Pamir Region Pages:
|Pamiri house with hay and dung on the roof. Credit: Pamir.Org|
The Pamiri houses, while outwardly primitive looking, are a repository of Pamiri cultural and religious tradition. They have flat roofs used for drying hay, apricots, mulberries or dung for fuel. Some roofs can be seen stacked high with hay.
Most older houses have few, if any, windows to the outside. Instead, the outer rooms face an inner sanctum that has s skylight. This helps keep the cold out. The elements of its design are rich in Zoroastrian symbolism and meaning. (Google search page on Pamiri Houses.)
King Jamshid's Vara
King Jamshid was a legendary king of the Aryans. In the legends, the mountainous land of Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan homeland, enjoyed a temperate climate and King Jamshid instituted the celebration of New Year's Day on the spring equinox, March 21. However, later during the Jamshidi era, Airyana Vaeja was gripped by severe and long winters, and in order for his people to survive these winters, Jamshid developed a type of dwelling and settlement called a vara.
The Jamshidi concept was for the vara to be a self-contained, self-sustaining communal dwelling area built according to a set of uniform principles. There were to be separate areas for humans and animals, as well as for seed and hay storage. Fruit trees and crops were to be planted within the vara area. Water for the inhabitants and crops was to be brought to the vara via a channel and stored in a reservoir. Designated festivals also included a sharing of food resources. In addition, during the Jamshidi era, clay began to be used as a building and construction material for the first time. The houses of the vara were to be constructed using clay and wooden pillars.
|Yagnobi houses & settlement|
The older Pamiri and Yagnobi settlements and houses that have survived, fit the concept of the Jamshidi vara quite well - more so than dwellings elsewhere in the region. The first European visitors to the Pamir region were surprised to find functioning settlements in areas they considered to be desolate and inhospitable. Pamiri houses also incorporate Aryan religious symbolism into their construction, symbolism that is part of Zoroastrian heritage. The Vendidad (2.42) tells us King Jamshid also "brought religion into the vara."
|Karakul Village on the Karakorum Highway, Pamirs, China|
Zoroastrian Symbolism Inside Pamiri Houses
|Pamiri house below Varshed. Note the beams protruding from the side|
Photo: Yodod at Flickr
The Number Seven
Pamiri houses base their layout, elements and construction on the number seven. Adding to the significance is that the seven elements and features of Pamiri houses are all part of Zoroastrian Heritage. Both view the incorporation of seven elements into their practice as being particularly auspicious (in a more practical sense, organizing life and community in such a fashions allows for the preservation of a heritage, wisdom gained over centuries and the preservation of best practices). A brief overview of the role of seven elements in Zoroastrian practice is as follows:
In Zoroastrianism, the seven aspects of divinity (Amesha Spentas) and the seven elements of the corporeal creation (gaiety) are central to the Jashne / Jashan (thanksgiving) ceremonies. In Gahanbar / Gahambar ceremonies, the seven acts of piety are added significance. The Nowruz (New Year's) table spread has seven items represent the seven elements of divinity, creation, piety, ethics, values and best practices.
|The main room in a house in Khorog|
Note the raised platform along the sides (explained below)
Photo: Yodod at Flickr
In Pamiri houses, the seven aspects of creation correspond to the seven Zoroastrian elements and are represented as follows:
The three living, sang or sandj, areas represent the:
2. animal, and
3. vegetable aspects of creation.
4. The floor, chalak, represents the earth.
5. The hearth or stove in the room represents fire.
6 & 7. The raised platforms along the sides of the room, the loshnukh and barnekh, represent air and water.
These symbolisms are repeated for the construction of the skylight (see below).
It will be seen that preserving this system of seven elements, best practices and guiding principles that have been made part of religious practice is a method of preserving and communicating ageless wisdom, a concept that translates in Zoroastrianism and Amesha Spentas. The incorporation of the seven elements and best practices in the design and construction of Pamiri homes results in dwellings and settlements that are uniquely suited to the the best and worst the environment in which people live. The outcomes are houses that are earthquake resistant with a strong wooden frame and walls of stone and plaster (as prescribed for the Jamshidi Vara). During an earthquake the walls may peel outward from the frame, but the frame will remain standing. The Pamiris simply build the collapsed walls back up around the frame. The layout and construction are very energy efficient and allow for not just survival in a harsh environment, but an enjoyment of the bounties of nature that can be nurtured in harsh environment that other communities would rather abandon.
