Kukeri – The Magical Centuries-Old Tradition

All around the world, different cultures have various ways to scare evil spirits away. Some of these are the baby crying contest in Tokyo and the Joaldunak in northern Spain. In Bulgaria, the kukeri (also known as survakari, babugeri, starci, chaushi) scare away evil spirits between Christmas and Easter. The kukeri tradition is predominantly preserved in the region of Pernik and is passed on through generations.

Bearers of the tradition. Photo by Dundee Ch Photography.

The word “kukeri” has a Thracian origin. Its exact meaning is “high and masked people,” as the participants wear masks, which can reach over two meters. This tradition is one of the oldest ones in Bulgaria, and it dates back to Pagan times, beginning over 6000 years ago.

There are several myths about the ritual. For example, not only do the kukeri symbolize the scaring away of evil spirits, but they also symbolize the end of winter, and the beginning of spring.

In Thracian times, the tradition was celebrated during the days which honored Dionysus, the Ancient Greek god of wine and festivity. Another legend states that it comes from Bulgarians worshipping the ancient god of the sun, Surva.

When looking at the masks of the kukeri, one can see a difference in their design depending on the region in Bulgaria. The design is meant to be scary as they are made to ward away the evil. Another important aspect of the kukeri outfit are the bells around the waist. When the kukeri begin to dance, the sound of the bells can be heard all over town and they are used to ensure greater protection from the evil spirits.

Masks of the kukeri. Photo by Dundee Ch Photography.

Local Surva is the name of the tradition preserved in the Pernik region. It was inscribed in 2015 on UNESCO’S Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It starts on the eve of Jan. 13, and continues into the next day (according to the Julian calendar Jan. 14 is the first day of the New Year). Almost every village in the region has a kukeri group, and in some cases it may exceed 50 people. A typical part of the tradition for the group of kukeri, which used to be composed only of men, is the gathering around the village square, where a fire is lit up. The kukeri then perform a sacred dance around the fire with the sound of the bells ringing through the air. The group then visits every house in the village in order to scare the evil spirits away and bring prosperity and fertility to the families. The groups are welcomed with traditional Bulgarian dishes, drinks, and gifts. Usually, the gifts are donated to orphans and the poor. Throughout the years, the tradition has changed, and now women and children have also begun to participate.

The costumes in Pernik are usually made of cloth or animal fur and every village has its own style. The masks are made from wood, fur or feathers. There are costumes which are higher than three meters and weigh over 100kg. The participants either make the masks on their own or with the help of a local craftsman. They are kept in secret even from the other members of the group so that their magic power is preserved.

Local Surva. Photo by Dundee Ch Photography.

Except for local Surva, there is a festival held in Pernik, which was declared a European Capital of Sourvakar and Mummer traditions in 2009. The city has also been a member of the International Federation of Carnival Cities since 1995. The federation’s main goal is to present the cultural identity of people through masquerades. Surva is the biggest masquerade festival on the Balkan Peninsula and usually takes place during the last weekend of January. The festival’s first organized edition was in 1966 and since 1985 it has become an international event in which groups from South America, Africa, and Asia have also participated. The groups pass through the town square where they present their dances, and then one group is chosen as the best.

The Surva Festival. Photo by Dundee Ch Photography.

In recent years, Vanesa Viktorova has become one of the faces of Surva.

“Surva for me is an opportunity to feel a centuries old tradition. It makes me feel significant and it makes my interest in the history of Bulgaria even larger. For me Surva is a love and emotion like no other. When I put on the costume and mask, I become lost in the magic of Surva,” Viktorova shared after this year’s local Surva.

Vanesa Viktorova. Photo by Dundee Ch Photography.

The festival has not been held in the past two years as Pernik suffered a water crisis in 2020, while this year the COVID-19 pandemic forced the festival’s cancellation. Perhaps, this is what happens when the evil spirits are not scared away! However, local Surva has kept the tradition alive.

The festival is planned to be held again in 2022 when the magic of Surva will have the opportunity to capture the hearts of the people.

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