Khevsureti | KHEVSURETI

Khevsureti

In the Eastern Caucasus, on the southern and northern slopes of the Main Caucasus Watershed live the Khevsuris – an ancient Georgian nationality of extremely peculiar fate and character, whose dramatic mode of life, distinctive traditions have always been the subject of scientific research and the source of inspiration for writers and poets. Even some sixty years ago in Khevsureti one could meet with a medieval anachronism – the warriors wearing chainmail skirts and armed with sabers, daggers and shields. Although the Khevsuris dressed themselves like that on festive occasions only, the Middle Ages here actually lasted for a long time. Not long ago, an elderly man told me the story of the clash between the natives of two villages in Khevsureti – Shatili and Guro in 1901. A skirmish over a certain pasture at the atengenoba festival turned into a bloody battle leaving many people wounded and seven killed. The collision gave rise to the hostilities and blood feud which lasted decades. As a result of the very first scuffle, according to the narrator, the locals of Guro fighting with sabers and daggers only inflicted heavier losses than those of Shatili, who were armed with guns as well… Khevsureti is a very specific locality; I call it a land of poets confined between two rocks. The Khevsuris are very fond of poetry and succeed in rhyming verse. Folk songs are not characterized by tunefulness, and there is no need for it. It is the verse that distinguishes a Khevsur song. Khevsuri takes a panduri or balalaika (string musical instruments), deepens his voice for more certainty, touches the strings and sings a verse of a recognized or nameless Khevsuri poet, or even his own one, which, quite possibly, can be a masterpiece. It is the folk verses and narratives handed down from generation to generation that is practically the only source of history in this place. For lack of annals of history it is thanks to local popular legends that we came to know the names of courageous heroes or lucky hunters, their remarkable feats and historical events which have a precise geography, but have no chronology. When the Khevsuris say “long ago”, they simply mean one, two or three centuries. The dates seem to have lost their importance here and this creates the original charm of the facts that have turned into a saga. The Khevsuris, however, occasionally appear in the chronicles and this, as a rule, happened for one and the same reason, i.e. when they presented themselves the saviors of the low-lying country when the nation had a hard time, as it did in 1659, when a force of Khevsuris, Tushis and Pshavis came to the rescue of their nationals and having made a surprise attack on the Persians and Turkmans settled in the territory of the Alazani Valley, delivered the entire region of Kakheti from the invaders within a day. They, indeed, were the most excellent warriors, esteemed freedom and never had a feudal lord. The Khevsuris consider the holy objects (crosses and icons) to be their masters. The major object of worship is Gudanis jvari (the Cross of Gudani) and most of the Khevsuris believe themselves to be the serfs of Gudani… Local oral traditions still bear memory of the visits of King Erekle II in the uplands. The warrior king of Georgians Erekle II, who reigned over Kartli and Kakheti in the second half of the 18th century, was always accompanied by the fearless Khevsuri warriors in military campaigns. Apart from his personal courage and kind-heartedness there was an additional reason for which the Khevsuris held their king in great honour – they believed that Erekle II was a sworn brother of the Cross of Gudani. It was usual for him to go into the holy place – khati (the Georgian for “icon”, in which the admission was not allowed to anyone but ministers) and proclaimed the message of the Gudani. To all appearances, the king would take advantage of the Khevsuris’ faith and imposed his will on the highlanders Mythology, too, has particular geography in Khevsureti. The locals here, as well as in neighboring Pshavi can show the battle fields of the evil creatures – devis and the divine beings sent to the rescue of people on earth, the boulders thrown by them in the fight, the rocks split with their swords. The deities appearing in the guise of mighty warriors on earth are heavenly bodies, stars: Yakhsar, Kopala, Pirkushi, Ber-Baadur, their elder brother – Kviria – the morning star. Their terrestrial abodes are the khatis of Khevsureti and Pshavi – the places of worship where public festivities are held. People perform religious rites that are a strange synthesis of paganism and Christianity. The participants in the celebration brew up beer, a heavenly drink, and slaughter lots of sheep and neat cattle. The Khevsuris praise their deities and ask for divine grace. Khevsureti is a real paradise for ethnographers and anthropologists. It may well be that nowadays completely archaic rituals originated in the pre-Christian world are performed absolutely unconsciously. The Khevsuris always arrange the races in honor of the departed man, which is one of the most heart-rending spectacles one has ever seen. The ceremony is accompanied with the lamentations of women and galloping of holiday-dressed unsaddled horses, much food, drinks and competitions of valiant men, dedicated to the deceased, something like that depicted in the Iliad by Homer. The departed person’s horse, the so-called “horse of soul” also participates in the Khevsurian races. The soul leaves this world and transmigrates to a better world where the deceased is welcomed by his close relatives – uncles (his mother’s brothers) sitting at a table feasting Today Khevsureti is an almost depopulated region. This is a tragic and, at the same time, a kind of irreversible process. In the 50’s of the 20-th century, the Soviet government compelled the Khevsuris to resettle in the plain. Later on, part of them returned to their home land, but a number of villages were deserted forever. The main thing is that the rural economy of Khevsureti as a whole and its village in particular was no more self-sufficient. The majority of Khevsuris prefer to stay in the lowland, whereas others lead a partly nomadic life visiting their mountain houses only in summer. A community with five or six households is considered to be a large village. There are villages the population of which is defined by one family only, or even one dweller, who stubbornly refuses to leave the land of his ancestors. The winter in Khevsureti is an extremely dramatic season – white silence, loneliness and the long nights in the villages or one-time settlements cut off from the outer world. If any accident happens, there is no rescuer in the neighborhood – even mobile phone communication is unavailable in the greater area of Khevsureti… Khevsureti is a picturesque locality. Narrow and steep gorges, alpine pastures, mountain peaks and inaccessible rocks – the abode of the Caucasian goat that is the most desirable game animal for the locals, the Rhododendron-bestrewn slopes watchfully gazing to the north, Khevsurian towers standing erect like silent guards of the Caucasus and the fortress villages of Kistani, Lebaiskari, Shatili, Mutso… These shale-roofed, dry walled monuments have witnessed a vast number of wars and misfortunes. Similar towers are located further north – in the land of the Chechens and Ingush known as historical enemies of the Khevsuris. These two nations were referred to as Kists by the Khevsuris. The relations between the Khevsuris and Kists is a history of two nations written in blood, however, this, at the same time, is a relationship of two tribes brought up according to the laws of honour characteristic to the mountain-dwelling people and having a similar system of values in which respect and animosity were equally acceptable. But the real treasure of Khevsureti is the local people – hospitable, proud Khevsuris, who treat their children like grown-ups and, even those resettled in the lowland, remain devoted to the moral principles of mountain dwellers. The process of migration of these highly interesting people is still in progress and cannot be reversed. That is a national tragedy. Khevsureti without Khevsuris will be a beauty spot only – really very picturesque, but deserted and dull.