27 June 2022

Monday, 00:17


The Azerbaijani kalagayi has become part of the UNESCO non-material heritage



Did you ever feel the silk made in Azerbaijan? It is an amazing fabric. The kalagayi, a woman's headscarf is made from it. Theseare amazing headscarves. The strength of the energy of love goes into them and the gentle breath of the breeze from the steppe, the generous warmth of the sun and the chill of the mornings in the mountains, the refreshing, invigorating force of the sea waves and the age-old wisdom of the people who knew how to preserve the secrets of making this fabric, which may be called a magical gift from heaven. Today the wisdom of centuries in the form of the kalagayi has been registered on the UNESCO list of non-material cultural heritage. And together with it the Azerbaijani traditional art of making it, wearing it and the symbolism of it. The kalagayi was selected from a list of 46 applicants from different countries which were presented themselves for examination.


Part of the national costume

The Russian prince, Grigoriy Grigoryevich Gagarin, an amateur artist and art researcher , an architect, a Lord High Steward at the court of his Imperial Majesty, Vice-President of the Imperial Academy of Arts of Russia in the 19th century, immortalized the historical fact of silk and kalagayi production (the technique of hot-wax batik) in Azerbaijan! The portrait of "A Woman from Samaxi" points to the fact that the artist had a soft spot for this splendid tradition of decorating women's headgear, 150 x 150cm or 160 x 160 cm, with an Azerbaijani design. 

From ancient times the kalagayi has been an inseparable part of women's national costumes, varied in its range of colours and the composition of its designs in different ethnic zones of Azerbaijan. The art of creating the kalagayi is a very, very ancient one, an original one unlike any other in world cultural tradition. The hot-wax batik technique of decorating thekalagayi is similar to the method used to transfer patterns onto fabrics in Indonesia and India. Only there they apply the design on the surface of the fabric (with a silk thread, while in China it is done with dyes as it is in India) in Azerbaijan the dyes are natural; the techniques have common roots. Naturally they are linked to the caravans on the Silk Road. This fact may become the subject of a special study now into how that came about. In one place, they cultivated and incubated the silkworms, in another they wove the silk cloth and in a third they dyed and decorated it. This was a traditional folk craft handed down from father to son, from generation to generation.

Traditionally, the kalagayi, as a woman's headgear of silk, was made in the towns of Samaxi (the centre of silk production), Ganca, Saki and Karabakh. There were cottage industries there, referred to as handicrafts today, the silk fabric differing in thickness and quality and the design on it. The silk scarves were referred to colloquially as "gaz-gaz", "naz-naz" and "orpak". They were worn in a variety of ways in different districts. In Naxcivan, for example, they first put on an arakhchin (a little low hat with a flat top decorated with golden, embedded decorations) and then put the headscarf on top so that it held the hat in place, with the ends falling beautifully over the shoulders, covering up the back of the costume, as shown in the portrait "A Woman from Samaxi". An Eastern beauty wearing Samaxi silks is depicted in the portrait. You can be sure that her entire costume, from the skirt to the kalagayi were hand-made.


The scarfof seven colours

The seven-coloured kalagayi ("yetdi rang") was considered to be especially expensive and desirable headgear throughout the ages. The technique used in making this type of headscarf was extremely sophisticated and needed repeated applications of wax and special mixing of the colours, which are never copied in making subsequent headscarves. This item was made one at a time. It can be said that it was exclusive. The process was labour-intensive, requiring not only a large financial input, but also a special intuitive artistic approach. The composition of the designs moreover is not simply a combination of certain geometric patterns, but a special coded language of symbols illustrating specific content.


The history and what actually happened

How was it done? In one location they bred and incubated the silkworms, in another the silk cloth, in a third they did the dyeing and applying the patterns. This was a traditional folk handicraft handed down from father to son, from generation to generation.

The shapes they used to cut the pattern [shtampy galiby] and transfer the ornament to the surface of the silk fabric were traditionally carved from hardwoods such as pear or walnut. More often than not they were made of metal. Then a delicate line of fine plant patterns of the "iris-type", "cherry blossom", "white grape" and "black grape" are obtained. "Flowers in bunches", "fine check", "oak leaves", "oranges", "birds", "the sun" patterns and so forthwere transferred to the fabric with the help of wooden shapes. It is impossible to list all the different patterns. More and more of them are appearing even today in the course of quests for new designs. They can unexpectedly come to mind during work in the garden or the allotment. It is as if the earth itself is helping those who are putting every effort into reviving this valuable handicraft. There were times when we almost lost the age-old traditions during the years of perestroika and the collapse of the USSR. And that occurred repeatedly during the Time of Troubles, economic crises and political changes. The threat of losing the cultural stratum of making high-quality silk fabric persists even today, because the numbers of master silk-makers are declining, and today's young people have no urge to go into the hot-wax batik industry. You see, when a seven-coloured ("yetdi rang") is made the maker has to immerse his hands in 80+ -degree water nine times! This is probably the reason why men are customarily occupied in this process. