Zul is a national holiday to commemorate the ascent of Zongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelugpa school of Buddhism, to nirvana. Prior to Zul the Kalmyks go to the monasteries for a ritual called nas uttullhn to prolong life. The holiday itself is celebrated on the 25th day of the month of the cow, according to the lunar calendar. On this day prayers, including those dedicated to Zongkhapa, are recited in all monasteries across Kalmykia. This holiday is called zul, which in Kalmyk means candle, because on this day people light candles as an offering to their great Buddhist teacher.
Zul is equivalent to New Year’s Day in that it marks the first day of a new year. On this day all Kalmyks make a number of candlewicks (zulyn gol) according to their age and place them on small boats made of dough. Both candles and the candlewicks on the boat are lit up when the first stars appear in the sky. On this day all Kalmyks add a year to their age.
During Zul people are encouraged to perform good deeds, wish each other well, and abstain from alcohol and meat products. In the morning Kalmyks brew traditional tea (dzhomba) and bake traditional biscuits (bortsg). Before partaking of food, fresh tea and some biscuits, which are the main food of the day, are placed on the altar as an offering. It is believed that the aroma of the biscuits drives all the bad and negativity from the house and brings good luck and prosperity.
Five to six days after Zul, the Kalmyks celebrate the arrival of the 'master of the year' (jilin ezn). In order not to place obstacles in his way, the Kalmyks do not take out rubbish for several days after Zul. During the celebration of jilin ezen, families invite their older relatives to their homes and congratulate the men on being a year older. During this period people try to avoid making long journeys.
Baatr Mandzhiev, About Zul
Bosya talks about Zul and a ritual to prolong one’s life. Candlewicks made of feather grass are placed in a small boat-shaped container made of dough. For children between the ages of 3 and 4, the number of candlewicks has to be more than their age by 2 to 3 candlewicks. The ritual begins when the first stars appear in the sky and it has to be performed by a man, not a woman. The performer steps out of the house first with his right leg and once outside utters, ‘You, gods, see and hear us. We are prolonging the lives of our children’. Then he prays to gods as well as to spirits. Finally he gives well-wishes.
Bosya Ochirova, About Zul
Galina says that before Zul she performs a ritual for prolonging life in her family. In the morning, she makes two types of traditional biscuits and Kalmyk tea and offers them to gods. Then she offers tea to astral objects by sprinkling it to the skies while standing with her right leg outside the house and her left leg still inside the house. She holds the cup with tea in her right hand. She says that some people also use milk for this ritual.
Galina Mandzhieva, About Zul
During Zul people add a year to their age. It is believed that during this holiday the lama Tsongkapa descends from the skies. People congratulate each other, make biscuits, tea and offer food to gods. Garya says that different clans celebrate Zul differently. For example, among the Noynakhn clan, of which Garya is a member, families make small boats from dough for each of their members. The next day the dough boats are fried in butter and eaten. Younger members of the family come to pay respect to their elders.
Garya Naminov, Zul
In his childhood, Ivan recalls, they made candles in the form of small boats from dough. Such candle-boats were made for each member of his family. Also, two extra candle-boats were made for the ancestors. Grass called betk ovs was erected vertically on each boat-candle. Ivan looked forward to Zul, because the candle-boats that were fried in oil were very delicious. After Zul, men were not supposed to go far from their homes for several days.
Ivan Modunkaev, Zul
Zul is a birthday celebration. Those who are born in the year of the Horse or Sheep need to perform a ritual to prolong their lives. This ritual is done as follows. Make candles in the form of a boat and light them at night when stars appear in the sky. Since it is believed that the Master of the Year migrates 4 days after Zul, it is forbidden to take anything out of the home during this time.
Khechi Sandzhiev, About Zul and Tsagan Sar
Zul is a birthday. On this day, people light candles for themselves at night. Besides this, one special candle with 9 grass stems stuck on it should be dedicated to the goddess Okn Tengri.
During Tsagan Sar people are supposed to pay visits to their elders and congratulate them on the holiday. People should not forget to pay a visit to their parents-in-law, which is very important. In the past, it was forbidden to enter the house of one’s parents-in-laws bare footed or without a hat. Out of respect, the visitors were supposed to hold the hand of their in-laws with both hands and bow. It was also forbidden to sit on their bed during a visit.
