista. (Nikolai Boshev Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Dancers celebrate Tsagaan Sar in the capital city of Kalmykia, Elista. (Nikolai Boshev, Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Worshipers gather in the main Temple in Elista. (SaveTibet.ru)

Worshipers gather in the main Temple in Elista. (SaveTibet.ru)

Mongolia

State ceremony in honor of Tsagaan Sar. I believe the man in the center is the former President of Mongolia. (my.englishclub.com)

State ceremony in honor of Tsagaan Sar. I believe the man in the center is the former President of Mongolia. (my.englishclub.com)

Trading snuff bottles, an old tradition with Mongolian peoples. (my.englishclub.com)

Trading snuff bottles, an old tradition with Mongolian peoples. (my.englishclub.com)

Melody of the Western Buryats

“We love to perform. We are always happy to spend time with people and share our culture, even if it means we will be cold, or miss a few meals. A lot of us are older, and it can be difficult, but we love what we do so we stay ready.” Natalya Nikolaevna of Ayanga.

Warm melody for a winters day.

The first time I chanced upon Ayanga was brilliant February day. While the sun was beaming, it was not warm, so our hardy singers were bundled against the cold. Oh! How their Buryat carol hung in the chill, thawing heart if not toes. Colorfully furbished warblers gathered about a crackling fire to sing, make Salamat (fried sour cream, yumm!) and wish every soul present a Happy Sagaalgan. Sagaalgan, which means “White Month”, is the main holiday of the Buryat people, and the first month of the lunar calendar, that is the New Year.

Another song while we wait for the sour cream to fry up in the kettle.

One of the singers invited me to attend a rehearsal, where I watched Ayanga’s (Ayanga means Melody in Buryat) preparations for the climax of Sagaalgan; the public concert at the end of White Month here in Irkutsk. I sat and chatted with them, laughing at their humorous view on life, and wondering at the fascinating tales they wove. Buryats laugh, and it is easy to laugh with them.

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Last week I was able to sit down with Natalya Nikolaevna to hear about the history and development of Ayanga. Buryat culture has made a real resurgence here in Irkutsk. In the last decade many Buryats have moved into our city from the countryside. At the onset of this wave of migration, Natalya Nikolaevna and four other Buryats in October of 1998 came together to form the nexus of what was to become Ayanga. Their idea: To save and teach Buryat language, dance, song and culture so that it doesn’t disappear. “Ten years ago, we didn’t know our culture very well. We weren’t prepared to present it in capably,” said Natalya. In the ensuing years they found other Buryats who had a living knowledge of their traditions, and with their help learned the proper techniques for voice inflection in song and authentic yohors (Buryat circle dances) instead of those developed for the stage.

It is traditional for Buryats to greet guests with silk of white or blue.

It is traditional for Buryats to greet guests with mare's milk in bowls and silk of white or blue. A deep bow of respect to you ladies!

Intermission Yohor instruction for the audience.

Most any festival in the Irkutsk Province, Buryat or Russian, will boast a performance by Ayanga. With twenty-four members, including a number of young people, they have garnered awards for representing their culture. Third place in 2006 and 2008 at Altargana, Biannual International Buryat Festival and second place at Altargana 2010. “Next year we will be shooting for first place!” smiles Natalya.

We’ll be keeping our eyes on you Ayanga.

hайниие xγсэхэ! Best wishes!

Picasso, I dedicate this picture to you and your Blue Period. On stage at the Sagaalgan 2011 concert in Irkutsk.

Ayanga 2011.

White Month: Buryat Dance Troupe Ulaalzai

In our last post, I showcased the Buryat Dance Troupe, “Ulaalzai” (Blooming wild lily). The very same dances I photographed have been posted on You Tube!  So here is a link to their performances. If anyone doubted the near blinding colors of traditional Buryat  dress in my photographs, these clips shall prove their authenticity! ;)

You are welcome, Baikal Nature, for the free advertisement. Baikal Nature is a local tour firm.

This dance is called a Yohor (not Yekhor!), the traditional circle dance of the Buryat people.

White Month

Passing the glass for a celebratory drink.

White Month (Sagaalgan), the most important holiday of the Buryat people is upon us! Together with the rest of the Asian world, the Buryats’ celebrate the lunar New Year, which kicks off White Month. White Month is celebrated by visiting family and friends, having guests over and eating white foods. White foods are milk based and include salamat, fried sour cream mixed with flour, cottage cheese, and aarsa which is a milk drink made from a fermented milk base cooked together with fresh milk. The results are a somewhat sour yet tasty beverage.

Why the emphasis on white you ask? Learn more about that in a later post. Until then, enjoy these photos from a celebration of Sagaalgan near Irkutsk put on by the Center for the Protection and Development of the Buryat Ethnos.

Gettin' their Buryat dance on!

Meditative moment.

Western Buryats serenade the gathered witnesses.

This young man is dipping his finger in his tea to drip some upon the ground as a sacrifice.

If you think Siberia is only cold, grey and icy, think again!

The color and movement is enchanting.

Buryat maidens strike a pose for the local news crews.