Monthly Archives: March 2012

Fergana Valley: Ceramic, Ikat and Shavla

Rustam Usmanov and his wife

I travelled to Rishtan to see the ceramists who did the platters for me last year. It was bitterly cold and Rustam and his wife were very gracious, kept us warm (don’t miss their gorgeous home slippers!) and well fed while we worked on my order. The shavla – porridge version of plov – we had for lunch was delicious and Zahid and I tucked in. We couldn’t say no when Alisher invited us to lunch later so had to eat again! Tough job this!! I am amazed by how much time and effort Rustam and Alisher make for me. They are world renowned ceramists who earn very well doing exhibitions in the US, Europe and Japan and my orders pale in comparison.

The discussion at lunch moved to the size of the Indian market and the buying power of the middle class, all quite surprising to them and Alisher in …

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The Tashkent Zoroastrians

Aktepa Yunus-Abad

I met Rustam Abdukamilov this morning. He claims to be a Zoroastrian, a scholar of the Avesta book and language, and a teacher of Zoroastrian history in public schools around Tashkent. Rustam is 53 years old, frugally dressed and wears a blue baseball cap with an Asho Farohar (the ubiquitous winged angel) printed on it. His English is fairly good, I suspect better written than spoken. But when he talks of Ahura Mazda, he is eloquent. Not in a flashy, oratorical way, but in a simple, deeply felt, intellectual manner. From what I understood, his father was a storyteller, a kind of bard who would recite the poetry of Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh in public gatherings. Watching his father, he too memorized the 60,000-odd verses that chronicles the legends and histories of Iranian (Aryan) kings in Persian. It was through these texts that ideas about Zoroastrianism were revealed to Rustam and …

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Bukhara in a Cold Sweat

Goods heading to Chorsu Bazaar

We’ve spent the last two days in Bukhara, a complete contrast to the glaze and glamour of Samarkand. I’d say, Bukhara is the face behind the façade. The mud-brick behind the coloured tiles. It’s earthy, small, more old world… cobbled streets, domed bazaars, a mosque here, a mausoleum there and a stunning minaret towering above it all.

I took off for the day with a local guide, while Nisha and Zahid met with the coppersmith, local artists, etc. All tiled out by Samarkand, the fascinating brickwork of the Ismail Samani Mausoleum caught my attention. 18 different designs using bare brick. Take a look at the photographs to see what I am talking about… just beautiful, in a down to earth way.

Next stop: The Hamam. Kunjak Hammom is a ladies only bathhouse. Knock on the black elm door and the lady in-charge lets you in through a narrow corridor that …

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In Search of Zoroastrianism

Twin Inverted Triangle

The pre-Islamic history of this region is rich with the stories of fire worshippers. Now, Zoroastrians are loosely regarded as fire worshippers but clearly, not all fire worshippers are Zoroastrians. That being said, some interesting artifacts and historical accounts associated with Zoroastrianism have survived and symbolism associated with fire worship has been carried forward into Islamic architecture and design.

At the Afrosiyob Museum, built around the excavations of Marakanda (ancient Samarkand), I was shown terracotta ossuaries (containers for the bones of dead people) from the 6-7th century. Etched onto some were Zoroastrian fire altars tended to by two mobeds (Zoroastrian priests) with nose and mouth covered, similar to the way they dress today. Incidentally, ‘mobed’ is an old Persian word meaning wise counselor. I also saw some coinage from that period bearing this very symbol. But this is no surprise. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion throughout Central Asia for many …

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Happy Women and Mortifying Men

Happy Women's Day!

Happy Holi in India and Happy Women’s Day in Uzbekistan. Since yesterday, men have been greeting women everywhere for Women’s Day which is a national holiday here. Men wish their wives, mothers and daughters, buy them flowers and take them out for a meal or bring a cake home. It is a real celebration of womanhood and so nice to see. One of the good things left behind by the Communist state. Oh, and they do celebrate ‘Men’s Day’ or ‘Army Day’ but not to the same degree.

There are many tour groups coming from India to Uzbekistan. Unfortunately the majority are hordes of 45-50 young and middle-aged men being given a freebie as a dealer incentive by mostly pharmaceutical and cement companies. Their behaviour is the talk of the town as they come with a single-minded purpose – to drink and to womanise. From the airport they tell the …

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Mosques, Mausoleums and Me

Shah-i-Zinda

Today was my day to break away from Nisha (since she has been to Samarkand twice already) and visit the glorious Timurid structures with a local guide, who’s name turns out to be Timur! I quite relished the idea of traveling through Timur’s living legacy with his namesake.

