In Iran Episode 8

About Nilanjan Hajra

Nilanjan Hajra, 49, is a poet, traveller and gourmet. He earns his living as a journalist.

View All Stories


We keep walking. At one point the crowd thins. An open space. A Timche. Colours. Carpets, laid out on wooden platforms, one after another, till the other side of the hall. Some hang from the walls. Others simply rolled and dumped on the floor. Most of them appear to have designs in blue, green, black and white on a spread of red. I shudder. Farsh Irani. The famous carpets of Iran. Fruits of thousands of years of labour and artistic experiments.  It all began thousands of years ago.

About an hour’s drive from Shiraz, I stand in front of a large structure of bare brownish stone slabs stacked on each other: the tomb of one of the greatest kings in the history of civilization: Kurosh (Cyrus the Great). He lived between 580 and 529 BCE. At one point of time this massive drab stone structure used to be covered with fine colourful rugs.

So they were weaving carpets that early. The artist-weavers’ skills were honed over generations, until they reached breath-taking proportions during the reign of Safavid king Shah Tahamasb I. And it was in his court in 1544 CE that Muhammad Jalal-al-din Humayun, driven out of Delhi by Sher Shah Suri, sought shelter. He was graciously welcome. An imperial party was thrown in Humayun’s honour, during which along with many other gifts, Shah Tahamasb presented him with one of the finest specimens of Iranian carpet. A large fresco of that historic event is still displayed on one of the walls of Chehl Satoon Palace in Isfahan. When, after 11 years in exile Humayun returned to Delhi as the emperor, the carpet came with him. Later, when his son Abu’l Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar set up carpet weaving centres at Agra, Delhi and Lahore, more specimens were brought from Kerman, Kashan and Isfahan! In the dense design of Indo-Iranian relations, spread over thousands of years, this was another important knot.

In the colourful world of carpets, knots have a very special place. Sayad tells me purchasing a carpet is no less difficult than weaving one. All of them might look stunningly beautiful to the untrained eye, but one can be immeasurably inferior to another. And here in comes the term KPSI, a common term in carpet trade. Knots per square inch, which means how many knots were tied per square inch while weaving a particular carpet. It’s far more complicated a calculation than might appear at first. In very simplified terms the more the KPSI, the costlier the carpet. In a good Iranian carpet there should be on an average 330 knots in one square inch! By that measure weaving a 9 ft. X 10 ft. carpet could take one weaver with an assistant about two years. I am told that in rare specimens the KPSI could go up to 1066! Carpets can be woven out of wool, silk and cotton. The price depends on the material too. The designs could be of endless variety, but about 40 motifs are generally popular, vase, peacock, lotus, Mihrab, comb, dove, fish so on and so forth.

The Iranian carpet, with its myriad designs and colours, is also a wonderful example of the Western stereotype in reading Oriental art. Trying to learn about the astounding art of Iranian carpet weaving I stumbled upon a curious market-reflection of the same stereotype! Beside the secular artistry of the material itself, all major oriental carpet stores in Europe and the US will overwhelm you with deep explanations of the religious and philosophical symbolism of the Farsh Irani!

With sombre faces they will even produce charts with meanings of each colour and their corresponding designs. Soon you will be left with a swamped feeling of not purchasing basically a piece of cloth, however richly designed, to walk on, or perhaps to decorate your plush drawing room wall, but some sacred sanctuary, into the sanctum sanctorum of which you must be guided with great care. The seller will connect this mystic intricacy with the price of the rug!

Pure nonsense. Of course much of the arts in ancient, and particularly medieval times, had associations with religious symbolism all across civilizations. So too in Iranian art and literature. But just as everywhere else, in Iran also artists, including weavers of carpets, have moved from religio-philosophical symbolism to secular concepts of beauty. Reza T Ahmadi explains this succinctly in his article “Symbolism in Persian Rugs”(1). While tracing historically at least 16 symbols and their meanings (leopard: bravery, fish: undying love, Cypress tree: life after death etc.) he makes it absolutely clear, “The mystique of Persian rugs owes a lot to the tales and fables that have been built up around the different design elements. Even though designs, motifs and colour have little or no significance today, there are traditional interpretations associated with them.” In conclusion Ahmadi argues, “It should be added that nowadays a nomadic or semi-nomadic weaver would tend to weave either what he/she sees translating it into characteristic formats, or what he/she has been taught. The village weaver, on the other hand, typically weaves what is ordered, according to the cartoon. Each rug is a separate work of art and should be considered individually.”

The Iranian mind, I realize over time, is much the same: Each speaking for herself and himself, rather than a uniform aggressive Islamic design as an endless barrage of dangerous propaganda by the Trumpian West, carefully crafted by the state and corporate funded think-tanks, would have the world believe. (It is time that the vast majority of the secular, welcoming, warm-hearted West delineates itself from the Trumpian West, and that delineation must begin with a refusal to partake of the booty collected by the latter from a brazen loot of the non-US world and offered to US citizens as incomparably high living standards.)

Returning to the vast world of Iranian rugs, even after being stripped of their mystique, it’s a veritable challenge to pick the one you like the most, calculating at the same time the money you cough up for it. Thankfully, I don’t have to. I shall never have to. It’s just beyond my means!

