This is one of a series of occasional posts about objects that I’ve acquired on my travels
The waistcoat from Waziristan
‘Where does it come from?’ I asked the shopkeeper. His was a small, open shop in the town of Gilgit, in northern Pakistan. It was one of the few where you could buy something of interest, in terms of local craft. The waistcoat was covered all over in vibrant mirror pattern embroidery.
‘Waziristan’, he answered.
‘Where?’ When he repeated the name, it sounded as remote or unreal as Shangrila. This was 1995, and Pakistan hadn’t yet come into focus as a source of jihad and terrorism. Tensions were building in some areas, but we were visiting as regular tourists, something almost unthinkable now in terms of a journey by road from the Chinese border to Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Gilgit itself was not a fun place to be though, even back then. I noted in my travel diary that ‘Gilgit has polo ponies and very little else’, and that women do not walk the streets. Later, on a second visit in 1997, we saw half-naked men with a fierce, haunted look in their eyes and sporting red weals on their back from the self-inflicted lashes during a recent religious festival. There were army snipers positioned on the rooftops too, alert to any outbreaks of trouble.
But in 1995, the place was still receiving foreign visitors, and we could wander the streets more or less safely. And then the merchant told me an irresistible tale, of how local merchants crossed the mountains by night to avoid official checks, and bought costume and jewellery from the local tribespeople, transporting it back secretly across the border.
He added another seductive element to the pitch, as I offered a lower price than he quoted:
‘You were our rulers once, so for you I give a discount,’ he announced with great dignity, and the deal was clinched. I suppose I was half seduced by the fact that I might still have memsahib status, a touch of colonial authority, and a little horrified that we were still thought of as empire-builders. Both emotions worked in his favour.
Only now do I look up on the map and find exactly where Waziristan lies - on the Western edge of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. It is called a ‘federally administered tribal area’ of Pakistan, and the Wazirs were never ruled by the British, unlike their neighbours, though they made life difficult with raiding parties into occupied territories. The waistcoat, as you can see, is bright and bursting with cheerful colour, a mix of elegant symmetry and crazy patchworking of the different pieces. Yet I learn now that in Waziristan, ‘women are carefully guarded, and every household must be headed by a male figure’. Could this be a male waistcoat? Possibly, although internet images I view now under Waziri embroidery show skirts and women’s attire.
Whatever, whoever it was made for, it is a beautiful piece of work. It’s stiff and unyielding as a waistcoat but I like that too, and it sits well over a plain purple dress that I have, or to top a pair of black trousers. It marks a time and place for me, and as well as joy in wearing it, I feel a sadness too that the world has changed and now I will never make it to Waziristan.
The second in an occasional series of posts about the Silk Road, a subject I’ve researched, lectured and written about extensively over the last twenty years. I’ve taken two trips along the Silk Road itself, and visited a number of Silk Road countries separately too – Syria, Uzbekistan and Turkey, for instance.
For nearly two thousand years, merchants travelled the Silk Road routes running from China to the West. Their best-known cargo was of course silk, but many other goods were traded between East and West, including wool, carpets and amber from the West, and mirrors, gunpowder, porcelain and paper from China. Merchants travelled in various groups and guises, from humble foot pedlars to huge caravan trains of camels, stretching literally for miles across the horizon. Other beasts of burden included donkeys, horses and yaks.
It was rare to travel the whole of the Silk Road during most periods of history. Bandits, border skirmishes and unreasonable customs officials made it difficult to trek all the way, so merchandise was often transferred from one group of traders to another en route. Many middlemen make for steep prices, so the final selling price of the goods was often hugely above their original cost. The terrain was difficult, often treacherous, involving high mountain passes, deserts, and severe climates. Just the fact of bringing merchandise safely from one country to another was a near miracle. Some groups of people excelled as Silk Road traders, one example being the long-vanished Sogdians of Central Asia, who were said to send their boys out along the Silk Road from the age of five, and were trading on their own account by the age of 12.
