Iranian Elements in Kaśmīr and Tibet

The article below Iranian Elements in Kaśmīr and Tibet: Sasanian and Sogdian Borrowings in Kashmiri and Tibetan Art” by Matteo Compareti was originally posted in


The territory of modern Kaśmīr was the homeland of famous Buddhist monks who had very important roles in the buddhization of the Himalayan region and Chinese Turkestan. The Kashimro-Kuchean monk Kumarajiva (344-413) was so famous that the Chinese Emperor Yao Xing (393-415) wanted him at Chang’an, while Padmasambhava was expressly invited sometime between 770-780 by Khri srong lde btsan (756-797) from Uḍḍiyāna (a region bordering Kaśmīr) in order to win over the last resistance to the adoption of Buddhism in Tibet. Later, Rin chen bzang po (958-1055) studied in India and Kaśmīr before the foundation of his famous Buddhist school in Tibet. However, the relations between Kaśmīr and Tibet were not always friendly especially during the rule of the Kārkoṭa (c. 622-855) and Utpala (c. 855-1003) dynasties.

1.1. Kaśmīr under the Kārkoṭas and Utpalas

During the reign of Muktāpīḍa Lalitāditya (c.725-760/61)1, Kaśmīr experienced an exceptional period of cultural and artistic flourishing. Despite the Kārkoṭa adhesion to Hinduism, Buddhists did not suffer much under Lalitāditya who apparently even protected the followers of the Dharma. The monuments dated to his reign, which are still visible, reveal clear signs of contact between Kaśmīr and the Classical and the Iranian world possibly due to the actual presence of architects and artists originally from these distant regions (Goetz, 1969.b) although it is not possible to exclude that such Hellenistic elements were just borrowings from the art of Gandhāra (Siudmak, 2007: 45).

The extension of Lalitāditya’s domains into parts of North-Western India and Bactria-Tokharistān and the submission of the Turki Śahī (c. 665-843, but in Zabul until 870) as it was presented by Hermann Goetz several years ago have been reconsidered in the light of recent re-examination of Chinese written sources and local coinage. The background of the “golden age” of Kaśmīr presents difficulties especially for the relations with neighboring kingdoms: Bactria-Tokharistān was under Arab rule, while Kapiśa and Zabul were governed by Turkish dynasties (the Turki Śahī) who were friendly with the Kārkoṭas (Sen, 2004: 152-154).

Very soon Lalitāditya entered into conflict with the Tibetans who – during the period of the sPu rgyal (or Yarlung) Dynasty (649-850 c.) – wanted to expand their domains into the Southern Hindukush. For this reason, he was considered a good ally of the Tang Empire (618-906) (Wink, 1990: 243-244; Sen, 2004). Chinese chronicles and other literary sources of the Heavenly Empire recently collected in a very interesting study by Tansen Sen, give quite a clear image of the geopolitical situation in the Southern Hindukush region around 700 (Sen, 2004). The position of the Arabs in Bactria-Tokharistān and the Turki Śahī in the area between modern Eastern Afghanistan and North-Western Pakistan has already been considered above. Kaśmīr (Gushimi or Jiashimiluo according to Chinese sources) formed an alliance with the Tang in order to contain the advance of the Tibetans into India. The Chinese army was headed by Gao Xianzhi, a general of Korean origins who, later, was defeated in 751 at the famous battle of Talas (South-Eastern Kazakhstan) by a Turco-Arab coalition.

It does not seem that Muktāpīḍa (Muduobi in Chinese sources) fought alone as in Goetz’s reconstruction although the expansionist intentions of the Tibetans should have certainly alarmed him. During the war against Khri lde gtsug brtsan (commonly known as Mes ag tshoms, 712-755) and Khri srong lde brtsan, the figure of Lalitāditya assumed legendary proportions and for this reason it should be considered more cautiously (Wink, 1990: 243-254; Sen, 2004).

The main direct literary source about the life of Muktāpīḍa Lalitāditya and other Kashmiri sovereigns is the Rājataraṅgiṇī. This work was composed by Kalhaṇa in 12th century and it represents the first example of a “chronicle” ever written in India. Interesting information can be obtained in the same source such as regarding the history of Kaśmīr in relation to Iranian-culture. In the Rājataraṅgiṇī, the Kuṣāṇ annexation of Kaśmīr under Huviṣka and Kaniṣka (2nd century) is mentioned together with the coming of the Kidarites and, possibly, the Hephtalites in the 4th-6th centuries (Rosenfield, 1967: 49-50; Dani, 1996: 167-172)2. Both these peoples, in fact, adopted the culture of Bactriana but their ethnic affiliation still remains a mystery. However, there are no Kashmiri monuments to be safely attributed to the Kuṣāṇas or other Iranian-culture peoples although, as we shall consider below, some doubts arise about the Harwan complex.

In a passage of the Rājataraṅgiṇī (in book VI, 192), we read about an interesting association between the Sun (Sūrya) Temple at Mārtand and a city not far away whose main activity was the cultivation of the grape (Stein, 1906: 141). As P. Pal argued, the city was possibly populated by a colony of Persians who had escaped during the Arab invasion (Pal, 1975: 42). His hypothesis is based both on the presence of grapes such as on the Indian cult dedicated to the sun by the Maga Brāhmaṇa (Wink, 1990: 252; Panaino, 1996), a sect settled in this part of India long before the fall of the Sasanians (224-642) who could have given refuge to the exiled Persians.

However, as already observed by this author (Compareti, 2000: 338), an identification of the people of the grape-city with the Sogdians seems more likely. As in Chinese sources, Sogdians are described as people fond of wine (Chavannes, 1903: 134; Trombert, 2005). According to one Chinese literary source, then, around the city of Shanshan (Xinjiang Province) there was a settlement called the City of the Grape (Putao Cheng) because of the plantations of grapevines there by Sogdians (Giles, 1930-1932: 829-830; de La Vaissière, Trombert, 2004: 950). Moreover, Mithra was a god venerated in Sogdiana itself as well (Grenet, 2001) and, according to the Muslim author al-Idrīsī, some parts of Kaśmīr were “inhabited by people and merchants from all parts of the world” (Wink, 1990: 247). Since al-Idrīsī was writing in 12th century, it is hard to imagine that he was not referring to Sogdians too. In any case, it is not possible to state for certain if the construction of the Sūrya Temple at Mārtand had some connection with the Iranians living in Kaśmīr since this god had many followers in medieval India as well. Moreover, the grape could have been introduced into Kaśmīr much earlier, even during the Indo-Greek or Kuṣāṇa period (Pal, 2007: 23).

1.2. Iranian elements in Kaśmīr

Some specimens of Kashmiri art display very clear Iranian borrowings. The much discussed terracotta tiles from the Buddhist complex of Harwan (not far from Śrinagar) have always attracted the attention of students of Iranian art for decorative elements such as pearl roundels containing single flowers (fig. 1) or birds (fig. 2), and archers hunting animals according to the so-called “flying gallop” style while ribbons attached to the body are floating in the air (fig. 3). These elements, in fact, call to mind a typical Sasanian decoration which, however, obliges us to revise the chronology proposed for the site (Paul, 1986: 53-62).

Fig. 1. After: Kak, 1933: pl. XL fig. 43.

A date as late as possible would fit better for Harwan, as, in the past, a chronology was proposed that was obviously too early, thus rendering impossible the presence of the (Iranian) pearl roundels pattern (Kak, 1933: pls. XX, XXII.1, XXII.3, XXX.22, XXXIV.31, XL.42-43; Fisher, 1987.a). In the most recent study dedicated to Kashmiri art, a date to 5th century is proposed (Paul, 1986: 44), although even the 6th century could also be considered likely: this was the period of invasions from the north-west which have been attributed to the Huṇas by Indian sources.

Fig. 2. After: Kak, 1933: pl. XXX fig. 22.

Of the Huṇas much needs to be discovered (Parlato, 1990; De La Vaissière, 2003) but it is not possible to deny that the invaders of North-Western India could have brought Iranian elements although their affiliation was to a different ethnic group (for example, even Altaic). In any case, it is worth remembering that pearl roundels containing single lotus flowers appeared around 1st century in Indian art at Bharut (?) and Sañci (Bénisti, 1952). So, a pure Indian component should be taken into consideration when studying the Harwan tiles.

Fig. 3. After: Kak, 1933: pl. XXXIII fig. 3 (detail).

On the other hand, the pearl roundels reproduced on the pillows on which two bronze statuettes of Buddha are sitting in maradhāsanamudrā and dharmacakramudrā can not be considered proper Sasanian despite the hypotheses expressed by some scholars who consider such an element indisputably Sasanian (Tucci, 1974: 300). The statuettes are kept respectively in the Norton Simon Museum (fig. 4) and the Lahore Museum (fig. 5) and they can be dated quite precisely to 8th century Kaśmīr (Pal, 1975: cat. 22.a-b; Catalogue Naples, 1964: cat. 329).

Fig. 4. After: Pal, 1975: cat. 22.a.

The vegetal elements represented inside the pearl roundels have a very precise parallel in the figurative textiles found around Turfan (Gao, 1986: 129, fig. 91 and 161, fig. 76). Although it is not clear if these textiles were actually produced in the area of Turfan or in the region of Shu (modern Sichuan Province), the presence of Sogdians at both Chinese sites represents an historical fact (Compareti, 2006). A third 8th century metal statuette recently showed on the occasion of an exhibition in Germany could be included in this group: it is possible to observe a Buddha in dharmacakramudrā sitting on a pillow on a high pedestal wonderfully embellished (Catalogue Berlin, 2006: cat. 11). It was kept in the Potala in Lhasa and its state of preservation is excellent: traces of color can be clearly observed on the whole statue especially on the face and hair of Buddha and on the pillow embellished with pearl roundels of the same kind of the two other metal statuette in the Norton Simon Museum and the Lahore Museum.

Fig. 5. After: Catalogue Naples, 1964: cat. 329.

One last 8th century Kashmiri bronze with silver and copper inlay, now part of a private collection, presents interesting decorations too (Heller, 2006: figs. 125-129). The sitting Buddha in dharmacakramudrā is curiously dressed with precious clothes, a pointed crown and ribbons while at his sides stand two bodhisattvas and, below, three smaller donors. Pearl roundels embellish the frontal side of the pillow on which the Buddha is sitting and the garments of one donor, although the latter is only partially visible (fig. 6). A very important detail of this statue is the three-pointed camail on Buddha’s shoulders. In fact, usually, just bodhisattvas and minor Buddhist deities have such precious garments since they are not supposed to have done any renunciation. This kind of small cloak reflects the fashion of the people living in the North-Western Indian regions and in the territory of modern Afghanistan and, sometimes, it can be observed worn by Buddha himself according to the typology called “Buddha parée” (Compareti, 2007).