Ksenia Konchieva, Zul and Tsagan Sar
Zul is a holiday dedicated to the lama Tsongkapa. It is celebrated on the 25th day of the month of the Mouse. The Kalmyks have always celebrated this holiday, even during the exile years (1943-1957). Before the holiday people are supposed to clean and tidy up their homes, in particular their domestic altars. This holiday is celebrated with traditional biscuits and tea. Gods should be also offered food and tea. An important part of Zul involves the making of candle-boats from dough to prolong one’s life. The candle-boats should have grass stems stuck on them, the number of which is equal to the age of the person for whom the candle-boat is dedicated plus 1 or 2 extra stems. For example, if the person is 20, his/her candle-boat should have 21 or 22 grass stems. Then the candle-boats should be filled with hot, melted butter. Apart from this, an extra candle should be prepared with 9 grass stems dedicated to 9 Buddhas. It is the men’s job to make candle-boats. In the morning of Zul, people go to the nearest Buddhist temple to listen to prayers. They carry tea with them. After the prayers, the consecrated tea is brought back home. After a domestic celebration, the parents give their children sweets, biscuits and utter well-wishes (in the past children received white and yellow coins symbolizing prosperity and luck).
During Zul, in the evening a man opens the door and steps out with his right leg, while standing with his left leg inside the house. In his right hand, he holds a candle and utters, ‘Oh, the great Tsongkapa! Behold, we are all celebrating Zul. Let all people live in peace and health and let all living beings live and multiply’. The man can ask gods whatever he wants.
In the past people did not drink alcohol nor eat meat during Zul. It was also customary to put on new clothes. Women celebrated their birthdays on the day of Zul. In contrast, men celebrated their birthdays in 7 days. The first 3 days following Zul were considered to be sacred. During this period men were not supposed to leave their homes. The 1st day following Zul was considered to be the day of the Master of the Year. The 2nd day – that of Noyon and the 3rd day – that of animals. It was also forbidden to take out anything from the home during these three days in order not to create obstacles for the Master of the Year who was believed to be on the move.
Larisa Shoglyaeva, About Zul
Lidia says that in the past people prepared birthday candles. Also, they made an extra candle with 9 grass stems, cooked tea and made offerings to gods. After 3 days, men celebrated their birthdays. Within 3 days following Zul it was forbidden to take out rubbish.
Lidia Beltrikova, Zul
Maria says that this year is the year of the Sheep and the coming year is that of the Monkey. She congratulates everyone on their birthdays and utters a well-wish.
She also says that unlike today, in the past people used to invite the elderly and ask them to say well-wishes.
In the past, prior to Zul people would prepare birthday candles. The number of grass stems in candles was the same as the age for whom the candle was prepared plus 1 or 2 additional stems. For example, a person who is 28 has to have 29 grass stems in his/her candle.
Tsagan Sar is a holiday of the goddess Green Tara. In the past, the elderly paid visits to all the households in their nomadic camps, uttered well-wishes and blessed everyone. The young celebrated the holiday until the early hours of the next morning. The types of traditional biscuits that were made were khuts, moshkmr, jola, togsh and belg. The elderly gave moshkmr and jola biscuits to their daughters’ children. Those who had sheep, also gave sheep’s legs.
Maria Dordzhieva, About Zul and Tsagan Sar
Maria says that the Kalmyks have always celebrated these two holidays.
Traditionally, at Zul people make birthday candles and pray. These candles, called dendr, are made from dough in the shape of a small boat. The candles are lit when stars appear in the sky. After this ritual, these delicious candles are eaten.
Birthday candles have grass stems stuck on top of them. The height of the grass should be four fingers high. Then the grass stems are wrapped in cotton and covered with hot melted butter. Men celebrate their birthdays 7 days after Zul. It is also believed that the Master of the Year migrates 3 days after Zul.
Maria Erdnieva, How People Celebrated Zul and Tsagan Sar
Maria says that the lama Tsongkapa was born in 1357. His parents were respectable and smart people. From the ages of 2 to 16 Tsongkapa was in Tibet, and at 24 he finished his religious education.
In the past, people prepared for Zul in advance. They collected grasses, dried them, and cut them so that they were 4 fingers long. Then the grass stems were wrapped clockwise with cotton and hot butter was poured on top of them. The number of grass stems on each candle should have been more than the actual age of the dedicatee by 1 or 2 stems. The candles were lit at night. Especially those who were 12, 24, 36 or 48 were supposed to perform this ritual. These birthday candles were supposed to be made by men only. Women were permitted to do only one kind of candle – an extra candle with 9 grass stems dedicated to gods. During Zul people also made offerings to gods in the form of biscuits, sweets and tea. On this day, it was compulsory to fry biscuits so that the house was filled with biscuit smoke.
