I first met Rysgul at our hotel where she works in sales. It was a fleeting moment and our paths didn’t cross again until a recent cocktail evening. I was immediately struck by her warmth and we chatted easily. When I asked what her name meant, Rysgul replied, “It means ‘kind flower.” Her name suits her perfectly; she has a modest grace and classic Kazakh beauty, embodied in dark enchanting eyes and long, glossy black hair.
“I’m a newlywed,’ she happily announced early into our conversation. After congratulating her, I steeled myself to ask the question, curiosity getting the better of me. “Did you marry a ‘prince of the hearth?’ “I did,” Rysgul beamed, “so yes, I now live with my husband and his parents.’ I was referring to the Kazakh tradition of the youngest son taking the role of ‘prince of the hearth.’ It is his duty to live with and care for his parents. When one marries ‘the prince’ custom dictates that the bride moves to his childhood home. This new extended family isn’t for a month or a year; it’s a life long commitment. Rysgul explained that she was raised to respect this tradition and is proud, as is her family, that she’s now in this role. When I ventured that this would be considered unusual in many Western cultures, she did not waver or appear to desire it any other way.
Rysgul is a modern woman, yet committed to traditions that bind this area of Kazakhstan together, more so than other parts of the country. “I’d love to hear more about your culture,” I said, ‘and of course your wedding. I’m also curious about your striking wedding jackets and the unique hats you wear.’ Having noticed countless weddings at the hotel, the premier venue in the city, the questions were already forming in my mind.
“Yes the kamzol and saukele, we could do an interview if you’d like?” Rsygul responded graciously. What followed the next day was a delightful two-hour conversation and an outing to the award winning showroom, Nur Shah. It was an unexpected insight into the journey of a modern day bride, one that is still very much layered with tradition.
Where did you meet your husband Rysgul, how long were you engaged?
We met in a nightclub though neither of us were particularly in the mood to be there. We dated for about four years, but once you get engaged here it all happens quickly. In Kazakh tradition, a group from the boy’s family visits his girlfriend’s parents, they sip tea and eventually ask for her hand in marriage. A female relative of the hopeful groom adorns the girl with golden earrings. This means the girl is now taken, engaged. My fiancé offered a diamond ring as well. A day was agreed upon and it was official. Typically, an engagement is only 2 to 3 months.
Is anything given to the groom’s family?
Yes, depending on the status of the family, some money is given. It’s like a dowry to compensate for what the groom’s side has spent on new furniture, houseware, bedding items and carpets. There was once the tradition of giving 47 head of cattle for a bride. This has transformed into presenting a korzhun, a traditional bag with 47 various gifts inside. The bags are decorated with coins, rings and bead necklaces. They are passed down within the family. There are two wedding ceremonies, the first is for me as a send off, which was here at the hotel. All of my friends were here and my husband’s siblings.
Is that when you wear the beautiful kamzol and the saukele?
Yes, the traditional part of the wedding is when I wore the national dress or kamzol. I felt like a princess. The silver jewellery is also important, kind of good luck charms. That’s also when my braids were displayed.
Tell me about that, the knee-length hair that many young Kazakh women have.
It is the custom, if possible, to grow our hair to this length at least until we get married. It’s considered very feminine and beautiful. Yet when we do reveal it, we should off-set it with big bows or even bells, so as to not appear vain.
Will you cut your hair now that you’re married?
I might, maybe, but my husband doesn’t want me to, it’s well… (Rysgul chuckled coyly as her words tailed off)
I’m sure it looks stunning, to say the least. Is it shown at home?
Only to my husband. When I get home, my outer image changes. I go into my room and change into a caftan type dress, a white kimishek* covers my hair and we always cover our feet. It’s then time to cook the evening meal which I do gladly. My mother in-law will get started if I’m delayed.
So your ‘first wedding’ is traditional. Is it after this you begin life in your new home?
Yes, there was a ceremony after the wedding party, we entered the home to singing and dancing. It’s the custom that my new sisters in-law put a kimishek on my head as I kneel down. A fabric threshold hangs behind us which is white, but a woven red fabric is then draped over that, symbolizing the new marriage. This ‘artifact’ hangs in the home until I become pregnant. That evening there was also a dombra player who offered marital advice through music and prose.
It sounds lovely, and the second wedding?
That was the next day, Western style, when I wore a white gown that I designed. That wedding was in my hometown. I’m not from Aktau, but my husband is from this area – from the Adai clan. They’re more traditional, from the Mangistau area and very respected. We try to marry from neighbouring clans, but you must prove that your family lines are separated by seven generations. (I remember reading that it has always been shameful not to know your family lineage that far back. It dates back to the days of Genghis Khan when they were recited in verse.)
Is there a ceremony at the mosque? Did you have a honeymoon? Was it difficult, adjusting to joining his family home?
