The Forgotten Tribe of Lakai: The Magical World of Steppe Allusions (The History of Lakai Embroidery)

Issue #3 • 4352

The artistic heritage of Central Asia is known to have a rich variety of textiles: iridescent silks shining like a rainbow, and carpets of austere design; embroidery that brings to mind the blooming garden of paradise; and prints with their clear-cut rhythm of iterating patterns and laconic dichromatic combinations.  Among these varied textile specimens one can find an isolated yet expressive “island” of Lakai embroidery created by people whose life and destiny were connected to the culture of the Great Steppe.

Lacai used to be a rather numerous semi-nomadic Uzbek tribe; in the XIX c. they resided primarily in Dushanbe and Kulyab provinces of the Bukhara Khanate and the part of Afghanistan.  There is very little information about this tribe (1).  It is believed that Lakai descended from the most ancient Turkic population of Asian steppes.  In early XVI century, along with other Turkic and Turko-Mongol tribes led by Sheibani-khan, Lakai migrated from Dashti-Kipchak steppes to the south, conquering oases and cities of Maverannahr.  Having occupied vast pasture land in the mountain valleys of southern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the area around Balkh and Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, they continued to engage in animal husbandry, leading semi-nomadic life and maintaining their political independence and tribal integrity.

With the formation of the Uzbek khanates, territories inhabited by the Lakai become part of the Bukhara Emirate.  In 1869 the Emir of Bukhara, ultimately enraged by the defiant and independent spirit of the tribe that never paid tribute, conducted a brutal military operation against the Lakai, crashing their leaders and capturing their livestock, thus compelling them to obey (2, p. 33).  By 1889, Lakai are forced to become sedentary, start farming and establish political and military alliance with Bukhara (2, p. 33).

In the first years of the Soviet rule, Lakai again stand up as staunch independence fighters, but their resistance was historically doomed.  Some of the families chose to remain in northern Afghanistan (Kunduz area), yet the majority of the tribe stayed on the northern shore of Amu-DaryaRiver.  Nowadays, Lakai of Tajikistan still keep their ethnic identity as part of the Uzbek people.

Lakai’s political history, tribal independence and even a kind of isolation contributed to the fact that their amazing arts and crafts, especially textiles, have features in common with the art of other steppe nomadic peoples on the one hand, and some very distinct and unique qualities, where outwardly primitive designs are combined with magical power and mystery of the images, on the other.

Lakai embroidery known today dates mainly to the period between 1875 and 1925, yet this does not mean that Lakai women did not embroider before.  After 1930 the quality of their decorative textiles started going down, primarily due to socio-political transformations.  Sovietization and collectivization resulted in lifestyle changes and gradual oblivion of centuries-old family traditions and customs, in which textiles played a prominent role; the propagation of factory-made textile did not help to preserve hand-made embroidery as a craft either.

A pioneer in the study of applied arts of Lakai, as well as of some other Uzbek semi-nomadic tribes, was Balkis Karmysheva, ethnographer and specialist in Turkic studies, whose field work in the late 1940s made ​​it possible to compile the first collections and gather information about particular items (3).  However, the initiatives of B. Karmysheva to study Lakai textiles had basically no follow up in the former Soviet Union.  Presently, the art of this tribe can be considered largely understudied.  The subsequent oblivion of the Lakai embroidery and carpet-weaving tradition has to do with the termination of their production from 1950s and a massive export of surviving specimens abroad.

In mid1970s, Lakai again perform their role of conquerors: this time Lakai textile floods the markets of Kabul.  Further on, through Afghan traders and dealers, it conquers Istanbul, winning the fans of Oriental art by its uniqueness, and propagates across the globe.  Over a short time Lakai embroidery becomes trendy: its price rockets, primarily due to its expressive ornamentation full of energy and mystery.  Along with appearance of private collections, scientists try to explain the semantic content of the mysterious designs, many of which very distinct, not found anywhere else.  This was the start of collecting and studying Lakai textiles abroad; nowadays, embroidery and carpets produced by this amazing tribe are the pride of many private and museum collections.  The popularity had its downside: steady demand for Lakai embroidery triggered counterfeiting on a massive scale.  Besides, any small size Central Asian embroidery was called Lakai in the West, also leading to confusion in attribution.  It may still be hard to tell the difference between Lakai and Kungrat products, while the distinction is apparent to experts, both in terms of technique and ornamentation.