Fig. 6. After: Heller, 2006: fig. 126 (detail).

A typical Iranian dress, the camail, can be observed often in Kashmiri statues of Sūrya as, for example, at Martand, in the Lahore Museum (fig. 7), in the Srinagar Museum and in several bronze statues kept in museums and private collections (Goetz, 1969: pl. XXI; Fisher, 1987.b: fig. 7; Siudmak, 1987: 51; Harle, 1987; Pal, 1992: figs. 3, 6-7). The camail is a three-pointed poncho-like cloak worn over the other clothes. Figures of donors wearing the camail can be observed in Gandhāran statues but also, later, in Sogdian paintings from Panjakand (Marshak, 2002: fig. 60). According to J. Siudmak, the camail would have been introduced into Kaśmīr during the Kārkoṭa Dynasty, possibly, by the Buddhist communities protected by Lalitāditya (Siudmak, 1987: 51). One of Lalitāditya’s ministers, in fact, was a Tokharian and a patron of Buddhist works too. His name was Cankuna, possibly a corruption of the Chinese title jiangjun (general), and, most likely, he was a follower of the Dharma (Goetz, 1969.a: 11-12). This figure as well has been critically reconsidered by Tansen Sen and, if his suggestions (as it seems likely) are to be considered correct, then Cankuna should be considered to have come from Bactria-Tokharistān and not from the region of the Tarim Basin as supposed by H. Goetz (Sen, 2004: 151-152). Since in all the territories just mentioned the pearl roundels pattern was very well-known and appreciated, it was proposed to attribute to Cankuna its introduction into Kaśmīr (von Schroeder, 1981: 107). The hypothesis seems to be likely but it is not clear if Cankuna himself adopted particular decorations directly from Sasanian or Sogdian traditions. The second hypothesis would seem more convincing since, in the 8th century, the Sasanians did not exist anymore.

Fig. 7. After: Pal, 1992: fig. 6.

Architectonic decoration under the Kārkoṭas show Iranian elements as well. The Śiva stone temple at Pandrethan has the ceiling embellished by large pearl roundels containing lotus flowers of the same kind of the Harwan ones (Brown, 1955: 48; Fisher, 1987.b: fig. 9, 14). The same shape of the ceiling has a clear parallel in the so-called “lantern” typology which was very widespread in Central Asia such as at Varakhša and Qal‘a-e Qahqaha (but also in the Caucasus). Strangely enough, pearl roundels do not appear at Mārtand.

After the death of Lalitāditya, the Kārkoṭa Dynasty lasted one century more although the territorial boundaries and the splendor of the court were not the same. The Utpalas did not favor Buddhism as their predecessors. Such a situation mirrors a general trend of the whole of India with the exception of the Bengala region. In the Utpala tributary territory of the Hindū Śahī (c. 843-1026)3, between modern South-Western Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, Hinduism was the main religion too, as the same dynastic name of those sovereigns points out. Hindu sovereigns were not always tolerant with other religions spread in India which, during some periods, suffered persecutions (Verardi, 2002; Verardi, 2003; Verardi, Paparatti, 2004: 97-102). Among the few protectors of Buddhism in Central Asia there was Tang China that was present in the area until 750. This is considered to be the main reason for the sinicized features of the face of Buddhist statues on a great area extended from the borders with China to Margiana (Rhie, 1988; Verardi, Visconti, forthcoming). Kaśmīr does not seem to constitute an exception and, in fact, the famous Kashmiri Buddhist bronzes display very strong mongolic traits such as almond eyes (Goetz, 1955: 72; Heller, 2008: 30).

The Rājataraṅgiṇī is not too explicit about the material presence of Iranians in the territory of Kaśmīr although the decoration of some temples in the area of Śrinagar shows evident signs of Iranian borrowings. The temple of Avantisvāmi (or Avantiśvāra) in Vantipur has columns embellished with vertical pearl roundels containing animal, vegetal and geometric elements. The repertoire at Avantisvāmi is very rich: here, in fact, all the typology of pearl roundels just described can be observed (fig. 8). The roundels at Avantisvāmi also present square elements in the points where they should have been tangent to another roundel. This is a typical solution observed in Sasanian stuccoes and, occasionally, textiles, while in Sogdian textile art it is much more widespread (Compareti, 2004.a). Certainly, many Persians escaped from the Arabs who invaded the Sasanian Empire and it is also probable that they settled in some parts of India and Central Asia4. As it is well-known, typical Sasanian motifs were accepted by the Omayyads (661-750) and the Abbasids (750-1268) but it is very strange to observe them in Kaśmīr during the Utpala period, that is to say, approximately two centuries after the end of the Sasanians. Moreover, the decorations of the Avantisvāmi temple comprehend images of facing animals also which were not appreciated at the Sasanian court (Compareti, 2000: 338-339)5. On the contrary, facing animals represent the main subject inside the pearl roundels of the textiles improperly called zandaniji, which were woven in a non-determined region of Central Asia after the Arab conquest (Marshak, 2006.a; Raspopova, 2006). So, it seems more probable that the Iranian motifs adopted in the decoration of the Utpala temples were coming from Central Asia and not from Sasanian Persia.

Fig. 8. After: Kak, 1933: LXXXII.

At the time of the Kārkoṭas and the Utpalas and even later, at least until 12th-13th centuries, Kashmiri art deeply influenced the entire Himalayan region (Pal, 1987; Siudmak, 2000; Henss, 2002; Béguin, 2002: 246-247; Heller, 2008: 28-30). Most likely, Iranian elements observed in the artistic production of Tibet arrived there through Kashmiri artists. Not only central Tibet but also Ladakh and Guge – that is to say, the western outskirts of the Tibetan Empire – accepted many Iranian elements especially in the decoration of the garments of Bodhisattvas and, quite strangely, Buddha too. The main Buddhist centers of Ladakh are represented by the monasteries of Mangyu and Alchi, dated to 12th-13th century (Pal, 1988; Linrothe, 1994; Goepper, 1996). The latter site is particularly interesting for the presence of pearl roundels reproduced on the ceiling of the Sumtsek (gSum-brtsegs), a three-storied temple built in early 13th century (fig. 9). Many patterns of pearl roundels can be observed and scholars agree in recognizing not only Iranian motifs but also painted imitations of textiles (Flood, 1991; Goepper, 1993; Goepper, 1996: 225-264). The same decorations which embellish the garments of important people in the paintings at Alchi display clear Iranian borrowings: and also for them a Sogdian origin can be argued (Singh, 1991: 517; Sims, 2002: 23-24; Pal, 2007: 147-149). Very recently, new Tibetan paintings have been discovered in the region of the ancient kingdom of Guge which is nowadays under Chinese administration too. According to the preliminary investigations, there are clear Kashmiri borrowings in those paintings which could be dated between 11th-15th/16th century (The Institute of Chinese Tibetan Learning of Sichuan University, 2007: figs. 10-13, 21-24; Pritzker, 2008).

Fig. 9. After: Flood, 1991: fig. 3.

Something more could be added about the paintings on the dhotī of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara on the ground floor of the Sumtsek at Alchi. Approximately in its center, slightly above the knees of the statue, two scenes attracted the attention of scholars for two reasons: they are the only ones not to be interpreted as religious scenes and “clearly reflect stylistic elements that are different from the earlier Buddhist paintings of the eleventh-century monuments. They evoke a cultural milieu that was both sophisticated and cosmopolitan” (Pal, 2007: 147). On the right leg a royal couple sits in a palace while musicians and attendants can be observed outside on both sides. On the left leg there is the representation of a parade of horsemen and the king appears too holding clear royal symbols like the axe (fig. 10). Not only some of the textile decorations could be associated to the Iranian world but the royal scene itself calls to mind similar Islamic book illustrations which could be contemporary with the paintings in Alchi.

Fig. 10. After: Pal, 2007: fig. 157.a-b.

Many specimens of Islamic book illustration could be mentioned in order to find a parallel with the Alchi paintings under exam but there is a frontispiece in the Topkapı Saray (Istanbul) known as Hazine 2125 which resembles surviving parts of an important 7th century cycle of Sogdian paintings at Afrāsyāb (ancient Samarkand) whose origins are definitely rooted in pre-Islamic traditions of Central Asian art (Esin, 1977; Pugačenkova, 1987). As I attempted to prove in another paper, at least at Afrāsyāb there is the representation of the local Nawrūz (the most important Iranian festival) while in the Topkapı and in many other Islamic book illustrations it is not possible to be that specific: what is really important to remark is the common origins of such a stereotyped scene despite its meaning which could be different according to the cultural milieu where it is found (Compareti, forthcoming 2009). Musicians appear always in this group of images together with dancers and attendants offering a flower (or a plant), a bow with arrows, and also horses and other animals used for hunting (dogs and falcons) to the king or the royal couple (fig. 11)6. Something similar could be guessed for Alchi itself. In fact, even if we do not know the exact meaning of that royal scene it is interesting to note that the Kashmiri artists who executed it chose an Iranian model which was spread for a very long time and accepted also by other Central Asian peoples like Turks and Mongols.

Fig. 11. After: Compareti, forthcoming 2009: figs. 4-5.

In Ladakh some Sogdian inscriptions have been discovered too. They cannot be dated precisely but, while the 4th-6th century inscriptions do not represent an unicum since there are other contemporary ones in the Hindus Valley (Sims-Williams, 1989-1992), the 9th century inscription, on the contrary, is among the latest evidence concerning the presence of Sogdians along the Himalyan trade routes (Sims-Williams, 1993; Vohra, 1994).

The main monuments in the territory of Guge (which is nowadays divided between India and China) are: the monastery of Tabo and the grottoes of Dung dkar, both dated to the 11th century (Wandl, 1999; Neumann, 2000). The paintings from Tabo are definitely the most interesting and they were rightly associated with the paintings at Bāmyān for their numerous Iranian decorative elements (Klimburg-Salter, 1996). A unique group of manuscript covers from the area of Gilgit possibly dated to 7th-8th century constitutes another parallel with paintings produced in the areas of modern Afghanistan where Iranian Buddhism was spread. Not only are the figures of Buddha and Bodhisattvas on these covers extremely similar to the models at Bāmyān, Kakrak and Fondukistān but the features of the donors represented kneeling besides them also have clearly common roots (Klimburg-Salter, 1990; Klimburg-Salter, 1991).