While we are on the subject of numbers, each number from one to seven has a particular significance in Zoroastrianism (culminating in the number seven). The odd numbers, one (the unity of God), three (good thoughts, words and deeds), five (gahanbars / gahambars) and seven (Amesha Spentas) are of particular significance in ritual and practice representation. Even number concepts are interwoven between the odd number concepts. For instance, two represents the fundamental coexistent dual and dichotomous nature of creation, both spiritual (mainyu) and material / physical (gaetha).
The Five Pillars
Note the white and red colours
Note the sun motif
Five main wooden pillars support the roof in the main central room. They represent the five Yazatas or Izads: Surush (variously pronounced Soroush or Saroosh), Mehr, Anahita, Zamyod and Azar.
1. Khasitan Shokhsutun - Surush / Soroush
The pillar representing Surush (guardian of conscience & intuitive wisdom), the Khasitan Shokhsutun, is found to the left of the entrance to the main room. It has carved sun symbols. The pillar was previously made of juniper (see our page on Barsom), a sacred tree and symbol of purity, the smoke of which has healing and disinfectant properties. Today, however, junipers are scarce. If there is a child in the home, its cradle is placed close to this pillar.
[Note: Sacred trees. The juniper could very well have been used for religious ceremonies in the same way that sandalwood was used by Zoroastrians in India. The juniper and willow both play an important role in Tajik customs. The tamarisk was also used in Iran. All have medicinal, healing or disinfectant properties cf. haoma in Zoroastrian tradition - a legendary tree or family of plants with medicinal properties. Also see our page on Barsom.]
2. Vouznek-sitan - Mehr
The pillar symbolising Mehr (guardian of the light of honesty, friendship and kindness), the Vouznek-sitan, is found diagonally left from the entrance. Since Mehr is the symbol of love and commitment, during weddings, the bridal couple sit next to this pillar in the hope of being blessed with barakat, good fortune and happiness. Tradition requires that in addition to her own father and future father-in-law, the bride requires a third 'father', a person who while standing next to this pillar, ritually uncovers the brides face from seven veils during the wedding ceremony - seven being an auspicious number in Zoroastrian tradition.
3. Kitsor-sitan - Anahita
The pillar symbolising Anahita (guardian of waters and the spirit of sustenance and nurturing), the Kitsor-sitan, is found diagonally right from the entrance. It is the place of honour for the woman at her engagement ceremony. Her engagement apparel, a red dress, bracelets, rings and ear-rings also represent Anahita. Anahita is also the guardian of fire and the stove or family fire is kept closest to this pillar which is also the centre of fire-related rituals.
4. Poiga-sitan - Zamyod
5. Barnekh-sitan - Azar
|Zamyod and Azar Pillars|
Note the connection. Credit: Pamir.Org
The fourth, Poiga-sitan, and fifth, Barnekh-sitan, pillars are joined to show the closeness of the relationship between Zamyod (guardian of earth and the spirit of being grounded, practical and productive) and Azar (guardian of fire and the spirit of truthfulness, goodness and the light of wisdom) respectively. The crossbar is carved with Zoroastrian era symbols, frequently including a central depiction of the sun, and is sometimes decorated with the horns of a Marco Polo sheep (Ovis poli).
The fourth pillar is the place of family and private prayer and is considered the place of honour for the religious leader or a chief guest. The chief guest will normally leave a small symbolic space next to him/her against the pillar showing that it is reserved for the religious leader.
Mourning ceremonies, with the lighting of a ritual lamp or candle lit for three days, are carried out close to the fifth pillar.
The pillars support two main supporting beams representing the material and spiritual worlds. The first beam runs across the Surush and Mehr pillars and the second across the remaining three pillars.
The main beams support thirteen intermediary beams, six over the fireplace representing the six directions: east, west, north, south, upper and lower, and another seven representing the seven Amesha Spentas.
The total number of beams including the subsidiary beams varies between 49 and 72 according to the size of the house and local tradition.
The Raised Platforms
|The hearth within the platform. Credit: Pamir.Org|
There is a raised platform approximately 50 cm. high that runs around the inside walls of the house.
The platform is used for sitting, sleeping, as a kitchen table or for placing household objects. Beneath the platform is a storage area.
In older style homes built before the introduction of metal stoves, the family hearth would have been inserted within the raised area so in the photo to the left. In modern homes, the stove stands in the open floor area
The skylight in the main room is built with four concentric square box-type layers representing earth, water, air and fire, the latter being the highest, is first touched by the sun's rays. The construction of the skylight makes it protrude above the roof line - an excellent feature that must evidently prevent snow from accumulating around and above the skylight. The amount of wood used in the construction of the skylight and the subsequent strength of the ceiling is amazing.
