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Carnival Procession with Rustam


By: Prof. Iraj Bashiri


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Throughout centuries, the heroes of great Firdows's Shahname have been recognized as symbolic characters in the classical and oral literatures, representational art, and the worldview of the Iranian-speaking peoples. The Tajiks in particular have had a penchant for seeing those heroes in their own traditional theaters and recall the deeds of mighty Rustam, his wife, Tahminah, and his elephants and soldiers. To satisfy this need, the Tajik public had created its own heroes of the Shahname and presented them in theatrical form in a unique happening. Referred to as "the Caravan of Joy with Rustam," the spectacle is a result of the Tajiks' effort at preserving the remnants of their colorful ancient culture.


Since ancient times, the Tajiks had been arranging Caravans of Joy in the form of involved theatrical productions. Even at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the citizens of the cities of Khujand, Qistakuz, Kan-i Badam, Urateppe, and Isfara still held Caravans of Joy as a part of their ceremonies for circumcision tuys.1 The caravan united the representatives of music, dance, and the theater with those of industry and labor. Such tuys, however, usually required a great deal of money; therefore, only the very rich could afford them. The ceremony itself is very old, harkening back to the ancient traditions of the Tajiks, who carried a tree decorated with flowers down the street to celebrate special happenings. Each region had a different name for the same event. For instance, the Tajiks of Qistakuz called the Caravan of Joy "The Flower Tuy," while the Khujandis called it "Japar ." In Kan-i Badam, where the tree had lost its traditional significance, the caravan was referred to as "The Tuy Worth Watching" or "The Rustam Spectacle." The people of Urateppe derived the name of the spectacle from the names of its compositional elements (i.e., the participation of the king and his soldiers). They called the Caravan of Joy "Tuy with a King" or "Tuy with Soldiers." In medieval times, the "Flower Tuy" was held very regularly, but later on, especially since the beginning of the 20th century, it has lost its audience.


The people of the towns and villages of northern Tajikistan spared no effort in preparing for the tuy. Several days prior to the tuy, in a "Maslahat Ash," 2 the major questions regarding who should distribute the invitations; who should contact the musicians, dancers, chavandazes,3 clowns, champions, master carpenters, and the other artisans; and who should keep order in the crowd were all discussed and resolved. Usually a month before the tuy, the owner would invite one or two "master flower arrangers." These carpenters would arrange the flowers, the cardinals, and the parrots on the silver branches of the tree. The birds were surrounded by hundred-petal red, black, and green flowers. The foot of the tree, which was as thick as one's wrist or elbow, was placed in a hole in the middle of a stand that held the tree in place as it was being carried along the procession.


In addition to the tree, two weeks before the tuy, the effigies of the elephant and Rustam were prepared. This job, too, required experts. The image of the elephant was rendered after a traditional model, with a length and height of about two to three meters. In some places, in Kan-i Badam, for instance, the elephant's length and height reached five to six meters. Made of planks and covered with gray or black material, the effigy was then mounted on a chair-like contraption made of willow with heavy wooden wheels. The chair was then either tied to a cart or directly to the tails of two decorated horses. Two individuals were responsible for keeping the elephant in proper order, and a third sat inside the elephant, looking out at the crowd through a slit and operating the trunk, at the end of which there was a heavy knot. Unruly and abusive children were punished with strokes of the trunk, and the elephant also played a drum. In Qistakuz, a stand is put on the back of the elephant with the effigy of Rustam placed on that. In Khujand, Kan-i Badam, and its surrounding areas, the elephant entered the city without a rider, while Rustam's effigy was carried ahead.


Made of light wood, the effigy that represented Rustam was very big. Its height was two to three meters (up to six meters in Khujand and Kan-i Badam), its width was one and a half to two and a half meters. All its parts: nose, eyes, mouth, and hands were made following traditional proportions used in preparing the effigy of the champions. In Khujand, Rustam's head was made out of a large, dry pumpkin, using holes for eyes and mouth. His short beard, moustache, and heavy black eyebrows were made of goat hair or from the wool of a lamb. Rustam's effigy had the body of a forty-five year old man clothed in a regal garb or a piece of black or red material. On his head he wore a traditional Tajik taqi or a turban made of very fine material. In Khujand, armor was added on top of his regular clothes, and he wore a crown made of red cloth. In one of his hands he carried a sword, and in the other he carried his traditional mace, which was made of an empty pumpkin, painted or covered with paper maché.