2.1. Tibet under the Yarlung

During the period of the Yarlung Dynasty, Tibet was one of the main powers in Central Asia and the contacts with the Sogdians are attested in several sources. The Tibetans extended their conquests on the Tarim Basin between 666-692 and, more firmly, between 760-850. They also conquered some parts of Gansu (Haarh, 1969; Beckwith, 1987; Hoffmann, 1990). Until a first attempt of establishing good relationships with the Omayyads and, later, the Abbasids (Dunlop, 1973), the btsanpo Khri lde gtsug brtsan (712-755) – one of whose wives was a princess from Samarkand (Twitchett, 1979: 432) – fought against the Arabs together with his Turkic allies in order to expel them from Sogdiana (Beckwith, 1987: 108-110). It is not completely clear what was the reason for such an intervention. Possibly the Sogdian traders represented a good source of gain for the Tibetans who controlled the access to some vital routes in Central Asia. The relationships between Sogdiana and Tibet were in general friendly (Li, 1957-58; Hoffman, 1971; Uray, 1979: 282-283; De La Vaissière, 2002: 152-153), even though it is reported that there was at least one episode of an incident when a Tibetan official was captured by some Sogdians in 694 (Li, 1957-58; Hoffman, 1971: 443-446; Beckwith, 1987: 56).

The Yarlung conquest of Khotan – an Iranian Buddhist kingdom in strict relations with Kaśmīr and Sogdiana (Bailey, 1982: 4, 9, 57: Kumamoto, 1996: 84-86; Mu, Wang, 1996) – heralded the immigration of many Khotanese monks, craftsmen and merchants into Tibet (Hofmann, 1971: 451-453; Gropp, 1974: 36-37). A Kashmiri bronze statue is said to have been found at the site of Domoko, in the Khotan Oasis (Heller, 2006: 185, n. 25; Heller, 2008: fig. 11). The word for merchant in Khotanese was sūlī (plural sūlya, sūlīya) and, although it is probably connected with an Iranian root sau– (to earn), most likely, it is also associated to the ethnonym sūlya: Sogdian. This is probably due to the fact that the Sogdians were considered the merchants par excellence in Central Asia (Bailey, 1982: 23; De La Vaissière, 2002: 64, 130).

The Sogdians had trade relationships with Tibet (Beckwith, 1965: 100-103: De La Vaissière, 2002: 303). Since the main items traded by Sogdians were luxury goods, it is possible to consider that they imported into Tibet precious silks and metalwork. The court of Lhasa, on the other hand, provided the Sogdians with the famous perfumed musk which was very much requested by the Muslim courts. According to Mas’udi (10th century), some merchants that he met in Eastern Persia arrived there “from Sogdiana through […] the mountains of Tibet and China” (Shboul, 1979: 162, n. 80). Furthermore, the Tibetans were aware of the religions professed by the Sogdians as it is clearly reported in their literary sources (Uray, 1983). According to Klimkeit, there were several Manichaean elements in the paintings at Alchi but, more recently, such a hypothesis has been rejected by Lieu (Klimkeit, 1979; Klimkeit, 1982; Lieu, 1998: 54-56).

2.2. Iranian elements in Tibet

The archaeological investigation confirmed the reciprocal knowledge of the Sogdians and the Tibetans7. Several textiles and metalwork embellished with motifs, very common in Sogdian art, have been recovered from the cemetery of Dulan, not far from Reshui in Qinghai Province, which can be dated to 8th-9th century (Heller, 1998.a; Heller, 1999; Heller, 2003.a; Heller, 2006). This region was known as Amdo and, in that period, it was part of the Tibetan Empire. Also the funerary habits of the princely tombs at Dulan reveal connections with Tibet.

Other textiles from Tibet appeared in the antiquary market and form important collections in museums around the world. A child’s jacket embellished with pearl roundels containing confronted ducks (fig. 12) constitutes an exact parallel with the so-called zandaniji textiles and with some silk fragments from Dulan (Catalogue New York, 1997: 34-37; Heller, 1998.b).

Fig. 12. After: Catalogue New York, 1997: cat. 5.

A unique silk fragment from Dulan presents a very interesting inscription in Pahlavi, the language used by the Sasanians for their official inscriptions. This fragment represents the only unquestionable evidence of the relationships between Persia and Tibet although the possibility can not be ruled out that it was written by a person who was not a Persian but knew Pahlavi. For example, Manichaeans who lived in the territory around Turfan (for long periods even under Tibetan control) continued to use Pahlavi after the fall of the Sasanian Empire (Tremblay, 2001: 220-238). Also Sasanian silver coins have been found in the cemetery of Dulan (Heller, 2008: 16-18) although they could have been imported by Sogdians who, very often, used Persian coins of the reign of Peroz (459-484) after countermarking them even with typical Sasanian symbols (Nikitin, Roth, 1995).

As it is well-known, many Persians escaped from the Arab conquest of the Sasanian Empire and epigraphic traces of their presence are found in Sogdiana at Panjakand and Paykand (Raspopova, 1990: fig. 26; Semenov, Mirzaahmedov, 2001: 9), in China at Chang’an on a 9th century funerary stele which belonged to Māhšī Sūrēn (Harmatta, 1971) and, more recently, at Dulan8. For this reason, A. Nikitin proposed a very interesting hypothesis about the rise of Tibet as a “world power” during 7th century. According to him, the arrival of Iranians at Lhasa gave a great impulse to the development and organization of the Tibetan military power which in a few years constituted a menace for China, the Uighurs and the Arabs9. One of the main technological resources of the Tibetans, in fact, was the production of chain mail for armor. At least one Chinese source describes Tibetan warriors and horses as completely clad in armor, so that only the eyes were not protected (Beckwith, 1987: 110). This description, actually, calls to mind the (late) Sasanian relief of one equestrian knight completely clad in armor in the bigger grotto at Ṭāq-e Bostān which represents, however, a unique and enigmatic specimen of sculpture in the whole of pre-Islamic Persian art (Fukai, Horiuchi, 1972).

Even if the interesting suggestion by Nikitin is accepted, there are only the Pahlavi inscription from Dulan and few coins to support a conspicuous presence of Persians at the court of Lhasa so, for the moment, it is not possible to be more specific. Little other evidence could be enlisted about the Tibetan-Persian relationships. According to a stone tablet inscribed in Chinese and said to be kept in Tokyo, a Christian official of Persian origin called Aluohan was at the head of some Tibetan tribes that he tried to convert between 656 and 661 (Dauvillier, 1950: 218). It is not clear if this is the same Aluohan who was in the service of the Tang Dynasty in 7th century and who was possibly one of the sons of the last Sasanian king Yazdigard III (632-651) (Forte, 1996.a)10. In late Sasanian Persia, Christians had very important positions and it is not excluded that Yazdigard III and Peroz (another of his sons) had many connections with them (Compareti, 2003: 207-208). Other Chinese literary sources state that in 677 Peroz requested the Chinese Emperor for permission to build a “Persian temple” in Chang’an which was, most likely, a Christian and not a Mazdean building (Forte, 1996.b: 355, 364).

However, Zoroastrianism continued to be the creed of the Iranians and especially the Persians. Common elements in Zoroastrian literature and in Tantric religion have been considered to be a trait borrowed by Tibetans from Iranian lands (Templeman, 2002).

The tombs belonged to people who were in very strict contact with Tibet like those under excavation in Guolimu, Haixi (Qinghai) revealed also 9th century painted coffins embellished with very interesting scenes (Luo, 2006). The main subject is the hunt which is represented according to formulae very spread on a very big area, practically in the whole Eurasian continent. In the case of the Guolimu coffin it is possible to observe at least one hunter shooting a couple of running yaks in the position of the so-called “Parthian shot” (fig. 13). In the same painting there is also a deer hunt and a scene which could be interpreted as a banquet in front of a tent.

Fig. 13. After: Luo, 2006: 1 (detail).

According to B. Maršak, a silver gilt dish kept in the Miho Museum (Shigaraki, Japan) embellished with fantastic creatures should be attributed to 8th-9th century Tibet (Catalogue Wien, 1999: cat. 49; Heller, 2003.b: 228-229). Very strong Iranian elements can be observed on the body of the central centaur and on the bodies of the winged couples of animals along the external rim of the dish (fig. 14). These elements reproduce vegetal or geometric motifs typical of Sogdian textiles and metalwork (Compareti, 2004.b: 874-882). Mushroom-like horns can be observed on the head of some of the winged deer, according to a scheme similarly developed in Sogdian metalwork (Maršak, 1971: T29, T 37). Iranian traditions seem to be evident in Himalayan metalwork production just because importations from Sasanian Persia were very common throughout the Eurasian continent. As recent investigations would support, it is very likely that Sasanian sovereigns used luxury objects like textiles and metalwork as the main goods to be exchanged with neighboring kingdoms. Persian metalwork and textiles have been found in the tombs of important people from the Urals to Japan, and it is highly probable that the same Tang emperors adopted the habit to present diplomatic gifts according to the “Western” iconography because of the contacts with Sasanians and Sogdians (Compareti, 2000). A silver bowl embellished with Greek themes found in Tibet which has been considered to be Persian (Denwood, 1973) could be easily a metalwork produced in Bactria-Tokharistan where Hellenistic borrowings have been always stronger than in Iran and in other regions of Central Asia.

Fig. 14. After: Catalogue Wien, 1999: cat. 49 (detail).

An 8th century silver jar kept in Lhasa depicts the head of a mushroom-like-antler deer on its top, while the body of the jar is embellished with representations of Iranian people, most likely Sogdians dancing and drinking (Heller, 2003.b). Sogdian metalwork would have been highly esteemed in Tibet and, in fact, evidence of such an influence can be noted in several Tibetan specimens found at different archaeological sites (Heller, 2003.a; Heller, 2003.b).

The most important evidence of the real use (or, at least, of the knowledge) of garments embellished with Iranian motifs by the Tibetan high classes is preserved in Chinese art. A scroll representing the Chinese Emperors painted by the famous artist Yan Liben (c. 600-674) shows also a Tibetan envoy wearing a caftan embellished with single birds within pearl roundels (fig. 15). The scene possibly refers to an episode which actually happened in 640, when the Tibetan minister mGar sTon btsan yul zun arrived in Chang’an in order to escort to Lhasa the Chinese princess Wencheng Gongzhu who was promised to his king, Srong btsan sgam po (c. 610-649) (Karmay, 1975; Karmay, 1977). The detailed rendering of the “barbaric” garments of mGar evidently attracted the attention of Yan Liben who probably saw with his own eyes the Tibetan embassy. However, Chinese literary sources say that silk started to be adopted by Tibetans only after the wedding of Srong btsan sgam po with Wencheng Gongzhu (Richardson, 1975). So, the caftan worn by mGar could have been a gift of the Tang Emperor although the possibility that Tibetans already knew precious textiles cannot be ruled out. A different interpretation could be given in order to identify that person. Recently, it was proposed to recognize him as a foreigner, specifically a Sogdian, who worked for the Tibetans due to his physical features and caftan (Heller, 2003.b: 223, 231). Sogdians from different social classes and, particularly, merchants worked at the Chinese courts between 4th-9th century as translators as well.

