Back in the 16th century Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible conquered Cheremiss princedoms along with the Khanate of Kazan. After this defeat some of the Mari population fled to the eastern regions evading high taxes and forced Christianisation. They formed the eastern group of the Mari people. Their descendants now live in the south-western part of Sverdlovsk region (Middle Urals) and are called the Ural Maris.
For four centuries the Ural Maris managed to preserve their traditional religion which reveres the forces of nature each personified by its god. Of course, current Mari Paganism is different from that of the 16th century. It has changed under the influence of Christianity and Islam. However up to the beginning of the 20th century there was a sacred grove in each Mari village where people could pray. These were public and family places and each street had its own priest.
The greatest harm to the Mari culture and religion was done by the Soviet government in the first half of the 20th century. As the old-timers recall the last mass prayings were practiced by Maris during the Second World War; it was a kind of relief measures from the communists.
Today Ural Maris have only one official sacred place left — Kjusjo-kuryk (Prayer Mounting) near the village of Bolshaja Tavra; there are two priests serving in this place. Religious rituals were practiced there even during the strictest years of the Soviet regime.
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