ETHNONYMS: Self-designation: Qevsur; Literary Georgian: Khevsuri.
Identification and Location. The Khevsur are one of the ethnic subdivisions of the Georgian people. They dwell in a mountainous region in northeastern Georgia. Their territory lies on both sides of the main range of the Caucasus, which serves as a natural border dividing Khevsureti (the name of the province) into northern and southern halves. This province is now part of the Dusheti region. The Khevsur have as neighbors the Christian Tushetians and Pshavs (both Georgian groups) and the Moslem Kistis (related to the Chechens). Because of their secluded location, the Khevsur have preserved many ancient customs and traditions that distinguish their culture from those of neighboring Georgian communities.
Demography. At present the population of Khevsureti is a mere 800, compared to 5,000 in the previous century. There are many reasons for this decrease. In recent decades there has been migration from rural areas to the large cities as people search for an improved standard of living. Even today many Khevsur villages lack electricity and good access roads. In addition, under Stalin's regime, many people were deported from Khevsureti to increase the urban labor force.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Khevsur speak a dialect of Georgian, the most widely spoken of the South Caucasian (Kartvelian) languages. Not surprisingly, given the remoteness of the province, the local dialect resembles medieval Georgian in several respects. Certain speech sounds and morphological and syntactical features are retained in Khevsurian that have been absent from the literary language for many centuries.
History and Cultural Relations
In fifteenth-century sources, Khevsureti, together with certain of its neighboring mountain provinces, was referred to as Pkhovi (which may derive from a Georgian root meaning "brave, valiant"). The word "Khevsur" itself comes from Georgian qev-/khev- (gorge, ravine); the Khevsur are therefore "dwellers in ravines." Little is known about the origins of this ethnic group, and there is no reliable historical documentation concerning their original territory or the factors that induced them to migrate into such a harsh region of Georgia. The Khevsur themselves tell the following legend about their ancestor, Gudaneli. Gudaneli originally dwelt in Kakheti, a lowland province to the southeast of Khevsureti. He fled from his feudal overlord and took refuge among the Pshavs, where he found the wherewithal to settle and establish a family. His three children, Araba, Gogona, and Ch'inch'ara, cleared new land for settlement, which came to be the territory of the Khevsur. This legend may in fact be an indication that the first Khevsur fled or were driven into the mountains. The oldest family names are Gogojuri, Ch'inch'arauli, and Arabuli; other clans arrived at a later date. The chief village of Khevsureti is Gudani; other important villages are Ardot'i, Arkhot'i, Blo, Mutso, and Shat'ili (the last of these is noted for its striking architecture, the stone houses and towers built stepwise on the mountain slope). All of these places are at an elevation of 2,000 meters or more above sea level, and the winters last up to half the year. Many villages have been abandoned and left to ruin.
The Khevsur build houses from sheets of slate, which are set together without mortar. Three principal types of buildings are recognized: dwellings, defense structures, and agricultural buildings. At some distance from the homesteads are the khat'i (shrines with altars, erected in a sacred grove) and the menstruation and childbirth huts. The usual house has one story with one or two rooms, though dwellings of up to three stories are known. Most often houses are set along the slope of a ravine so that the roof of one house serves as a terrace for the house above it. These mountain dwellings are windowless, and the walls and roofs are made of compressed clay. In multistory buildings the bottom floor serves as a stall for livestock, and the floor above is used as a common room. In the middle of this room is the fireplace, over which a cooking pot is suspended from a hook. The walls of the interior rooms are usually black with soot because of the lack of ventilation. Rhododendron wood or dried dung is used as fuel. Around the hearth are placed benches, small tables, and chairs, according to a precise seating arrangement. Niches, shelves, and racks on the walls serve for storage of household articles. Many of the latter are fashioned from wood or horn. Large and small chests with decorative carvings are set by the walls for the storage of food and clothing. In some locations, for example New Shat'ili, modern houses with electricity, water, gas, and sanitary facilities have been constructed.