Fig. 15. After: 5000 ans d’art chinois. Peinture 2. La peinture sous les Sui, les Tang et les Cinq Dynasties, ed. Jin Weinuo, Beijing, Bruxelles, 1988: fig. 2a, p. 232.

Possibly, the Sogdian traders brought silk into Tibet. The pearl roundels on the garment of Yan Liben’s “Tibetan” envoy, in fact, present single birds of the same kind observed in Sogdian paintings at Afrāsyāb, Panjakand and Varakhša. The hypotheses expressed about the painting by Yan Liben consider the caftan worn by the envoy as a silk product as a matter of fact although it could have been, for example, also a woolen garment, or another warm textile more attuned to the weather of Tibet.

The sources and the archaeological evidence considered above point out at a situation just partially investigated11. Nevertheless, it is possible to state that the Sogdians were much more present in Kaśmīr and Tibet than the Persians unless the first studies dedicated to the Iranian elements in the Himalayan regions favored the Sasanians.

Further investigations could shed light on the hypothesis about a strong Iranian presence in Tibet after the unification of the country in the middle of 7th century and an improving of technical and military knowledge, something which would require an approach from the point of view of specialists not only in the field of Iranian studies but Tibetan too.


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1 There is no unanimity about the chronology of Lalitāditya’s reign. His period of reign has been recently discussed in: Sen, 2004: 151. For a date between 724 and 761: Siudmak, 2000: 38.

2 On the problems concerning the identification of the Huṇas of the Indian sources with the Hephtalites, see: Parlato, 1990; De La Vaissière, 2003; De La Vaissière, 2005: 7-10.

3 Under the first three Utpala sovereigns – Avantivarman (855-883), Śamkaravarman (883-902) and queen Sughanda (902-906) – the Hindū Śahī were tributaries of Kaśmīr but, later, they conquered independence and even became more powerful than their old lords. The new situation was possible also because the Ṣaffārids (c. 845-913) did not constitute a problem for them anymore. During the period of the Lohara dynasty (c. 1003-1101), Kaśmīr experienced some of its ancient splendor before loosing its importance as a regional power: Goetz, 1969.c: 68-69; Rehman, 1979: 97-118.

4 The last Sasanian representatives lived exiled at the Tang court and, at least in a first moment, they were not sinicized: Compareti, 2003.

5 There is only one single silver jar considered to be a true Sasanian production which present two lions in a very similar position of some of the decorations at Avantisvāmi: Ghirshman, 1962: fig. 404.

6 The list of things to be presented to the sovereign during the celebration of the Nawrūz is mentioned more or less explicitly in many Islamic written sources (Arabic and Persian). One of the most important sources is represented by the Nawrūz-namāhThe book of the New Year” in Persian which has been recently investigated by Simone Cristoforetti and will be soon published in the journal “Eurasian Studies“. I wish to thank S. Cristoforetti who allow me to read his forthcoming article.

7 It was recently proposed to recognize (cautiously) a delegation of Tibetans also among the 7th century Sogdian paintings on the western wall of the so-called “Hall of the Ambassadors” at Afrāsyāb: Grenet, 2006: 48-49.

8 The translation of the embroidered inscription is “king of kings, the great and glorious” but the name of the possible Sasanian king mentioned there was not preserved: Catalogue New York 2004: cat. 244; Zhao, 2006: fig. 142.

9 Alexander Nikitin kindly exposed to me his ideas during a conference held in St.Petersburg between November 2nd-5th 2004. The Russian scholar was called to give a first reading and translation of the Pahlavi inscription on the textile fragment from Dulan. The idea by Nikitin calls to mind a study by H. Goetz where he expressed about the growth of Kaśmīr as one of the main powers in the region because of the technologies imported by the Chinese and the Sasanian immigrants: Goetz, 1969.a: 21. Very similar ideas have been formulated also in : Wink, 1990: 239, 243, 250-251.

10 To say the truth, it is not really clear if this stone tablet should be considered a reliable source. In his short article, Dauvillier just writes about the scholar who would have studied it: Y. Saeki, a Japanese Christian priest who wrote extendedly about “Nestorianism” in Far East in the beginning of the last century.

11 A fragmentary painting considered to be Kušān has been recently found in Tibet through antiquaries from Thailand: Marshak, 2006.b. This would be a further evidence of the contacts between the Himalayan Region and Iranian-culture peoples in Late Antiquity.

Yazidism: A Heterodox Kurdish Religion

The article below by Christine Allison was first published in the CAIS website. Kindly note that the pictures/illustrations and accompanying captions written by inserted in the article below do not appear in the original CAIS posting.


Yazidis, a heterodox Kurdish religious minority living predominantly in northern Iraq, Syria and south-east Turkey, with well-established communities in the Caucasus and a growing European diaspora. Anecdotal evidence of the existence of Yazidi groups in North-Western Persia has not yet been proven. There are probably some 200,000-300,000 Yazidis worldwide. The Yazidis have long been the object of fascination among Orientalists, largely due to their erroneous description by outsiders as ‘devil-worshippers’ (see below). The literature devoted to their religion is disproportionately large, considering how few they are in number by comparison with the large majority of Kurdish Muslims. Their name for themselves is usually, Êzdi, Êzidi, or, in some areas, Dâsini (the last, strictly speaking a tribal name). Some scholars have derived the name Yazidi from Old Iranian yazata (divine being), though the current consensus among Western academics is a derivation from Yazid b. Mo‘âwiya, revered by the Yazidis as an incarnation of the divine figure Sultan Êzi. (Kreyenbroek, 1995, p. 3).

Yezidi Kurds-4-Meleke Tawus

Metalwork representing the spiritual entity Malak Tawous (; For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…


The Yazidis’ cultural practices are observably Kurdish, and almost all speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish), with the exception of the villages of Ba’æiqa and Baházânê in Northern Iraq, where Arabic is spoken. Kurmanji is the language of almost all the orally transmitted religious traditions of the Yazidis. Religious origins are somewhat complex. The religion of the Yazidis is a highly syncretistic one: Sufi influence and imagery can be seen in their religious vocabulary, especially in the terminology of their esoteric literature, but much of the mythology is non-Islamic, and their cosmogonies apparently have many points in common with those of ancient Iranian religions. Early writers attempted to describe Yazidi origins, broadly speaking, in terms of ‘Islam’, or ‘Iranian,’ or sometimes even ‘pagan’ religions; however, publications since the 1990s have shown such an approach to be over-simplistic. The origin of the Yazidi religion is now usually seen by scholars as a complex process of syncretism, whereby the belief-system and practices of a local faith had a profound influence on the religiosity of adherents of the ‘Adawiyya sufi order living in the Kurdish mountains, and caused it to deviate from Islamic norms relatively soon after the death of its founder, Shaikh ‘Adi b. Mosâfer.

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Detailed architectural plan of the Mausoleum at the Temple at Lalesh (; For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

History and Development

‘Adi b. Mosâfer, who was of Omayyad descent, was born c. 1075 CE in the Beka‚a valley. After studying in Baghdad under Abu’l-Khayr Hammâd al-Dabbâs and alongside ‘Abd-al-Qâdir al-Jilâni, he settled in the valley of Lâleæ (some thirty-six miles north-east of Mosul) in the early 12th century. Groups who venerated Yazid b. Mo’âwiya and the Omayyads–already known as Yazidis–had existed for some time in the area; beliefs and practices which were apparently part of an ancient Iranian religion were also retained by some of the local tribes. Shaikh ‘Adi himself, a figure of undoubted orthodoxy, enjoyed widespread influence; he died in 1162 and his tomb at Lâleæ is a focal point of Yazidi pilgrimage. His name, pronounced Âdi or even Hâdi, passed into Yazidi oral tradition, though full knowledge of his identity was lost within the community. Yazidism grew during the period of Atabeg and Mongol rule. Only two generations later, led by Hasan b. ‘Adi, the community had grown large and powerful enough to come into open conflict with the Atabeg of Mosul, who killed Hasan in 1246. At about the same point, it seems, the community began to incur the opprobrium of more orthodox Muslims for its excessive veneration of both Shaikh ‘Adi and Yazid b. Mo’âwiya. During the fourteenth century, important Kurdish tribes whose sphere of influence stretched well into what is now Turkey (including, for a period, the rulers of the principality of Jazira) are cited in historical sources as Yazidi. (Guest, p. 45) Muslim leaders clearly perceived Yazidis as a threat; a significant battle took place in 1414, during which Shaikh ‘Adi’s tomb was razed. After the battle of Ùâlderân (1514; q.v.), Yazidi influence at first remained considerable; a Yazidi was appointed ’emir of the Kurds’ by the Ottomans, and, in the 1530s, Yazidi emirs ruled the province of Sorân for a time. The current family of Yazidi mirs (emirs), claiming Omayyad origins, replaced the descendants of Shaikh Hasan in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. However, as time passed, conversions to Islam became increasingly common and Yazidi power declined. By the end of the Ottoman Empire many important tribes and confederations still had sizeable Yazidi sections, and the dynasty of Yazidi mirs remained dominant within a limited geographical area, but Yazidis had suffered enormously from religious persecution. Until 1849, when provision for their protection was made under Ottoman law, they had not had the status of ‘People of the Book’ (Guest, pp. 103-107; Edmonds, pp. 59-60). In the 19th century complex social and political changes, many related to the Tanzimat reforms, produced an environment of increasing religious intolerance culminating in large-scale massacres of the Christian minorities. The Yazidis, also targets of militant Sunnism, suffered at the hands of Kurdish tribal leaders such as Moháammed Beg of Rowanduz (1832) and Bedir Khan Beg (1840s), as well as Ottoman officials, such as ‘Omar Wahbi Pasha (1893; Guest, pp. 96-97, 134-9; Edmonds, p. 60). There was some co-operation between the minorities; Yazidis of Mount Senjâr sheltered Armenians during the massacres of 1915-16. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century many Yazidis fled to Georgia and Armenia. In the second half of the twentieth century, most of Turkey’s Yazidis, who still lived in fear of religious persecution, emigrated to Germany, and in the 1990s many of Iraq’s Yazidi intelligentsia arrived there, where they play an active role in diaspora affairs, maintaining contact with co-religionists in Iraq and the Caucasus (Guest, pp. 193-203, Ackermann, forthcoming).

