If someone ever asks you to give them a lesson in the complexities of Balkan history, diversity of Balkan ethnography, and fluidity of Balkan linguistics, just point them to Vlasina and Krajište. It’s got it all.
This tiny region is roughly bounded between the Vranje valley, east to Vlasotince, and beyond it to Trn, Kyustendil, and Radomir in Bulgaria. The southern portion of the area is called Krajište, while the northern portion is called Vlasina and is centred around what was once a large wetland, Vlasinsko Blato, which is today Lake Vlasina, thanks to a hydroelectric dam. In Rista Nikolić’s historic study of the region, he lists 24 villages in Vlasina, and 53 in Krajište, 45 of them in Serbian Krajište and the rest in Bulgaria. These villages both then and now represent, as Đorđević et al state in their study of the area, “ethnically diverse, often very poor villages, where the villagers sometimes feel forgotten by their governments, but where they keep alive their religious customs, national traditions, and hope”
Located on a thoroughfare linking Belgrade to Constantinople (Carigradski drum), Vlasina and Krajište had good trade links. Cotton and silk from Turkey and Thrace made its way to Serbia; within Serbia, the potent alcohol called rakija arrived from Negotin, wine from Aleksandrovac, hemp fibre from Leskovac, and pine tar from Užice; from Bulgarian Krajište, grain and salt often arrived from Trn, a city that still has an ethnic Serbian population. Until 1855 Vlasina exported mined coal and minerals to these regions; both it and Krajište exported wool, kačkavalj cheese, and livestock until well into the late 20th century. The most important connection Vlasina and Krajište had was to the rich and fertile Morava valley. An expression in the border region plain of Znepolje states “Kada je Morava gladna, gladni su devet kadiluka!” “If the Morava valley is hungry, then nine counties starve with it!” Many times in the past have villages of Vlasina been wiped out by summer drought or a harsh winter.
The Carigradski Drum road served as a postal route, too, for surgundžije (mail carriers) on horseback, resting and changing horses at stations called mezilane (from the Turkish menzilhan, an inn at a resting place)
The main economic activity at the turn of the 20th century was pečalbarstvo, or migrant work. It was practiced throughout this and neighbouring regions (i.e. Crna Trava and Pirot), but not equally represented in all towns or villages. In some villages and towns, literally all of the men and boys went. Youths started going with their fathers and uncles as early as ages 8 or 10. People of Vlasina and Krajište had the well-deserved reputation as hard-working and diligent, and took their skills throughout Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and as far as eastern Bosnia. Work crews went together especially for the more complex trades such as construction; groups of men from a given village travelled together for safety and companionship. Although all trades were represented throughout the regions, the trades that went most frequently on pečalba were: vignjari – miners; dunđeri – builders; kačari – coopers, makers of barrels and kegs; keramidžije – makers of clay roof tiles, who often went with dunđeri to do roofing. The practice persists, but by the late 20th century central and western Europe were the main destinations, and migrants rarely practiced traditional trades.
Pečalba comes from the old Slavonic word pečal, meaning woe. That this separation from family and hearth was born of hardship is in no doubt, and the uncertainty of departing to parts unknown certainly caused woe to migrants and to their families. There were many customs surrounding the departure of pečalbari workers. For example, one was never to wish them good luck; instead, one would simply greet them with “Ako Bog da!” – “God willing!”. In order to avoid running into a known baksuz (an individual known to have had or brought bad luck) departure was often in the earliest hours of the day, before dawn. On the eve of the departure, women decorated their homes with green twigs, and with the thorny twigs of the hawthorn tree (glogovo trnje). This was done so that, just like the thorns snag our clothing, money might attach itself to the workers, and so that they would remain attached to their wives during their absence. When a husband left, the wife would often go out into the meadow and dig up a clod of earth with daisies growing in it. This flower, called bela rada in standard Serbian, is known as vrtipop locally (literally, “spin the priest around”). The name was an association to returning home, turning back. One clod was dug up for each male in the household, and it was taken home, planted in the garden or in pots, carefully watered, tended, and observed. If the flowers were weak and spindly, it did not bode well for the success of their venture. Large, healthy flowers meant good earnings and good health for their menfolk.