The sights I saw were simply awesome. As Timur said to me, Samarkand was then and still is, the centre of the centre of Central Asia. What really struck me after 8 hours of non-stop walking, was the fascinating balance of scale versus detail. Take Gur-e-Amir, Timur’s stunning mausoleum. It has the most majestic dome in Central Asia but his actual jade tombstone is comparatively simple, a little bigger than perhaps the man himself. The pillars of the dome are inscribed with dramatic, large kufic calligraphy, not for the sake of scale alone but to enable the viewer who stands small, almost 60 …

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Mobbed in Urgut and Stunned by Samarkand

Nisha on the hunt

It keeps getting better and better. Today was all about mad buying, incessant rain, a delightful spell of snow, a clean toilet (!), stunning mountains views and a godforsaken village outside Urgut.

After two nights in Shahkrisabz with intermittent electricity and NO HEATING (read: no hot water!), we were ready to leave for Urgut. The regular route via a mountain pass was closed, undone by a harsh winter. We headed out by another road in heavy rain. All of a happy sudden, snow began to fall. It was beautiful to see rolling meadows of green get powdered with a delicate white… the donkey’s saddle bags and the shepherd’s shoulder collecting their final load of snow before spring sends the winter packing.

As luck would have it, when we reached Urgut’s famous Sunday ‘Bozaar’, the snow had let up. But the ground was terribly slushy and the market packed. Trolleys overflowing …

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Beautiful Iroqi Embroidery and the Ak-Saray in Shakhrisabz

Uzbek Chapan (Winter Cape)

Shakhrisabz for us was not about the town but insights into rural life through highly skilled but humble artisans. Much like India. We drove from village to village, stopping at homes some impoverished and some not. The village women are all familiar with the distinctive Shakhrisabz style of embroidery called Iroqi. Originally used for casual clothing for soldiers during the reign of Amir Timur and thereafter including for the Emirs of Bukhara. The name has nothing to do with Iraq but comes from the marching of soldiers and signifies closeness/tightness. The work is quite stunning and unlike other suzanis that use basma (filling satin stitch), biggis (hook stitch) and yurma (chain stitch). The stitch itself is one long thread passed along the length that is couched back upwards to the start. There are two different design directions used often together: counting style which is traditional patterns spaced evenly, and painting style that …

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Fabulous Suzanis, Terrible Toilets and Buzkashi

Counting the Cost of Nisha's Negotiations

We drove from Termez into the hills heading to Shakhrisabz via the remote mountain district of Baysun. We were told there was a family we must meet as they keep tribal embroidery alive. When we arrived we were certainly not disappointed. The couple explained with actions how they had to behave as newly weds. The mother-in-law ties the belbog around the waist of the son-in-law when he arrives for the ceremony, signifying the need to stay strong. The gentleman has to cover his face with a belbog to show respect while the ladies had to wear a kurta with a duppi and white veil to cover the head and face for a year after the wedding in front of their in-laws. The family belong to the Kungrat tribe (also known as Onggirat or Qongirat, one of the main Mongol groups in the region) who have Alpamish as their warrior hero who, with …

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To the South: Termez

Fayaz Tepe

Mazar-e-Sharif is just 30 kms across the river.  You can see Afghanistan through the barbed wire… barren, uninhabited brown land, the only living things dull green shrubs. In the distance sand dunes…

This morning, we flew 1 hour 40 minutes to Termez in the south of Uzbekistan. Not many tourists fancy coming here because it’s remote and too close to trouble. But we’ve come because of  the Archaeological Museum, ‘Fayaz Tepe’ – an Uzbek-Japanese excavation site of a 5th century Buddhist temple and the Mausoleum of the Sufi saint Al-Hakim al-Termizi.

To get here, we boarded a Soviet era propeller aircraft that had clearly seen better days. Zahid insisted we were fortunate – a couple of years earlier and we’d be boarding the kind of planes that require you to enter from the rear!

Termez airport was spanking new. But for some reason, when we got off the aircraft, we …

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