Khevsureti is a unique province within Georgia, where the locals have retained their ancient customs and traditions as well as highly artistic funeral poetry, the so-called ritual laments in verse that is the representation of the cult of the dead. Profound veneration to the memory of ancestors has always been held within the framework of the mental and ethical norms by the Khevsurs – the inhabitants of a mountainous region, which is for the most part remote from life and isolated from the outer world for months.
Khevsur society appreciated a person according to his credit and the services rendered by him to his native land or the entire country. Frequent mention of the merits of popular heroes or even their peaceful fellow countrymen of good name in the presence of young people touched the right chord in their hearts, which was ingenuously intertwined with the patriotic inspiration and consciousness of performing one’s duty honestly for the benefit and protection of one’s homeland.
In Khevsureti, and also in other neighboring upland regions the ceremony of death, i.e. the funeral rites involved a somewhat creative process: oral composition of mournful poems, the authors of which in most cases were illiterate people – the countrymen living high in the mountains, the so-called “poets of lament”.
“The instant of overwhelming grief, the instant of parting for ever” (N. Dadiani) caused feeling gradations in the experienced professional lamenters and gave birth to amazing poetry replete with unpretentious, heartfelt, profound human sorrow and pain.
The Khevsurs believed that the deceased needed to be prepared for life after death, so, it was a primary concern of the kin and companions of the departed to arrange a worthwhile funeral ceremony and pay homage to him in conformity with the generally accepted practice. In former times, in the highland provinces of Georgia one of the best manifestations of respect towards the deceased was ritual lamenting aloud. The keening was recited in the form of a free verse that consoled, comforted, soothed the close mourners and, in some respect, healed the wound inflicted on their feelings by the death ofa loved one. As noted by Victor Nozadze, “lamentation is not merely weeping or loud expression of one’s grief, but praise given to the departed, it’s eloquent portrayal of the deceased, – it’s poetry of the mourned”. Lamentation – a specific act of improvisation naturally implies the moment of inspiration, since deep human sorrow and pain is in the main an inexhaustible source of genuine poetry. . . And the death of every woman or man with of good standing in Khevsureti would become an impulse, a strong incentive to create a new lament based on the age-old tradition of the Georgian highlanders.
According to the old Khevsur tradition, it was impermissible, even impudent of a wife to mourn over her husband in public. She, as well as other close mourners of the deceased should have refrained from weeping openly; it was required that she suppress her tears and endure her pain without a display of feelings. But not everyone managed to adhere to the accepted rules. Rather infrequently, however, there were cases of non-obedience of the unwritten social norms and established rules. If a wife of the deceased could not stop herself from crying loudly, she, “in self-defence”, pointed out that she might have been in derision for, whether willingly or against her free will, violation of the unwritten law and breaking the age-old tradition.
In accordance with the customs and beliefs of the Georgian (and not only Georgian!) people, the deceased should have been buried in the daytime, i.e. before the sunset. Burying the corpse after sundown except for extreme cases was not permitted; it was wrong to act like this, as it was considered to be “ominous” and something harmful or evil would happen to the family of the departed. Below is an extract from one of the masterpieces of Georgian oral literature, in which a mother mourns over her brave son who is leaving this world, his companions and is heading for the gloomy world of souls:”
“No sobs will fill thy mother’s breast;
No tears will overflow her eyes,
For proud is she to have a son
Who on the shrine of courage lies.
Farewell, my boy, farewell to thee!
May God receive thy spirit free.
No coward’s blood ran through thy veins;
My bosom swells in pride for thee!”
The traditional period of mourning for the deceased was one year in Khevsureti. The Khevsurs call it “talavart gashla”. At the end of this term (tslistavi in Georgian), after the funeral rites had been completed, a feast was held in honour of the departed (in Georgian: cheris akhda, i.e. “release from grief”) and a community or village reverted to the habitual life.
Proceeding from the belief that the deceased had the same daily requirements in the afterlife, it was the custom of the Khevsurs to bury the dead with a full panoply of arms, garments, an ample supply of food, water and tobacco… It was also a generally accepted practice in Khevsureti to arrange somewhat of a memorial place at a spring nearby the village. A ritual of sanctification of the dead person’s decorated “horse of soul” was held on the day of burial and the men of the village gathered to engage in commemoration competitions of gabakhi (shooting) and horse races, which took place during the tslistavi memorial festival as well. Khevsureti is abundant in the so-called sulis tskaro (Georgian for “spring of soul”), where a wayfarer, as a rule, stops to refresh himself with a glass of water and show respect to the stranger who untimely left this world and joined eternity.
“The plague broke out in the village of Anatori. Those who were plague-infected left habitations and went to the crypts to meet their death there. The locals firmly decided not to allow any spread of the disease from Anatori to the other settlements. Three gunmen were charged with controlling the three exits from the village so as not to let anyone run away… In case of non-observance of the decision made by the community, the gunmen had the right to shoot at their disobedient fellow countrymen…
It happened that one day about twenty young men left Anatori and made their way towards the crypt. In the lead was a young man, playing the panduri* and singing. The others accompanied him with zhipitauri** and kantsy*** to drink a toast in remembrance of their companion…”
* Panduri – a stringed musical instrument played by strumming with the fingers
** Zhipitauri – a home-distilled alcoholic spirit
*** Khantsy – a traditional drinking horn for wine or brandy