Pečalba left “grass widows” at home – portrayed in folk songs as longing for their husbands or fiances, but in reality it could be liberating: a type of temporary gynecocratia, or matriarchy held sway for months of their men’s absences. As a reflection of this, from the men’s side, the patriarchal nature of traditional village society was tempered in Vlasina, with women having much more of a role in decision making of the household even in their husbands’ presence.
Of other customs, the processions on Lazarus’ Saturday, known as Lazarice, were well known here as they were throughout southern Morava, Pčinja, and other districts. The people attributed many aspects of human behaviour and living things to the natural world, and thought of the Earth itself as alive. Magical practices and places were firmly held to be effective. One particularly important place was the intersection of roads, called locally krstoputina (standard raskrsnica). When curses needed to be lifted, or illnesses healed, the rituals were often carried out here, so that the illness or ill will would go in a different direction, away from the afflicted, as one charm (basma) says, “negde u planinu gde kokoške ne kreku, petlovi ne pevaju, pseta ne laju, deca ne plaču…” – “somewhere into the mountains where chickens don’t squawk, roosters don’t crow, dogs don’t bark, and children don’t cry…”. A place of utter silence, of nothingness.
The population itself bears much of the same characteristics of the population of the broader Šopluk, which Vlasina & Krajište are technically a part of. Until the imposition of a formal national border in 1878, the population was seasonally nomadic, intermixed, and really only defined themselves by religion. Everyone was either Orthodox, or Muslim (although local lore recalls the Latini, long-gone Saxon miners of the middle ages, who were Catholics). Nikolić noted that the people did not define themselves strongly by nationality – everyone was simply “našinci”, or “our people” – but more so by regional names: Banjčani (from Banjsko, i.e. inhabitants of Kyustendil), Znepoljci, Krajiščanje. In fact he claimed to have only once heard a clear declaration of nationality, in a village outside of Radomir, Bulgaria, where a man told him “Ni sme Srbje” – “We are Serbs”. The term Srbje is used by Central Krajište villagers for the inhabitants of Upper Krajište and Vlasina, and of them they say that they “speak roughly” – “grubo govore”. Nikolić recorded in Glogovica village that the locals say “Nije govorimo po srpski” – “We speak Serbian”, that they say “ovca” (sheep) while central Krajište villagers say “ovcata”; “jarac” (male goat) instead of “jarec”, etc. The vowel –o is often added to the ending of words: idev do Grko i Karadago (They went to Greece and Skopska Crna Gora), Momče vojniko moj (My boyfriend the soldier), Na izvoro (at the spring)… Still, the dialect was very much Torlak, and had specific vocabulary not found west of the Morava river: stomna for testija (ceramic jug); grsnici for konoplja (hemp); oti for zašto (why), etc.
Whether through migrant work, or due to trade with Morava valley towns, Vlasinci (the people of Vlasina), Nikolić noted, felt closer to Serbs. This was especially true among those who had gone beyond the Torlak and Šop areas of Bulgaria (which were culturally similar) and ventured farther east into Thrace or beyond. The language and culture become very different, and the Vlasinci felt distant from them, calling them melezi or “hybrids”. Due to pečalba, many Vlasinci learned standard serbian and spoke it clearly.
