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There are four main regions in Lithuania, commonly called “ethnographic” regions. This is because each one has a distinct character expressed by differences in its folk culture. They also differ in their topography, flora and fauna, and each one has its own dialect version of the language.
Žemaitija is the ethnic region located in the current north-western part of Lithuania .
The town of Telšiai is considered to be the capital and Varniai – the second most important town of Žemaitija region.
The formation of a separate Žemaičiai tribe in the central part of current Žemaitija ended around the 5th century. Žemaitija was first mentioned in Volhynian (Ipat'evskaya) Chronicle in 1219 in the description of the Peace Treaty between Lithuanian and Volhynian Dukes. Of all Lithuanian ethnic groups in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania only Žemaitija enjoyed independent eldership rights that remained valid for almost 400 years. The turn of the 20th century saw the formation of the notion of Žemaitija based on the Žemaičiai dialect and the territory inhabited by them.
The boundaries of today’s Žemaitija region were set pursuant to this notion. Žemaitija people are also said to be stubborn and faithful. Crafts flourished in Žemaitija: carpenters built houses, made furniture and weaving wheels; coopers, clog makers, shoemakers, tailors, weavers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and tanners also had things to do. Potter’s craft was popular most of all; the prevalence of this craft and a diversity of articles brought Žemaitija ahead of all other Lithuanian regions. The town of Viekšniai has remained the centre of potters till the present. Crafts were followed by artistic pieces “for the soul”, monuments of small architecture. At the turn of the last century Žemaitija was dotted with wooden roadside shrines built on the ground or in trees as well as pillared shrines, roofed pillars and crosses decorated with polychromic figures of the Saints being the unique works of the region.
The merriest holiday for Žemaitija people is Shrove Tuesday.
The region of Lithuania Minor covers the land of Klaipėda (the Curonian Spit, Šilutė and Klaipėda Districts, and southern part of Tauragė County). In the 16th century through 1918 the current Kaliningrad region (Russian Federation) was also named Lithuania Minor, which, according to historians, represented the lands of ancient Balts. This part of Lithuania Minor is the birthplace of Lithuanian written works: the first Lithuanian book, the first Lithuanian grammar, and the first book of collected songs were printed here. The first Lithuanian group of regional studies was also established here. Its prime task was to collect Lithuanian folklore and research into the Lithuanian language. The first Lithuanian schools were opened here.
Established in 1544, Königsberg University opened the first Department of Lithuanian Language (1718). When the ban on the Lithuanian press was imposed by the tsarist authorities in 1864-1904, Lithuanian books were printed in Tilžė (Tilsit), Bitėnai and Ragainė (Ragnit) and hundreds of book carriers (Lith. knygnešiai) would smuggle the books into the country. The first periodical publications, inspiring the reestablishment of independent Lithuanian state, also appeared here in late 19th century.
The first Lithuanian Song Festival was held on the Rambynas Hill (in Rambynas National Park) in 1895 by the initiative of the prominent cultural figure of Lithuania Minor, choir leader and writer Vydūnas.
Lithuania Minor boasts diverse nature of unique beauty and an abundance of fascinating places. The region includes one of the most beautiful landscapes of Europe–UNESCO heritage site–the Curonian Spit (the Curonian Spit National Park), charming by the harmony of sands, forests and waters. Other unique sites include the Nemunas delta with a plenitude of islands, an old Rusnė town, and Minija (Mingė) village having a river instead of a central street, a seaside settlement Kintai, and Ventės Ragas with an ornithological station as the great bird migration path goes through these areas. The old lighthouses of Uostadvaris and Ventės Ragas look like soldiers on guard.
The most archaic part of the land’s heritage is represented by wooden folk architecture. Houses, porches and barns are distinguished by impressive decorations including ornamentally carved weathervanes crowned with pairs of small horses (Lith. žirgeliai) or some other lėkiai (Lith. sg. lėkis– a decorative carved board). In ancient times people used to believe that lėkis protects against the evil. Weathercocks somewhat resembling lėkiai were attached to the mast tops of kurėnas (an ancient fishermen’s boat) and would indicate the belonging of the ship to some particular village. The burial places of ancient seaside residents are enshrined by original old krikštai (sg. krikštas, ancient grave markers made of one board).
Klaipėda is the largest city of Lithuania Minor. It holds a museum with several branches intended for this land offering extensive expositions to its visitors.