Geographical Distribution and Identity

The Yazidi heartland is in Northern Iraq. A substantial community known for its conservatism lives on Mount Senjâr some 80km west of Mosul on the border with Syria. A collection of farming villages and small towns lies in the Šaikân area, in the foothills north-east of Mosul; this area is adjacent to the shrine of Lâleæ and contains the home of the mir and the settlements of Ba’æiqa and Baházânê, home of the qawwâls, reciters of sacred texts. In the 20th century both Šaikani and Senjâri communities struggled for religious dominance. In Syria there are also two main groupings, in the Jazira and the Kurd Dâg@ areas (the latter including the Sem’ân and ‘Afrin communities). However, these are much smaller, probably totaling only about 15,000. In Turkey some Yazidis still live in the villages of the Tur ‘Abdin, south-east of Diyarbakir, remnants of a much more widespread community. The Transcaucasian communities, which once numbered some 60,000, have also declined due to economic and political factors, though accurate statistics remain unavailable. During the 1990s the population in Georgia decreased from some 30,000 to under 5,000, though numbers in Armenia have apparently remained more constant. Diaspora communities have increased correspondingly; most importantly, some 40,000 Yazidis now live in Germany, mainly in the Western provinces of Niedersachsen and Nordrhein-Westfalen. Most are from Turkey, with arrivals during the 1990s from Iraq including some influential figures. This profile may change as the situation in Iraq evolves following the fall of the Saddam regime. A much smaller community exists in the Netherlands. Other groups of Yazidis, in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and in the USA, Canada and Australia, are extremely small, and probably total well under 5,000.

Yezidi Kurds-2-Yezidi-khatun

Excellent depiction of a Khatoun at an ingress into the Temple in 1907 ( The term Khatoun in this cultural context designates a matriarch; ancient cults such as Mazdakism, Yazdanism, Yazdism as well as the ancient Zoroastrian faith, have often held men and women in equal regard, especially with regard to learning and leadership roles (for more see here).

Many attempts to define the Yazidis’ ethnic identity (notably the policies of the Ba’athist government in Iraq, which designated them as Arabs) have been politically motivated. Apart from a few Arabic-speaking clans, Yazidi communities speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) as their first language, and their cultural practices are Kurdish. Most Yazidis claim Kurdish identity; in Iraq, this view has had the support of the government in the Kurdish Autonomous Region since 1991. In the Caucasus however, particularly in Armenia, to be ‘Kurdish’ is often popularly associated with an Islamic (and thus pro-Azari) identity. Many Caucasian Yazidis, therefore, claim to belong to a separate ethnie, though the politicization of the Kurdish question in Turkey and the influence of the PKK have reportedly caused a number in Armenia to redefine themselves as Kurds. In the diaspora, the Yazidis’ status as Kurds is not debated so much as their religious origin. In nationalist discourse, the Yazidi religion is seen as the ‘original’ Kurdish faith, a view that distinguishes the Kurds from Arabs and Turks. It is sometimes inaccurately presented as a form of Zoroastrianism or, spuriously, as a ‘Cult of Angels.’ In the Caucasus, a hypothesis of Babylonian origins is favored. Such different interpretations of the Yazidis’ origins are closely interlinked with expressions of identity, and tend to be explicable in terms of the prevailing political climate.

Religious Belief and Practice

Contemporary Yazidism is a religion of orthopraxy. Practice, in terms of careful adherence to rules governing all aspects of life, is more important than the role of scriptural text, dogma and professions of personal belief. Two key and interrelated features of Yazidism are: a) a preoccupation with religious purity and b) a belief in metempsychosis. The first of these is expressed in the system of caste, the food laws, the traditional preferences for living in Yazidi communities, and the variety of taboos governing many aspects of life. The second is crucial; Yazidis traditionally believe that the Seven Holy Beings (see below) are periodically reincarnated in human form, called a kâss. Not only does this reinforce the caste system, as the members of the dominant religious castes are the descendants of the most recent manifestations of the Holy Beings in Shaikh ‘Adi and his companions, but it also provides a mechanism for syncretism, as figures from other traditions can be said to be earlier manifestations of the kâss. A belief in the reincarnation of lesser Yazidi souls also exists; like the Ahl-e Haqq (q.v.), the Yazidis use the metaphor of a change of garment to describe the process, which they call kirâs gehorrin, ‘changing the shirt.’ Alongside this, Yazidi mythology also includes descriptions of heaven and hell, and other traditions attempting to reconcile these ideas with the belief-system of reincarnation.

In the Yazidi worldview, God created the world, which is now in the care of a Heptad of seven Holy Beings, often known as ‘Angels’ or haft serr (the Seven Mysteries.) Pre-eminent among these is Tâ’us-ê Malak or Malak Tâ’us, the Peacock Angel, who is equated with Satan by outsiders. Most Yazidis find this identification highly offensive; however, it is clear that Malak Tâ’us is an ambiguous figure. The Ketêbâ Jelwa ‘Book of Illumination” which claims to be the words of Malak Tâ’us, and which presumably represents Yazidi belief (see below), states that he allocates responsibilities, blessings and misfortunes as he sees fit and that it is not for the race of Adam to question him. The Yazidi taboo against the word Š, and on words containing æ and t/t that might (to their ears) recall it, may indicate some perceived connection between this figure and Malak Tâ’us. The reasons for the connection remain unclear. Although some Sufi traditions have presented Satan as a redeemed or holy figure, Shaikh ‘Adi b. Mosâfer was apparently orthodox on the matter. However, pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition indicates some link between Ahriman and the peacock, and this ambiguity may predate Islam. Yazidi accounts of creation, which have much in common with those of the Ahl-e Haqq (q.v.) state that the world created by God was at first ‘a pearl’. It remained in this very small and enclosed state for some time (often a magic number such as forty or forty thousand years) before being remade in its current state; during this period the Heptad were called into existence, God made a covenant with them and entrusted the world to them. It has been suggested, on the evidence of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian cosmogony and its similarity to Yazidi cosmogonies, that if the Yazidis’ ancestors venerated a benign demiurge who set the world (in its current state) in motion, the role of this figure may have become ambiguous when they came into contact with Zoroastrians, whose cosmogony was essentially similar, but whose demiurge was Ahriman, who polluted the world. Thus Yazidism would be, not a form of Zoroastrianism, but a religion possessing an Iranian belief-system akin to it.

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Entrance portal to the Temple of the Yazdis or Yazidis at Lalesh (; For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

Besides Malak Tâ’us, members of the Heptad (the Seven), who were called into existence by God at the beginning of all things, include Shaikh ‘Âdi, his companion Shaikh Hasan, and a group known as the ‘four Mysteries’, Šamsadin, Fakradin, Sajâdin and Nâsáerdin. These latter, according to oral tradition, were the sons of an Êzdinâ Mir, whom Shaikh ‘Âdi met at Lâleæ. All these figures are eponyms of clans of Âdâni shaikhs (see below); in Yazidi accounts of the cosmogony they tend to have other names, and they are also identified in other incarnations, such as Hasan al-Bâsári as an incarnation of Shaikh Hasan. Not all listings of the Seven are identical; sometimes, for instance, Shaikh ‘Âdi himself is identified with Malak Tâ’us, and Shaikh Obakr is added.

The kâss and other holy beings are the focus of frequent veneration. The Heptad, under the names of the families of Shaikh ‘Âdi and his companions, are objects of devotion, but so also are numerous lesser figures, also usually eponyms of clans of shaikhs or pirs (see below), who are requested for help on practical matters. Shaikh Mand, for instance, is believed to cure snakebites, and his descendants may handle snakes safely; the family of Pir Jarwân has power over scorpions. A female figure, Khâtuna Fakra, is associated with help in childbirth. Help from such beings may be sought by consultation with their descendants, or by veneration of a sacred site associated with them–occasionally a tomb, but more often a shrine consisting of a room with a spire, a small votive altar, a sacred tree, or a pool or cave. Many people who know little of the higher-status sacred texts make offerings at such places. Some of these cults appear to be very localized, but others are respected by members of other religions, and Yazidis also solicit help from local saints associated with other religions, especially Christianity (Kreyenbroek, 1995, pp. 91-123, 145-68; Drower, pp. 24-29, 51-60).


The holiest Yazidi site is the valley of Lâleæ, site of the tomb of Shaikh ‘Âdi. A sacred microcosm of the world, as it were, it contains not only many shrines dedicated to the kâss, but a number of other landmarks corresponding to other sites or symbols of significance in other faiths, including pirrâ selât (SerâtÂÂ Bridge) and a mountain called Mt. ‘Arafât. The two sacred springs are called Zamzam and Kâniyâ spi ‘The White Spring’. The former rises in a cave below the sanctuary of Shaikh ‘Âdi, the heart of the holy place. Water from the springs is mixed with earth from the holy valley to make barât, little molded balls that are taken away and treated with reverence; they play a part in some rites of passage such as marriage and funerary rites. If possible, Yazidis make at least one pilgrimage to Lâleæ during their lifetime, and those living in the region try to attend at least once a year for the autumn ‘Feast of the Assembly” (see below). As for Lâleæ, pilgrimages to lesser sites may also be undertaken, to seek intercession, in gratitude for prayers answered, or as a vow.


Formalized prayer is largely a matter of personal preference and is not obligatory. The practice of praying facing the rising, noonday, and setting sun which is described by travelers seems not to have been universal and is now seen as an ideal rather than a norm. Such prayer should be accompanied by certain gestures, including kissing the rounded neck (gerivân) of the sacred shirt (kerâs). Those who wear the girdle–the black resta for certain dignitaries, the white æutik for other Yazidis–say a prayer when putting it on. Prayers have almost exclusively been transmitted orally; their texts have themes in common but vary in details.