Nikolić writes that gusle, slava, Serbian legends, and Serbian given names (Vukašin, Miloš, Radovan) were standard throughout the regions. However, he also saw the role that the two states were having on creating two cultural entities. For example, where the Serbian government had provided just one teacher for Vlasina district, the Bulgarian government had sent five to one village, Božica. The teachers were from Sofia and through their tactics children were learning Bulgarian songs, locals were pressured to give names from the earliest periods of Bulgarian history, older than their assimilation by the Slavs (Asen, Krum). Nikolić noted that even the locals questioned “Otkuda mu takvo ime?” – “Where’d they get that name?” to which people were told “umešao se taj i taj, pa…” “so and so got mixed up in the situation…”
Folklorically, the songs and dances of Vlasina and Krajište are known today as being very lively and temperamental. This seems to have been a trend of change that began at the start of the twentieth century; prior to this, older people told Nikolić and later the Janković sisters that their dancing used to be more stately, tempered and elegant – meraklijski. Although by the First World War brass orchestras were standard for weddings and large gatherings, the traditional instruments that accompanied songs and dances were gajde (bagpipe), tupan (drum), ćemane (lyre-like fiddle, derived from the Turkish kemence), duduk (reedless wooden flute). The zurle, a Levantine oboe, were played by Gypsy musicians especially. The classic Serbian instrument gusle accompanied the epic songs of the Kosovo and Pre-Kosovo song cycles. In one village, Crvena Jabuka, Nikolić was surprised that the gusle were the only instrument that the villagers played. The sisters Danica and Ljubica Janković list as the most popular dances in the village of Božica: Pešački or Po Samo (“Walking” or “Alone”, a solo dance), Vlasinka, Sitno oro, Selsko, Lile, Četvorka, Osmorka (Ide Jovo), Čičino dete
A local shared this anecdote with them:
“Igrala se vlasinka. Jedna devojka nije imala dovoljno jak pojas, pa nije smela da igra i stajala je očajna u strani. Ponudih joj svoj opasač, a posle – šta da vam kažem! Oženio sam se njome…!”
“The Vlasinka was being danced. One girl didn’t have a strong enough sash, so she didn’t dare dance and she stood downtrodden watching from the side. I offered her my sash, and then – what can I tell you! I married her….!”
Costumes in this mountain region reflect the habitat and available materials: wool and hemp cloth prevail, with linen only for special occasion garments and cotton arriving later.
The older costume variant for men was very similar to that of Šopluk, made of white klašnja and trimmed in black thread and braid (gajtan). By the turn of the 20th century, most of men’s clothing began to be made from darker wool cloth, mainly sukno dyed dark brown in walnut shells and husks. Only certain white klašnja elements remained by then, such as the pants (benevreci) and a short-sleeved open vest, called doramče or dolaktenik.
Elements of men’s costume included:
Košulja – hemp or linen shirt, at one time mid-thigh in length, with no embroidered ornamentation
Benevreci, brevenici – once made of the warm but fine white klašnja cloth, but from the turn of the 20th century made from dark sukno.
Čarape – high white socks worn over the pants, knit from unbleached wool
Opanci prešnjaci – rawhide opanci, often made within the household or by the wearer
Opasač – wide woolen sash, generally darker tones of brown, black, red, dark blue.
Dolaktenik, doramče – open vest, or jacket, with elbow-length sleeves, decorated in white gajtan
Gunjče, dolama – an open long vest that folded over, generally worn in winter, bound by the sash
Palta – a short leather vest, fur trimmed and lined, worn on festive occasions or as winter wear
Šubara – a tall fur hat, made of white, yellowish, or black unbleached fleece.
The women’s costumes of the district can be very diverse. There are villages toward Pirot and Trn that are the litak style, and others toward Trgovište and Pčinja that are vuta style. However, the distinctive costume of the region, found as far as Kyustendil, it the saja or sukman style of costume.
This costume was much more ornate and refined than the unadorned, rough cloth garments worn by men. It is based on a garment whose design is of very old Slavic origin, the saja or sukman, but with ornamentation having distinctly Levantine influence. This is a short-sleeved garment made from dark wool čoja cloth, trimmed at the shoulders, bodice and hem with rows upon rows colourful gajtan braid, gold srma, silk embroidery, and occasional additions such as passementerie trim (širit, vrpce) and rarely glass beads (manistra). This garment was generally produced by craftsmen, and due to the expense of the ornamentation, it was not uncommon for women to cut away the trim from a worn saja in order to sew them onto a new homemade one. Serbian women exclusively wore black saje; Bulgarian women wore black, white, and even green saje. Moreoever, Serbian women wore shifts that they made themselves, with often elaborate embroidery along the length of the sleeve. Bulgarian women augmented their white shifts (much less adorned) with silk or satin false sleeves worn beneath the shift, and matching bibs worn to be seen through the bodice opening. It is incredibly frustrating to see Serbian folk ensembles wear the Bulgarian costume because it is, as I’ve been told, “flashier”. The only ensemble at time of writing that wears the correct costume entirely is the Serbian Academic Folk Ensemble “Kolo” from Koper, Slovenia. Not even Belgrade’s Kolo is immune to glitz, ethnographic accuracy be damned.
