The Tea Tradition of Uzbekistan

Tea for all


In a chaikhana (tea-house) people drink tea. This is a fuss-free, dignified institution. Here it is seldom that loud, excited voices are heard, or quarrels occur or bad language is used. Surely, from time to time people happen to 'sort out their relations', but as a rule, in a calm and peaceful tone. By Rustam Mirzaev



Tea brewer is a man of appreciation in his community. Here is his common portrait: middle aged, robust, a bit stout, but not fat; has a round good-humoured face, not always lively, but invariably amiable. He knows everybody, and everybody knows him. He speaks little, does not intrude on a conversation with uncalled-for remarks. If asked, he is always ready to give a piece of practical advice. Good advice guarantees half of success. Tea brewer himself follows his grandfather's advice: do not save on tea!



The pinnacle of a chaikhana is a Russian, sometimes a century-old samovar, most likely made in the town of Tula, with its both sides decorated with medals awarded to it at god-knows-what exhibitions. One can hardly fancy a chaikhana with no tea brewer, that is to say a self-service chaikchana, but to picture chaikhana without a samovar is totally impossible. Samovar has successfully ousted other heating appliances and it seems that modern gadgets are not likely to encroach ever upon the position of this 'dandy' with its brightly polished copper sides.

        Chaikhana is usually located in picturesque surroundings, with trees spreading their branches above it and aryk (small irrigation canal) or a cozy khauz (pool) full of water being next to it. One of the usual appanages of chaikhana is a cage with bedana (quail) whose soft singing creates a serene atmosphere disposing to rest and leisurely chat.

        Chaikhana is the right place for artists, too. They can find here attractive colorful characters that are leisurely drinking tea and do not hurry anywhere.

        Talking of chaikhana one should not forget about tea itself. It was from China, or at least thanks to the Chinese, that this magic drink was opened to the modern world. The Chinese first took to the new habit of drinking the decoction of tea leaves shortly before the beginning of Common Era, when they were developing the territories of the Yangtze River basin. It is noteworthy to say that Chinese people never drink 'neutral' beverages or drinks that do not stimulate organism. Naturally enough, they enjoyed the new tonic, which they took over from the local people.

        In the first centuries of Common Era tea drinking became widespread among the population of the southern and later among the northern regions of China. But only by the 10th century this habit gained general popularity, and tea became an article of export. Since then tea has been included into "seven essential ingredients" without which no meal can be cooked: these are salt, sauce made from soybeans, vinegar, rice, oil, firewood and tea, of course.
 

        Nowadays millions of people in the world drink tea. It is drunk by Tibet nomads, who brew up brick-tea in a cauldron and then add milk, oil, salt, browned flour, sheep's fat, jerked beef and god-knows what other ingredients. The Japanese have made tea-drinking a ceremony, when a special sort of tea, ground to fine powder, is brewed up in a small quantity of water at the bottom of a cup and whipped up to froth with the help of a bamboo brush.

        But all this is no more than exotics. Yet in every respectable chaikhana in Central Asia hot green or black tea is served in a porcelain pot. Connoisseurs still debate about the merits of black and green tea. But traditionally green tea is more popular among the Easterners, while black tea is far more preferable in the western countries.

        As a rule, tea drinking is not a part of the usual meal, as tea is drunk with no additional refreshments. In Central Asia it is believed that Europeans lose a lot by making their tea sweet, especially with sugar. It is an oriental tradition to treat a guest to a cup of pure tea immediately after he or she comes into a house. Tea should be drunk while it is hot. It is generally accepted that the tea, which got cold, should be poured away and the cup should be refilled with a new portion of hot tea.

