The Word ‘Bakshi’ and Where It Takes Us

Peter Sellers plays the main character called Hrundi Bakshi in his great 1968 film, ‘The Party’, directed by Blake Edwards, a movie I never get bored watching.  I have always loved the character so much that I started using the nickname ‘Hrundi Bakshi’ on my personal Twitter account.

Recently, I kept running across the word ‘Baksı’ frequently during my readings and I was so curious that I ended up doing some research about it. Let me take you on a journey to explain where this research took me and how I got lost in its vast ocean.

Bakshi is one of India’s most important castes, an honorable surname used by famous and wealthier people in India. The surname also sounds like “baksı” in Turkic language. In Turkish culture, the ‘bard-baksı tradition’ goes back to the “Aşık” (bard, troubadour) tradition, which originated from Central Asian Turkish culture and reached to the present day through its appropriation in the Ottoman Empire.

Of course, it has gone through significant changes and transformations in its historical course. The word ‘Baksı’ has been used by different Turkic nations throughout history. It means the person who tells epic stories in Turkmens, the epicist or fortune teller in Uzbeks and the person who casts magic in The Kazakhs and Khirghizs, which takes its roots from Shamanism.

As it is widely known, there is a direct relation between Shamanism and music. With the aid of rhythmic drumming and chanting, the shaman transcends into a deep and ecstatic trance state of mind.  This wise person can be a folk bard, folk healer or a folk poet, who is an important figure in this culture. ‘Baksı’ used to tell folk epics accompanied by music in these Central Asian cultures. The meaning of the word ‘Baksı’ expanded to mean a Buddhist monk. After all, cultures transcend geographies. In Central Asia, they wore red dresses when they chased souls. Is it just a coincidence that Buddhist monks wear orange? Who knows!

It is widely agreed by scientists that Native Americans’ ancestors split from the people living in Siberia about 25,000 years ago. Later, they moved across a land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska, making it into the Pacific Northwest and to South America. We also know that Shamanism originated in Siberia during the hunters-gatherers period. Although Shamanism is not accepted as the origin of Native American belief system, it is still possible to see similar customs and traditions in both cultures. After all, people carried their religion, traditions and culture with them all the way through these migration routes and basic ideology of shamanism has retained its survival over enormous distances in time, space, environment and social context.

Baksı & Alevi

It would not be wrong to say that first Turkic migrants who came from Central Asia brought the Bard (Aşık) and Baksı culture along with them. Another name for Baksı is “Dede” (Grandfather), same as Alevis call their wise elders. It is strongly believed that Alevi culture is a branch of Altai Turks and Alevi religion is said to be a blend of Shamanism & Islam. The word Shaman, rooted back to the word ‘kam’ (qam) in Central Asia, meaning spiritual guide of a community, who is wise and sage, corresponds to ‘Cem’ in the modern Alevi faith. This culture later became the Anatolian Sufism after they settled in Anatolian lands. The Shamanic customs and traditions continued in daily life until today and it is possible to see that modern Shamanism is on the rise again within Turkey.

Alevi-Bektashi literature, which is mostly based on oral tradition, owes its existence to ‘bards & troubadours’ who carried this tradition to date. History tells that a significant number of bards who are the creators of Anatolian folk poetry have grown up from the Alevi-Bektashi tradition. The literature and philosophy of Haci Bektasi Veli and Yunus Emre were highly regarded among the ‘Aşık’ culture.

Baksı museum, located in the village of Bayraktar in Eastern Anatolia, which was previously called a Baksı village, was built without any government support and features both contemporary and traditional works of art and pieces from Anatolian culture. Some of the habits that have been maintained among the people until recently suggest that the village was influenced by the shaman tradition in the distant past.

Anatolian Bards and Music

Anatolia is the land of bards. The most famous and frequently referenced poet and bard was Karacaoglan who lived in the 17th century. Later in the 20th century, Aşık Veysel, Aşık Mahzuni and Neşet Ertaş were born into the rural culture and their lyrics strongly reflected their feelings and lifelong experience accompanied with ‘saz’ or ‘baglama’, the famous string instrument of a bard. Most of their lyrics were about poverty and pain, also about love, nature and beauties of the world and beyond. They were the wanderers of Anatolia and kept telling the stories via their folk songs to various communities in weddings and local festivals.

Modern day musicians such as Barış Manço and Cem Karaca, who were extremely influenced by their predecessors, followed the same tradition and interpreted this culture successfully in a different, contemporary and a meaningful way.

A Modern Bard; Barış Manço

At this point it would be quite pertinent to say that the beloved singer-songwriter of Turkey, Barış Manço was a folk bard, traveler, musician, and a great storyteller when you carefully read his lyrics. So, it would be appropriate to call him a modern ‘Baksı’. When you look at his style, clothing and jewelry, as well as his songs, one would easily see that he successfully blended and presented the Anatolian bard culture and Sufism with Western instruments and music. He did not use the lute and saz but guitars, drums and synths instead, and eventually became the Modern Shaman.

His roots are from the Karamanço family who lived around Konya during Ottoman period. His family later decided to shorten it as Manço. He was also given an honorary degree in the early ’90s. He did not get that title only because he composed and performed beautiful songs, loved by many around the world or was a good television personality; the main reason was his conscious efforts to keep Turkish culture and folklore alive and to present good examples of this culture to the world, introducing the world’s culture to his home country.

Although he was labeled as a nationalist by some political groups due to his songs that praised being Turkish, he strongly rejected this label but tried to defend his humanist stance by keeping his distance to all political movements. He was not a typical fit into the protest nature of rock music scene or mostly left-wing Anatolian Pop movement, but it did not matter. His goal was obviously to keep Baksı culture alive, which he managed to do perfectly well and thus became one of the most famous modern bards of Anatolia. His ’70s era songs were musically strong and had the psychedelic and progressive influence in parallel to the west, but his late period song lyrics had deeper meanings which should be more carefully read.

I knew there was a much deeper reason for choosing the nickname Hrundi Bakshi. Bakshis tried to make this world more beautiful and a peaceful place. ‘Barış’ means ‘Peace’ and I believe the chosen names can affect the character of a person. Personally, as a great music lover and a fan of Barış Manço, I feel quite lucky to share the same name with this great artist. May his soul rest in peace.