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Yuriy Sangadzhiev, About the Felt Yurt

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Terbish, Baasanjav 
Churyumova, Elvira 


Yuriy is the director of the Museum of Nomadic Culture in Elista which is housed in a traditional yurt. He talks about the structure of the yurt. The yurt’s wooden parts are made from the willow tree. The yurt can be assembled quickly, in an hour and half. The yurt consists of a wooden wall (term) and poles (unin). The Russian word for prison ‘tyurma’ derives from the Kalmyk word ‘term’. In the past, the unin poles in the yurts of ordinary people were of red, orange or yellow color. The nobility, by contrast, could have green poles. Yurts were made by men. Yurts differ in terms of size. For example, it is said that the yurt in which Chingis Khan held meetings could house up to 2,000 people. The wealthy people covered their yurts with white felt, whereas the poor had grey or black felt. The centre of the yurt is occupied by the roof ring (kharach). The doorstep of the yurt is high and it is forbidden to touch it with a leg when one steps over it. The height of the door is relatively small so that people have to bow when entering it, as if bowing to the altar inside. In the past, all yurts had an altar. Buddhism started to spread among the Kalmyks in the 17th century. Before then the Kalmyks were shamans. The left-hand side of the yurt is the men’s area where men’s implements are kept. The right-hand side belongs to women. Food, cutlery, a bed and a cradle are in that part of the yurt. Near the altar is situated baran, a structure which consists of several chests put on top of each other. The most valuable things are stored there. The yurt is divided into 12 sections or areas, according to the 12-animal lunar calendar. For example, the door, which faces north, is situated in the horse area of the yurt. In contrast with the Mongol yurt, the Kalmyk one does not have the poles that support the roof ring. Hence the Kalmyk yurt is high, reaching up to four meters. In the past, in winter its height was shortened for heat saving purposes. In summer the yurt was heightened up again so that the rain droplets did not remain on the roof. The yurt weighs 650 kilograms, and can be carried by a couple of camels. When the Kalmyks lived in yurts, on average any yurt housed five people, including parents and their three children. When sons grew up, they assembled their own yurt behind their parent’s one. By looking at the number of yurts in a nomadic settlement one could estimate the size and wealth of that family. Guests, especially old people, were seated in the most respectable area, which is the opposite side from the door. Guests were offered dairy products, including yoghurt, kumis (fermented mare’s milk) or milk vodka. All meals started with a cup of tea.



Architecture, yurt, museum, nomadism

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Sponsored by Arcadia Fund, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.