It was much later that I came to know that in terms of weaving artistry, Iranian Farsh had a close competitor: Termeh. The Mecca of Termeh is Yazd.

My friend Shahram assures me that unlike carpets, Termehs come in much smaller sizes also, and hence may be affordable, even to me. Thus I land up in one of the shops of Iran’s most famous Termeh seller chain Termeh Rezai. I pluck up courage to try and purchase two Termeh bed-sheets for my two daughters, Shireen and Ishara. What transpires over the next half an hour, brings back a very distant memory of my trying to learn swimming in my hometown Bishnupu’s vast Lal Baandh (a Baandh in Bankura parlance means a huge pond). A near-drowning experience with lungs full of water on the one hand, and the indescribable feeling of being able to float for the first time!

Khush Amadin! Khush Amadin! Tea is arranged promptly. Soon wave after wave of colour crash on me, as roll after roll of Termeh is spread out on the counter-top. I listen to the price and helplessly look at Shahram’s face, trying to tell him, “It was all your idea. You wouldn’t have to go through this insult of leaving the shop empty handed after consuming their tea, had you listened to me!” The man behind the counter quickly reads my mind. Out comes a few more roles. Of a little inferior variety. I learn the price and again look at Shahram. More rolls. There’s no hurry, Aqa, take your time.

In the mean time I am given a crash course on Termeh weaving as an explanation of why prices vary. Termehs are woven out of Abrisham (silk) and Pashm (wool). An Ustad can weave about two feet of Termeh in a whole day. The needle work is called ‘Sermeh Dooji’. Much like carpets Termeh weaving also began during Hakhamneshian (Achaemenid) times and reached its zenith during the Safavian (Safavid) era. No chemical colour should be used in a classy Termeh.

Only vegetable dyes are permitted. About 150 to 200 shades of colours are played out in embroidery on a spread of red, green, orange and black. At long last comes a wave which even I can negotiate. When after purchasing two bed-sheets I come out of the shop, I hurry home. I must count if I have enough money to return to India!

Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd and indeed all the major cities of Iran are united by the colours and flavours of bazaars that in many ways define the history of the nation. Walking along the Rastehs of each of these I could not really judge from the degree of aching in my legs which one was larger than which. Bazaari-i-Tabriz of course is the most famous of these. In 2010 UNESCO marked it as a World Heritage Site.

The UNESCO website informs us, “Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex, located along one of the most frequented east-west trade routes, consists of a series of interconnected, covered brick structures, buildings, and enclosed spaces for a variety of functions – commercial and trade-related activities, social gatherings, and educational and religious practices.”

Indeed all the bazaars of Iran are far more than, and elementarily different from, shopping malls. The UNESCO site also informs me that the main protected property is 28.9733 hector, with a buffer zone of 75.4082 hectors. As I wander labyrinth of sounds and sights and smells my friends Mehdi and Seema tell me that the Bazaar is actually spread over 13 SQ Km.


Photo Credit:Nilanjan Hajra


Symbolism in Persian Rugs: Reza T Ahmadi.  Manuscripta Orientalia: International Journal for Oriental Manuscript Research. Vol 3, No. 1, March 1997.


You may also like

5 Response Comments

  • Doug Kelly14/03/2017 at 12:21 AM

    I am curious as to how the Turkish part of Iran (Tabriz and northwestern Iran) felt different (if indeed it did) from Persian Iran. Was the bazaar in Tabriz more like a bazaar in Turkey, or more like its counterparts in Isfahan or Shiraz? What about the personalities of the people – noticeably Turkish? Was the food basically Turkish food?

    • Nilanjan Hajra16/03/2017 at 12:33 PM

      I did not notice any remarkable difference. In Turkey, for example, my friends preferred coffee over tea. But in East and West Azebaijan (Tabriz and Khoy) they were drinking endless cups of tea at every opportunity. Also in both Tabriz and Khoy people appeared to be as eager to engage in conversation with a stranger as in the rest of Iran. At Tabriz bazaar I became the centre of conversation at a small tea-shop; a trinket seller actually called me as we were passing by, asked about my country and posed for me requesting that I take a snap of him. I do not recall any such incident at Istanbul’s Kapali Carsi Grand Bazaar. I guess, this is because Istanbul teems with foreigners of all sorts round the year, who are rare anywhere in Iran. Food: it is in Khoy that I ate the famous Chelo Kabab, about which I shall write soon. Please read on.

    • Doug28/03/2017 at 10:47 PM

      Thanks for your insights, Nilanjan-da. I have always been curious about how Turkish the Turkish-speaking parts of Iran are in culture. You make the point that Persian Azerbaijan has been isolated from much of the world, unlike Turkey. I look forward to reading about the chelo kebab, that staple of Peter Cat in Calcutta.

  • Nilanjan Hajra30/03/2017 at 6:11 PM

    Thanks. Heartening to know someone’s reading!!!

    • Doug11/04/2017 at 7:14 PM

      I like that the Indian consul in Zahedan is reading it, and that he is Bengali!

Leave A Comment

Please enter your name. Please enter an valid email address. Please enter message.