Apart from individual rites of passage, such as marriage, baptism, circumcision, and death, Yazidis observe a number of communal festivals, some more widespread than others. The Yazidi New Year falls in Spring (somewhat later than Nowruz). There is some lamentation by women in the cemeteries, to the accompaniment of the music of the qawwâls (see below), but the festival is generally characterized by joyous events: the music of dahol (drum) and zornâ (shawm), communal dancing and meals, the decorating of eggs. Similarly the village tÂewaf (Ar. tÂawâf), a festival held in the spring in honor of the patron of the local shrine, has secular music, dance and meals in addition to the performance of sacred music. Another important festival is the tâwusgerrân (circulation of the peacock) where qawwâls and other religious dignitaries visit Yazidi villages, bringing the senjâq, sacred images representing the peacock and associated with Malak Tâ’us. These are venerated, taxes are collected from the pious, sermons are preached, and holy water distributed. The greatest festival of the year for ordinary Yazidis is the Je‘nâ Jamâ’iya (Feast of the Assembly) at Lâleæ, a seven-day occasion. A focus of widespread pilgrimage, this is an important time for social contact and affirmation of identity. The religious center of the event is the belief in an annual gathering of the Heptad in the holy place at this time; rituals practiced include the sacrifice of a bull at the shrine of Shaikh Šams, the washing of the ‘bier of Shaikh ‘Âdi,’ the practice of samâ’ (see below). Other festivals are more likely to be kept by the few than the many. Religious leaders observe forty-day fasts in summer and winter; a three-day winter fast culminating in the celebration of the birth of the kâssÊzid is kept more widely. The Ùêlkân, a tribe originating in the border areas of Turkey and Syria, keep a winter festival called Bâtizmiya. For some Yazidis at least, the kâss have their feast-days. Counterparts to certain Islamic feasts, including , ‘Id al-fetâr, and Laylat al-barâ’a are also observed by some.

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Yazdi or Yazidi youth in the 1950s in Lalesh (; For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

Purity and Taboos

The Yazidis’ concern with religious purity, and their reluctance to mix elements perceived to be incompatible, is shown not only in their caste system, but also in various taboos affecting everyday life. Some of these, such as those on exogamy or on insulting or offending men of religion, are widely respected. Others, such as the prohibition of eating lettuce or wearing the color blue, are often ignored when men of religion are not present. Others still are less widely known and may be localized. The purity of the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, is protected by a number of taboos–against spitting on earth, water, or fire, for instance. These may reflect ancient Iranian preoccupations, as apparently do the taboos concerning bodily refuse, hair, and menstrual blood. Too much contact with non-Yazidis is also polluting; in the past Yazidis avoided military service which would have led them to live among Muslims, and were forbidden to share such items as cups or razors with outsiders. The mixing with others brought about by formal education may be a major reason behind the well-known Yazidi taboo on learning to read and write. In the past, only Shaikhs of the Âdâni lineage group had the right to do so. Certain words are the subject of taboos, such as those dealing with cursing or stoning, or those which are felt to sound like the name Š, whose utterance is an unforgivable insult to Malak Tâ’us, obliging any Yazidi who heard it (in the past at any rate) to slay the speaker. Auditory resemblance may lie behind the taboo against eating lettuce, whose name kâs resembles Kurdish pronunciations of kâss. The taboo against eating pork appears to be a custom which follows Islam rather than a specifically Yazidi edict. Prohibitions are also attested, in certain areas at least, against fish, cockerel, gazelle, and various vegetables including okra, cauliflower, and pumpkin.

A widespread myth about the Yazidis’ origin which gives them a distinctive ancestry expresses their feelings of difference from other races. Adam and Eve quarreled about which of them provided the creative element in the begetting of children. Each stored their seed in a jar which was then sealed. When Eve’s was opened it was full of insects and other unpleasant creatures, but inside Adam’s jar was a beautiful boy-child. This lovely child, known as Š (Šahed, son of Jar) grew up to marry a houri and became the ancestor of the Yazidis.

Social and religious groups

The Yazidis divide themselves into three endogamous major castes, with religious orders also playing an important role. Most Yazidis belong to the morid (layman; literally ‘disciple’]) group, which is endogamous, but, within the group, marriage is not restricted. Every morid must have a shaikh and a pir; the lineage of these is determined by the morid’s own heredity. The Shaikhs are divided into three endogamous lineage groups, the Šamsâni, Âdâni and Qâtâni, the latter of which also shares its ancestry with the family of the mir. The pirs are divided into four main groups, and forty clans, most of whom may intermarry. Both groups receive alms from their morids. Tithes paid to the Shaikh are more substantial; however, the difference between the two groups lies not in the nature of their religious tasks, but rather in ancestry (the shaikhs apparently associated with non-Kurdish companions or relations of Shaikh ‘Âdi, and the pirs with his Kurdish companions). At puberty, each morid should also choose a ‘brother’ or ‘sister of the Hereafter’, berâyê or k, normally a Shaikh, who performs certain important rituals at transitional points such as marriage and death.

The Qawwâls or reciters constitute a different class, and come from two clans, the Kurmanji-speaking Dimli and the Arabic-speaking Tazhi, settled in the villages of Ba’æiqa and Beházânê, in the Šaik an area. They specialize in the playing of religious music on sacred instruments, the daf (frame-drum) and æebâb (flute), and in the recital of the sacred hymns or qawls. They also carry out the tâwusgerrân; these were severely curtailed in the twentieth century when crossing international frontiers became more difficult; the Transcaucasian communities in particular were effectively cut off from the Yazidi religious centers.

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The Yazidi faithful engaging in their “Festival of Eid al-Jamma” (photo taken on 7 October, 2010 & displayed the International Business Times); For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

There are also religious ‘orders’ whose members may come from different castes. The Faqirs become members of their order by an initiation which was once open to all, but as time has passed have become in effect a hereditary group, with initiation undergone almost exclusively by members of faqir families. They are expected to lead a life of piety and abstinence, by fasting, refraining from drinking and smoking, avoiding any violent behavior. Their clothes, especially their black woolen k or tunic that recalls that of Shaikh ‘Âdi, are considered to be sacred, and their persons must not be harmed. Some are very learned in religious lore. The Kochaks are a small non-hereditary group charged with outdoor labor for Shaikh ‘Âdi, such as cutting wood and drawing water for the shrine. Some in the past have been clairvoyants, miracle workers and interpreters of dreams; a few have acquired political influence in this way, such as the nineteenth-century Kochak Mirzâ of Mount Senjâr, who predicted the fall of Islam.

There are a number of important offices in the Yazidi hierarchy. The Mir (prince) is both temporal and spiritual head of the community; his person is sacred, and in theory all Yazidis owe him spiritual allegiance. In practice the temporal influence of the family, based in Bâ’drê in Šaikân, has declined since the late 18th century, though it remains a substantial landowner, and is active in Kurdish politics. Members of this family are linked to the Qâtâni Shaikhs. The Prince, along with other dignitaries, is a member of the Yazidi Majlesi Roháâni ‘Religious Council’. The Bâbâ Shaikh (Father Shaikh), is the leader of the Shaikhs and must come from the Šamsâni branch. He must lead a pious life; regarded by many as the spiritual leader of the Yazidis, he supervises the Kochaks and many of the ceremonies at Lâleæ cannot take place without his presence. The functions of the Piæ-imâm (Foremost Imam) are less clear; a representative of the Âdâni Shaikhs, he leads certain rituals. The Bâbâ Ùâwuæ, (Father Guardian), guardian of the shrine at Lâleæ, leads a life of piety and celibacy. He lives there permanently and has authority over what happens there; he is assisted by the feqrayyât, (celibate ‘nuns’) who are unmarried or widowed and also care for the sanctuaries. These are very few in number. Successive families of faqirs living there on a temporary basis also look after the fabric of the shrine and take care of guests.

The institution of karâfat, whereby a relationship of sponsorship is created with a man on whose knees a boy is circumcised, exists among Yazidis as for other groups. This often creates close relationships with other communities; since the family of the child may not intermarry with that of the kariv for seven generations, the kariv himself is usually not a Yazidi, and the institution serves to make useful alliances with neighbors. Yazidis in Northern Iraq may also have a mirabbi (literally ‘teacher’), chosen from any caste by rules of heredity.

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Local Yezidis engage in the traditional Kurdish dance outside the Lalesh temple (photo displayed theInternational Business Times); For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

Textual traditions

Most Yazidi religious texts have been passed on exclusively by oral tradition, and many features characteristic of oral literature can be seen in them. It is now generally accepted that the manuscripts of the Yazidi Sacred Books, the Masháafâ Reæ and Ketêbâ Jelwa, published in 1911 and 1913, were ‘forgeries’ in the sense that they were written by non-Yazidis in response to Western travelers’ and scholars’ interest in the Yazidi religion, amid a general environment of trading in ancient manuscripts. However, the material within these manuscripts is consistent with the contents of the Yazidi oral traditions, and to that extent they may be considered authentic. Nevertheless, it seems that written texts with the titles Masháefâ Reæ and Ketêbâ Jelwa were known among the Yazidis long before this date, though they have remained unseen even by the vast majority of the community. The latter title is a shortened form of the title of a work by Hasan b. ‘Adi, but it currently seems to denote manuscripts used for divination, which are still kept by certain Âdâni Shaikhs. Other written texts were known; meæur, kept by Pirs, giving accounts of lineages and attached morid families, and kaækul, which included prayers, religious history and some Qawls. These collections may also have included some of the Arabic odes (qasáidas) attributed to Shaikh ‘Âdi which are used in the community. However, there is no evidence that the large corpus of sacred texts once existed in the form of a book.

The core religious texts are the qawls, hymns in Kurmanji which are often dedicated to a kâssand which make frequent allusions to events and persons not explained in the texts. These have, for most of their history, been orally transmitted, though there is some evidence that not all were orally composed. Knowledge and recitation of the qawls has traditionally been the province of the Qawwâl, though their training school no longer exists in their home villages. Few members of the Qawwâl families now learn either sacred texts or sacred instruments and those with the widest knowledge of the Qawls and their interpretation are now from other classes. In 1979 two young Yazidi intellectuals published a number of the qawls, provoking considerable controversy within the community. (A few had been published in the Soviet Union the previous year, but were presented as part of a folklore anthology and largely ignored). By the beginning of the 21st century more had been published in Armenia and a research program in Germany was almost complete. With the assent of the community, this latter aimed to collect and transcribe the many unpublished qawls for use in academic research and the education of Yazidi children, especially in the diaspora. Yazidism is thus being transformed into a scriptural religion.

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Yazidis lighting candles outside the Lalesh temple in celebration of the Yazidi New Year (photo taken on April 17, 2007 & displayed the International Business Times). The Yazidis celebrate the ingress of light into the world; For more see “The Lalesh Temple and Ceremonies of the Yezidi Kurds“…

The qawls, with their allusions and obscurities, are not easy to understand, and a tradition of interpretation has grown up. Each qawl has a ch or ‘story’ associated with it, which explains its context. Some of these chirôks show signs of having been developed long after the qawl. In general the qawls and the knowledge within them are the province of men of religion, but on certain occasions, a mosáháâbat is given. This is a sermon usually consisting of narrative interspersed with couplets from a qawl, which explains the sacred text, and is aimed at a general audience.