The candle with 9 grass stems should be lit as follows. While standing indoors, put your right leg outside the house and hold the candle in your right hand. Light the candle, lower your head and pray to god: ‘Let the lives of our children be long and healthy/ Let our life roads be clear and without obstacles/ Let all people live in peace and harmony’. One should stay in this position until the candle burns. Give what remains from the candle to birds.
There is a legend according to which one day the lama Tsongkapa fell ill. His doctor prescribed him Kalmyk tea (with salt, milk and butter). The lama drank the tea for 7 days and recovered. Since then the Kalmyks celebrate Zul and drink Kalmyk tea.
There is a belief that after 3 to 5 days following Zul, the Master of the Year migrates. During this period, it is forbidden to quarrel or take out rubbish.
Maria Kamandzhaeva, How to Celebrate Zul
Maria says on this holiday people fry biscuits, pay visits to their elders and invite others for a celebration. Birthday candles are prepared in advance and lit during Zul at night. It is forbidden to take out rubbish or take money out of the house for 7 days. Men are supposed to stir Kalmyk tea three times with their right hands before offering it to gods.
Maria Mukhlaeva, Zul
Nadvid says that Zul is a holiday dedicated to the lama Tsongkapa who was born in 1357. He died in 1420 and became a Buddha. His real name was Tsutsrhab. The place where he was originally from had a lake called Tsongkapa. That is where his name comes from.
Before Zul people prepare birthday candles from dough. Such candles should be made only for children and not for the elderly. The candles should be lit at night when there are stars in the sky. Every person has his/her own star.
It is also important to fry biscuits and make Kalmyk tea in Tsongkapa’s honor. In the past, wealthy people could cook meat, but no one drank alcohol. In the past vodka was pure and therefore it was okay to sprinkle it on a fire. Today, however, Nadvid does not do this sprinkling ritual, because he does not trust the quality of vodka.
During Tsagan Sar people also fry a variety of biscuits in the form of the moon, birds, the sun etc. Tsagan Sar is considered to be the holiday of the goddess Okn Tengri.
According to a legend, once upon a time there were 5 female goddesses, including Okn Tengri, Green Tara, White Tara, Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri. They were not born from the mortals (as many Buddhist gods did), but came about from prayers. One of the goddesses had to be sent to earth to save the humans from a powerful monster. As the goddesses were not supposed to kill living beings, the one who were to be sent to earth had to take a human form in order to commit a murder. It was Okn Tengri who was given this task. Upon her descent to earth, she killed the wife of the powerful monster and made love with him. Okn Tengri gave birth to the monster’s boy. But she could not kill the boy, because if she had done so the boy would have reincarnated and lived on. In order to exterminate the monster’s offspring once and for all, Okon Tengri resorted to tearing the boy apart. That is why in the iconography this goddess is depicted with a baby in her mouth. By this act the goddess saved the people from the monster’s offspring.
Nadvid Ubushiev, Zul and Tsagan Sar
One has to hold a plate with cooked meat at the door, face the street and utter the following words:
Today we are all celebrating Zul
In honor of Tsongkapa
Let the scent from this hot meal reach our gods
Let our gods bless us!’
Then the utterer should turn around and say as follows:
Oh, gods today we are all celebrating our birthdays
Let all the bad go away and the good come’.
The first prayer is addressed to all gods, whereas the second is dedicated to one’s clan and personal deities.
Nadvid Ubushiev, Zul Well Wishes and Prayers
Nogan says that the ancestors of the Kalmyks did not cook meat but khyalmsh (a dish made from butter and flour) during Zul. The celebratory table was laid with biscuits (khavtkha and togsh varieties) tea and khyalmsh. In the past, only men celebrated their birthdays during Zul. Prior to the holiday, people tidied up their homes and made birthday candles. A special grass was collected, dried and cut 4 fingers long. The grass stems were wrapped with cotton and covered with melted butter. The number of grass stems in candles was more by 1 or 2 stems than the actual age of the person for whom the candle was dedicated. During Zul people visited their relatives, and the elders congratulated younger people. Nogan says that her mother in-law used to wake up early in the morning, make food and invite the elders for a celebration.
A well-wish uttered during Zul is as follows: ‘Let your birthday be happy/ Let your life road be clear and without obstacles/ Let all people live in health and happiness’. During Zul it is forbidden to throw out bones left from meals. Bones should be disposed of by burning.
Nogan Belveeva, Zul
Zul is the birthday of the lama Tsongkapa and of all people. It is believed that 7 days after Zul, the Master of the Year migrates. During this period, it is forbidden to take out ashes from the stove, let alone rubbish. Men are not supposed to leave home.
