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Symbolism in the Pamiri House

Symbolism in the Pamiri House by Robert Middleton

House in Vrang, PamirOne of the most important repositories of the culture of the Pamirs is the traditional Pamiri house, locally known as 'Chid' in the Shughni language. What to the untrained eye looks like a very basic — even primitive — structure, is, for the people who live in it, rich in religious and philosophical meaning. Tajik writers consider that it embodies elements of ancient Aryan and possibly Buddhist philosophy - some of which have since been assimilated into Pamiri traditions. The symbolism of specific structural features of the Pamiri house goes back over two and a half thousand years and its distinctive architectural elements are found in buildings in several other areas close to the Pamirs.

The Anglo-Hungarian explorer Aurel Stein noted these similarities on his journey through the Western Pamirs on his way back from Kashgar in 1915.

The hamlets nestling here and there at the mouth of ravines and half-hidden amidst fine fruit trees relieved in pleasant contrast the uniform grimness of these forbidding defiles. The dwellings at the places where we broke our journey looked from outside unpretending rubble-built hovels.

But in the interior, smoke-begrimed as it was, there could be seen arrangements indicative of rude comfort and interesting as obviously derived from antiquity. Thus the living hall, in its ground plan and in the arrangement of the skylight ceiling and sitting platforms, invariably showed the closest resemblance to the internal architecture of residences excavated at ancient sites in the Taklamakan and of others still occupied by the living in Hindukush valleys to the south. This small corner of Asia, in its alpine seclusion, seemed indeed as if untouched by the change of ages. I felt inclined to wonder whether it could have presented a very different picture to some Bactrian Greek or Indo-Scythian visitor in the centuries before Christ.

Roof in the Pamiri HouseThe house itself is the symbol of the universe and also the place of private prayer and worship for Pamiri Ismailis - the Ismailis have as yet no mosques in Gorno-Badakhshan. The Pamiri house is normally built of stones and plaster, with a flat roof on which hay, apricots, mulberries or dung for fuel can be dried. The layout of the house is as described below, although some houses have a mirror-image of what is described.

Inside, most houses comprise a small internal lobby - frequently used for sleeping or eating in the summer months - and a large square room, entered through a door in the lobby. Beyond this door is the main room, entered through a small corridor (with space to the left and right for washing and storage); the corridor leads into an open area comprising the following standard elements:

a)    Three living areas ('Sang', or 'Sandj'), symbolising the three kingdoms of nature: animal, mineral and vegetable: the floor ('Chalak'), normally of earth, where the fire (or more frequently today, a cast-iron oven) burns, corresponds to the inanimate world; the first raised dais ('Loshnukh') corresponds to the vegetative soul; and the third floor level ("Barnekh') to the cognitive soul.

b)    Five supporting pillars, symbolising the five members of Ali's family: Mohamed, his son-in-law Ali, Mohamed's daughter Bibi Fatima (Ali's wife), and their sons Hasan and Husayn - the pillars are thought to correspond in Zoroastrian symbolism to the major gods/goddesses ('Yazata' or' Fyzads'): Surush, Mehr, Anahita, Zamyod and Ozar. The number five also reflects the live principles of Islam.

Skylight 1. The pillar symbolising the prophet Muhammcd ('Khasitan-Shokhsutun'), to the left of the entrance, was traditionally made of juniper — a sacred tree and symbol of purity, the smoke of which has healing and disinfectant properties; today, there are no longer enough junipers of adequate size for making this pillar in newly constructed houses. The child's cradle will normally be put close to this pillar.

2.    The pillar symbolising Ali ('Vouznek-sitan') is situated diagonally left from the entrance. In Zoroastrian tradition, this pillar corresponded to the angel of love ('Mehr'). At weddings, the bridal couple will be seated at this pillar, in the hope of being blessed with good fortune and happiness ('Barakat'). Tradition requires that -in addition to her own father and father-in-law - the bride must have a third father, the person who, at this pillar, ritually uncovers her face from seven veils during the ceremony.