A few years ago Tashkent hosted the first exhibition of Lakai embroidery under an indicative title: “The Unknown Lakai”; it displayed specimens from the collections of T. Tairov, “Caravan” gallery and Rishtan regional association “Hunarmand”.  This modest yet significant contribution to the popularization of this unique element of the Uzbek people’s artistic heritage definitely needs to be followed up.  This article examining Lakai embroidery presents one more step to this end.

Types of Lakai embroidery are quite diverse.  Among the most popular items are the so-called ilgich (literally, a thing hung out), which is an embroidery of a square (the average size is 70×70 cm), rectangular (almost square), or pentagonal shape (3, p. 146).

According to B. Karmysheva, there are three types of ilgichi: tabaklau, torba and uuk kapTabaklau is an envelope-shaped bag for storing or transporting crockery (tabak means cup).  Torba, or at torba is a decorative sack hung on a horse’s neck on major holidays or other festive occasions; it differs from tabaklau by the absence of a flap (that is, it does not have an envelope shape).  Sometimes torba was used as horse cloth, and for this purpose an opening for the pommel was made on one side.  Uuk kap is a bag for the uuk, the tent poles, which were tied in two bundles and loaded on a horse during migration.  An embroidered pouch, uuk kap, was put on the upper end of each bundle.  This type of ilgich has a pentagonal shape (3, p. 146).  Embroidery of elongated pentagonal shape was intended to hold kaychidon scissors for shearing sheep.

There were also special embroidered toiletry bags (oina-halta), bags for tea (chai-halta), covers with one embroidered corner, bugjoma (Uzbek) or segusha (Tajik), which were used to wrap household textiles or cover a pile of blankets stacked along the walls.  Embroidery was usually trimmed with a braid along the rim and decorated with a fringe, popok tassels, and sometimes with silver plaques, beads and the like.  These bags, hung along the lattice, were also used as a decoration for the yurt; eventually, as seasonal migration stopped, they became a decorative element of residential interiors.

Among larger-size Lakai embroidery is mapramach – a bag for storing household items and clothing – an analogue to a wooden chest.  Typically, people used woven carpet mapramach, but there were also mapramach made of cloth with embroidered front and side walls (average length 90-95 cm, width 20-30 cm, height 35-40 cm) (3, p. 123).  Karmysheva reports that, when a bride moved into the groom’s home, mapramach held items for the yurt interior decoration: woven bands, ribbons and more.

Back in 1930s, embroidery, along with carpets, was an essential part of the bride’s dowry.  A girl from a wealthy family had 3-4 pairs of ilgich (one pair of each type), and a girl less provided for was given one ilgich of each type (3, p. 147).

As basis for embroidery they used factory-made Russian or English thin cloth (Stroud, West England), cotton or woollen flannel.  Earlier items might have been made ​​on a homespun basis.  Colour was predominantly red; less often black, brown, deep-blue, or grey.  Sometimes one can find a combination of different colours: red cloth in the centre with black rim along the edges.  Some items feature inserts of abr silk.  Embroidery was made with silk yarn that was purchased already dyed, from the merchants of Bukhara, Kulyab and Kabadian (3, p. 147).  Dyes were natural and synthetic. Embroidery colouring featured a combination of bright local colours; typical combinations were white and black, yellow and blue, burgundy and green on a red background.

Women-embroiderers used several kinds of stitching: chain stitch (yurma), cross-stitch (iroqi), and loop stitch of different varieties (basma, kanda-hayol); they also employed a fine trimming stitch.  As in the making of large embroideries in other parts of Central Asia, the process began with drawing a sketch of the future design on the textile basis; this was entrusted to an experienced woman-master syzgych (3, p. 147).

It is generally believed that Lakai embroidered items performed a utilitarian function.  Yet in fact they are not robust enough to serve as containers, and we can thus look at their decorative and, moreover, cult-related role that was forgotten over time.  It seems appropriate to present Lakai embroidery not only as unique artistic monument, but also as “text” that testifies to people’s spiritual life and reflects their religious views, which largely defined the content of ornamentation on handicraft items.  Up until the XX century, despite the total propagation of Islam, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of Central Asia retained sustainable archaic views that could be universally defined as Tengrianism.  This definition covers a complex set of religious and ideological notions based on believing in Tengri, the supreme deity and sky god, along with coexisting totem cults, ancestor worship and shamanism, where a belief in transcendental other world and patron-spirits was manifested in the rituals of mysterious communication with them by the shaman’s going into trance.

