Author Archives: Anaheeta

The Enduring Suzani

Suzani from Tashkent

No single artefact can represent the silk roads, their legacy and the Arastan journey, better than a Suzani. Arastan seeks out beautiful products with stories that often began on the fabled Silk Route. The suzani is one such perfect story of an enduring craft that has forever bound into every stitch and motif the hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears of its makers who lived in what was perhaps the harshest landscape in the world. See Arastan’s selection of vintage and new suzanis, or read on to discover more about the  culture and traditions behind this wonderful craft.

Suzani is a common term for embroidered dowry pieces (coverlets for the bridal bed, but also for made to decorate horses, tables, walls) produced for hundreds of years by the nomadic and settled women of Central Asia. Its roots are believed to be in the Fergana Valley that spreads across eastern Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan …

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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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Mosques, Mausoleums and Me


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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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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Exhausted (after orange lemons at Chorsu Bazaar and exquisite miniatures at Abulkasim Medressa)

Miniature Paintings

It’s 11.15pm and we’re exhausted. We did so much today that photocaptions are all we can get our minds around. So, here goes:

Caravan is Tashkent’s quintessential theme restaurant eclectically put together to look like an Uzbek village home… the sprawling charpoy, water wheel, cane platters, dried chillies, worn kilims and old suzanis… The attached crafts store is to die for. Particularly loved the silk and felt appliqué stoles… Hard yogurt balls (kurut) are Uzbek equivalents of mumphali (peanuts). They come in all shapes, salted, spiced and what not. Great with beer we’re told. At the Chorsu Bazaar fresh fruit market. Just could not get over the beautiful shape of these lemons. They give a divine flavour to their teas which we are consuming by the potful. Have to take a couple home. After visiting the Indian Embassy, Ikat shops at Chorsu Bazaar, the travel agent and the beautiful home …

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Uzbekistan: First Impressions from Tashkent

Looking out of the aircraft window as we approached Tashkent, I didn’t see fields of green or desert dunes but buildings and houses as far as the eye could see. Clearly, from up here, Tashkent was a sprawling big city. The airport was however, comparatively small and unimpressive.

Outside, the weather was perfect: bright sunshine and a crisp 9 degrees centigrade. Ali, Nisha’s driver on her previous trip, was there to welcome us. He said he had organized the good weather, especially for us. Our drive to the Grand Orzu Hotel was minutes long. Tashkent’s main roads are 6 lanes wide, with pavements as broad as MG Road. Despite the generous motorways, there wasn’t much traffic. It was strangely quiet. Coming from India, any place is quiet, I suppose. But one forgets that Uzbekistan is a country of just 26 million people who don’t honk on the road. For an …

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Uzbekistan Beckons

Shılpıq, Karakalpakstan

Nisha and I are off to Uzbekistan on the 27th. Can’t believe it’s actually happening! Four months ago, I didn’t even know where Uzbekistan was and now, it’s like I have travelled there a million times on the virtual silk roads of our times. And that’s even before I’ve physically got there!

We’ll be crisscrossing the country in search of craft that flourished in the 13th century when, besides trade, artists and artisans met and interacted along the silk routes. It is believed that ceramists from China were summoned by the great conqueror Amir Timur to teach the potters of Fergana the secret behind their brilliant blue porcelain. The nomads that traversed the Central Asian steppes frequented the silk roads to trade their suzanis, kilms, jajims (tribal blankets) and carpets. Miniature painters from China would inspire royal painters of Central Asian dynasties to document the life and times of their …

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    Arastan was an online store that curated rare and handpicked treasures from exotic bazaars along the ancient silk route. Unfortunately we ceased trading in early 2014.

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