For Kalmyks, Zul is equivalent to New Year’s Day in that it marks the first day of a new year according to Kalmyk lunar calendar. In Kalmyk ‘zul’ means a candle. On this day people make a number of candlewicks (zulyn gol) according to their age and stick them on small boat-shaped candles made of dough. Each person has their own candle. The candles are lit up when the first stars appear in the sky. On this day Kalmyks add a year to their age. According to some local beliefs, however, it is only women and children that add a year to their age on Zul day, whereas men do so a few days after the holiday.
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 (jomba) and bake traditional biscuits (bortsg). Before partaking of food, fresh tea and some biscuits are placed on the altar as an offering to gods and ancestors. It is believed that the aroma of the biscuits drives all the bad and negative things from the house and brings good luck and prosperity.
Given Buddhism is intertwined with every aspect of the life of Kalmyks, Zul is also a holiday to commemorate the birth, life and ascent of Tsongkapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelugpa school of Buddhism, to nirvana. Prior to Zul the Kalmyks go to monasteries for a special ritual called nas uttullgn to prolong life. On the day of Zul itself monasteries carry out prayers, including those dedicated to Tsongkapa, and light candles as an offering to the great Buddhist teacher.
Five to six days after Zul, Kalmyks celebrate the arrival of the Master of the Year (jilin ezn), which is believed to be a ritual of shamanic origin. In order not to create obstacles in his way, Kalmyks do not take out rubbish for several days. During the celebration of jilin ezn, families invite their older relatives to their homes and also congratulate their men on becoming a year older. During this period people try to avoid making long journeys.
A Concert Dedicated to Zul
This video features a concert dedicated to the national holiday of Zul held in Elista in December 2017. The performers are singers and dancers of Oiraty, the state dance theatre of Kalmykia. The concert starts with a religious ceremony performed by the monks from the Central Temple in Elista.
This video features a concert dedicated to the national holiday of Zul held in Elista in December 2017. The performers are singers and dancers of Oiraty, the state dance theatre of Kalmykia. The concert starts with a religious ceremony performed by the monks from the Central Temple in Elista.
A Concert Dedicated to Zul
This video features a lesson dedicated to Zul held at the Russian National Gymnasium in Elista in December 2017.
A Lesson-Concert Dedicated to Zul
Alexandra talks about how she celebrates Zul.
Zul is celebrated on the 25th day of the month of the cow. According to the Gregorian calendar, it falls either at the beginning or middle of December. People fry biscuits, but as far as I remember they do not cook meat. On the table we put butter, sour cream, biscuits, tea, sweets and cookies. We invite guests and they utter well-wishes.
On the eve of Zul we make a candle (tevsh), adding wicks according to the number of years of all family members, plus an additional wick to signify the coming year. As well as that, we also make a second candle.
On the day of Zul, we wake up early in the morning, pray in front of the candle which signifies that we have aged by a year.
Alexandra Sanzheeva, About Zul
Baira talks about Zul and Tsagan Sar.
We always prepared for Zul in advance. We collected and dried the feather grass (tsagan ovsn), which is used for making candlewicks. We made candles in the shape of a boat from dough to perform a ritual of prolonging life. Each candlewick was made by wrapping 4 pieces of grass in cotton. The number of candlewicks was supposed to be equal to the age of the person for whom the candle was dedicated. Of course, in each locality, this was done differently. In our region, for example, people older than 60 put only 3 wicks in their candles. Those who were younger added from 1 to 3 candlewicks to their candles on top of the designated number of candlewicks that matched their age. This was done with a mentality of ‘just in case’.
Old people always said that if a child was born before Zul, then he/she is not a year, but 2 years old. I have an uncle named Zula, because he was born during Zul. The name Tsagan could be given to those born during Tsagan Sar.
So, when the first stars appeared in the sky, the boat-shaped candles, filled with butter, were lit. When the holiday was over, these candles, which were made from dough, were rolled and baked as cakes.
