Craftsmen’s Ritual "Kamar Baste" (Initiation of Apprentice into Master) in Central Asia

Issue #1 • 865

19th century workshop

Historically, throughout many centuries the territory of Central Asia has been one of the major centres of craft that was very closely linked with traditional lifestyle and customs. Skilled masters created, improved, carefully preserved and shared with their students artistic and technical methods, designs and craft-related traditions, many of which have unfortunately been irretrievably lost.

Numerous craft-related traditions, specifically the rite of initiation into master (kamar band, kamar baste, and ona miyon band) were described – and thus preserved – in trade charters known as risola (1). The term kamar baste was also used to refer to the craftsmen who achieved a certain level of skill.

The most developed artistic trades in Central Asia were weaving, blacksmithing and pottery. These were largely inherited, family-based trades. The rules, secrets, techniques and subtleties of a trade were passed on from teacher to student, usually to the master’s elder son. Up until 1920s weaving in Central Asia was predominantly men’s occupation, while women engaged in spinning. Ceramic items wrought by women were mostly handmade, while men used a throwing wheel.

According to the weavers’ risola, kamar baste ceremony proceeds in the following way: one of the members of the house stands on the left of a person being initiated, and on his right stands another one who wraps a special sash around apprentice’s waist three times while saying a prayer, kalima (2, p. 120). After that the now ex-apprentice folds his hands on his chest and stands amid the gathered members of the house to be examined: he is asked questions recorded in the risola. Then the head of the house turns to the teacher master and his student and asks:

- Master, you fed and clothed this apprentice and gave him money – do you regret it?
- No, I do not regret it.
- And you served the master. Do you regret the service?
- No, I do not regret (3, p. 131).

At the end of the ceremony the apprentice gave a gown to his teacher and a shirt to a kalantar (head of a craft house in Khiva) as gifts. For example, in the house of shoemakers, before kamar baste ceremony the custom was to demonstrate apprentice’s work on the marketplace emphasizing that the item was wrought by the apprentice of such-and-such master. If the item was found to be of poor quality, kalantar banished the apprentice from the marketplace and could even destroy the shoes he made (3, p. 132).

Photo postcard, early 20 c.

With potters, for instance, master sold the items made by his apprentice and saved the money for kamar baste ceremony (4, pp. 312-314). For apprentices related to the master a permissive prayer alone was sufficient. In this case the master served food in the shop, invited distinguished masters of the craft, and demonstrated the work of his apprentice, giving him his blessing; after that the apprentice was permitted to work independently (5, pp. 244-246). According to the contemporary dynasty blacksmith from Bukhara Sh. Kamalov, “A young man from the family of dynasty masters does not have to pass through the initiation rite.

Blacksmiths-to-be are taught the skill from childhood. Initially they perform simple operations, with the tasks gradually becoming more complex, and by the age of fifteen or so the adolescent is already working on a level with adults” (6). For instance, in some European countries a significant proportion of apprentices also came from the family of masters (7, p. 508). As for the master’s relatives, they enjoyed special favoured treatment when becoming members of the house: a spouse and children had only to take an apprenticeship training course; they did not provide festive food and did not pay membership fees. Privileges granted by the house and the occupation were inheritable: the master’s widow enjoyed the rights granted by the house and could continue the business of her husband (5, pp. 244-246).

It is interesting to know that inheriting an occupation was common not only among men, but also among women. For example, embroiderer’s skill was passed on by means of a permissive prayer accompanied by a sacrificial feast. A woman-master, when permitting her inheritress to engage in a craft, promised that following her death her spirit would help the apprentice in her work. Having acquired the trade, the initiated woman was obliged to spend part of her earnings on sacrificial food – to commemorate the souls of the deceased woman-masters (8, p. 44).

In Turkey, for instance, the ritual of initiation into master has common features (9, pp. 239-243, 307-318, 260-269). The apprentices’ mentor, jigit bashi, having convened the members of the house and asked the apprentices wearing special three-lap red entari to sit down, invited a sheikh to say a prayer to open the ceremony. Jigit bashi, having wrapped the apprentices’ waist three times with a special sash in advance, then tied the sash in three knots while saying a kalima prayer (10, pp. 231, 246).

Then jigit bashi turns to the merited masters and the head of the house asking for their blessing for the apprentices. One of the masters would inquire, “Well, these fine young men, are they skilled in the craft?”, and the masters would reply, “Yes, they have studied the craft well and are skilled”. Jigit bashi then asks the masters, “Are you happy with your apprentices?”, and the masters say they are. Then jigit bashi brings an apprentice to his master and asks, “Have you forgiven him his sins?”, “Yes, the master would say” (9, p. 241). This is followed by an announcement that the apprentice has become master and the new master gives presents to his mentor, and the ritual ends with a festive dinner.

Master and apprentices in a Bukhara

The Yakut people also had this kind of initiation ritual. A person willing to become a blacksmith acquired necessary tools and started to work (11, pp. 49-51). If he was to become a true blacksmith, after some time people at night would hear the sound of his hammer and bellows in his shop, which was supposed to be the sign that his forge is acquiring its own master-spirit. Sometimes it happened that a blacksmith fell ill after two or three years of work; he would develop incurable sores on his hands and feet, and have an aching spine. It was believed that the disease affected people who did not have blacksmiths among their ancestors, or the sufferers were dynasty blacksmiths who did not engage in the trade for some reason. Then the blacksmith would resort to the help of a shaman who addressed the feasting blacksmiths at kudai bakhsy and sacrificed a three years old black bull. After a special initiation the disease would go away, and the blacksmith became a true master (11, pp. 49-51).

Contemporary craftsmen still practice the initiation rite that takes place in a ceremonial and festive atmosphere. Mentor announces to his students that they are ready to work independently, and the parents of the young craftsmen dress their teacher in a traditional gown and a sash as a sign of respect and gratitude for the master (12). According to M. Juraev (13), in the trade of silk weaving there is also an initiation rite, only here it is the master who puts a gown on his apprentice girdling it with a gauze (5-6 m) and, as a token of his blessing, gives him a piece of fabric and some tools (risola has details) and installs a dast gokh (traditional loom) in the apprentice’s workshop. (According to the observations made by French scholar P. Geanlirer, in Tashkurgan (Afghanistan) the initiation rite has been eradicated) (14, pp. 84-88).

Thus, the rite of initiating an apprentice into master had an important function in the community of craftsmen and was one of important prerequisites for an independent engagement in trade.

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Dilyara Atajanova

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