One major Silk Route passed by Shahr-i-Ray (pronounced Rayi), which today is a residential district in south Tehran. This habitation was founded between 3000 and 2000 BCE. William Shepherd’s map of ‘medieval commerce’(1) is a wonderful guide to Asia’s Silk Routes. It shows how various silk routes originating from Beijing passed through Kashgar, went past Samarkand in Uzbekistan and Merv in Turkmenistan, entered Iran at Neyshabour and passed via Mashhad and then went to Ray. From Ray one route went straight up north to Tabriz, from there to Erzurum in Turkey and then onto Trebizond on the Black Sea. Another one went to the Strait of Hormuz via Isfahan and Shiraz, a branch of which went to Kerman via Yazd. Yet a third one went to Jeddah, on the Red Sea, via Baghdad and Mecca. The life blood of global civilization circulated through these Silk Route veins.
Shut your eyes, and imagine for a moment: thousands and thousands of camels, horses, mules, loaded with myriad articles, goaded by traders and their guides, traversing vast hostile plains, scorching deserts, mountain paths meandering through passes at dizzying heights, for months. English language has no single word for this huge congregation on the move. That’s because the English never witnessed such a fantastic sight. But in Farsi there is, because almost all the major cities in Iran were located on such trade routes. Karwan is the Farsi word for such a bazaar on the move, which has found its way into the Oxford dictionary as Caravan.
Obviously it was impossible to travel such long distances at one go. Stops were mandated for food, for water, fodder for the animals, shelter at night to ward off marauding bandits. Such shelters are called Karwansarai in Farsi that translates into English as caravanserai. Every major bazaar in Iran has a caravanserai to this day. Indeed, these caravanserais were the nerve-centres of Iranian bazaars, around which grew the cities.
People who control these bazaars, predictably have had an immense influence Iran’s political class for hundreds of years. In Farsi they have been known as the Bazaris. To translate the word into ‘shopkeepers’ would be a real shame! The Bazaris are not mere merchants.
It is not a deep secret that the Inquilab-i-Islami of 1979 required unflinching support from the Bazaris of Bazaar-i-Bozorg for its success. When I stood in front of that Bazaar-i-Bozorg I was simply lost. When I close my eyes now and think of that moment, myriad colours, dotted with black, reverberate in my brain. Clichéd as it might be, there’s only one expression that comes close to describing the bazaars of Iran: a riot of colours. Stretched over 10 Km, an article in Iran Review told me later!
Grab some, Taste. Don’t like it? Don’t buy. That’s okay. Then there are the cheese sellers: loads of white, cream and yellow. Next to that, in a lovely contrast, piles and piles of pomegranate. Crates of translucent green grapes. A blood-red swell: peeled beetroots. And then what are those? Shining red. Large tomatoes? “No”, informs Sayad. “Those are Khormalu.”
I stand before the gate that says in Farsi: Bazar-i-Bozorg Tala Wa Jawahariyan. That’s clearly the entrance to the gold and jewellery section. There are several other entrances. The bazaar, however, begins right along the wide boulevard outside. A long row of dry nuts and fruits. Huge piles of walnuts, almonds, cashew nuts, figs and so many other types of nuts that are unknown to me. Mounds of pistachio in violet skin and Zaytoon (olive pickle).
What’s that? Let alone eating, I haven’t even seen such a fruit before. The fruit seller is clearly amused, as I click on. He realizes that the Musafir is out of depth. Out comes a knife. Slash. “Here Sir, try a little.” I try. Sweet like sugar.
Over time I found the fruit to be extremely popular in Iran. People buy crateful. Over time I also found out that Khormaloo was a distant relative of Gaab, a deeply Bangali fruit! But then I haven’t eaten Gaab either.
I look around: the boulevard is for pedestrians only. It is lined with relaxed Chinar trees, catching the first tinge of autumnal flames on their carved leaves. On the far side, along a thin strip, joy-ride horse carts are plying to and fro. The rest of the space is occupied by vendors. Socks, coffee, shoes, dolls, beet root juice, cloth-hangers. You name it, it’s there. Business is brisk. Vendors are shouting at the top of their voices, hundreds of them, customers are shouting back, thousands of them. A man sitting in front of the jewellery gate is vending bubble blowing pipes. Rainbow bubbles dance on the thick bustle. I watch him closely. Some of the bubbles lightly settle on raw, skinned heads and legs of sheep. Heads and legs are arranged on a large tray displayed on a stack of green polymer crates.
Kale-Pache. Kale: legs, Pache: heads. A popular breakfast in Iran. Here you can purchase them raw and cook at home. But there also are speciality Kale-Pache joints, always crowded in the mornings. The colder the morning, the stronger the crowd. My friend Shahram knows a very special Kale-Pache joint in Yazd, central Iran. It’s a small shop, with two tiny tables. A huge handi is fixed on a raised mosaic platform. The shopkeeper is standing behind it. Customers encircle him. All of them are taking away the steaming soup in containers they have brought.