My husband is Torghut, and his aunt makes an extra candle with 9 wicks on top of the required ones. Since it is their tradition, she taught me to do so. Now I do such extra candle myself. I do not know what this extra candle is for, but since I was told to do so, I just do.
I do not know which bortsg varieties to make during Zul. But during Tsagan Sar we always divided the bortsg biscuits that we made among relatives i.e. one set for older relatives, another for younger. We, children, strung biscuits and carried them to relatives. I remember that the following varieties were not supposed to be offered to gods: khorkha (symbolizing insects), shovun (symbolizing birds) and galuna baasn (symbolizing goose’s excrements). For gods we offered the following biscuits: tselvg (symbolizing the sun), huts (symbolizing sheep or small cattle), togsh (symbolizing a pond or lake), zhola (reins), kit (symbolizing the edible guts of horses), moshkmr (symbolizing edible guts of cattle) and temyan (camel). These seven varieties were offered to gods during Tsagan Sar. Biscuits associated with birds such as shovun and galuna baasn, as I said, are not included in these offerings, but we made them anyway, since these biscuits symbolize the arrival of spring. I remember how everyone loved making galun baasn. In my childhood we went to visit each other all day. Today we do not celebrate this holiday as widely as we used to.
Baira Goryaeva, Kalmyk Holidays: Zul and Tsagan Sar
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
Bulgun briefly talks about how Tersk Kalmyks celebrated Zul and Tsagan Sar.
During Zul, we used to put candles on a shovel and push it into the oven so that the smoke went out through the chimney. After Siberia, I was told that if I did not have a stove in my house I should take my baked candles to the street so that gods could see them. These were rites that we, Tersk Kalmyks, did differently from other Kalmyks groups. Otherwise, we celebrated Zul similarly to other Kalmyks.
During Tsagan Sar we made bortsg biscuits (tselvg and huts varieties). Shape-wise, we also made biscuits resembling domestic animals. We loved to sing, dance and play cards.
Bulgun Lapsina, About Zul and Tsagan Sar
Dmitriy talks about how to celebrate Zul.
First of all, you need to prepare a special boat-shaped candle with wicks equivalent to your age plus one more stick to represent a year that would be added to your age. Kalmyks celebrate their birthday during Zul. Whereas among others groups these boat-shaped candles are called ongts, we call them tselvg. We light these candles when a particular star appears on the sky. Some people light their candles outside so that gods could see them. But my grandmother used to say that it did not really matter where to light one’s candle because gods would see it anyway. We light candles, worship and make offerings to gods.
Dmitriy Mandzhiev, About Zul
Kalmyks make bortsg biscuits for Zul, especially a variety called tselvg. Dough for tselvg is made without yeast by mixing milk and flour and adding sour cream or butter. Symbolizing the sun, tselvg has patched edges resembling sun rays and it should be offered to the altar. Other varieties of bortsg that are put on the altar are khuts, zhola, kit, and khorkha. After three days on the altar, bortsgs can be eaten.
Kalmyks make bortsg and tea for Tsagan Sar as well. On this day they greet each other and visit their relatives. Women visit their husbands’ relatives and give them bortsg as a gift while saying, ‘I brought these bortsgs for you, my uncle’, ‘These bortsgs are for you, junior uncle’, or similar phrases.
Dzhidzha Araeva, Zul and Tsagan Sar
Elza reminisces about how her family celebrated Zul when she was small.
Zul is when people add a year to their age. People make special boat-shaped candle holders from dough, where they stick wicks the number of which should be equal to the age of those whom it is dedicated to, plus one wick which is put ‘for the coming year’. If you are 30, for example, you need to stick 31 wicks. Apart from that, people made an additional candle-holder from dough but with 9 wicks inside. These candles should be put outside. In the past, we had a wooden barrel in the middle of our village, where all residents used to put their candles with 9 wicks. Old people usually went around this barrel several times, putting coins on it. We, children, followed them. In the morning children ran to the barrel to collect the coins.
