Uncovering the Veil

The tradition of the ruband

The ruband or wedding veil once worn by Tajik brides in the Pamir Mountains is a slightly mysterious garment. I found this one deep inside the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul in 2005. While I was making my purchase for the museum a young woman from Uzbekistan was trading small embroideries to the proprietor of the shop for a cellular phone.

Unlike the better known embroideries of Central Asia such as the wall hanging or bed covering called susani and the numerous items of both household and dress embroidered by nomads, scanty details of use are all that seem to be known and published about these veils. A ruband was worn by a bride in the Kara-Tegin and Darvas regions of the Pamir Mountains when she was first taken to her new husband’s family house. The embroidered motifs and the color red are protective and meant to promote fertility in the newly forming family. A veil was kept in the family and used by successive generations. Their use dwindled by the end of the 19th century and disappeared altogether in the early 20th, replaced by kerchiefs and shawls.

General information about Tajik embroidery is included in books about Central Asian textiles but little specific information is published in English. My search for the source of these details took me to museum websites, accounts of scientific expeditions, contemporary histories of the region, and writings on the history and mythology of religions. I found some intriguing links but nothing conclusive. My hardly exhaustive research did raise some questions that I will present later. First, some background which will necessarily skip over large time periods.

The present nation of Tajikistan was founded in 1929 as a Soviet Socialist Republic and, like all of Central Asia, has a long and turbulent history surrounding its vital position along the Silk Road from China to Europe. Persians arrived during the Achaemenid Empire (6th to 4th centuries B.C.) and absorbed the Sogdhians and Bactrians (also Iranic people) already there. The people known today as Tajiks speak variations of Indo-European Persian, a marker of ancient heritage, as well as Turkic Uzbek, a concession to political reality. Alexander the Great came through in 329 B.C. and Arabs invaded in the late 7th century adding Islam to the religious mix of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. Then came several centuries of prosperity and the revival of the Tajik cities of Bukhara and Samarkand under the Samanid Empire. The invasion of Mongols and Oguz (Uzbek) Turks into the urban areas and agricultural valleys after the disintegration of the Golden Horde in the 14th century caused many Tajiks to flee high into the Pamir Mountains. Differentiation between lowland and mountain Tajiks, if it did not begin here, certainly continued at this time.

The harsh living conditions of the high mountain valleys influenced the dress culture of the mountain Tajiks. They did not grow cotton, as they did on the plains, but raised sheep, goats, cattle, and horses, and cultivated orchards and gardens. As recorded by a Danish officer in the late 19th century, the garments they made themselves were of wool and sheepskin.1 Garments of natural wool colors from white to dark brown were worn by both men and women. Colored yarns were used to knit patterned socks that were highly prized because dyes were so expensive.2 Women went unveiled except during their marriage ceremony and usually wore a white wool or cotton cap called chelpök with a handkerchief thrown over it for travel.3 Embroidery is never mentioned except in a remark about women’s shoes imported from Kashmir. Photographs he took in the mountains show men, women, and children in unornamented clothing.

The materials of the ruband came from the plains. The ground cloth of the Museum of International Folk Art’s veil is hand spun and woven cotton; it is embroidered with floss silk and lined with machine-printed cotton fabric, probably from Russia. Card-woven cotton ties are decorated with tassels made from silk thread doubled back on itself and wrapped with metal thread. The medallions between the tassels are plaited with cotton cord wound with silk. One source states “Rubands were made by especially skilled embroiders and they were rather highly valued. Often a family had only one ruband successfully used at weddings by several generations of brides in this family as well as their neighbors.”4 For a group of people that don’t exhibit embroidery on their dress or textiles an especially skilled embroiderer would likely have to be from elsewhere.

