A tradition etched into the culture of Kyrgyzstan, a country hunkered in the mountains of central Asia, Ala Kachuu is more commonly known as Bride Kidnapping. This is a practice that whilst now illegal, still takes place today. At its peak during the soviet rule, the basis behind the practice, was that it was expected, that by a certain age one must be married. With such a nomadic population, it is often hard to meet people via traditional dating methods and so the practice of Ala Kachuu took off.
In simple terms, the man would simply suss out a female he was interested in. When timing was right, she would be ‘snatched’ and most times, bundled into a car, and driven to the family home where the grandmother would be waiting along with the groom’s family. On arrival, the bewildered bride, would have a white doily like cloth gently placed over her head – that was it. It was time to be married, there and then! To have your daughter kidnapped was a great privilege to the family of the bride. It showed that the daughter was raised well and was sought after. For the female, it was often terrifying and heartbreaking – especially if there was another love interest who was forced to be left behind. To say “no” or to plan to run away from your captor (, I mean husband), would bring shame to the bride’s family.
The tears shed by the new bride, were often ignored. In such a common practice where tears were rife, over decades, families were desensitized to this reaction. Tears would not flow forever and at some point, the bride would need to accept her new husband and family.
Many of the stories turn out to be happy endings, much like many arranged marriages, but there are plenty that do not. I had the privilege to interview several people about their personal experience of Ala Kachuu. All with a mixed tangle of endings.
The first was a man we will call Uulu. He was a man looking for a wife. He asked if I would be interested in being kidnapped and living in his village – not quite the traditional way the practice generally happens, but being a foreigner, kidnapping someone from another nation could certainly have its problems. I took the time to chat with him to understand more about the practice.
He shares that he has kidnapped a bride for his friend in the past, and they now have five children. This was during the soviet times in the mountain areas, where it was a very common tradition. The bride and groom did not know each other beforehand. It was a pure kidnapping. I asked how they chose this bride. He says his friend was a farmer from the countryside wanted an educated wife from the city such as a teacher or a doctor, so the friends went in search of such a woman. From the distance, they looked at the group of girls. The man who was looking to be married chose one of the girls and they kidnapped her immediately and took her to the country side. The deal was done.
I ask Uulu what he is looking for with his wife. He jokes and says it is more of a business transaction these days. The ladies want to know do you have a car, how many apartments do you have before anything happens. Uulu states that it is a minimum three years in prison these days if the kidnapping is not successful.
The traditional way of marrying today, is via agreement where money is transacted between the two families. Many young men do not have this sort of money, so they still take the risk of Ala Kachuu as there is no cost involved. The women today are also very independent. Times have changed since the soviet times where communism ruled.
One of our drivers, in his younger days, kidnapped his wife. Had two children with her but it sadly ended in divorce. He is now happily married to his second wife.
Nurshat, the lady who runs one of the hotels we stayed in, shares her story with me, along with her sister in-law, Ilmira, who played a part in the kidnapping of her brother’s wife.
Ilmira tells me her husband is from the same village as Nurshat. There was an older sister who knew Nurshat and suggested to Ilmira that this lady is very nice and our brother may like her. Another family member also knew her and agreed with this.
Ilmira’s brother, was quite a heavy character and by 31yrs old, he was still not married which is unheard of in this culture so the sisters decided to take him to Bishkek where the ‘meeting’ would take place. Nurshat and the prospective husband ‘met’ in very loose terms, in a restaurant but it was more like a blind date – neither knew they were meeting the other and they didn’t actually meet. They just sort of eyed each other off as you do with your friends – hey check out that guy over there… what do you think of him… sort of thing. The sister found out that Nurshat had another admirer who was planning to kidnap her. Once they realised this, they knew they had to act fast. This girl was in demand! The sisters and a few other relatives decided to take matters into their own hands. Nurshat was working in a hotel. The family tuned up at the hotel – the future husband at this stage, had no idea what was being planned.