In Qistakuz, Rustam rode in, his body attached to the top of a post that crossed the elephant's body. The person in the elephant turned Rustam's body in various directions by turning the bottom of that post. In areas (like in Khujand and Kan-i Badam) where Rustam "walked" independently, he was fixed on a wheeled cart about three meters high. Rustam was required to move to and fro during the periodic stops of the procession. In the body was a person who moved Rustam's head and hands by pulling the strings that controlled Rustam's limbs. In order to make the traditional decorations effective, participants burned musk, lit Roman candles, carried rotating fires, and prepared the usual moonbeam musk.


The Caravan of Joy left the house of the owner of the tuy with pomp. In the forefront were four or six kurnai 4 players. The kurnais were made of copper (each about two meters long). In Kan-i Badam, Khujand, Urateppe, and Isfara, the kurnai players were accompanied by two to four surnai 5 players, two drummers, and seven to ten tambourine players. The musicians were followed by dancers on make-believe horses. In Urateppe and Khujand, a bear trainer followed the dancers, though the bear was a person in bear costume.


All these preceded the tree that was described above. The tree, in turn, was followed by the royal throne. Made of four-cornered planks, the throne accommodated a heavily decorated canopy with a cover made of velvet with fringed cording. The "king," played by a handsome youth of fifteen or sixteen, sat on the throne. The boat "floated" after the throne. A handsome boy sat under the canopy of the boat, which consisted of a rectangular wooden frame covered with expensive cloth. The bottom of the boat frame had an opening. The upper part of the frame carried the canopy. The carrier of the boat stuck his legs through the opening and held the rest of the light boat up about his midsection. Two artificial legs were placed before his body in the boat, giving the impression that he was relaxing in the boat with his legs stretched out. As the boy walked, the boat floated along.


The first boat was followed by the second tree, which was followed by the second boat and the third tree, followed by the third boat. The drummers followed the third boat. The musicians were accompanied by a group of clowns. As the caravan proceeded, one of the clowns made fun of the dancers while another walked on his hands. One clown rode on the back of another. The clowns surrounded a figure that was dressed like the Qadi (judge) or the Ra'is (governor) of the city.


Following the clowns was the elephant trainer, driving his elephants. Often, instead of elephants, the effigy of a mythical dragon was carried. In Khujand and Urateppe, one to four hundred of Rustam's soldiers, played by the city's youth, walked after him.


In Khujand, before or after the soldiers or after the Qadi, some fifty to one hundred and fifty men of twenty to thirty years of age walked, singing the traditional "tuy song." Often a few solo singers also accompanied this group. Following the "tuy-song" singers were two to four carts filled with the prizes that had been won by the victors in the buzkashi. The rear of the two-kilometer caravan was brought up by men, children, and onlookers in general.


Order in the caravan was kept by six to ten yasavuls on foot. The caravan procession started at the owner of the tuy's house and headed for the traditional idgah, a place where all the annual events, including wrestling, sprint competitions, and other games were held. The caravan passed the most populated parts of town, especially the merchant district in the center of the town or village, and in each mahallah (city district) or other place where there was a concentration of people. The clowns, accompanied by kurnai, surnai, and drums, performed their comical dances and made way for the appearance of the singers.


In Qistakuz and Khujand, after a rest of about three to four hours, during which time the organizers of the caravan and the guests had been entertained at the owner's house, the caravan returned to the place it had started. There the celebration continued until midnight. It was called Shab-i Bazm or, simply, Bazm.


