Today based in France, photographer Ayar Kuo hails from Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic, Russia. Seeking to forge a closer connection with her native land, she captured various facets of an annual pagan cleansing ritual throughout a five year period.
Named Yssah, the ritual festival centers around cleansing and reconnecting with nature through a range of activities including dancing, drinking kumis (a mare’s milk) and greeting the sun. In vivid yet dream-like tones, Kuo’s series captures several tenets of the festival, from traditional dress and ceremonial activities to the moments in between. Below she shares her insights behind the images.
“In Yakutian “Sitim” is the immaterial connection between a person and anything else. It is the mystical force of attraction that like an invisible thread unites man and the universe. I worked on this series for five years, traveling around about 20 “Yssahs” in different regions of Yakutia, covering long distances within my native land to attend these events, in which the habits, devotion and originality of my people is concentrated.”
“”Yssah” is the embodiment of the awakening of the spirits of nature. It is when people, with the help of ancient holy rituals and ceremonies come closer to the spirits of “Aiyy” and aim to reach harmony between themselves and the universe. A that time, in every corner of the Republic, people open their hearts wide to their faith and build up their belief in the strength of the sun and the deities in heaven.”
“The name of the “Yssah” festival comes from the word “to spray” which relates to spraying the ground with a sacred drink made of mare’s milk (kumys). Through a ritual kumis-drinking ceremony people show their reverence to the heavenly spirits of “Aiyy”. With the mass dance of ‘Osuohaj’, which represents the circle of life and moves in the same direction as the sun, people give thanks for warmth and light. An ‘Osuohaj’ can extend during the course of three days and nights.”
“The culmination of “Yssah” is the greeting of the sun – an ancient rite that has been maintained to this day, symbolising the cyclical nature of life. A the moment of greeting the sun every participant of the ritual stands with hands outstretched towards the horizon and believes that with the first rays they will gain strength and energy and knows that their soul will be cleansed of dark forces. A thousand hands stretched out to greet the sun, and passionately waiting for the cleansing warmth of the first rays is a spectacular and exceptional sight to behold and leaves an indelible impression.”
“One thousand people following the call of the sky and the sun in search of a renewing bond – Sitim. Dances, songs and rituals of overwhelming beauty speak of the endless and recurring nature of things. In every pattern of people I saw the Sitim. This work helped me to feel profoundly the myths of my people. I saw myself in the fresh leaves of young birch trees, in fingertips extended to the sky, in the bitter smell of bonfires, in the neighing of horses and in the fiery red flames of the rising sun.”
"This work helped me to feel profoundly the myths of my people."
All images © Ayar Kuo