The blessing at the mosque can be done beforehand. No, we don’t typically have a honeymoon and for me it was quite natural to make the change. Every morning I greet my in-laws with a type of curtsy and a cupped hand gesture, as tradition calls for. (I had noticed this Sufi symbol of a blessing depicted in an ancient mosque and often see references to it.) But I’m able to be independent and still work, however some brides that are younger may be required to stay in the home. The foundation of our culture is respect for elders, this is ingrained in our tradition.
Your family must miss you Rysgul?
Yes, but I see them often and soon it is the three month mark. They will come to my new home for the final ceremony and bring my dishes and household goods that I’ve collected. Also, my in-laws will give a present to my mother, an acknowledgement that their daughter is now with a new family.
Is there one special present or does if vary?
Well, it depends on social status but in our case, it will be a fur coat.
Gosh how lovely. Is that the reason so many women here wear fur coats? I’ve never seen so many gorgeous furs.
Yes, it’s one reason and by that time in life, having a fur conveys a certain status.
Very interesting. Tell me, is there any chance that having gold teeth was once a status symbol?
(I allude to the many men and women here in their 50’s or older that have golden teeth. They’re often conscious that this is no longer ‘in fashion’ and hide their smiles.) Yes, exactly, that’s what it was. People melted down their jewellery to have it converted to gold teeth.
Do you plan to have children?
But of course and as you know, we are fortunate as the grandparents help raise their grandchildren. We don’t have to worry about child care.
One last question. How does your society react when a Kazakh woman marries a foreigner?
My parents would have been heartbroken, probably wouldn’t have allowed it in some way, but I do know a few friends who have. They love their husbands and lead a different life. But to a certain extent, they’ve walked away from our proud culture; I could never have done that.
Late the next afternoon, as promised, Rysgul is waiting, ready for our rendezvous. She directs the hotel driver to Nur Shah, the acclaimed showroom. As we make our way in the rush hour traffic, I’m told that we’re going to the preferred place to buy kamzols for a ‘first wedding’ or for celebrations. The showroom began as a small home business, but the exquisite designs have now become status symbols.
When we arrive at the nondescript building, its drabness surprises me. It offers no hint of the sumptuous atmosphere inside. “It’s our custom when you enter a place for the first time, that one should make a wish.” Rysgul tells me as she holds the door for me to step inside. A massive chandelier hangs in the centre of the room, illuminating a large Persian carpet on the marbled floor. My eye is immediately drawn to the array of exquisite kamzols and elegant dresses. They’re resplendent with glittering stones, jewels and intricate design work that intertwine symbols of swans necks, flowers, even the horns of mouflon sheep.
Here, a woman’s beauty is compared to the graceful curves of a swan and as they mate for life, their likeness is the inspiration for the ever present motif. Stitching on garments and hats also echoes the past, but Nur Shah has expertly incorporated an intriguing modern flair. I can well imagine the excitement a bride to-be must feel as she enters this feast of wedding indulgences.
Nurbibi, the lovely assistant, kindly allows me to try on a number of Kamzols. They feel elegant and sensual. I sense the tradition the garment embodies. As much as I admire the saukeles, the pointed hats perch on the upper shelves suggesting they are too valuable to try on, they remain firmly out of reach. The bejewelled ones are breathtaking and if you’re fortunate enough to have been married in one, you will proudly display it in your home. Typically, fabric saukeles either have a fur-like plumage or the more expensive ones feature owl feathers.
The saukele fascinates me. I’ve read that tribes called “tigrahauda” (wearing pointed hats) once occupied vast territories of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan. In the 1970’s, Kazakh archeologists found an undisturbed burial place of a Saka chief from the 5th century BC. His clothes were covered with golden plates and he wore a tall ‘golden headdress.’ Similarly, something akin to the present day Kazakh saukele is depicted on two ancient golden belt buckles. Both men and women wore this tall, pointed headgear.
Almost two and a half thousand years separate these treasures, yet the Kazakh saukele is still an important element of a wedding ceremony. I ask Nurbibi how long a bride normally takes to choose an ensemble. Rysgul translates to me that it can take as long as a year, but usually a month. “Yes indeed, how would you ever decide!” I say.
“Will you please give my sincere thanks to Nurbibi for allowing me this opportunity, it’s been such a pleasure.” When this is translated, Nurbibi returns the sentiment, a warm smile on her enchanting face. The subtle elegance of these ladies is in perfect harmony with the luxurious items that adorn the showroom… evocative in their modest, yet beguiling beauty.
As we bid farewell and step back outside into dusk, Rysgul asks me if I had made a wish when we entered. “Yes I certainly did,” I assure her with a smile. And indeed I had. I wished this lovely new bride every happiness there is, with perhaps a newborn ‘prince of the hearth’ and a little ‘princess’ as well.
* The kimishek is the traditional white scarf that a married woman wears in the home and elderly women in public. They are often embellished with decoration. Once banned when Kazakhstan was under Soviet rule, the Kazakhs have embraced them again since regaining independence in 1991.