The counted split back stitch was used to create the motifs of abstracted roosters around the edges and below the net, geometric shapes and an enigmatic triangle surmounted by what might be a figure at the center of each side. These motifs are associated with fertility and protection of the bride from evil. Whether Zoroastrianism, or a much modified form of it, survived in the high Pamirs into the 19th century is a matter of debate5 but the rooster is a symbol significant in that religion. It signifies the day and the death of the night and is associated with Sarosha (Sarosh, Sraosha), a third level divine entity associated with truth, obedience, purity, and justice.6 It’s not hard to make the conceptual leap to a symbolic association with protection for someone in a vulnerable position such as a new bride. The color red is also associated with fertility, not just by Tajiks but by people all over the world. The netted area is made by removing warp and weft yarns and then wrapping the remaining yarns with silk thread.

Other types of embroidered goods used by Tajiks are susani, pillow covers, and wedding sheets as well as embroidered clothing and skull caps worn in the lowlands and urban areas. The stitches used are primarily a couching stitch known as basma, chain, and satin stitch. Bukhara was famous for its gold embroidery.

Although I do not have definitive proof by any means, the more I read and look at the various rubands that have been photographed7 the more I think they were made by professional embroiderers in a city or town, not the mountains. The lack of embroidery seen in historic photographs and accounts of the mountain Tajiks, the rarity of the pieces themselves, and the use of a stitch not seen in other needlework in Central Asia raise questions that are impossible to answer without extensive archival research and comparison to embroidery in other areas such as Iran, Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush, and Xinjiang.

Author Bobbie Sumberg, PhD, is Curator of Textiles and Costume at the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM.

References and further reading
Belenitsky, A. Central Asia. Trans. J. Hogarth. Cleveland and New york: World Publishing Co., 1968.
Hali: Carpet, Textile and Islamic Art, 121 (March-April 2002).
Hali: Carpet, Textile and Islamic Art, 123 (July-August 2002).
Harvey, J. Traditional Textiles of Central Asia. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Hinnells, J. R. Persian Mythology. London: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1973.
Olufsen, O. The Emir of Bokhara and his Country: Journeys and Studies in Bokhara (With a Chapter on My Voyage on the Amu Darya to Khiva). London, Heinemann, 1911. found at ebooksread.com
Olufsen, O. Through the Unknown Pamirs; The Second Danish Pamir Expedition, 1898-99. London: Heinemann, 1904. found at digitalcommons.unl.edu/
Razina, T., Cherkasova, N. and Kantsedikas, A. Folk Art in the Soviet Union. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.

Web resources

1 Olufsen, 1911, p. 74. Ole Olufsen was a Danish military officer and explorer who headed several expeditions to Central Asia and the Pamirs in the 1890s. Although one might not expect a military officer to notice embroidery he was also collecting for the Royal Danish Museum and always noted what people were wearing and what clothing was made from. The 1911 publication chronicles his journeys in the Emirate of Bukhara during a period when the districts of Darvas and Kara-Tegin were subject to Bukhara. His book of 1904 covers the districts of Vakhan and Garan and also describes what the inhabitants of those areas wore.
2 Olufsen, 1904, p. 64.
3 Olufsen reiterates in both books that women did not wear a veil. Reference to a veil worn at the wedding 1904, p.132-133, to caps p. 69; 1911, p. 74.
4 See http://eng.ethnomuseum.ru/glossary/gallery/1898.htm for image of a ruband and information. Samuil M. Dudin, photographer and ethnographer, traveled and documented the life and people of Central Asia at the turn of the 20th century. He collected for the Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg as well.
5 Belinitsky, 1968 and Olufsen, 1904.
6 The UNESCO Parsi Zoroastrian Project, Hinnells, 1973. Going way out on a limb I will suggest a remarkable similarity between the motif flanked by the central roosters seen on the Russian Ethnographic Museum veil and a bronze staff found in Luristan tentatively identified as representing Sarosha, illustrated in Hinnells, p. 53.
7 See Hali Magazine #121, p. 43 and #123, p. 13, Razina, et al, 1990, p. 402 for more rubands. 



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