Sūduva (Suvalkija) ethnographic region of Lithuania, is situated in the southern and south-western part of the country on the other side of the River Nemunas, therefore it is often called Užnemunė (the other side of the Nemunas). During the tsarist occupation in 1866-1915 Užnemunė was annexed to the Province of Suwalki (a town in northern Poland close to the Lithuanian border). That name (Suvalkija) of this region still used from these times lost its meaning long ago.
Sūduva covers the ethnic lands of the Sūduviai (Sudovians) having separated from the Jotvingiai (Yotvingians or Yatvingians), a big Baltic group, around the middle of the 1st millennium. The Sūduviai were earliest mentioned in written sources of all the residents of the current Lithuanian ethnographic regions, in the 2nd century, in “Geography” (sudinoi) by scientist and traveller Claudius Ptolemy; for another several hundred years, however, the Sūduviai were often named the Jotvingiai as well.
Since the beginning of the 1st millennium the Sūduviai have been mainly engaged in agriculture. The fact that serfdom was abolished in Sūduva earlier than in other regions of Lithuania, fertile lands favourable for farming as well as diligence of people made the region’s inhabitants the richest Lithuanian farmers of the 19th-20th centuries. Furthermore, the region had most probably the largest number of educated people at that time–even 6 of 20 signatories to the State Reestablishment Act of February 16th came from Sūduva. Jonas Jablonskis, creator of standard Lithuanian and author of several grammar books, and Vincas Kudirka, author of the Lithuanian anthem, were also born in this region.
The Sūduviai are characterized as rational, clever and extremely economical people. There are lots of anecdotes about their fist-tightness; one of them goes that the Sūduviai cut the tails of their cats away in winter in order a lesser amount of cold is admitted into the house when they go out and come in. The Sūduviai bake delicious bread on Acorus calamus leaves; they are fond of singing monophonic songs having meandering melodies. The region is home to the oldest in Lithuania ensemble of the kanklės (an ancient Lithuanian string instrument) players.
Sūduva is the region of wide plains and fertile lands where one would hardly find even a stone. Homesteads surrounded by trees look like green islets in the wide open spaces of fields. Apparently all rocks and hills have gathered in the south-western part of Sūduva by the beautiful lake of Vištytis (Vištytis Regional Park is located here).
Sūduva is crossed by the European Northern-Southern highway Via Baltica. Kalvarija Customs-house represents the most important national gateway to Poland and Western Europe; Kybartai is also one of the most important customs-houses on the Lithuanian-Russian border.
The provisory territory of Dzūkija ethnographic region lies between the Neris and the Nemunas Rivers in south-eastern part of Lithuania. Around the 13th century the land of Dainava (literally the Land of Songs) lied there; later it was incorporated into the Duchy of Trakai and the beautiful name was forgotten. The name of Dzūkija emerged in the Lithuanian literature of the 19th century, apparently coming from an original dialect of the region or, to be more specific, from a quirk of the dialect: people here often put the letter z after a constant.
Dzūkija is the most infertile but the woodiest region of Lithuania. Thus, the wood was and still is the major source of income for the majority of population. In earlier times people used to cut trees, make timber, produce rail ties, float rafts, make household articles; they used to fish in spring, pick berries and herbs in summer, hunt and pick mushrooms in autumn. Dried mushrooms were sold even to merchants from distant Russian lands, while today dried, pickled and fresh frozen mushrooms and forest berries from Dzūkija are delivered as delicacies not only to the stores in Lithuania but also in Western Europe. In Dzūkija hollow honey is still available as some beekeepers still continue the old hollow beekeeping traditions.
Dzūkija has retained most of its ancient crafts. Many homes, furniture and utensils are handmade. The region is proud of its carpenters, potters, blacksmiths, wickerwork makers, wood carvers and masters of black ceramics. Girls from Dzūkija can also work miracles; they are the most creative weavers in Lithuania, also good at knitting, embroidering and straw tatting. Textile from this region is full of flowers and leaves as in the attempt to capture nature’s beauty. And the beauty of Dzūkija’s nature is really exquisite. Majestic forests dotted with lakes, rivers rumbling with streams and marshy glades colonized by various fauna. A few ethnographic villages dating back to the 17-18th centuries look like inhabited museums.
Since ancient times Dzūkija has been mentioned as the land of songs, where everybody sings, the young and the old. Old singers-soloists still remember and know hundreds of old songs and pass them over to numerous folklore groups. It is said that the songs of Dzūkija are the most sonorous, the psalms are the saddest and the laments are the most pathetic. People of Dzūkija are real song-lovers; they sing at work and in the wedding, sing psalms while christening a baby and lament during funerals. Such is the character of the hospitable people of Dzūkija.
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