Other types of sacred text exist: the bayt which is difficult to distinguish from the qawl in formal terms, but unlike the secular Kurdish bayt (q.v.) is used to accompany religious events such as tâwusgerrân; the qasáida in Kurdish, often a praise-poem for a holy man which does not formally correspond to the Arabic or Persian qasáida; du’â and dirozâ, prayers for private and public use. There are seven forms of Yazidi samâ’, consisting of music and the singing of hymns, usually a combination of qawl and qasáida; a solemn procession is also often part of these.


A. Ackermann “A Double Minority: Notes on the emerging Yezidi Diaspora” in W. Kokot and Kh. Tölölyan, eds., Religion, Identity and Diaspora. London, forthcoming.

P. Anastase Marie, “La de‚couverte re‚cente des deux livres sacre‚s des Ye‚zîdis,” Anthropos 6, 1911, pp. 1-39.

W. F. Ainsworth, Travels and Researches in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Armenia, London, 1841.

M. Bittner, Die Heiligen Bücher der Jeziden oder Teufelsanbeter (Kurdisch und Arabisch), Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Phil.-Hist., Klasse, Band 55, Vienna, 1913.

O. and C. Celil, “Qewl û Beytê ÊEzdiya” in Zargotina K’urda/Kurdskij Folklor, Moscow 1978, pp. 5ff.

S. al- Damlûj^, al-Yaz^diyya, Mosul 1949. E.S. Drower, Peacock Angel, London, 1941.

R.Y. Ebied and M. J. L. Young, “An account of the history and rituals of the Yaz^d^s of Mosul,” Le Muse‚on 85, 1972, pp. 481-522.

C.J. Edmonds, A Pilgrimage to Lalish, London, 1967.

R. H. W. Empson, The Cult of the Peacock Angel, London, 1928.

R. Frank, Scheich ‘Adî, der grosse Heilige der Jezîdîs, Berlin, 1911.

N. Fuccaro, The Other Kurds: Yazidis in Colonial Iraq, London,1999.

G. Furlani, Testi Religiosi dei Yezidi, Testi e Documenti per la Storia delle Religioni 3, Bologna, 1930.

J. S. Guest, The Yezidis: A Study in Survival, New York and London 1987, rev. ed. Survival Among the Kurds: A History of the Yezidis 1993.

M. Guidi, “Origine dei Yazidi e Storia Religiosa dell’Islam e del Dualismo,” RSO 12, 1932, pp. 266-300.

P. G. Kreyenbroek, “Mithra and Ahreman, Binyâm^n and Malak Tâwûs: Traces of an Ancient Myth in the cosmogonies of Two Modern Sects,” in Recurrent Patterns in Iranian Religion, ed. Ph. Gignoux, pp. 57-79, Stud.Ir., Cahier 11, Paris, 1992.

Idem, Yezidism–Its Background, Observances and Textual Tradition, Lampeter, Wales, 1995.

Idem, “On the study of some heterodox sects in Kurdistan,” in Islam des Kurdes, Les Annales de l’Autre Islam no. 5, Paris, 1998, pp. 163-84.

Idem, with Kh. Jindy Rashow, God and Sheykh Adi are Perfect: Sacred Hymns and Religious Narratives of the Yezidis, in the series Iranica, ed. M. Macuch, Berlin, forthcoming.

A. H. Layard, Nineveh and its Remains, 2 vols, London, 1849.

R. Lescot, Enquête sur les Yezidis de Syrie et du Djebel Sindjar, Beirut, 1938.

J. Menant, Les Ye‚zidiz : Épisodes de l’Histoire des Adorateurs du Diable, Paris, 1892.

A. Mingana, “Devil-worshippers; their beliefs and their sacred books,” JRAS, 1916, pp. 505-26.

Idem, “Sacred books of the Yezidis,” in ibid., 1921, pp. 117-19.

F. Nau and J. Tfinkdji, “Receuil de textes et de documents sur les Ye‚zidis,” Revue de l’Orient Chre‚tien, 2nd series, vol. 20, 1915-17, pp. 142-200, 225-75.

N. Siouffi, “Notice sur la secte des Ye‚zidis,” JA, ser. 7, vol. 19, 1882 pp. 252-68.

Idem, “Notice sur le Che‚ikh ‘Adi et la Secte des Ye‚zidis,” JA, ser. 8, vol. 5,1885, pp. 78-100.

Kh. Silêman, and Kh. Jindy, Êezadiyatî liber Ronaya Hindek Têkstêd Aînê ÊEzdiyan, Baghdad, 1979, repr. 1995 in Latin script, n.p.

An Iranian Icon: the Paykan Automobile

The interview below by Nazli Ghassemi on the Paykan automobile was published in the Reorient Magazine. As noted in Reorient this article discusses:

A new documentary tells the story of a much-loved – and loathed – iconic Iranian automobile


Made against all odds in a tiny studio in the heart of Tehran, Iran’s Arrow – a 75-minute documentary written, directed, produced, and edited by Shahin Armin and Sohrab Daryabandari – is the story of a car called the ‘Paykan’. Meaning ‘arrow’ in Persian, the film chronicles the social impact of the car during its lifespan on Iranians and Iran itself, both before and after the Revolution. Through a collection of interviews, recovered archival footage, film clips, photographs, and data collected from various sources, Iran’s Arrow follows the Paykan’s tumultuous path in the hands of its Iranian consumers during the four decades in which it was produced.

1-PaykanA 1971 advertisement for a lottery involving various Paykan models (Source: courtesy Tarlan Rafiee for Reorient).

The Paykan – a seemingly unremarkable car – became a key figure in propelling a nation into modernity upon its production in 1967, and was later radically transformed into a symbol of resistance and endurance following the 1979 Revolution. Afterwards, it was seen as a breadwinner in times of war and distress, and ultimately became a national relic when production came to a halt in 2005. A noble and humble servant, the Paykan is an emblem hacked in Iran’s collective memory; and, to find out more about both the car and the new documentary, I chatted with Shahin and Sohrab in their Tehran studio.

Tell us a bit about the documentary. Aside from the obvious, what’s behind the choice of the title?

Sohrab – The reason we chose the title is because we thought it would point towards the trajectory of Iran in terms of how it was aiming to

from a developing country to a developed [one]. [The film] also has a subtitle: The Rise and Fall of the Paykan.

For the Persian version [of the film], we called it This Paykan. I arrived at this by thinking about two things: one was the phrase, ecce homo – you know, ‘behold the man!’ I wanted to say, ‘behold the car!’ I was [also looking at] Magritte’s ‘this is not a pipe’ (The Treachery of Images), thinking, ‘this is not a car’. I mean, the movie isn’t really about a car, but it really is. [Later], I told Shahin about it, and he accepted without hesitation; this happened towards the end of the project.

2-Paykan 1960s adA 1960s advertisement for the Paykan (Source: Reorient).

What was the history of the Paykan in Iran?

Shahin – ‘Paykan’ means ‘arrow’ in Persian. [The car] was manufactured in Iran, but it was originally British, designed by the now-defunct Rootes Group. Rootes were in a bad financial position in the early 60s, and decided to design a simple car under the ‘Arrow’ name. Although the car was not a huge success in [neither] the UK nor the rest of the world, the Paykan became Iran’s most popular car for almost four decades. The production of the Paykan began in 1967, and continued until 2005.

It is quite unusual for such a car to become the subject of a documentary, especially one which, in the eyes of many (according to your film), is both famous and infamous; yet, you took it upon yourselves to go ahead with the concept. Why the Paykan?

Shahin – I had worked for 13 years in the US auto industry as a design engineer for Chrysler in Detroit, and as a product engineer at Honda. [During] all those years, I couldn’t get this freaking Paykan out of my head, and wondered what this car meant to my identity as an Iranian-American. In 2009 I decided to created a blog, and called it My first post on the blog was [titled] Let there be Paykan. When I uploaded that first blog post, I knew it was the beginning of something I wouldn’t be able to stop. A lot of people started to make fun of me for writing a blog about a ridiculous-looking, [little-known] car; [but], as an Iranian, I wanted to find out why we had been destined to drive it. I also believe that through cars, we can resolve a lot of misunderstandings that exist about Iran. Loving cars is a universal language, and knowing that Iranians have so much passion for them [can] paint a different picture of Iran.

3-Paykan-2The good life … (a photograph of the uncle of one of Shahin’s friends taken sometime in the early 70s) (Source: courtesy for Reorient).

The more I delved into the Paykan’s history, the more interested I became in its social impact on Iran’s history and Iranians throughout its long years of production. I had this dream [about] how cool it would be to see a comprehensive documentary about the Paykan, [and] had a feeling that nobody would make [such a] film except me. Now, I’ve made the film I wanted to be seen.

Why did you two decide to team up?

Sohrab – Well, I really liked how enthusiastic Shahin was about the car. The image of this car engineer sitting in his apartment in Detroit and writing a blog about this car caught my attention; I am interested in [issues of] displacement, mobility, and migration. Writing about the Paykan from Detroit in English had a special meaning for me; I thought [Shahin] had something. He used to visit me every once in a while to discuss what he was doing, and told me that he thought there should be a documentary about this car. I thought he should have made it himself and wanted to [only] help him make it, but soon after we started to work, I realised I was playing the role of a director, too.

4-Paykan-3What car does Miss Iran drive? A Paykan, of course! (a Miss Iran contestant on the cover of a 1977 edition of Iran’s Zan-e Rooz (Modern Woman) magazine) (Source: Reorient).

Shahin – It was not until I started talking seriously with Sohrab that I became confident enough that I had collected enough material to tell a story. He was amongst the people who didn’t make fun of me; he took my research and project very seriously. He told me something that stuck in my head: ‘when there is a change, there is a story’. The Paykan changed Iran, and our film is about the story of that transformation.

In your film, you show how the Paykan was celebrated as Iran’s national car upon its production in 1967. Can you tell us why this car was seemingly chosen as the ‘national’ one to begin with?

Sohrab – As far as I know, the Paykan was never officially regarded as a ‘national’ car by any authorities; the Iranian people gave it this title. I like to think this happened after many years, and not during the first few ones. The Shah’s government did a lot of manoeuvring, but they never called it that. Technically, our national car is now Iran Khodro’s Samand (introduced in 2000), [according to] government officials; but then again, it seems the people have not accepted the Samand as their national car.

5-Paykan-4A 1971 advertisement for the Paykan Kar (‘Work’ model) (Source: courtesy for Reorient).