In the village of Dzhakuevka we had a temple where my father used to go. Up to 5 monks worked there, including an astrologist. Erdni the astrologist who was from the same clan as ours used to come to our house often. My father offered him warm milk vodka. We always kept milk vodka in a special copper jug because there were no bottles at that time.
Elza Badaeva, About Zul
Galina says that during Zul Kalmyks light candles, recite prayers and cook festive food, including milk tea, biscuits, meat, soup, bulmg, etc. They welcome and feed their guests.
Tsagan Sar is also a great holiday during which people fry various biscuit varieties, including tselvg, which symbolizes the sun. When Galina was a child, her grandmother made bundles of biscuits for each family and sent Galina to deliver them.
Galina Mamonova, About Zul and Tsagan Sar
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 the holiday when children add one year to their age. For example, if a child is 3 years old, after Zul he/she will be 4 years old. On the day of Zul guests and relatives are invited for celebration. In the evening, when the star called tsolmn appears in the sky, people pray. The day before Zul, people prepare special boat-shaped containers made from dough called zulyn ongts. Grass stems that are prepared in advance are stuck into the dough boats. The number of stems is equal to a person’s age to whom the candle-boat is dedicated plus a few more stems as a sign of the addition of age. In the evening the candles (zul) are lit and everyone prays. After this ritual, the dough boats (zulyn ongts) are fried in butter and given to children to eat. During my parents’ time, all the children would compete by running, the winner would have a first bite of raw dough from the recently burnt out zul. Bortsg for Tsagan Sar are made of various forms, but for Zul one can make any bortsg.
My mother wore a Kalmyk hat and before praying in front of zul (a lit candle) she would always take the hat off.
Ksenia Kardonova, About Zul
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
Mikhail reminisces about his childhood and relays a story about how people celebrated Zul and about his experience with Buddhism.
I was friends with the granddaughter of Begali Onkorov who was the richest herder in Kalmykia. What I liked about Zul is when people made pancakes in the shape of boats (tsokts), baked them and ate them. We searched for sharljn, a kind of dry grass, then made a certain number of wicks by wrapping the dry grass in cotton. We melted butter several times, so that there was no black soot in it. Zul was first a religious holiday, not a secular one.
In my childhood my grandmother often went to Tsagan-Aman to see a famous lama. She was also friends with grandfather Ubushiev, who wrote on Todo bichig (old Kalmyk script) and read prayers. Once I decided to paint the thangka of Green Tara. My grandmother liked my work. Grandfather Ubushiev asked me to paint another thangka for him, and promised to pay 3 rubles for that. I remember there was also one man who cut tsokts boats out of bronze. One day my grandmother asked me to draw a Green Tara, and set off to Tsagan-Aman to see the lama to ask him to animate the drawing. That lama asked who I was and told my grandmother that I should be brought to him and sent to study in Tibet. It was in 1966. I declined. That lama flew to Lhasa from time to time, for back then relations between the Soviet Union and China were good.
Mikhail Erentsenov, About Zul and Buddhism in the Soviet Period
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
Namdzhl talks about how the Kalmyks celebrate Zul and Tsagan Sar.
Namdzhl: People celebrate Zul and Tsagan Sar at home. In summer, I milk cows with this in mind. Today children do not eat home-made butter or cream anymore. For Zul I prepare a bottle of melted butter, salt it and keep it in the fridge for Zul and Tsagan Sar.
Question: How do you prepare for Zul?
Namdzhl: During Zul we make nasna gol, or a ‘boat of life’, from dough. Then we fill it with butter and stick straws. We also make yisn gol, or a ‘boat of life with nine straws’. We make bortsg biscuits, cook mutton, invite our neighbours, put offerings to gods, and utter well wishes. At night when the first stars appear, we light the ‘boat of life’. On this day people add a year to their life. If you are 20, you need to stick 23-24 straws on the dough boat. If you are seven, stick 10 straws to prolong your life.