He has a cell phone stuck between his right shoulder and neck, as he takes out the soup from the handi with a large deep ladle. Clearly more orders are pouring in over phone. We sit. There’s an assistant too. He approaches us and enquires which portion we prefer. I am prepared, “Maghz wa zabon.” Brain and tongue. Out comes a whole cooked head from the handi. The soft tongue and brain are scooped out with a spoon. Two steaming bowls arrive. Delicious, with a deep and strong flavour. Perhaps not for the feeble hearted.
I am reminded of an equally cold morning in a similar small shop: Shan-e-Hilal. Tucked inside the Muslim slum near Gandhi Maidan in Patna, it offers one of the best Gosht Niharis that I’ve had in India. For the best Gosht Nihari on this planet one must of course visit Karachi’s Boat Basin Food Street, which, if I remember correctly is named after the famous Iranian poet Sadi. But that soup is red, this one cream in colour.
I spot an illegal money changer, advertising his rates on top of his voice. I have business with this guy. I need to change some dollars. That itself turns out to be an experience. Iran doesn’t have notes of such low denominations as 100-20-10. In Khoy I purchased a carry-bag for 6000 Tomans. And therein lies the problem, because there is nothing called Toman in Iranian currency. Yet for all your purchases, whatever that may be, the vendor will tell you the price in Toman. The real currency is Rial. Toman is something in your head, to keep the idea of the price within a somewhat manageable limit. For the carry-bag, which I was told cost 6000 Tomans, I actually paid 60,000 Rials! One dollar is roughly equal to 30,000 Rials. Now, I guess, you realize my problem when I intend to change 100 dollars with a man who doesn’t speak a word of English, within a soundscape of a few hundred vendors screaming to draw attention to their goods and a few thousand customers screaming to bring the prices of their chosen items down.
Syed intervenes. Finally the exchange value of my hundred dollars is calculated in Tomans and paid in Rials! Armed with such an experience and a pocketful of Rials I float into the main bazaar along with the streaming crowd.
It’s about 10 in the morning. It’s not a Jummeh, a Friday, which marks the weekly holiday in Iran. Were it so I could explain to myself that a good portion of Tehran’s 8.1 million residents have arrived here driven by their compulsive shopping disorder, on which rests capitalism. Not so today. Why then this absurd crowd? Sayad has no answer. A sizable portion of that are women. And most of the women are in black clothes – jeans and jacket or complete hijab. Perhaps black is the favourite colour of Iranian women, which makes the bazaar even more colourful.
As I enter, the lane in front of me extends as far as I can see. More lanes branch out from this lane, and more lanes from those lanes. In Farsi these are called Rasteh! Besides these, every Iranian bazaar will have Timches: some kind of halls within the bazaar, from where the Bazaris run big business, such as that of carpets. Then every bazaar must have a caravanserai and mosques, and of course the smallest unit of every bazaar: Dokan. Shops. Shops after shops line up along the lanes to form a kind of a district. Each district has its own goods and its own colour: fruit district: red, orange, violet.
Dry fruit and nuts district: brown. Pots, pans, bowls, kettles, samovars district: golden and silver.
Jewellery district: golden. Dress district: multiple colours. Shoe district: black and brown. Glass product district: red and golden. Spice district: bright yellow and red. Herbs district: various shades of green. And finally the Attar or perfume district, stacks of bottles with stunning designs.
We in India have Attar of the finest quality, as also the most spurious ones. Spending a few months in the lanes and by-lanes of the Charminar district in Hyderabad, or in Lucknow’s Janpath Market will help you avoid being taken for a ride. For me, however, the Mecca of Attar is a medium-sized lacklustre shop that completed its bicentenary last very year. Tucked inside the chaotic din of honking cars auto-rickshaws and rickshaws, entangled in an eternal jam, and coolies carrying inhuman loads on their heads and screaming to give way, is Gulabi Singh Johari Mull. But then to steer through the labyrinth of odours of that shop you must know the difference between Attar and Ruh, the fascinating story of which demands a whole book itself.
I am shocked out of my mesmerised state by a sudden scream: Allah! Ya Allah! Sayad quickly pulls me aside to save me from colliding with a hand-pushed goods cart. I realize that’s just another form of the ‘Khabardar! Khabardar!’ of coolies dangerously rushing with overloaded hand-carts of Howrah Station!
I retreat again to my familiar territory, poetry: Pablo Neruda: ‘Metres, litres, the sharp measure of life…’ That indeed is the essence of the bazaars of Iran!
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra
- Shepherd, William. Historical Atlas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911. http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/shepherd_1911/shepherd-c-102-103.jpg