People prepare birthday candles before Zul. The number of grass stems in the candles should be equal to the years one has lived plus 1 or 2 stems. Celebratory meal includes porridge, bulmg, tea and biscuits. A prayer uttered at Zul is as follows: ‘Oh, great gods, the old year is leaving us and the new year is coming/ Let all our years be long and healthy/ Let Tsongkapa bless our years’.
Olzyata Badmaeva, Zul
Raisa says that before Zul the Kalmyks tidy up their homes, wash clothes and make biscuits. On the day of Zul people wake up early in the morning, make tea, make offerings to gods and read prayers. One should read prayers for three days. Raisa prays to all Buddhist gods as well as to the spiritual masters of lakes, rivers and land. Her personal deity protector is Avalokiteshvara (Aryabal), whom she also prays.
Birthday candles are made from dough and then melted butter is poured on top. The candles are lit after stars appear in the sky. What remains from the candles should not be thrown away but put outside for birds and animals to eat. During this holiday people pay visits to each other and congratulate each other on Zul. On this day, it is forbidden to eat poultry, eggs, fish or pork. Raisa says she eats lamb or beef only. Food varieties consumed during Zul are tea, bulmg, lamb, fruits and biscuits. It is believed that 7 days after Zul, the Master of the Year migrates.
Raisa Bevelikova, About Zul
Roza says she celebrates Zul every year. She goes to the temple and performs a ritual to prolong the lives of her children and close relatives. Before Zul she buys grass stems for birthday candles. For example, last year her son was 27. She stuck 27 + 1 or 2 stems on his candle. She also makes an extra candle with 9 grass stems, which, she heard, should be dedicated to the whole family. In the past, it was Roza’s grandmother who collected grass and cut it to the right length.
Since Roza does not have a husband, she puts on a men’s shirt, puts her right leg outside of her house and utters the following words while holding a candle in her right hand: ‘Let all our children celebrate their birthdays every year/ Let their work be successful’. What remains from the candles should be either eaten or given to the birds.
Roza Khokhlova, Zul
The Kalmyks count one’s age from the time that a person was conceived. Hence during the holiday of Zul Kalmyks add a year to a person’s actual age. Zul is the Kalmyk equivalent of New Year. Zul also has a religious significance. It was on this day that Tsongkapa, the founder of Gelug school, is believed to have attained enlightenment. In this sense, Zul is a double holiday – New Year and the day when the spiritual leader of the Kalmyks attained enlightenment.
In the morning of Zul, the Kalmyks make traditional tea, light candles, cook meat and biscuits and offer food to the gods. The head of the household offers freshly made tea to the ‘master of the year’ (jilin ezn) by sprinkling the offer to the sky. While doing so he should stand with his right leg outside his house and with his left leg inside. On this day people wear new, clean clothes and pay a visit to their relatives. In the evening Kalmyks perform a ritual to prolong one’s life (nasn uttulgn) which is done as follows. First small vessels are prepared which are made from dough and resemble a boat. Then candlewicks are put vertically inside these vessels. The number of vessels should be at least two, depending on whether the family has children. The first vessel is dedicated to the clan protectors (syakusn). The second is dedicated to the spouses (the husband and the wife). The third boat is dedicated to their children. The number of candlewicks should correspond to the age of the family members plus two candles for each person. For example, if the spouses are 30 each, the number of the candlewicks on the second vessel should be 64 (30+2+30+2). These two additional candlewicks symbolize that the life of the person in the ritual has been prolonged. When the candlewicks are erected, the vessels are filled with butter and then the candlewicks are lit. The next day when the candlewicks are already burnt out, the dough from the vessels is used for making pancakes that have to be shared by all members of the family. The ritual of prolonging one’s life is not performed for people over 60 or for those who have great-grandchildren. When Zul finishes the next three days are dedicated to smoking the house with incense. In a fortnight ‘the new master of the year’ is believed to pay a visit to the Kalmyks, while the old one leaves. During this period the interior of houses should be kept clean and without dust, for ‘the new master of the year’ may not see clearly in the dust and skip the offenders without bestowing on them his kishg or merit.
Sangadzhi Kononov, About Zul
Once upon a time the lama Tsongkapa fell ill. No one could help him. But one astrologist told Tsongkapa’s followers to collect leaves, boil them in water and give the tea to their masters to drink it for a month. Tsongkapa recovered. Since then the Kalmyks began to include tea in their offerings to gods.
According to Sergei, Zul is the birthday of the Kalmyk nation and Tsagan Sar is a celebration of New Year.
