The Sudreh and Kusti have become universal symbols of the Zoroastrian faith. While there are no written records of when the kusti originated and it is not certain of who wove or wore the first kusti, it is obviously a part of the Indo-Aryan Sacred tradition. It is seen in the Janoi of the Hindu tradition and even in the cord worn over priestly garments in the Orthodox Church.
The Avestan word for the sacred thread is “aiwyaonghana,” meaning to gird around, it originates from the Yasna ceremony where a strip of the date palm is used to tie the Barsam twigs, in a ritual of uniting creation. The Yasna like the Yagna is a Bronze Age Aryan ritual which nurtures creation and as the priest recites the Yatha Hu Vairyo Manthra, whenever he utters the word Shyaothnanam, “to act” or “of action”, he ties the date palm cord into a reef knot. This is the exact reef knot which is tied at the word Shyaothnanam in the kusti ritual. So the girding of the kusti becomes symbolic of the Zoroastrian girding himself each morning in sacred armour, the Sudreh and kusti, to become a warrior defending Spenta or Holy Creation.
Some legends state that Zarathustra initiated the kusti ritual, but according to the Dadestan-i-Denig and the Sad Dar, Chapter X i-xv, these symbols have been worn since the time of King Jamshed. Wearing the kusti is like performing “Hama Zor” and “Hama Asho”, uniting to perform good works and remaining connected with the sacred world.
Zoroastrian children learn that when Zarathustra’s father asked his son what he wanted as he left on his quest for Truth, Zarathustra asked only for the blessing of the scared cord.
Linguistically, the word kusti has various derivations. It can be derived from Pahlavi, kust meaning “direction or side”, thus coming to mean, “That which points out the proper direction or path.” Sudreh, literally, the good path and kusti the direction finder, tells a Zoroastrian how to proceed on the path of life. From another derivation, Kusti may mean, “a badge distinguishing those who are on the side kust of Zoroastrianism.”
A kusti is made up of lamb’s wool or camel’s white hair representing the animal world. This white wool is considered to be an emblem of innocence and purity, traditionally lamb’s wool is not considered as unclean “hair”. Wool is not naso or defiled since it is different in its structure. Being absorbent it can hold the vibrations of prayers and keeps them close to the body spreading the power of these vibrations from the body through the Kehrep or invisible body, to the soul.
According to the oral tradition, the 72 strands, from which the kusti is woven, represent the 72 chapters of the Yasna. So, a Zoroastrian who ties his kusti with piety is said to have acquired the merit of performing the Yasna ritual.
In the Hormazd Yasht, 72 names of God are recited, the ritual then also becomes equivalent to its recitation.
Technically, the kusti is a cream coloured thread made of wool. It is a narrow, long, hollow tube with tassels at both the ends. The length of the kusti varies from three yards to about six yards. The average kusti being of four and half yards is known as mapni kusti. The hollow tube is representative of the two layers, the sky and the earth. The hollow part in the middle is symbolic of the atmosphere in between, meaning that the wearer should always please and protect all clean and pure things, which exist between the sky and the earth.
In Iran, camel hair began being used since it was widely available. In India, only sheep’s wool is used for weaving kustis. The fine yarn is imported from Australia in clean, shrink-proof bundles called “fara”.
Today, the Pooni wool used is available in the form of slivers. This wool is processed and ready for spinning. Unlike fara wool the pooni wool however shrinks considerably and the weaver has to weave at least half a yard more in order to get the desired length of the kusti.
Currently, Parsi women in several parts of India practice kusti weaving. Earlier women from the priestly class alone wove the kustis. Due to the diminishing boundaries between the priestly class or Athornans and laity or Behdins, women of the laity have also started weaving kustis for economic benefit. Once considered a domestic skill necessary for every young girl and taught in all Parsi schools, Kusti making, has with changing times become a specialized craft practiced mainly by elderly women. Kusti - making is an art that takes years to master and due to poor returns very few women care to take up kusti weaving as a profession.
Spinning or Oon Kantwanu is the first step in making of a kusti. Most women start the process with a little prayer. The wool is spun into fine yarn with the help of a chaaterdi or drop spindle.
Two spindles of single yarn are then twisted to form a strong and uniform yarn known as durry which is used for weaving. This process of double plying is known as val dewanu and is done on a bigger spindle or chaaterdo.
A walk in the Parsi Vads of Navsari shows women effortlessly spinning on their verandahs with their chaaterdis and chaaterdos and chatting with their neighbours. Yet, a lot of skill is required to spin extremely fine yarn for thin kusti which are in high demand and this seemingly casual skill is integral as it determines the thickness of the kusti.
Some women only specialize in spinning the yarn and provide the spun yarn to the weavers. According to an admirable age old custom, the spinner gives the weaver enough yarn for two kustis. The weaver in turn after weaving presents one to the weaver and keeps one for herself. While no money is exchanged it is an equitable barter.
The actual process of kusti weaving is carried out on the loom or the jantar. This small wooden, folding loom consists of a simple framework of shafts and pulleys. The jantar is specially designed for weaving the kusti, which is narrow and tubular textile.