Almost all the representatives of popular arts‹singers, musicians, dancers, artists, animal trainers, and groomers‹participated in the multi-colored Caravan of Joy. The spectacle was lavishly decorated and filled with mirth and dazzling colors. The organizers controlled all aspects of the event, including the songs, the movement, the laughter, and the decoration. A special devotion to order was seen throughout the time that the caravan was in progress, and this orderly movement of the caravan enhanced the joy and emphasized the professionalism, mastery, creativity, talent, innovation, and the finesse of the producers. The multi-layer nature of the caravan, as well as its multi-colored beauty, reflected the cooperation of the many professions that had created it; it also pointed to a long history of cooperation and interconnectedness among the professional classes of the region. The closeness of these professionals resulted in the production of a merry, colorful, and pleasant caravan. Most importantly, the Caravan of Joy with Rustam was a theatrical spectacle that rose from among the people themselves.


Although outwardly a maydan and street affair, the procession had a basic inner meaning as well. It was given in honor of a child's coming of age. The caravan and the tuy had an impact on the child for whom this celebration was organized. In his wishes and desires, he would want to be like a king or like Rustam. He would want, like the king, to own elephants and strong soldiers. Everything in the caravan was for him. They pointed to a future filled with wealth, strength, and nobility.


Music was central to the celebration. The happy and boisterous songs added to the festive mood of the caravan. At its base, the Caravan of Joy represents age-old traditions honed by the passage of time. These were caravans that, during medieval times, were put together with eagerness and dexterity. We have an account of one such procession from the time when the Timurids ruled in Herat. A. M. Belenizski describes the event after Khundamir:

The spectacles and the theatrical productions in Herat were held in the north of the city in the Zaqan garden which, during Shahrukh's long reign, served as his permanent place of rest. The artists were positioned on the right side of the road between the entrance and the central pool. They had built wonderful, small shops and decorated them with the splendor of the Nigaristan of China. Even the twelve stars envied them. Many types of merry acts and games were provided. Each group of shopkeepers had provided games, rare comedy acts, and unique statues related to the group's profession.6


Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, the Spanish ambassador, too, had seen a similar spectacle in Samarqand. He describes this celebration which took place on a Now Ruz day in the 15th century:

On Thursday, October 9th, His Excellency [i.e., Amir Timur, author] ordered that a celebration be held on the occasion of the tuy for one of his grandsons... To add to the joy, the governor of Samarqand ordered all the city to participate in the tuy. Have all the shopkeepers of the city‹sellers of all kinds of things, animals and what not... the cooks, the butchers, the bakers, the tailors, the shoemakers, and other artisans‹gather in the maydan of the city... Have them all pitch up their individual tents there and, instead of in the city, buy and sell their wares there. In addition, have every district produce comedy acts and entertain the people. Have these troupes also pass through the urdu.7

The Caravan of Joy with Rustam's effigy is one such splendid theatrical spectacle. As evidenced by its very compositional elements, it has existed throughout the centuries.


The tree is related to Zoroastrianism. According to the Zoroastrian tenets, things, animals, insects, plants, and even human beings were divided along "pure" and "impure" lines. Trees were considered to be "pure." This respect for trees was, perhaps, because they are sustained by land and water, two of the elements that, along with fire, were revered by the faithful. A number of other customs and traditions relate to trees. After studying the works of foreign experts, art expert Sharif Shakurov has come to the conclusion that in Islam, especially in the civilization of Islamic Iran, a prototype of the tree had been in use. Under that tree, a throne is placed and in front of the throne a fountain is in evidence. Furthermore, Shakurov has discovered the significance of the tree that is behind the throne in Firdowsi's Shahname:

They had a tree
Set up above the Shah's throne to enshadow
It and the crown. The stem thereof was silver;
The branches were of gold and jewelry,
The jewels manifold and clustering,
The leaves of emeralds and carnelians,
And fruit hung down, like earrings, from the boughs.
The fruits were golden oranges and quinces
All hollow and all perforate like reeds,
And charged with musk worked up with wine that
The Shah set any one upon the throne
The breeze might shower musk on him[.]8