        They say that one can learn rumours and the latest news at the bazaars. Much can be learnt at the bazaar, but this is not the right place to discuss the news because of too much noise and throng. The news should be discussed at chaikhana: a place destined for quiet and thorough talk. Anything can become the topic for discussion: cotton crop forecasts, cattle market fluctuation, what goods are currently in great request, what resorts are the best to go, the behavior of a new district militia officer, the quality of entertaining programs on TV; in short, everything from the current problems of makhalla (community) to international politics. Almost in every chaikhana there is its own trustworthy aksakal (respected old man), an 'informal leader', who expresses people's general opinion most properly.
 

        Another important role of a chaikhana is to be a social centre in makhalla. Right up to the beginning of the 20th century mahallas were composed of craftsmen of the same trade who settled down in the neibourhood. At that time mahallas were named after the trade of its members: mahalla of armourers, saddle-makers, weavers etc. Makhalla is a community based on full independence and self-administration. Evidently the Soviet power could never decide about its attitude towards makhalla. On the one hand, this was a creation of the masses. But, on the other hand this was held as relic of the bygone days. Local authorities did not prohibit but at the same time showed little regard to these 'communal relations'.

        It was only after Uzbekistan became an independent state, that makhalla harmoniously entered the social structure as an original form of Eastern democracy. Makhalla is a unique institution. It has never been limited to a fixed number of yards or definite territory. In bygone days, for instance, every yard within the reach of a muezzin's voice calling for the prayers in the communal mosque, made the part of the nearest makhalla.

        It is difficult to give the exact number, but only in Tashkent there are more than three hundred communities, and in each of them there live from five hundred to a thousand families. Makhallas actually cover all the territory of Uzbekistan and play the role of the base of the new social order.

        Community is governed by a makhalla committee elected at the general meeting of dwellers. It consists of a chairman and his three advisers. That's the only 'bureaucratic staff' that, ideally, is to work without any formalities. Some chairmen, for instance, meet citizens in chaikhana, thus combining pleasure and work.

        Basically everyone can join the community, but it does not mean that its rules can be ignored. If one wants to sell his house, he should first offer it to his relatives, then to his neighbors, to makhalla dwellers, and only after finding no interest in purchase among the members of community, he can advertise it for public sale. Thus, mahalla keeps its originality out of outsiders.
 

        Interests of a mahalla are numerous and diverse. Community particularly concerns with organization and carrying out of the major events in the life of its members: weddings, funerals, commemoration of the dead, circumcision ceremony. Let's talk about a wedding party. Unlike Moscow, where only few people including the bride and the bridegroom themselves are present at the wedding, in Tashkent two-three hundred guests is a norm for a wedding party. Yet though the family members and relatives cover the main expenses for this time, energy and money-consuming event, the aid rendered by the community is invaluable.

        Foreigners often say: "Why do you have to spend so much? Why not to celebrate within your family, at least within your means?" The answer is tradition. One poet explained it like this:

It's vain to argue with the epoch.
Tradition that's what rules us all.

        By the way, to the easterners the widespread western custom of drinking wine at any time of the day can also seem harmful and extravagant.

        Another important, money-consuming and difficult procedure that requires a strict observance of all the traditions is funeral. And, of course, makhalla is always ready to contribute to this event.

        One more manifestation of eastern form of mutual help is hashar an event when dwellers of makhalla voluntarily help their neighbor in hard work, for example, in building a house.

        Makhalla is not merely a society of mutual help; it has supervising and educational functions, too. Under supervision of the whole makhalla children in a community are brought up in the spirit of obedience and respect to the elders. Guests of our republic are often impressed by seemly conduct of Uzbek children, their willingness to give place in public conveyances.

        The concern of community goes beyond upbringing of younger generation; the adults are equally expected to observe customs and traditions of the nation. Naturally, there is a sort of conservatism in it, but positive conservatism is essential for a society, that strives for stability and soundness. Actually, community does not interfere into private life of its members. It does only if the family conflict spreads beyond one's private life.

        Uzbekistan, traditionally, is a country of settled population with rather low migration index. Most people live in their native towns and villages all their lives. It seems just fair to conclude that 'a man is born and lives in makhalla, and makhalla pays him last respect'.