Shahin – There were government backings for the Paykan, but the most important thing is that it came out at the right time with the right price – so it became popular. Its simple mechanics and the wide dealership network that Iran National created through Iran really formed a foundation for creating and training mechanics and [producing] body shop careers. People learned the basics of car repair work with the Paykan, and now, Iran is the biggest car producer in the Middle East. It all really started with the Paykan.

In the film, the Paykan appears as a silent and humble servant, adapting to the conflicting conditions of its times from 1967 – 2005. Can you talk about how the Paykan’s character developed and transformed throughout this time?

Sohrab – The story of the Paykan can be divided into three sections: the first is when it was brought to Iran in 1967; at that point, it was like a new bride. It was a new car with up-to-date technology, and it became very popular very fast. After a while, it turned into a hard-working mule. It was abused, while [serving as] as source of income and a reliable walking stick; but, at the end of that period, people started to get tired of it. The situation had lingered for too long, and people wondered when they would see the end of [the Paykan].

6-PaykanAlways buy Kodacolor, and always drive … a Paykan (Source: courtesy for Reorient).

‘Salar’ is another title that Iranians gave to the Paykan; it’s difficult to find a proper translation for it. If you look in the dictionary, ‘salar’ means ‘lord’ or ‘king’, as in ‘king of the road’. I think this title was [bestowed upon] it towards the end of its journey. A few years after production stopped, many Iranians looked back and started to develop nostalgic feelings towards it. I think, in the end, most people decided to [regard it] as the walking stick rather than the never-ending nightmare. Later, it found its way to the worlds of art, design, and fashion.

The relationship [Iranians have had] with this car reminds me of a very severe form of addiction … It seems this car and its industry acted like a very potent drug for our economy and culture

Shahin – The Paykan was a symbol of consumerism, the middle class, and the ‘good life’ before the Revolution. Then, the Iran-Iraq War happened, and this car became the breadwinner of many families. A lot of people turned towards ‘mosafer-keshi’ (unofficial taxi driving) with their Paykans. There is this irony in calling it ‘salar’: it doesn’t look or perform anything like a ‘king of the road’, but this relatively unknown British sedan played such an important role in Iran [nonetheless].

7-PaykanA 1967 Paykan advertisement (courtesy for Reorient).

Your investigation of what the Paykan has meant to different people in the film is interesting. Some have gone as far as personifying the car, giving it a name as if part of their family, while others have wished the car never existed. What’s going on here? Why is there this love-hate relationship towards the Paykan amongst Iranians?

Shahin – Any object that can survive for 48 years will create [such a] love-hate relationship. It was important to not only show the love and nostalgia, but also that the Paykan really had some negative [thoughts surrounding it] – e.g., the lingering feeling that it would be with us forever with its outdated technology. This was a 1960s British sedan: it wasn’t the most comfortable car out there, nor was it easy to drive; and, after being in Iran for almost four decades, Iranians started to get tired of it.

Sohrab – The relationship with this car reminds me of a very severe form of addiction. To me, it seems this car and its industry acted like a very potent drug for our economy and culture.

8-Tarlan-RafieeIranian icons: the Shahyad (post-Revolution: Azadi) Tower, the poet Hafez, Mount Damavand, pop singer Dariush, the rose, and … the Paykan! (from Tarlan Rafiee’s Once Upon a Time series) (Source: courtesy the artist for Reorient).

Can you tell me a bit about the Paykan’s role in relation to the roots of the Happy Birthday song (Tavalodet Mobarak) becoming the standard one in Iran?

Shahin – This is one of the most important stories about this car, [yet] very few people know about it. Iran’s national birthday song was created for the Paykan. This was originally the idea of a very prominent filmmaker, Mr. Kamran Shirdel, who asked the famous [composer] Anoushiravan Rohani to make the song for a Paykan advertisement. We are very proud to have [Mr. Shirdel] explain the story in our film.

Sohrab – I just want to add that unlike in many other cases, the Khayyami brothers – and probably their advertising agency, Fakopa (managed by Farhad Hormozi) – were very smart and brave to choose Mr. Shirdel for that job. I think whoever made those choices was very clever; they made an unusual choice, and it paid off. Anoushiravan Rohani was a great choice, too. He was probably the one person who should have done this.

You’ve also showed the Paykan as being the subject of contemporary art exhibitions in Tehran. What is the significance of this? 

Sohrab – The Paykan has become a point of interest amongst Iranian artists for different reasons. The term ‘Paykan art’ kept popping up in our conversations. We interviewed some artists about the aesthetics of the Paykan; I expected they would be able to draw a picture of the philosophy and implications of the car’s design, but no one came up with a good analysis.

What do you mean by ‘Paykan art’?

Sohrab – Have you heard of the [term] ‘chador art’? The way I see it, that term is an insult. It means the artist has viewed the chador as a sign of backwardness, misery, and oppression, and implies the artist is trying to profit from selling this idea to western markets. The chador is just a garment; it makes no sense to depict the women who wear it as miserable or backwards. It’s twisting the chador into an offensive concept.

9-Iman-SafaeiIman Safaei – Elahi Chap Konam (Oh God, May I Roll Over) (Source: courtesy the artist and Shirin Art Gallery for Reorient).

I think ‘Paykan art’ is a little different, even though it resembles chador art; maybe it’s not as offensive. I also believe Iran’s Arrow somehow falls in that category itself. The difference to me is that I don’t see a sense of betrayal to our cultural atmosphere in Paykan art. For me, it’s a more organic reaction to life in Iran.

Shahin – I think it’s too early to call it ‘Pakyan art’; we shouldn’t rush to call it that. We have to wait and see if it really stays in the art scene for a longer period of time. I doubt it, but let’s see what happens. I believe our film doesn’t fall under the label, as it’s not trying to tap into a trend; it’s simply trying to fill the gap. We both thought that this film was [needed]. Hopefully, it will create a foundation for this subject that others can use or get inspired by.

What were some of the challenges you faced while shooting the film?

Sohrab – The first problem was that we were single-handed, so to say. Two people had to do the job of maybe five or six. A lot of stuff tended to slip through our fingers because of this. Shahin did a great job with the production, and really worked like a tireless machine! As well, it was hard to convince people that a film about a modest car could be interesting. Most of the time, people told me I was crazy to take on this project. Even some of our own friends didn’t feel very enthusiastic about it during the first stages of our work, and we struggled to push forward. But I was happy to see that most of these people changed their minds at some point.

10-Adel-Hosseini-NikAdel Hosseini-Nik – Untitled (Source: courtesy the artist and Shirin Art Gallery for Reorient).

We also predicted some materials would be easy to obtain. We thought there would be loads of images and resources for research and use in the film, but this was not so. We could both go on for hours about how hard it was to make this film. Very small things turned into huge problems.

Shahin – Finding archival material inside Iran was difficult; archiving is vital. This is something that hasn’t been taken seriously enough in Iran – not until recently, at least. Logistics was also a major headache. Arranging interviews, convincing some people to appear in front of our cameras, and finding good locations were really a nightmare in Tehran. Tehran’s traffic and unreliable Internet [also] added lots of complications.

Where do you plan to show your film?

Shahin – We are applying to as many festivals as we can. I am really hoping that a lot of people get a chance to see this film. Hopefully Iranians will be able to dive back into their memories, future generations will learn about the past, and foreign audiences will learn a great deal about Iran and Iranians … and the Paykan, of course!

Article by Kaveh Farrokh and Taraneh Farhid on Achaemenid Era Edicts, Stele and the Cyrus Cylinder

An important recent contribution to the field of Iranian Studies is the publication in 2018 of the following textbook:

Arj-e-Xirad: Papers in Honour of Professor Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh (edited by Farhad Aslani & Massoumeh Pourtaghi). Tehran: Morvarid Publications.

Professor Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh (Hamburg University, Iranian Studies) is a doyen of Iranian Studies much like Dick Davis and those who have passed such as Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014) and Shapour Shahbazi (1942-2006).

The above textbook includes scholarly articles by world-class scholars such as Dariush Akbarzadeh, Dick Davis, Richard Foltz, Shaul Shaked, Gholamreza Karamian, Jurgen Ehlers, Touraj Daryee, Kamyar Abdi and a slew of other scholars.

Kaveh Farrokh and Taraneh Farhid have also contributed the following article to the above textbook [this can be downloaded in pdf from]:

Farrokh, K., & Farhid, T. (1396/2018). [استوانه کوروش بزرگ و اسناد “دیگر” در بابل, مصر و ستون سنگی یادبود خانتوس] “Other” Cylinders and Records before and after Cyrus the Great: Kelar, Babylon, Egypt and Xanthus. Studies in Honor of Professor Jalal Khaleghi Motlagh (ed. F. Aslani & M. Pourtaghi), Tehran: Morvarid Publications, pp.379-394.

The above article challenges a number of new Eurocentric theories proposed since 1979 with respect to the history of Cyrus the Great and the Cyrus Cylinder. The new theories were promoted in Spiegel Magazine (by Matthias Schultz, July 15, 2008) and the Daily Telegraph (by Harry de Quetteville, July 16, 2008) … these however were responded to by Kaveh Farrokh:

The Cyrus Cylinder housed at the British Museum (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney).

Two Achaemenid Items housed in Istanbul’s Archaeological Museums

The Archaeological Museums of Istanbul in Turkey are among the world’s most important sites for the study of world history and civilization, on par with Museums such as the Hermitage (St. Petersburg, Russia), The British Museum (London, England), The Louvre (Paris, France), Iran Bastan Museum موزه ایران باستان (Tehran, Iran), Altes Museum (Berlin, Germany), Museo Nazionale Romano (Rome, Italy) and the Egyptian Museum المتحف المصري (Cairo, Egypt).

The Istanbul Archaeological Museums in Istanbul Turkey; [Top] Archaeological Museum, [Left] Museum of the Ancient Orient, [Right] Tiled Kiosk Museum (Source: VikiPicture in Public Domain).

The source of the information below on two Achaemenid items housed in Istanbul’s archaeological museums is from an article penned in the BBC on December 6, 2014 by Pejman Akbarzadeh entitled “ردپای فرهنگ ایران در موزه‌های استانبول” [The Footprint of Iranian Culture in Istanbul’s Museums]. Below are the two Achaemenid items housed in Istanbul’s archaeological museums.

Achaemenid coin currency during Achaemenid rule in Anatolia (Source: BBC Persian & Pejman Akbarzadeh).

A Memorial column built in Anatolia with influences of Iranian arts during Achaemenid rule (Source: BBC Persian & Pejman Akbarzadeh).