A few days before this action, they asked the future husband what he thought of the lady in the restaurant. He said ‘yeah, she’s ok’. Nurshat agreed to get into the car at the hotel thinking she was going somewhere with her friends in his family. But no. They took her.
I asked Nurshat how she felt – was she happy, sad, did she know what was happening?
Nurshat tells me that she didn’t realise at first that she was kidnapped. The family were thinking whilst they were driving, how do we tell her that we have kidnapped her? But they could not decide how to tell her. They arrived in the city whilst at the same time Ilmira was in the city already trying to get her brother to come to the meeting point, to tell him he now had a fiancé.
They drove around the whole night searching for the future husband to tell him of this news, but they couldn’t find him anywhere so they went home (where they found him asleep!). Naturally, they woke him up saying ‘congratulations, you are married now’.
Nurshat said she did not cry once the pieces all fell into place – she took it quite well. She said didn’t cry because she knew she was going to escape. She was already planning how to get away. The plot thickens!
The mother-in-law, had been waiting for this moment. The village was ready. A large meal was prepared in record time and a special room was prepared where the bride was to get ready, where only the groom can see her. The newlyweds arrived in the village in the evening. Friends and family (200 people in total), were already there awaiting their arrival. The whole process was co-ordinated in less than 12 hours. The husband joked that he was married without knowing he was married.
I ask about her attempted escape. She said she did not end up trying. Once she met the mother-in-law, she realised how special this family was and that there was now no reason to run away. She was 25 years old when this happened and they are still together today. She is now in her mid 40’s.
They have three main celebrations each year. The day she was kidnapped, the following day when the village wedding happened and two weeks later when the official ceremony took place.
At this time, there were no large restaurants that could cater for the wedding which was over 200 people. They slaughtered a horse as per Kyrgyz tradition to feed the village and over 20 years later, they now have three children.
Ilmira says that someone above decides when and whether a marriage should happen or not and it was a huge sign for the family that they met the right girl. When the two sets of parents met, the in-laws went via the animal markets and purchased a sheep to present to the brides family. They said to the merchant we need the best sheep – this is for a very special occasion. They arrived at the brides family home and the father of the bride says ‘that is our sheep – we just took him to sell at the markets this morning!’ They took this as a sign.
The next hotel we visited for lunch, the lady operating the restaurant here, was also kidnapped. She was taken from the city to a remote village where she cried and cried for days. She was a city girl and this village had less than 100 people. She is still living and working in this village 30 years later and says her husband is a good man who treats her very well.
In Son Kul Lake, we visit some nomads. We are in the middle of nowhere, hours from any sort of civilisation. As a nomadic man slaughters a sheep in front of us, he tells us that this year he will be kidnapping a bride and he will be married. I asked if he had a short list of suitors. He says “no, not yet, but I will find my bride and take her.” I ask about the hefty fine now in place. He says he is prepared to take the risk. He is in his mid-20’s and it is time he is married. The family expect this of him. The mentality of those in the regional areas varies greatly from the city slickers.
As we make our way back towards Bishkek, the countries capital, we stop to visit the site of Burana. Here lies the ancient ruins of a silk road city and at the centre is a tall tower which lost several upper floors during the 1960’s earthquake. I climb the tower to take in the surrounding views. It is simply spectacular. As I come down and make my way back to the bus, our guide says to me “did you know this is the site of an Ala Kachuu suicide only a few months ago?” Shocked, I pause and look at him.
He tells me the tragic story of an 18-year-old girl who was kidnapped by a much older man in his 50’s. Only married for 3 months, the young girl begged her parents to help her escape saying she is being beaten and mistreated. Her parents, tell her she is not welcome at home – she has a new family now and she must work through the trials and tribulations of a new marriage. Feeling helpless and alone, one morning before the site opened to the public, the girl climbed the tower and threw herself off the top, tragically not surviving the fall.
A fascinating tradition where every story is different yet not dissimilar to arranged marriages which still take place in many countries today. Some are a success and some are not – much like our traditional marriages. So which way is the right way?
Keen to explore Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia? Check out our small group tours here.
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