In the older mountain villages one can still see the four-story defense towers, 10 to 20 meters high. These too are constructed without the use of mortar. They are of conical shape with cupolalike roofs, and on each side of the top floor are embrasures, narrow windows through which those inside could shoot at their attackers. In case of attack, all of the villagers could take shelter within the tower and defend themselves. Each village also had a cemetery, several small huts—within which, up to the beginning of this century, childbearing or menstruating women secluded themselves—and a sacred grove with altars and shrines. The cemeteries and groves were surrounded by low walls, beyond which women and outsiders could not set foot. The groves contained ancient trees, mostly beech, oak, and ash, to which protective and sacred powers were attributed. Only the dast'uri (see "Religious Beliefs and Practices") of the shrine was allowed to gather wood or cut down a tree within the sacred grove; anyone else might be put to death for doing so. The wood thus obtained could be used only to brew beer for ritual use. Within the sacred groves stand the shrines, constructed, like the houses, out of slate. Atop the shrine are affixed the horns of the Caucasian ibex and a bell. The huts for menstruating women, which used to be found in each village, are called samrelo. Women would stay there about two to three days, during which time they were considered unclean. Throughout this period they primarily ate bread and herbs.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Khevsur occupy a territory of approximately 1,600 square kilometers. The often steep and nearly inaccessible land surfaces of this mountainous region are exploited to the utmost as crop- and pasturelands. Animal husbandry is especially important. Specially developed farming techniques are needed to produce a sufficient amount of food in the brief summer. The harsh climate and meager soil require great effort to maximize the harvest yield. One particular difficulty is that at this elevation, the only cereal crop that can be grown profitably is barley. The valley slopes are divided vertically according to the use to which they are put. The lowest parts are for cultivation of crops. In addition to barley, potatoes and maize are also grown; the fields are apportioned among the families of the community so that none is disadvantaged. Cattle are pastured at middle elevations, where the meadows are rich enough for the livestock to restore themselves after a long winter. The higher elevations are exploited for hay fields. Cows and sheep graze in the sharply delimited high summer pastures. The Khevsur cow, which has almost died out, is a well-adapted animal, giving rich milk even when the grazing is meager.
Clothing. The Khevsur costume (t'alavari ) is unique in the Caucasus for its colorful and rich embroidery and profusion of decorative borders, beads, metal buttons, and disks. Sheep's wool is spun into yarn, dyed, and woven into fabric. Until the middle of this century, locally produced natural colors were used to dye cloth. In earlier times three kinds of fabric were produced, which were destined for different segments of the garment. The male costume was especially lavishly ornamented. European fabrics, silver coins and disks, and brightly colored glass beads and buttons from the markets of Kakheti were used in fashioning its borders and adornments. The traditional male apparel comprised the chokha (cloak), p'erangi (shirt), nipkhavi (trousers), and mest'ebi (leggings). Of these, the shirt was the most finely and extravagantly fashioned. Its basic color is reddish-brown, blue, or black, against which are displayed numerous adornments of various colors. The traditional ornamentation consisted of finely embroidered crosses, borders, parallel bands, triangles, and the like. The cloak (usually dyed blue) is decorated with similar motifs, although not as lavishly. It is worn open in front, fastened with a belt on which weapons are carried. The embroidery, glass beads, and other adornments are arranged for good contrast of colors. The trousers are of plain black material, and the lower pant legs are bound by tight-fitting embroidered leggings. Until recently each Khevsur man possessed a full set of weaponry and would not go out of his house unarmed. The reason for this practice was the threat of attack by enemies, brigands, or avengers in blood feuds. The armor was comprised of an iron chain-mail shirt, a helmet, and protection for the arms and hands. A fully armed Khevsur bore a shield, sword, curved saber, rifle, and a thumb ring with sharp metal points for hand-to-hand combat. Before firearms were introduced to Khevsureti, the bow and arrow was used.