Tsagan Sar is also an old holiday. Chingis Khan himself celebrated this holiday in autumn when the livestock get fat and milk products are in abundance. Later he began to celebrate Tsagan Sar in spring. In the past, wealthy people put on new clothes, killed animals and invited others for a celebration.
According to Sergei, Ur Sar has a Russian influence. On this day, the Kalmyks make tea, cook meat and invite their relatives to their homes.
Sergei Muchiryaev, About Zul, Tsagan Sar and Ur Sar
The Shajin (Supreme) Lama of Kalmykia says that people often ask him about the upcoming new year. His reply is that people’s futures are in their own hands. He advices the audience to keep faith and have a hope that everything will be good. If people do kind deeds and have the correct motivation, he continues, it is possible to collect buyn (merit). The Kalmyks celebrate five national holidays each year, including Tsagan Sar, Zul, Ur Sar, the Day of the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma and the Descent of Buddha from Heaven. The Kalmyks have celebrated these holidays for centuries and all of them are related to Buddhism. Kalmyk culture, the Shajin Lama points out, is essentially a Buddhist culture.
He also gives advice on how to celebrate Zul. On this day it is important to abstain from alcohol, do good deeds and read mantras for the wellbeing of all living beings. In the end the Shajin Lama congratulates the audience on the holiday of Zul. The prayers read at the Central Temple in Elista include the refuge in the Three Jewels, prayers dedicated to Tsongkapa, as well as prayers praising the good deeds of Tsongkapa, the Buddha and bodhisattvas.
Shajin Lama's Zul Speech
On Zul all Kalmyks celebrate their birthdays. In the morning people light candles, put offerings to gods and read prayers as follows:
Let’s all have a happy birthday
Let all people live in peace and friendship
Let the coming year be even better
Let all people have good health
Let gods bless us all’.
Tatyana Nemzhanova, Zul Bortsg and Well Wishes
Ubush says that Zul is a Kalmyk version of New Year. It is the birthday of the Kalmyk people when all Kalmyks add a year to their actual age. In Kalmyk the word zul also means a candle. Ubush’s grandmother used to make small boat-shaped vessels from potatoes, stick wicks inside them and fill the vessels with hot butter. Apart from being a national birthday, Zul is also regarded as the birthday of the lama Tsongkapa. According to legend, one day the lama fell ill and was treated with Kalmyk tea. He recovered on the day of Zul and told the Kalmyks to drink this tea henceforth. On this day all Kalmyks are reminded of unity and that they belong to one and the same nation.
Ubush Darzhinov, About Zul
Vera says that the Kalmyks celebrate the following holidays: Zul, Tsagan Sar, Ur Sar and Zul. Among them, Zul is a special holiday. It is when people celebrate their birthdays. Before this holiday, people tidy up their homes and burn their old things. Men go to temples and perform a ritual to prolong life.
In the past, the Kalmyks collected grasses in the steppe, dried them and cut them to be 4 fingers long. The birthday candles had to have grass stems the number of which was supposed to be the same as one’s age plus 1 or 2 extra stems. These stems were wrapped in cotton and melted butter was poured on top of them. On the day of Zul it was forbidden to kill animals.
There is a belief that the more visitors one has during Zul, the longer and healthier will that person’s family members live.
Vera says that in the past birthday candles were made from bran mixed with flour. These candles were the shape of small boats. Each family had to make 3 candles. They were lit at night accompanied by prayers. People over 60 might not perform this ritual.
The candle with 9 stalks should be held by people who are born in the years of the Pig, the Rabbit or the Dragon until the candle burns down. This ritual symbolizes that the bad would go away and the good would come. The next day people should head in the direction of the sunrise and put on the ground some candies, biscuits, incenses and vodka. It is believed that 3 days after Zul, the Master of the Year migrates. During this period, it is forbidden to take out stuff from home or give anything to other people.
Zul is a happy holiday when people sing and dance.
Vera Doldaeva, About Zul
Vera says that people should make birthday candles for their boys on Zul. Vera makes the candles from dough and sticks grass stems into them according to the age of her boys plus 1 or 2 additional grass stems. The candles could also be made from potatoes. Traditionally, men celebrated their birthdays 7 days after Zul.
During Tsagan Sar Vera makes tea early in the morning and offers it to the gods.
Vera Tsutaeva, About Zul and Tsagan Sar
Zurgada reminisces that when she was a girl the Kalmyks prepared for both Zul and Tsagan Sar in advance. During these holidays people invited each other into their homes. It was important to pay a visit to one’s parents-in-laws. The elderly women were given biscuits and nutmeg as a gift. Children were also given biscuits, which they would bring home and then go out to get more.