The Manas Epic is quite the poem. As this site points out (and this is an excellent site to read parts of it in translation, or to listen to it being performed, or to reading more about the epic), its longest version is 20 times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and even more than two times the length of the Mahabharta. It is difficult to find in English in the US (we couldn't find it in any language there), but we've found several versions in English here. Ours is in two volumes and is certainly not small. We'll see when I'm brave enough to tackle it.
Here's a brief overview of the Manas Epic:
The epic has three key figures, Manas, Semetei (his son) and Seitek (his grandson). The hero is Manas, a Kyrgyz leader who embodies bravery, strength, justice, great skill in horsemanship and marital arts. The epic tells of his adventures and search to find a homeland for his people. With the help of his advisors and trusty knights, he goes to war with bigger more fearsome foes, finally winning victory at a battle in which he is mortally wounded. It tells also of his marriage to the wise Kanykei, a daughter of a Samarkand khan, as well as her expulsion with baby Semetei after Manas' death and their ensuing adventures. It describes the great traditional festivities of the day and Manas also finds time to provide philosophy and guidance on moral and everyday problems. (Rowan Stewart in Kyrgyz Republic, page 50.)
Clearly Manas is much more than great poetry. It is actively being promoted by the government, and things in Kyrgyzstan that have nothing to do with him are being attributed to him. For example, we went out to the Burana Tower today, and our taxi driver cheerfully told us that it was built by Manas. The Kyrgyz government spent an exorbitant amount on a "1000 Years of Manas" celebration in 1995- estimates range from $5-8 million dollars which is quite pricey for a country as small and poor as Kyrgyzstan.
The manaschi are another important part of the Manas tradition. They are bards and storytellers who are able to recite the parts of epic but also bring in other traditions and their own interpretation. A manaschi traditionally wears a chapan, a heavy blue and black embroidered velvet coat. There are even manaschi schools where children learn the text, tempo and correct gestures of the epic. Those children will be judged according to their skills, and if they are good enough, will be allowed to improvise.
However, today's manaschi aren't quite the same as they were 100 years ago. The oral tradition is largely dead. It is lucky that the epic was recorded before that death. Before the Soviets, the manaschi would recite for as many as 24 hours in yurts. As one book states, "the shifting, artful improvisations on time-worn themes were radio, television, rap music, performance poetry and myth rolled into one." (Bradley Mayhew in Central Asia, page 247.)
Interest in Manas is definitely noticeable here. Books, operas, movies, comic books, and TV programs are based on the series and we've certainly heard a lot about him and his story. Saudi Aramco World has a nice article about Manas and the celebration from 1996. As Mayhew puts it, "Kyrgyzstan is now charting its course into the 21st century with the aid of an epic poem." (Central Asia, page 247.)