The main elements of a Serbian woman’s Vlasino-Krajište costume in this region are:
Košulja – hemp or linen long shirt with embroidered sleeves and bodice; later, cotton with lace at the sleeves and neck.
Saja, Sukman – black wool outer garment with ornamented bodice, sleeves and hem.
Skutača, zapreška – apron woven from wool, often in one or two colours and occasionally with metallic srma wire; horizontal striped; in the village of Božica, two were once worn, front and back.
Pojas – heavy sash made from cloth woven in a similar technique to the apron, then cut and sewn.
Gunjče, kolija, kuntuš – variou short bolero vests with fur, worn only by Bulgarian women in Kyustendil Krajište
Džube – a long sleeveless open vest of dark wool cloth, lined or unlined, worn over the saja in winter.
Kajče – cap worn by young married women, made from gathered wool cloth.
Futaljka – headdress worn by married women; cap with long narrow cloth extending down the back, in Serbia no longer than the waist but in Bulgaria to the knees or calf; decorated with embroidery, gajtan, passementerie trim; like krpa of Kosovo region.
Zabratka, marama – Nikolić specifically notes that the kerchief was simply white, or in mourning black; not dark coloured or very long as in Kyustendil; in the interwar period commercial printed kerchiefs began to be worn.
Skoluvi – thick braids worn prominently to frame the face, in contrast to the rows of very fine braids once worn by unmarried girls
Pavti – silver or brass plated decorated buckles, sometimes very large.
Đerdani – niello necklaces pinned to the bodice of the saja.
Igle – various pins used to decorate the kajče and futaljka, or keep a kerchief in place
I have two original saje from the region, one from Božica (acquired 1992) and the other from Kriva Feja (2010). They are both made from black sukno, with gajtan trim which appears to have been commercial in origin. Its uniformity and the brighter dye colours tell me that they are both from the early 20th century, when such materials made their way to this forgotten pocket of the Balkans, and after the introduction of cheap and durable aniline dyes. The srma work (gold wire decoration) is very well preserved and exquisitely detailed. The sash from Božica is heavy and includes metallic threads and wire. Of the two zapreške, one is quite old but I am unsure how old. The type of weaving, which includes finely woven geometric patterns, indicates an older age and may also be from the Bulgarian side of the border; the collector from whom I purchased it was not very knowledgeable about its provenance. The second is a late 20th century apron from Kriva Feja, made of commercially woven wool cloth augmented with wool and silk embroidery.
Assorted images of details from the costumes highlighted in this post. The metallic srma designs on the saje are particularly well executed, but I am personally always impressed by the well coordinated colours of the silk braid trim on bodice and sleeves. Click on any image to enlarge it.
For Further Reading:
Bjeladinovic-Jergić, Jasna. Ivana Delač, Eng. trans. (2011) Serbian Ethnic Dress in XIX and XX Centuries, Book 2. Ethnographic Museum, Belgrade.
Đorđević, Dragoljub B., Đura Stefanović, Dragan Todorović. (2011) Selo u Pograničju Istočne i Jugoistočne Srbije. Niš – Beograd, Zavod za Proučavanje Sela, Službeni Glasnik.
Ivkov, Anđelija, Milana Pašić, Goran Ćurčić. (2008) Igre i Običaji iz Bosilegradskog Krajišta. Zbornik Radova DTGH, vol. 37.
Janković, Danica, Ljubica Janković (1952) Narodne Igre VII p. 68 – 85 Narodne igre u Božici. Prosveta, Beograd.
Nikolić, Rista T. (1912) Vlasina i Krajište: Antropogeografska Proučavanja. Serija Naselja i Stanovništvo. Srpski Etnografski Zbornik i Srpska Kraljevska Akademija.
Veleva, M. G., ill. Neva Tuzsuzova, Venera Naslednikova. Bulgarski Narodni Nosii Shevitsi (Bulgarian National Costumes and Embroidery). Nauka i Izkustvo, Sofia.