Shakurov relates the symbolic meaning of the tree scene to myths and to "speculation regarding the identification of the king and the world tree as the center of the universe." 9 He states that the world tree depicted the world as a whole and gave it a specific point. It further guided man to find his own place in the universe. Foreign scholars A. Akerman and K. Lekler, as well as a leading Sufi thinker of the 12th and 13th centuries, Farid al-Din Attar, have written about the world tree. In this respect, Attar says:

Imagine the world a tree
Laden with fruit. It begins as a tiny seed
But grows to a majesty that captures
Royal crowns and thrones.10


Decorating the tree with royal flowers, worship of the greenery, and worship of trees with fruit are related to the revival of land and increase in nature. The Tulip Fest and the Now Ruz are related to this same mode of worship.


Traces of the existence of these celebrations are evident in the artistic depictions of Now Ruz, in ancient Iran. These depictions indicate that the army, too, participated in the festivities, as is especially revealed in a relief from Persepolis. Perhaps in Central Asia, too, like in ancient and modern Iran, the army had a role in the Now Ruz celebration. We still see a trace of this participation in the Shirbadan Festival (Bukhara), in which the soldiers carried the effigy of the dragon and the dancing boats. Even the clowns formed an army of sorts, riding on wooden horses, and carrying wooden spears and shields. In addition, there are many things that are directly related to the name of the mythical hero, Rustam. His image is woven in the mythology and heroic stories in which the ancestors of the Tajik people have praised the bravery of their children. The myth that Rustam lived for over 650 years, for instance, precedes Firdowsi. Rustam's image is related to the basic and popular epic stories that had lingered in people's recollections and which had been passed from generation to generation. And not exclusively myth either. Among them, there are some stories about "real past happenings with true-to-life champions. Stories about individuals who in real time had performed unusual, heroic acts, but whose individuality had been gradually eroded by time until their persona had joined the people's collective mind set."11


Rustam is one such hero who hailed from Sistan (si astan) or ancient Sakistan, the abode of the Sakas. Evidently, the Sakas had a series of stories that gradually acquired a cyclical nature. Sam and his grandson, Rustam, are the main characters of this series. Such cycles of stories about Rustam are known to have been in circulation at the beginning of the Sassanian era [3rd to 7th centuries AD, author]. These stories continued to persist until they were incorporated into the literature.


Rustam is not just a Tajik phenomenon. He is known throughout the East, particularly among the peoples of Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan. The difficult passes in mountains and fortresses are usually named after Rustam. At the summit of Hussein Kuh there are a number of Achaemenian and Sassanian tombs with inscriptions, known as "Naqsh-i Rustam." The "Throne of Rustam" is several kilometers west of Samangan, in Afghanistan. There, on the slope of the mountain, one can still see Rustam's footprint. There is a story that Afrasiyab had built the Hissar fortress as a protection against Rustam. In addition, paintings on the wall of one of the halls in ancient Panjkent depicts a series of epic forms that are related to the name of Rustam.


This hero is also famous for his lifestyle. When the Tajik of the Kuhistan faces a difficult task, he invokes Rustam: "Rustam, help me!" In front of the well of the Great Mosque of Bukhara, there is "Rustam's cup." It held two skinsful of water. On Fridays, they filled it up with water or sherbet, and gave it out to passersby to quench their thirst.


In Bukhara, there was also a large rock with a dip in it called "Rustam's bowl." In the Jami; mosque in the Amir's palace [the Arg, author], there was a red rock. They called it "Rustam's Rock." The dip in this rock was called "Rustam's stall."12 At the gate of the palace, there was a place where they hung all the keys to the gates of Bukhara. Every morning the guards came and took the keys. In the same place, Rustam's bow and arrows, whip (qamchin), mace (bulgha), shield, and breast plates (charaina) were on display.13 In many places, especially in Vanj and Shuqnan, bows and arrows were referred to as "Rustam's bow." The same name is given to a pattern that is woven into socks in Rushan and Bartang. There are many stories about Rustam. We recorded one of them in Vanj. It was called "Rustam the Champion."