Women, as well, wear the chokha and p'erangi, the latter being an ankle-length frock not as richly adorned as the man's shirt. Women's garments are ornamented with embroidery, glass beads, silver trinkets, and buttons. The frock is made of blue wool; it is flat in front and folded at the back. The chokha resembles the one worn by men and is tied with a belt. Women also wear a headpiece known as a mandili, which has special cultural significance. Should a woman throw her mandili between two quarreling men, they must immediately stop fighting. If a man pulls the mandili from a woman's head, he is in effect accusing her of indecency. This headdress consists of a turbanlike cloth wrapped around the head, with two bands hanging from the ends. The lower, narrower band is used to fasten the "false tresses," and the upper, wider one is embroidered in bright colors. Additional feminine adornments are earrings and necklaces. Among the apparel common to both genders are knitted wool stockings and mittens, likewise decorated with coins and beads. In summer the mittens serve as pouches for carrying provisions.
Food. Barley is ground into a coarse meal from which flat cakes are baked. This grain is also used in the production of vodka and beer. The principal foods are the previously mentioned flat breads, milk, cheese, greens, herbs, and the meat of domestic or wild animals. Food is preserved by smoking or drying.
Division of Labor. Social life is governed by systematic conventions, and work is divided along gender lines. Women are responsible for housekeeping, care of cattle, and manufacture of clothing. Heavy labor, such as plowing or hay mowing, is reserved for men. Children must begin to help with the work while still quite young. By the age of 8 to 10 they are already fully entrusted with adult tasks. In earlier times young boys were instructed in fencing, the use of weapons, and rhetoric. It was considered desirable for even the youngest to participate in discussions at festivals and gatherings, so as to develop their verbal skills.
Premarital Relations. The Khevsur retain a type of premarital relation between young people, called sts'orproba, that resembles practices observed among other peoples of the Caucasus (e.g., the ts'ats'loba of the neighboring Pshavs). The relation can range from a purely platonic, brother-sister bond to a sexual union. The two partners must be of opposite sex, and the relationship must not result in pregnancy. The Khevsur observe exogamy, and likewise sts'orproba is all but unknown between relatives. In cases of violation, the couple is liable to sanctions imposed by the villagers. Any form of adultery is avoided.
Sts'orproba seems to have a long history: it is believed to have been introduced into Khevsureti two to three centuries ago, during a period of political and economic turmoil in Georgia subsequent to the collapse of centralized feudal authority. Northern Caucasian mountaineers (Kistis and Lezgians) took advantage of the situation to conduct raids in Georgia, and the Khevsur were forced to arm themselves and maintain continual vigilance. One aspect of this state of alert was that men and women took to sleeping close together for mutual security. This, according to tradition, was the origin of sts'orproba. In practice, sts'orproba draws on the close relationships formed among young children who have been brought up together and also the custom of one woman serving as wet nurse for another woman's child. Two children who have fed at the same breast have a special bond.
The forming of sts'orproba begins with two people who share a mutual attraction but do not yet know each other well. To draw a woman into sts'orproba, the young man must woo her with charm and attentiveness. Khevsur women are generally attracted to temperamental, bold, and courageous men. The young woman acts discreetly, usually going to the man at night, a bottle of vodka (araq'i ) in her hand. (In the neighboring Georgian district of Pshavi, it is the man who goes to the woman.) They meet in a remote part of the homestead, usually the stable. During the early stages the lovers (sts'orperni ) are rather touchy and misunderstandings are common. They sense some shame at first, until their affection grows stronger and deeper. At first the lovers lie together, with caressing restricted to the area above the breast. According to tradition, the couple exchanges small gifts at the beginning of sts'orproba, with the "sister" fashioning ornamented items for her "brother," who reciprocates with a gift. When it is time to sleep the woman nestles herself against the man and thus they pass the night together. A significant point in the relation is reached when the young woman "undoes the collar" on her garment—as portrayed in Khevsur poetry, the woman feels great anxiety as she performs this act. In general the sts'orproba proceeds harmoniously, but should the reciprocal affections cool, the relation is gradually broken off. In such cases the woman, out of pride, does not let on to others what is occurring. Because marital agreements can be contracted between quite young children, sts'orproba can come to an abrupt end. Should one or the other of the sts'orperni be promised in marriage to another, they might withdraw for a while to mourn and overcome their distress. In earlier times it was very rare for sts'orproba to culminate in marriage between the sts'orperni, but this has become more common in recent years.