Q: When do people celebrate Zul?
Namdzhl: When the temple determines the date, we celebrate. Usually, Zul happens in December.
Q: Which bortsg do you make for Zul?
Namdzhl: It does not matter which bortsg to make during Zul. But during Tsagan Sar people should make the following bortsg varieties: zhola, khorkha, kit, khuts, khutsin tolga and tselvg. I make them all.
Q: Why are these bortsg called so?
Namdzhl: I read somewhere that Tsagan Sar occurs on a bad day. I heard that these biscuits bless the day.
Q: Could you tell us how you prepare for Tsagan Sar?
Namdzhl: We tidy up our house. My daughter-in-law does the washing and changes the bedding. If we have a sheep, we kill it. If we do not have one, we buy meat at the shop. Then we put offerings to gods.
Q: Do people offer fish to gods?
Namdzhl: No, although those Kalmyks who live near water may do this. But we, who live in the steppe, do not. Our offerings to gods usually include tselvg bortsg, tea, candies, meat and a tibia bone.
Namdzhl Putaeva, About Zul and Tsagan Sar
Nina talks about how Kalmyks celebrate Zul. This is her story:
During Zul we sprinkle tea offerings (to gods and ancestors). We take the first portion of fresh hot tea with a spoon, put our right leg outside the house and sprinkle upwards. People make bortsg biscuits as well. In our family, we worship two gods that protect our clan. We offer the gods tea and bortsg biscuits, and receive blessings from them. The Kalmyks worship many gods, including Green Tara, Tsongkapa and many others. During Zul, people say well wishes so that Zul passes well, crops grow abundant, happiness arrives, and gods bless us all.
During Tsagan Sar people also utter well wishes so that we all live in peace without problems and that the goddess Okn Tengri bestowes her blessing on our families and relatives.
Nina Sambueva, Zul
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
Tsagan says that her native village of Shin-Mer has 120 families. Before national holidays, people clean their courtyards, prepare their festive costumes, and make biscuits. On the day of a celebration itself, people make tea in the morning, light candles and read prayers. Old people visit younger villagers and give children candies. During Tsagan Sar, which is celebrated at the beginning of spring, it is also customary to exchange biscuits with each other. Maternal relatives are supposed to be given a special kind of biscuit called ‘kelkyatya bortsg’ as well as a cooked sheep’s leg (symbolizing women’s joining their husbands’ clan).
At the end of the interview, Tsagan utters a well-wish dedicated to the holiday of Tsagan Sar.
Tsagan Mukobenova, About Zul and Tsagan Sar
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
This video shows how the national holiday of Zul was celebrated at the Central Temple in Elista in December 2014. It features a concert held outside the Temple, a religious service performed indoors, and a ritual of going around the Temple three times.
Zul in Elista
This video features a religious ceremony held at the Central Temple in Elista on the occasion of the national holiday of Zul. The ceremony was held in December 2015.
Zul Prayers in the Temple Burkhan Bagshin Altn Sume
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.
Zurgada Antonova, Zul
Zurgan talks about Zul and Ur Sar celebrations. This is her story:
10 to 20 days prior to Zul people collect wild grass in the steppe and dry it on the stove. People start to prepare for Zul two to three days beforehand. They tidy up their homes, make food and candles (‘boats of life’ from dough). Each grass straw is wrapped in cotton, and the number of straws should correspond to the number of family members and their respective age. During Zul each person adds a year to their life. Different people do this ritual differently though. We, for example, come home after twilight, pray to gods, ancestors, and light the candle-boats.
Our mother used to say that during Ur Sar we should go to the temple to pray to gods. We cleaned ourselves, cleaned our children, put on clean clothes, took bortsg biscuits, candies, lit candles at home and went to the temple.