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Transoxiana 8 - Junio 2004

Identity Markers: Uran, Tamga, Dastan

H.B. Paksoy

The reconstruction of historical events essentially revolve around understanding the societal dynamics of the polity under study. This will involve a broad based approach to the subject, including literature, material culture, philosophy of governance, and so on.

Polities that are insulated by natural barriers from their neighbors more readily coagulate into "nations" and "states." These polities tend to form and maintain their political and cultural states around a specific ethnicity, and traditions. The incursions from the "outside" are less often than that occurs on a continental scale. And the effects of these incursions, and the local response, take particularly different paths. Ireland, Great Britain and Japan, among others, may serve as examples.

On the Asian continent polities are adjacent in contiguous tracts. The geography comprises vast expanses, with demanding climactic conditions. This causes the politics to evolve in a bit more complicated fashion. A culture heavily dependent on horses is much more fluid. They are very mobile. Neighbors can come calling at short notice, and may not leave for a long time. Cultural contact ensues, sometimes in intense measures. Polities may change character or even structure as one result. This, in sum, is what has been happening in the heart of Asia, for close to two millennia often termed Turkistan.

Not all corners of the Asian continent is lush with tropical forests, nor all land is arable or suitable for agriculture. Large areas, especially in the center of Asia, are designated bozkir, supporting limited vegetation, mostly saksaul (Holoxylon Ammodendron). Rainfall is exceedingly rare, and benefits mostly small irrigated patches where cities are located. All are separated with sizeable deserts such as Karakum, Kizilkum, Gobi, Taklamakan.

In these conditions, family units must depend on each other for survival. This is accomplished largely by engaging in animal husbandry, primarily horses and sheep. These species provided the basic necessities of life in the bozkir, including the fibers to produce clothing and shelter (not to mention food and drink). Anyone attempting to live alone, could hardly see the next spring in the harsh continental climate.

Similarly, a single family, regardless of how large it might be, could not survive without other kinsmen. The Central Asians, as one consequence, have highly developed vocabulary to define social relations and familial ties.

Thus, we observe that a pyramidal structure constitutes the bases of the broad community in Central Asia. It has a defined set of steps. An uruk is comprised of oymak, which are made up of aris, a composition of soy, itself a subdivided into tire, constituted by ara: uruk > oymak > aris > soy > tire > ara ( ( )

In times of political strain, when war clouds are visible, various uruk form coalitions and establish the ultimate political and economic union: the confederation. The Central Asians termed this process "tug baglamak."

Tug is the horse-tail standard. The leader of a polity or unit had the traditional right to tie a tug to his lance. (As the tug would be more visible than a naked lance, this tug was used to identify the polity and, when needed, to signal the cavalry, to order various attacking, flanking, retreat and regrouping signals).

When the leader in question attracted more of his kinsmen to his standard, he would be in a position to add additional tug to his own lance. This was necessary because he now had more divisions to command, each with a designated lieutenant, called tugbay. For example, in the very late 15th and very early 16th centuries, the Ozbeks and the Kazaks formed their confederations in this time-honored fashion. In the 14th century, Timur was another example. Their population comprised primarily of urug, oymak, aris and so on, that arrived from the Nogay confederation that was dissolving. This was the mechanics by which the Central Asians established their polities, which we might now call states, complete with their geographic domains and governance structures.

The name adopted as the appellation of the confederation is chosen carefully, as it determines the character of the polity. For example, Ozbeks named themselves after Ozbek Han. This took place after an earlier confederation was dissolved, and the components of that earlier confederation chose to join others to form a brand-new confederation. Z. V. Togan, in his "Origins of the Ozbeks and the Kazaks" summarizes the process involved (

Each polity would choose an uran as a part of their membership kit. Uran is the word shouted in the heat of the battle, to allow combatants to identify and gauge the whereabouts of their fellows without taking their eyes off the common adversary. The uran serves as the general password of the members of a polity, as seen for example, with the Nogay. The utterance of the uran (during the act of the strike, of the motion of the sword, to release the pressure on the diaphragm) marked the membership in a given polity as well as access to other members not personally acquainted in non-combat times. Thus, uran is an integral part of identity in Central Asia, forming a triad, along with tamga and dastan.

The term tamga, originally referring to the "seal" of a given group, was later borrowed by Russians to designate customs levies (Russian: tamozhnia). The tamga was embroidered on Central Asian tents, incorporated into rugs, filigreed into jewelry, struck into coins, and used as a cattle brand. A list of early tamgas is found in Kashgarli Mahmut's eleventh century work the Diwan Lugat at Türk. It provides, in part, the visual identification component of the membership in the polity.

A dastan, on the other hand is an ornate "oral history" of the origins, customs, practices, and exploits of ancestors. It was a shameful act on the part of any member who could not recite a portion of the designated dastan. The dastan contains the events that brought the polity together (

As one result, the triad uran, tamga, dastan comprise, if you will, the constitution, passport and national anthem of the confederation. Together, they form the emblems of a polity, or statehood. In the political party platforms of the proposed Turkistan independent republic, the traces of these elements are discernible. This triad was always used by Central Asian polities, even after large-scale Central Asian empires, city-states or other smaller entities, dissolved. The triad lay dormant for a period, until new conditions favorable for another confederation presented themselves. It happened in the fifth to seventh centuries A.D., when the Göktürk empire rose from its earlier roots, and even after the thirteenth century Mongol irruption as the Timurid empire demonstrates.

In the twentieth century, this uran, tamga, dastan triad began to make itself felt once again. Much like the Australian colonies confederating in 1901 to form Australia, or the American colonies in 1776 making use of earlier symbolisms and traditions, forming coalitions.

The leaders of the Turkistan National Liberation Movement (1919-1930s) took on the historical title Korbashi, meaning "commander of defense troops" as recorded in the eleventh century, and set about engaging the colonizer and preparing for sovereignty. Along the way, the elements of Uran, Tamga, Dastan played a prominent role in this struggle; as they continue to do so. (

H. P. Paksoy, D. Phil
Texas Tech University

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