Tushetian Shepherds
25 October, 2015
Tushetian Shepherds
Every year, the shepherds of Tusheti come dozens of kilometers from Kakheti or from further parts of Georgia. They live in villages where their ancestors once lived, in old houses scattered between defense towers, most of them incapable of providing shelter in winter. They stay there until the weather lets them to safely go with their herds back into the valley before snowfall. Sometimes they come here with their families, which stay in the villages while they graze their livestock;
sometimes they go alone. Only a few Tushetians decide to actually stay for the winter.

Shepherds begin to descend from the mountains in early October. Most frequently the return date is determined by the weather. When there is a threat of winter coming faster than usual, they get very little time to gather their belongings and embark on a several-day-long journey with their families or other shepherds. Frequently the shepherds opt to have women, children, family belongings, dairy products and leather taken to their destination in large off-road vehicles, capable of crossing the most dangerous pass in Caucasus. Smaller things that come in handy during the trip are transported on horseback, and the shepherds themselves travel on foot.geotv.ge

In times of old, Tushetians stayed in their mountains in winter, which not only thinned their herds significantly, but was also a threat to their families. The situation changed after 1659, when the Tushetians helped their Kakhetian brethren by contributing fighters to help win a victory over the Persians at the Battle of Bakhtrioni.

According to the legend, the king wanted to reward the loyalty of the “mountain people” by offering them gold, weapons and land. Zezva, the Tushetian leader, asked only for his people to be given land in the Alazani Valley, where they would be able to wait the harsh mountain winters out. The king agreed, ruling that highlanders would be given as much land as Zezva could cover on his horse in one day. He set off from Bakhtrioni at a gallop through the mountains and reached today’s Alvani, near Alaverdi. There his horse died from exhaustion. To this day, to commemorate the legend, the Tushetian people take a toast in honor of the horse, which gave its life for an opportunity to go down into the valley during winter.

In isolation from the rest of Georgia for many years, Tusheti has developed a distinct culture, and its traditions survive to this day, seamlessly interweaving Pagan and Christian beliefs. One of the elements of Tushetian custom is the strict division of roles between men and women. Only men have the right to perform religious rituals, and women, seen as unclean, have no right to even enter holy grounds and shrines. During local festivities, one can observe a multitude of customs and traditions come alive, such as Caucasian race riding, playing, dances and even a symbolic punishment of throwing unmarried men over a wall – the amusing highlight of the day in some villages. Look for the full story on the unique customs of Tusheti in our next issue!

Author: Magdalena Konik

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