Shamanism is one of the most deeply-rooted nomadic cults.  Shamanistic rituals were performed by both men and women (practicing folbin-women can be found in the province in our days, too). It would be logical to assume that patterns and shapes of Lakai embroidery being the domain of ​​women’s creative self-expression may have direct and indirect references to sacred shamanic rituals and spells.

Current attempts at interpreting the symbolic meaning of shapes and designs of Lakai embroidery are mostly speculative.  However, these speculations find an indirect confirmation in Tengrian and shamanistic mythology, as well as in the specificities of shamanistic ritual practice.

Embroidered items were used primarily during migration, when family members left the protective symbolic circle of their home hidden from stranger’s eyes, or during festivities, when the yurt, the family’s sacred space, became open to outsiders.  We can thus assume that embroidery clearly had a protective function of a charm against evil eye for the home and its inhabitants.  Another indication is its unusually bright colours, as well as designs in the shape of protective symbols.  The shapes of ilgich resemble symbolic shields that also protect the owners from evil eye.  K. Gibbon and A. Hale note that “Lakai uuk kap are shield-like textile items mimicking the magical powers of smaller triangular-shaped amulets.  …These protective associations were deliberately developed symbolic ideas, rather than a mere coincidence” (2).

How robust would be the approach to interpreting Lakai decorative embroidery from the standpoint of shamanic practices?  Science knows that images on shamanic attributes have symbolic value.  For instance, the tambourine (drum) was covered with images associated with the shaman’s notion of the universe: “It shows luminaries, the inhabitants of the earth, the underworld and heaven, as well as spirits – the shaman aides” (4).  It can be assumed that embroidery ornamentation was also part of meditative practice intended to tune the followers to the state of trance.

The rich repertoire of Lakai embroidery enables identifying a few sustainable compositions.  The first group of interest is ilgich embroideries featuring heavenly bodies.  Astral and solar theme is one of the key in the art of formerly nomadic tribes, as their way of life required good knowledge of sky chart and the ability to navigate by the stars during seasonal migrations.  Solar and astral symbols are found in the embroidery of all Central Asian nations; these images are considered to give protection from heaven.  Worshiping the sun and celestial bodies is one of the key points in Tengrianism and shamanism.  The chief deity in Tengrianism – Heavenly Father, the eternal and infinite blue sky – had no anthropomorphic image and was possibly depicted with the help of derivatives such as stars and other celestial bodies.

A classic technique in Lakai embroidery was to portray four large solar symbols in the corners of ilgich, and a smaller one in the centre; another four “luminaries” were pictured between the large ones in the corners.  There were countless variations of this composition of nine or five stars.  It is interesting that, according to some shamanistic peoples, the Sun is a lesser God than stars (4).  Perhaps, this very composition shows exactly that: the smaller central symbol of the sun and larger planets, which were generally associated with the idea of ​​Tengri god.

Worshiping several stars at once (four, five, nine, and more) was typical of shamanic practices.  Similar “picture of the world” consisting of several celestial bodies can be found in many nations practicing shamanism.  In particular, according to the mythology of the Amur people, in the distant past there were many suns – as many as nine.  Nanai people also have the notion of supreme sky they associate with the concept of the sun (4).

Thus, showing luminaries on Lakai embroidery was associated with the picture of the universe and the supreme sky deity, and could be some kind of visual prayer for wellbeing, good health and so on.  The meaning of five or nine solar symbols in a composition can also be interpreted in terms of numerology: odd numbers have more capacious protective and sacred meaning (2).

Among the most popular classical motifs on the Lakai uuk kap embroideries is a centrally positioned “onion” motif with two horn-shaped swirls diverging at the top.  The motif has no analogies in the ornamentation of other nomadic nations.  Numerous interpretations were offered in search of its semantics.

Some researchers believe that this is “a seedpod shape bearing all that is needed for the new generation to germinate and grow.  The pod is often done in yellow colour that may be the symbol of the Sun and warm season, when everything comes alive and grows.  Star-like elements inside the pod-shape may represent seeds, symbolically illustrating the idea of ​​developing life.  Double swirls coming out of the pod are often referred to as ram horns.  Associated with sheep or goat, these anyway contain the same symbolic meaning of fertility and existence of generations through progeny” (2).

This motif is also known to be associated with a scorpion – a powerful symbol of protection, which is typical for the shield-shaped embroideries (2, p. 123).  Local scholars tend to believe that the motif represents the image of Mother-Goddess (5, p. 6).