As mentioned earlier, pregnancy is to be avoided at all costs. The bearing of a child conceived in sts'orproba is considered tantamount to incest, and the guilty parties can be exiled from the community. To avoid such consequences, the couple resorts to coitus interruptus or limits sexual relations to the woman's infertile period. During menstruation Khevsur women must spend two or three days in the samrelo; a woman engaged in sts'orproba will extend this stay to up to ten days, during which she and her partner can unite sexually without much risk of pregnancy. Should a woman be caught in a "dishonorable" sts'orproba, it is she and her relatives—and not her lover—who are liable to ostracism. In many such cases the woman has chosen suicide.
The practice of sts'orproba is known to all members of the village community, and one can often identify those involved in it. Young men will boast of their activities, claiming that it is the sexual act that has transformed them from boys into men. Some might fall into melancholy from unhappy love, in which case the entire community will lend emotional support. Rivalries can ensue when one woman or man attracts the attention of several suitors at once. This may lead to exchanges of insults and curses, but in accordance with the avoidance of envy and jealousy in Khevsur society, these disputes are resolved amicably. It is permitted for a woman to have two lovers, though one must be platonic and the other physical. Two lovers of the same type are not allowed. Should the woman be obligated to choose among rivals, she will attempt to do so without unduly hurting anyone. Young lovers do not disguise their sts'orproba from their elders, but this does not change anything with respect to previously made marital agreements or the rights of the elders to forbid a relationship.
Once sts'orproba has been dissolved, for whatever reason, the sts'orperni continue to honor each other for the rest of their lives. They will never forget the wonderful times they spent together in their youth. Since almost everyone has experienced sts'orproba, a former lover is always hospitably received by his or her former sts'orperi's family, and no one would jealously hinder them from recalling their happy memories.
Marriage. Marital agreements were sometimes contracted by parents on behalf of children still in the cradle. Because the land could not support a large population, measures were taken to control the birth rate. A woman could not marry before the age of 20 and could not bear a child in the first four years of marriage. After each birth she was to wait at least three years before having another child. Premarital pregnancy was considered so shameful that many women faced with it have resorted to suicide.
Even though marital alliances might be contracted while the principals were still children, there is up to the present day a practice of symbolic abduction. The young man, bringing gifts and escorted by his friends, visits the home of the woman's parents, where a banquet is held. The young woman, feigning resistance, accompanies the young man to his parents' house; she remains there for a while, although without any intimate contact with the groom, and then returns home. The actual wedding takes place five or six days later, presided over by the khutsesi (see "Religious Beliefs and Practices" and "Death and Afterlife"). The community gathers in the groom's home, and the couple pledge their troth by the hearth. They are symbolically joined by a thread placed around their shoulders. After the wedding the marital relationship proceeds with considerable restraint. The couple spends three days together, then the wife returns to her parents' home once again, where the man must go to visit her, for a certain period of time. Only subsequently does the couple live together in the husband's house. Once established in her husband's home, the wife is expected to subordinate herself to the diasakhlisi, the senior woman of the household, and perform the tasks she assigns. Should the extended family become too large, the husband can request his appropriate portion of the property from his father and establish a separate household. The bride brings a dowry, consisting of clothing, fabric, and livestock. Any increase arising from the dowry belongs to the husband; in case of loss he must make up the difference. Should the marriage be dissolved, the woman returns to her ancestral home; she can subsequently remarry. If it is the wife who leaves the husband—which rarely happens—she must render compensation. Any children from the union remain in the husband's household.