Weaving on the jantar is a very flexible; since the loom is light it can be easily carried from room to room and even while traveling. Most weavers believe that this loom must have originated in Navsari around the 1930s. Earlier the junu jantar or the older loom was used for weaving. This larger loom is made up of three pieces. Two flat wooden vertical pieces having three and two pegs respectively are placed on either sides and are held together by a horizontal bamboo pole. The jantar has been modified over the years. In some jantars an additional stool is added at the base. This type of jantar is known as a ghoriwalu jantar or a jantar with a stool, which enables the weaver to sit comfortably.
In Iran, even today, only the junu jantar is used by the weavers. These authentic jantars are very basic structures without the technical additions of the Navsari looms.
The 72 warp threads are stretched in a continuous circle for weaving and are kept in tension with the help of various pulleys on the jantar. An additional adjustable pulley or gargari is hung on the warp in order to provide the required tautness while weaving.
The actual weaving process is extremely rhythmic and is delightful to watch. As nimble hands lift small shafts, the weft or the naru is passed with one hand and the yarn is gently beaten into place with a kateli or beater. Only after years of practice can a weaver master the force or thok required while beating. Each weaver has her own rhythm and pace.
After the kusti is woven it is taken of the loom in a complete loop. It is now handed over to the priest to be cut and consecrated. To consecrate the cord the priest recites the Sraosh Baj as far as the word Ashahe. He next recites the Nirang, which is liturgical formula for cutting and consecrating the thread, followed by Ashem Vohu and Yatha Ahu Vairyo. While reciting the latter he cuts the kusti into two parts as he utters the word Shyaothnanam. On finishing the Yatha Ahu Vairyo, he utters in baj (i.e. in a suppressed tone) the brief Pazend formula of Sraosh Asho Tagi Tan Farman and then finishes the Baj. For cutting the ends the priest uses a special knife, generally made of ivory and used only for this specific purpose. The women, who make kustis, generally get it cut and consecrated by the male priest members of their own families. Those weavers who send the kusti to the priest would pay a small fee to the priest. Over the years this practice has reduced and now women rarely send the kusti to the priest for cutting. The weavers themselves cut it after praying the Nirang.
The kusti is now turned inside out with the help of a suioo or needle. In this process all the loose ends are taken throughout the length of the woven kusti. Kusti otlavanu is considered to be the most difficult part of the whole process of kusti weaving. If the kusti has not been woven properly and if any thread is loose and gets entangled with the needle then the whole kusti is spoilt and has to be discarded. Most women breathe a sigh of relief when they see the needle come out of the other end cause they know that the kusti is now complete.
Symbolically we learn from Oral tradition that the reason for this difficult process is to remind us that we have come to this physical world for the sake of advancing into the spiritual world. It is not an easy task to grow spiritually and requires focused concentration.
The loose thread at the ends of the kusti, lars, are divided into nine parts and plaited to form a fine tubular finish. This process is known as lar guthvanu and is done on both ends of the kusti.
Now the making of the kusti is complete but the cord has to be further treated before it is used. After thorough washing, it is placed on a muslin cloth with a small vessel containing burning coal. A pinch of sulphur is added on the smoldering coal. The kusti and sulphur vessel are quickly covered with a larger circular vessel for 10 to 15 minutes. This process of bleaching is known as dhupvanu. Earlier, priests in the fire temple did this while consecrating the kusti.
One of the most salient features of kusti weaving is the Alko karididho. The jantar being a foldable loom does not occupy a fixed space. Even while weaving, the whole warp can be removed from the loom and transferred to another. Whenever the weaver wishes to weave, the loom can again be stretched and the warp placed on it.
When women are in menses and cannot weave, they generally fold the warp and place it aside. Very few looms in the world have this capacity in which a warp can be removed mid weaving.
Zoroastrians had regarded the Sudreh- Kusti as integral symbols of faith. In the modern world, it is seen as fashionable to discard rituals and symbols as unnecessary for spiritual growth. The Threads of Continuity that kept the Zoroastrian faith intact from a Bronze Age tradition are being lightly discarded. When one studies and understands the intricate craft technique and its equally intricate symbolism the true significance of this ritual becomes apparent. One hopes that this daily practice of the Kusti ritual continues with a new respect born out of understanding, for the weavers and priest who so quietly have woven together this warp and weft of the Zoroastrian community.
Parzor Copyright. Article first published in 2010, in Hamazor, the World Zoroastrian organization magazine.
The publication 'Threads of Continuity: A Study of the Textiles used in Rituals and Customs of the Zoroastrian Community' by Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala, will be available in March 2013 from the Parzor Foundation. This 150-page publication with 160 colour images and 30 line drawings looks is the first research documentation of Kusti weaving. While written by a textile expert, it also places the creation of the kusti and its role, in the larger socio cultural context. It therefore explains the relevance of an ancient symbol, which continues to weave together a globalized community in the 21st century.
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