Along the way, merchants stayed at caravanserais. These traditionally consisted of a central courtyard, with water for the animals, and store rooms around the sides on the ground floor. Lodging rooms were on the upper floor, and the sturdy doors were firmly locked at night so that the merchants, their goods and beasts could rest safely. Some of these old caravanserais can still be found in Central Asian countries such as Turkey and Syria. They range from smaller, humbler versions to ones which are the size of cathedrals and almost as grand! At the very best caravanserais, there were proper beds, hot and cold water and even their own shops and banking facilities. Merchants preferred their caravanserais to be beyond the city walls, so that they could arrive and leave easily – the authorities preferred them in the town centre for the opposite reason, so that they could collect taxes due from the caravans before they had a chance to leave the district!
Play the slide show by clicking on first photo. There are lots more pictures hidden from view!
Many stories must have been swapped in the caravanserais, and both folk tales and religious ideas are known to have been ‘traded’ along the Silk Road. If two merchants came from opposite ends of the Silk Road, they could get by in conversation as long as they could each speak a Turkic language. These Turkic languages, spoken over a range of countries, are just about similar enough for people to understand each other, given a little help. One merchant might set up his conversation with another by starting off with an opening such as, ‘My conversation today will relate to camels’.
Other facilities along the way included ‘service stations’ where locals made a living from catering to travellers’ needs. Merchants carrying costly porcelain knew that they could get any breakages mended in Tashkent, for instance, and thus arrive with their goods at least apparently intact. The trade routes stretched from Xian in eastern China to Byzantium, branching off into practically every country in the Middle East. Some scholars claim that Venice was the final destination of the Silk Route – and some archaeologists even quote the UK as a credible terminus, as Chinese silk has been found in the grave of an Iron Age king.
Merchants traded their goods in the bazaars, which are still a feature of life in the Middle and Far East today. The Great Bazaar in Istanbul, named Kapali Carsi, is said to be the finest example of a medieval bazaar. It began as a small strong room, the Bedestan , built in 1461 and swiftly grew until finally it covered 100 acres, and now has 18 gates and about 4000 shops. All kinds of bargaining behaviour was evolved; complex negotiations might be done simply by hand gestures, carried out beneath the cover of a cloth or shawl to prevent prying eyes from knowing what deals were being struck. Bargaining today remains a key feature of the colourful bazaars of Central Asia and beyond, bazaars which still create fabulous, exotic displays to tempt their customers. The Silk Road no longer exists in the same way today, but its spirit is alive its traders and merchandise.
Read some of the myths and legends from the Silk Road in Stories from the Silk Road – Cherry Gilchrist (Barefoot Books 1999)
The Silk Road
I have made two trips along the Silk Road, and other visits to countries along its path - Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan. I became fascinated by the mystique and history of this ancient trade route, and enchanted by its vibrancy today. In my book for children, Stories from the Silk Road, I told some of the legends recounted by travellers, and wrote about their colourful context. I also began giving illustrated talks about the Silk Road to arts societies and on cruises. From the many photos I took and pictures I gathered, I’d like to create a few little themed galleries and slide shows to share with you on this blog, starting with:
The Legend of Rainbow Silk
Silk patterned in rainbow shades is still the national material of Uzbekistan, and legends suggest how it first came into being. One is that the wavering, iridescent ripples of the design were inspired by gazing into a running stream. Another is that an irritable Khan or ruler commanded one of his courtiers, on pain of death, to provide some new novelty to please him. The desperate old adviser had resigned himself to execution, when on the last morning he woke with tears in his eyes – and saw a rainbow through his wet lashes!
In these images, you can also see silk in production by traditional methods in Uzbekistan.
Kuan Yin and her oracle in Gloucestershire
I enter the Kuan Yin temple in Singapore. I’m the only Westerner here, and I try to move quietly, unobtrusively in case I breach any detail of temple etiquette. Statues of Kuan Yin and other gods and goddesses in varied sizes and forms are grouped on shrines and in niches. The predominant colours are red and gold; the air is full of the smoke of joss sticks, varied altars are piled with offerings of fruit and flowers, and donation boxes are regularly stuffed with notes. I notice how many young people are here worshipping at the shrines, consulting the oracle, and invoking their own personal encounter with the deity.