Danish 1898-99 Pamir Expedition
The second Danish Pamir expedition of 1898-99 account states: "It is also remarkable in having a resident agricultural people at so very high an altitude." "The native Garans told us that many of the inhabitants live up on these terraces without ever descending the mountains ; partly, it would seem, owing to the difficulty in climbing and down the heights, and partly owing to their dread of meeting wicked people and spirits and demons (cf. devs or demons in the Avesta and Vendidad) outside their native place, which is all the world to them."
"The towns of these people are of mud houses, built so closely together that the roofs almost form one large flat, across which it is possible to walk over the whole town." "Between the houses there are narrow passages through which it is just possible to squeeze oneself, and, being like so many mazes, it is very difficult to find one's way through the towns."
"Through the stable a small channel is generally conducted to a small reservoir of water; and on the platform mulberry trees are often planted, under the shade of which the people of passing caravans can rest and take their meals.
"... they seem always to aim at building them in one particular style ; their arrangements of detail are everywhere the same, alike for the rich and poor. The hearth-room is everywhere alike in Vakhan and Garan ; indeed the poor have only this one room in their houses in which both man and beast consequently pass the winter together (cf. Jamshedi Vara)."
"...one goes through a low wooden door into a small room where are platforms built of mud on both sides. This is the so-called Meheman-khanah (Shugnan) (guest room), where strangers are received-not being allowed into the inner room where dwells the family of the master of the house. On these platforms are placed primitive agricultural implements and the large household articles for which there is no room in the inner apartment.
"From thence another small low wooden door leads into the hearth-room (khrun), which is mainly reserved for women, and into which only their husbands and nearest relatives are allowed to enter. Several closely connected families often live together. We, as specially well-recommended guests, were allowed to enter the hearth-room after the women had withdrawn.
"The roof of the hearth-room, like the roofs of the other rooms, consisting of rafters covered with fagots and hay, with a layer of mud on top, rests on four strong hewn wooden pillars, which are always ornamented with wreaths of ears of corn. The custom of crowning columns with flowers and branches is found in the Zoroastrian religion of the Parthians-or rather in the mixture of religion whereof this creed consisted. In a low-relief from the time of the Parthians is a Magian consecrating a holy column crowned with wreaths. As the Parthian realm embraced all Bactria, it is possible that the custom may have originated as far back as from that period."
The Symbolism of Colours
The colours used for decorating the home (see the photograph of the Anahita Column above) as well as for clothes are white and red. White symbolizes light, milk, purity, goodness and honesty - essentials for human well-being. Red symbolizes the sun and blood, the source and essence of life. Red also symbolizes fire and flame.
The tradition of using white with red for accentuation, continues with the Zoroastrians of India. Red flowers are interspersed among the white flowers used in ceremonies. Red is added to white chalk designs used to decorate the threshold of doorways. Indian Zoroastrian have borrowed from the Hindus of India, the practice of applying a red paste to the forehead of, say, a couple getting married. The use of black is avoided as in symbolizes ignorance and evil.
In preparation for New Year's day, Nowruz, a willow wreath (in the form of a circle containing a cross) is dipped in flour and used to draw figures and designs on the walls and columns of the main room. The concept of this practice is very similar to the chalk designs used by Zoroastrians in India during festivities or Jashans.
The Willow and Baresman
|Man from Oxus region|
of Central Asia
holding a baresman
In addition, to the flour designs, at Nowruz, stripped willow twigs are bound together, in a practice reminiscent of the baresman bundles used in Zoroastrian ceremonies, and placed between the beams as an auspicious harbinger of abundant crops in the new year. Since in spring the willow is the first tree that 'wakes up' after a long sleep - for the Pamiri people, the willow is the symbol of new life.
The willow twig is also used on other occasions. During wedding ceremonies, a willow twig is used to lift the bride's veil. An arrow made from a willow is also shot through the skylight.
One additional and unfortunate use of the symbolism of the willow twig, was its traditional use to announce a divorce. When a husband wanted to divorce his wife, he took a stick of willow and broke it above her head.
» Next Page - Pamiri Historical Sites
» Page 1 Tajikistan Introduction)
» Page 2 (Turan & Sugd - Sogdiana)
» Page 4 (Pamirs, page 1, Introduction)
» Page 5 (Pamirs, page 3, Pamiri Historical Sites)
» Page 6 (Tajikistan History)