The Caravan of Joy with Rustam is a variety of these same phenomena arising from the people's imagination. It is possible that the elephant effigy replaces the participation of live elephants that could have participated in great celebrations. In the 15th century, Clavijo had witnessed such ceremonies in Samarqand, in Timur's big tuy. In that tuy, fourteen large, royally decorated elephants had been used in the procession. They had been painted in green, red, and other colors. On the flat of the back of the elephants, they had placed wooden litters, covered with royal materials. Four small yellow and green banners had decorated the corners. Five or six people sat in the litter. In addition, one individual rode on the elephant's neck and, using an iron prod, forced the elephant "to run after the horses and the people. When all the elephants ran together, it felt as though the whole earth was shaking. Their running invoked some very wonderful feelings in people."14


The participation of actors and masked individuals in the celebration is also according to tradition. During the 14th and 15th centuries, many of the professional guilds participated in ceremonies and festivities, and each displayed its related wares as art. Many of the shopkeepers wore masks. For instance, the butchers wore masks in the shape of a sheep or a goat, and the sheepskin makers wore masks of foxes, hyenas, tigers, and leopards.15 Many of these forms have survived in our culture.


Perhaps the Caravan of Joy in which Rustam participated had been a misteria that, over the centuries, had lost its ceremonial importance and had been transformed into a carnival-theater spectacle. In any event, the caravans of joy that were held in Urateppe, Kan-i Badam, and Khujand in the years between 1912 and 1915 were straight attractions, no more. Furthermore, the meaning underlying the theatrics had also changed; they now reflected the splendor of feudalism.


In spirit, the Tajiks' street caravan theatre is very much like those of other countries of the East and the West. For instance, consider the tragic misteria of "Shah Hussein, Vah Hussein" in Iran, Arran (nowadays the republic of Azerbaijan), and Bukhara in which many people participate. Or the large carnivals in India, especially in the spring for "Khali," in which pictures of Vishnu and Krishna are displayed. Then there are the celebrations of the Georgians called Keenoba and the New Year celebration of the Chinese, called Jange. There were also similar elaborate caravans of joy in Italy and Spain of the 16th century.


However, the Caravan of Joy with Rustam, Tahminah, elephants, dragon, and soldiers is perhaps the oldest of all, definitely pre-dating Islam. The most ancient element in it, the tree, harks back to the time of prophet Zoroaster (ca. 1800 BCE). That is also the source on which it draws for its miraculous nature, family-orientation, and respect. The spreading of the Caravan of Joy in the heavily populated Tajik settlements of Ferghana and Bukhara is indicative of the ancient nature of the spectacle. It is perhaps as ancient as the time of the formation of the Sughdian culture. In it is distilled the worldview and traditions of our ancestors.




1 The cities of Khujand, Qistakuz, Kan-i Badam, Urateppe, and Isfara belong to the north where the cultural traditions of the Tajiks are best preserved (ed.). A tuy is a celebration to commemorate births, circumcisions, weddings, deaths, and the like. In Tajikistan, the latter is also referred to as Khudai (ed).

2 A kind of organizational committee that met prior to a big tuy to assign duties (ed.).

3 Big tuys usually included a buzkashi contest in which the strong men of the region, the chapandaz, participated. Huge prizes were at stake and, to capture them, the horsemen fought each other mercilessly (ed.).

4 A long musical instrument in the shape of a bugle (ed.).

5 A short musical wind instrument in the shape of a bugle (ed.).

6 Belenicski, 1946, p. 193.

7 Clavijo, Ruy;,, 1990, p. 121.

8 Firdowsi, vol. V, pp. 54-55; Warner, vol. III, p. 329.

9 Shokurov, 1983, p. 92.

10 Bertels, 1945, pp. 343-45.

11 Starikov, 1957, vol. I, p . 525.

12 Andreev, 1972, p. 31.

13 Originally kept in the Abkhane, these weapons are now moved into the Arg's Museum of Weaponry and placed in various displays. It should be mentioned that bulgha means hammer; in the context of weaponry, however, it is translated as mace (ed.).

14 Clavijo, 1990, p. 125.

15 Belenicski, 1940, pp. 189-201.




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