Dyalama ribbon tying as a spiritual practice [2020]

Cloth ribbons—dyalama or d’yalama (дьялама)—tied to trees and other natural objects are a common sight in Altai. The dyalama ritual is associated with traditional Tengrism spiritual practices and are used by others as well – Buddhists, for example.

Dyalama ribbon site in Karakol Valley

Customs associated with the ribbons are specific, and the rituals are filled with symbolic and spiritual meaning. Understanding the purpose and significance of the dyalama ritual and becoming knowledgeable about ribbon-tying rituals are essential to appreciating this practice and respecting the beliefs of Altai’s peoples.

Here are seven essential things to know about dyalama ribbons and rituals as used in Tengri (“great blue sky/heaven”) worship, although, of course, practices vary slightly by geography, individual, and ethnicity.

1. The dyalama is not a good luck charm. At its core, the tying of the dyalama represents an appeal to the elements of nature and the spirits dwelling within. It is an offering to the spirits that rule the rivers, mountains, mountain passes, river crossings, and to ancestral spirits as well. Depending on where the ceremony is conducted, the offering may be made in gratitude for a safe journey, as an appeal for healing, or other intention.

2. The fabric, size, and preparation of the ribbon adhere to rigid rules. The dyalama is crafted from cotton fabric, most frequently white or light blue in color, but yellow, light green, and pink are also used. The fabric, which must be new, is torn into strips approximately 28-35 inches long and approximately 2 inches wide. The ribbon must be torn by hand, rather than cut with scissors.

3. The ribbons have been blessed. Prior to tying the dyalama to a tree or other object, ribbons are generally smudged (blessed) with juniper smoke.

4. Non-fabric options for crafting the ribbons are limited, but exist. In the absence of suitable fabric for making a dyalama, two strands of hair from a horse’s mane may be tied together. Another acceptable option is a bouquet of flowers, assembled from an even number of white, light blue, and yellow flowers.

5. This is an ancient tradition. The custom of sewing and tying ribbons, horsehair, and scraps of fabric onto blessed animals, trees, and other objects was practiced in ancient times by Turkic and Mongolian peoples inhabiting Central Asia, particularly in southern Siberia. Most likely, hair pulled from horses’ manes served as the first dyalama, symbolizing the sacrifice of a horse.

6. The type of tree and place matters. Ribbons tied to tree branches and shrubs, always on the eastern side. If there are no trees, the ribbons are tied to wooden sticks, placed into an “ovoo” (sacred stone heaps built from rocks, wood, silk, and other materials), or into the ground.

7. Ribbons are tied as a ritual or part of a larger ceremony. During the dyalama ritual, men should remove hats or other headgear. The person performing the ceremony states their name, gender, and reason for performing the ritual. After the ribbon is tied, participants take several steps back, say a prayer, and express gratitude to the spirits. The ceremony is not conducted during a waning moon or after sunset.

Dyalama display at a sacred ceremonial site

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