Inheritance . The property of a man is inherited equally by his sons; his widow receives nothing. The sons are therefore responsible for her well-being. A mother's possessions are divided among the children, with clothing and fabrics going to her daughters.
Socialization, Traditionally, a pregnant woman and her family would be excluded from community events. When it was time to give birth she had to leave the village and repair to a shabby childbirth hut (sachekhi ). Only in case of a difficult delivery could she have others to assist (relatives would attend her). All objects used by her were considered unclean and could not be used within the household. The birth of a son was welcomed more than that of a daughter. The father of a baby boy might entertain guests with beer and vodka for an entire week. In the nineteenth century a woman might have been confined to the hut for a month after the birth of a child and would come out only after a thorough purification, after which the hut was burned down. The birth was then announced to the community, and all invited guests would bring gifts and attend a banquet. Should a newborn die within seven weeks of birth, traditional practice dictated that the body be smeared with a mixture of ashes and water and then buried. Only after seven weeks would a child be given a Christian baptism. Despite the fact that much time was devoted to the raising of children, public displays of affection toward children were avoided and coddling only took place within the home.
Juridical matters were in most cases settled within the village community. The village elders functioned as judges and the qevisberi ("monk/priest of the ravine") as arbitrator. Any infraction could be completely indemnified, and an established canon of laws specified the offenses and their punishments. Up through the nineteenth century blood feuds were common among the Khevsur, hence the bearing of arms and armor. A person who was targeted for revenge could never feel entirely secure until the offense was expiated. At times feuds continued for generations, with grave consequences: entire clans or villages became embroiled in enmity. After killing an enemy, a man would cut off the dead foe's right hand and nail it to his house. Such trophies could be seen in Khevsureti up to the middle of this century.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs and Practices. Khevsur religion is an amalgam of several interwined traditions. Although they consider themselves Christian (Georgian Orthodox), their religious system comprises pagan, Old Testament, Christian, and Moslem elements. The chief authority in religious affairs is the dek'anosi (deacon) or qevisberi. A man can become a qevisberi only on the basis of a vision of God or one of the saints (who function as minor deities), supplemented by the recommendation of another priest. Only priests can ordain a man into the priesthood and assign him his duties. The qevisberi presides at the altar, offers sacrifices, supervises the brewing of ritual beer, heals illnesses, performs blessings, and intercedes with the patron saint of the shrine. Among the ritual functionaries subordinate to him are the khutsesi, dast'uri, mekhat'e, medroshe, and rnezare. The khutsesi presides at weddings, burials, and funerals, and performs certain blessings (e.g., after childbirth). The dast'uri serves for a one-year term, with the election taking place at the New Year. He is responsible for brewing the sacred beer, distilling vodka, baking bread, and cooking the meat of sacrificed animals. Those serving in this office are expected to live ascetic and abstemious lives. The mekhat'e bears the holy icon in processions, and the medroshe carries the flag. The mezare is the guardian of the treasure entrusted to the shrine. This consists of the silver bowls and chalices used in ritual ceremonies and the flag of the shrine (drosha), which is regarded with great reverence by the people.
The function of communicating with the supernatural world is divided among several practitioners. The kadage is a shamanlike prophet; he pronounces his prophecies while in a trance, during which he might engage in self-flagellation. Women and girls can also perform this office, in which case their function is to establish the causes of illnesses, misfortune, and casualties in battle. The mesultane can see into the world of the dead and communicate with the souls of the departed. In return for gifts she will establish contact with departed souls and ask about their well-being, their needs, or if there is the threat of evil. The mkitkhave is another type of intermediary. She inquires about the causes of illnesses and the possibility of healing. For example, the afflicted person might have to be taken to a particular altar, where a sacrifice is to be offered. While performing certain rituals and prayers, the qevisberi slaughters a sheep and collects its blood in a bowl. He makes the sign of the cross upon the sick person and sprinkles him or her with the blood, after which the animal is prepared for eating. The qevisberi, possessed by the demon driven out by the blood of the sacrificed animal, must then heal himself. This ritual is performed at the women's festival grounds. Wounds and minor illnesses are treated with medicinal herbs and other natural means.