But later, when I find out more about Kuan Yin, I discover that here is a lady who cannot be pinned down by religion or culture. She slips from one to another, from Buddhism to Taoism to Shintoism. She has connections with Christianity, and the ancient religion of Egypt. She may be revered as a goddess or as a spirit, a bodhisattva (a Buddha-to-be) or an immortal who was once an exceptional human child. Kuan Yin goes by other names, too, but they all mean one thing in essence: She Who Hears the Cries of the World. She is a listening ear, a saving arm, a calming presence.
And she has an oracle. More than that, her temples in the Far East are full of men and women seeking advice on a personal problem or significant question by consulting this oracle. The oracle consists of 100 numbered sticks which are shaken in a brass or wooden cylinder, vigorously and noisily, until at last one jumps out. The number corresponds to a reading, which in turn is a poetic reflection, augmented by an interpretation of what this means in individual life. Here, the seeker hopes, is the wise advice which will help to resolve their query. To me this is an extraordinary validation of divination as a part of spirituality, connecting it to sacred space, whether a temple or a church – something all but lost in the West.
I first ‘met’ Kuan Yin in her famous temple at Penang in December 2011, while Robert and I were working as lecturers on a cruise. I seized the chance to explore her domain, and witness the oracle in action. Then at Singapore, one of our next stops, came this second chance to visit one of her chief temples. Here I tried out the oracle for myself, and was given a copy of it in translation as a gift from the temple, something to be treasured.
I’d had a copy of her Oracle for some years, in fact, in the form of a book by Stephen Karcher, produced in an accessible version for Westerners but faithful to the spirit of the original. But discovering the living tradition in those two temples spurred me on to find out more about her, and to acquire my own set of oracle sticks. This I did in a shop close by to the Singapore temple – but then how on earth was I to decipher the Chinese numbers? A helpful site on the internet finally gave me the tools to do that. http://www.mandarintools.com/numbers.html.
Then I fancied having a statue of Kuan Yin. I was due to present an evening to my current Nine Ladies group (see my book ‘The Circle of Nine’), exploring the Kuan Yin archetype, so there was something of a deadline. Could I find a figure in time that pleased me, and which didn’t cost a vast amount?
Kuan Yin’s chief symbols are the moon, the sea and a dragon. She is a patron of sailors, and there are many temples to her on the sea shore. She is merciful, and it is said that just as her heart is open to all, so should one’s own heart be open when approaching her. Elaborate rituals and paraphernalia are of little importance compared to that. Still, it would be nice to have a visual reminder of her. I hovered over bronze statues of Kuan Yin advertised on the internet, depicted with the crescent moon behind her, and a dragon at her feet, but in the end chose a relatively simple one in white porcelain. The image of her as a ‘white goddess’ has appeal to me, perhaps because it carries a quality of universality, of the archetype behind the archetypes of the feminine. So that’s what I went for – delivered from, of all places, a Bonsai centre! http://www.got-bonsai.co.uk/ For around £45 I received a speedy delivery of my white Kuan Yin, nestling safely in a cheerful Chinese patterned cardboard case.
She was described as ‘blanc de Chine’, which meant nothing to me until I looked it up and found, to my delight, that this figure had been made in Fujian province in China, and stemmed from a centuries-old tradition of making Kuan Yin and other sacred figures there. Ah – the People’s Kuan Yin! Lineage means more to me than lavish originality; this little figure has provenance to me. Excellent essay at http://www.holymtn.com/gods/BlancdeChine.htm!
And she has a secret resource: an internal reservoir which can be filled with water, and which then drips ‘blessed Dew’ for several minutes. It took me a little while to discover that you don’t look for a hole in her head to pour it into – you pour it into the hole at her feet, then turn her upside down to feed the reservoir before setting her the right way up again! That little challenge solved, she became a beautiful and serene model of a spirit, deva or deity – call her what you will – who presided over a very successful evening of discussion, meditation and oracle consultation in our front room last night.
The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion – Stephen Karcher
Bodhisattva of Compassion: the Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin – John Blofeld
Kuan Yin: Myths and Revelations of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion – Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay & Kwok Man-Ho
Divination: The Search for Meaning - Cherry Gilchrist
Author of books on family history, relationships, alchemy, myths & legends. Life writing tutor teaching for Universities of Oxford & Exeter. Keen on quirky, ancient and mysterious things.