3.    Diagonally right from the entrance is the pillar symbolising Bibi Fatima ('Kitsor-sitan'). It is the place of honour for the bride at the engagement ceremony and her engagement dress corresponds to the traditional perception of Fatima (and the goddess Anahita): red dress, bracelets, rings, ear-rings. In Zoroastrian tradition, (his column corresponded to the angel who guarded the fire. The stove or family fire-is closest to this pillar and it serves also for fire-related rituals.

4/5. The fourth (Hasan) and fifth (Husayn) pillars are joined to show the closeness of the relationship between the two brothers. The crossbar is carved wilh Aryan symbols, frequently including a central depiction of the sun, and is sometimes decorated wilh the horns of a Marco Polo sheep (Ovis poli).

The 'Hasan' pillar ('Poiga-sitan') is the place of family and private prayer and is considered the place of honour for the religious leader ('Khalifa') 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 Khalifa. It is believed that, in Zoroastrian tradition, this pillar personified 'Zamyod'.

Mourning ceremonies - with a ritual lamp or candle lit for three days - are carried out close to the 'Husayn' pillar ('Barnekh-sitan'). In Zoroastrian tradition this pillar may have been associated with 'Ozar'.

c) Two main transversal supporting beams -one across the 'Mohamed' and 'Ali' pillars, one across the 'Fatima' and 'Hasan/Husayn' pillars. For Pamiri Ismailis, the first symbolises universal reason ('Akli kul'), and the second the universal soul ('Nafsi kul'). The two beams are thought to have corresponded to the material and spiritual worlds in Zoroastrianism.

d)    Several groups of beams. The total number varies according to the size of the house and local interpretation of Pamiri tradition. There are several different theories concerning their number. For some the total must be the number of Ismaili Imams (49), for others they are equal to the number of Ali's Army, when they were killed in Dashti Karbalo (72). In most cases, there are thirteen intermediary beams: six — over the fireplace - representing Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohamed, the six prophets revered in Islam (in Zoroastrianism East, West, North, South, Upper, Lower); and seven representing the first seven Imams.

In the Zoroastrian religion, the number seven is of symbolic importance. God created seven heavenly bodies: Sun, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury and there are seven principal Amesha Spentas or 'Holy Immortals'. The Ismailis are 'sevener' Muslims: for them Ismail was the seventh Imam.

Other beams on the ceiling may include groups of eighteen or seventeen beams corresponding to elements of Ismaili cosmogony.

e)    A raised platform (approx. 50cm) around the inside walls of the house. Underneath the platform is a storage area, but - prior to the widespread introduction of metal stoves, which now stand in the open floor area — it would have incorporated the family hearth.

f) A skylight, the design of which incorporates four concentric square box-type layers, called 'chorkhona' ('four houses') in the Shughni language, that represent, respectively, the four elements earth, water, air and fire, the latter being the highest, touched first by the sun's rays. The opening is called 'rauzan'.

The illustration is taken from the report on the second and third German expeditions to Turfan 1904—1907 by Albert Griinwedel, head of the Indian Department of the ethnographic museum in Berlin and shows that the design of the skylight in Pamiri houses is very ancient and may combine Aryan and Buddhist symbolism.

Other decorative elements in a Pamiri house - in addition to the carved Aryan/Zoroastrian symbols - frequently include a combination of red and white, symbolising respectively (in both Zoroastrianism and local Ismaili belief):

•    Red: the sun, blood (the source and essence of life) and fire and flame (the first thing created by God);
•    White: light, milk (the source of human well-being).

At the Persian New Year ('Navruz'), a willow wreath (in the form of a circle containing a cross) is dipped in flour and used to draw designs on the walls and columns of the main room. Stripped willow twigs are bound together (to resemble a vegetable stalk) and placed between the beams as a token of abundant crops in the new year.

For the people of the Pamirs, willow is the symbol of new life, because in spring it is the first tree that 'wakes up' after a long sleep. It plays a role in wedding ceremonies, when a willow twig is used to lift the bride's veil and when an arrow made of willow is shot through the skylight. In old times when a husband wanted to divorce his wife, he took a stick of willow and broke il above her head.

At burials, a willow stick is used to measure the length of the body and determine the size of the grave to be dug.