Further developing this thought, we note that one of the main purposes of shamanic practice was to preserve good health and cure diseases.  Shaman was also called to help women in difficult childbirth, infertile women, pregnant women who fell ill…  In this regard, the motif has a clear connection to the ancient Turkic mother goddess Umai, one of the key figures in the Tengrian pantheon, the daughter of Mother Earth.  Umai is believed to be the protector of mothers and infants by almost all Turkic nations.  The personification of the feminine element is reflected in the very name of Umai, which means womb and even the detached umbilical cord (6).

Notably, the very shape of the onion motif in question resembles mother’s womb, and it may well be that embroideries depict exactly this organ of the female body.  It should be noted that nomadic livestock breeders whose economic activity required good familiarity with animal anatomy, knew the structure of internal organs well, and, therefore, could verisimilarly picture it in this type of embroideries.  Inside the onion shape they portrayed grain seeds suggesting fertility.  Some specimens feature a clear representation of a female figure in the centre of the onion motif – one more proof of its connection with the image of Umai.

The prevalence of vegetable motifs in this type of embroideries also confirms that we deal with the image of Great Mother-Goddess, the protector of all that exists, including plant world and nature as a whole.  The embroidery features symbols that resemble a comb, a bow, and arrows – the classical attributes of Umai.

Analogies of this theme are also found in the art of other shamanistic nations.  Thus, the Nanai used a piece of cloth or paper to depict “heavenly spirits and gods for the purpose of curing”; these, however, took the shape of ducks, snakes, etc. (4).

K. Levi-Strauss, who studied cults and rituals of the so-called “primitive” societies, concluded that visualization of the womb helped to resolve potential problems during childbirth, functioning as a kind of “visual anaesthesia” (7, 8, p. 99).  The uuk kap embroideries hung in the tent could also act as an “anaesthetic”: “Shaman employed visualization to separate the body and labour pains it experienced, giving the woman in childbirth an opportunity to imagine her body outside labour pains” (9).

Thus, the uuk kap ornamentation is associated with symbolic image of Umai, the protector of women in childbirth, and the uuk kap embroideries themselves could be used in “midwife” shamanic practice.  It can be assumed that embroidery helped the shaman to use bricolage technique (create an object from things at hand, as well as use the object itself), i.e. work with “reduced models” of real objects.

Another embroidery group with distinct symbolism associated with fertility theme is ilgich showing a motif resembling an insect (10, p. 158).  This motif is also found exclusively in Lakai embroidery, and its shape again alludes to the genitals.  Perhaps the sacred functions of this embroidery group were similar to those of the uuk kap embroideries, yet, undoubtedly, studying its symbolism still remains to be done.

Ilgich ornamentation has another popular element: a cross with a diamond-shape at the base and horns on the sides of the cross.  This is perhaps the most popular classic ornamental motif in the art of the formerly nomadic peoples, suggesting genetic kinship of their cultures; it is associated with the idea of bounty, wealth, and protective power, i.e. values ​​of utmost importance in the life of the cattleman.  It can be considered an element of life and its continuation, having auspicious meaning.  At the same time this is a model of the world in shaman’s perception, since cross in shamanism symbolizes structured universe with a distinct centre functioning as “cosmic umbilical cord” (11, p. 123).

Individual elements of Lakai embroidery that can be included in the group of totem symbols are also associated with shamanic notions.  For instance, broken circle motifs, according to B. Karmysheva, resemble horse’s footprints (3, p. 149).  Also, there are other elements interpreted as “bird’s prints”.  This kind of “prints” images can be regarded as the presence of a guardian animal.  “Ram horns” is yet another popular symbol depicting the guardian animal.

In summary we note that academic literature focuses on functional value of Lakai embroidery; however attempts to decrypt the meaning of the designs suggest that these small textile articles were directly related to shamanistic cult and practices.  Accurate interpretation of symbols in our days is hardly possible: bearers of the cultural knowledge themselves have practically forgotten the significance of the textile designs.  Nevertheless, one may draw a robust conclusion that Lakai embroidery designs belong to the domain, including shamanism practiced by women, where they are used to ensure successful outcome of childbirth, growing family and herd, protection against evil eye.  In this sense, embroidery patterns can indeed be regarded as spell-texts, and embroideries as a kind of icons in the yurt interior, “portable cult items for nomadic peoples” (2).  Be it as it may, still there is one more true value in these unique textile masterpieces: their colour and shapes so full of energy, and their archaic forms that continue to fascinate and excite the researchers.


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