The Khevsur observe a cycle of feast days, which are accompanied by traditional rites. A Khevsur must undergo a ritual cleansing before approaching the shrine on the occasion of a festival. The summer festivals take place in June and July, with the date reckoned from Easter. Easter and Christmas are clearly Christian feast days, and both are preceded by periods of fasting. The high point is Holy Week, the week preceding Easter. The first of the summer festivals is the feast of Qaqmat'is-jvari, one of the most solemn in Khevsureti. The festival usually lasts four to five days and is celebrated at the most sacred altar in Khevsureti, consecrated to Saint George. Of particular significance to these ceremonies are the silver chalices and bowls, decorated with engravings and precious objects—each vessel has a particular function and is consecrated to a particular deity. Another important feast day is Atangena, celebrated between 13 and 27 July. There are also many festivals that are only observed in individual villages. Khevsur festivals, like those elsewhere in Georgia, are marked by music, dancing, and singing.
Certain animals have specific functions and attributes according to Khevsur belief. The cat is considered an unclean animal. Should a member of the community be convicted of thievery, a dead cat would be hung by his house as a sign of shame. In the event that the accused person did not admit to the crime, a dog would be killed in his name—an especially severe insult. Migratory birds were watched for because they were believed to bring diseases; when the birds arrived, specified practices were to be followed.
Death and Afterlife. Funerary rituals and the cult of the dead are an important part of Khevsur culture. As is the case elsewhere in the Caucasus, elaborate funeral rituals and banquets are held in commemoration of departed family members. Should a person be on the verge of dying, he or she is brought out of doors, since dead bodies render the house unclean. The body is prepared by narevebi (body washers) and dressed in the person's best holiday clothing. Since they have been polluted by contact with a corpse, the narevebi must remain secluded and undergo a weeklong series of purification rites. Most often young men assume this function. For three to four days the deceased lies in state before the house, and keening women lament in loud voices. Some women are engaged expressly for this purpose, for which they are compensated with food. Meanwhile the relatives are seated in the house with the khutsesi, who offers prayers for the deceased. On the day of burial the dead person is publicly mourned by all of the villagers, who punctuate their laments by beating on their breasts and knees. Before the introduction of interment at the beginning of the twentieth century, the dead were placed in mausoleums (ak'ldama ), which are still to be seen in Anat'ori or Mutso. These are small houselike structures with stone benches inside, on which the dead were placed in a seated position. The survivors would provide them pouches containing provisions, a pipe, and tobacco. In the case of burial, the body is laid in a family grave lined with sheets of slate, in which all family members, including relatives who bear the same name, are buried. All adornments are removed from the body, and it is laid to rest on its back. The soul is sent on its long journey to the afterworld with provisions of bread, apples, nuts, a comb, a mirror, and weapons. A Khevsur horse must also be present during the burial. It is specially decked out with finery and led to the grave site. After the ceremony a horse race is conducted in honor of the deceased.
A commemorative feast is held forty days after interment. The principal commemoration takes place a year after death and lasts for three days. All relatives are invited, and it is considered dishonorable not to attend (the offense is punishable by expulsion from the community). Each guest must supply a portion of the food and beverage for the banquet. Eulogies are pronounced; a deceased man's courage, articulateness, and skill with weapons in battle and in hunting are recalled with praise. The Khevsur regard the soul as pure; in order for it to reach the land of the dead, it must cross a bridge made from a single hair. At the other end of the hair bridge is the judge of the dead, who pronounces sentence. Sinners are condemned to swim in a river of tar, liars are doused with hot water, and traitors must stand in hot water. After thus expiating their sins, the souls can enter paradise, which is conceived of as a many-storied white building. The more virtuous a soul is, the higher its place in the building; the purest souls, such as those of children, are assigned to the top story. Over the course of time a soul can ascend to higher floors. Hell, by contrast, is believed to be a dark four-cornered room.
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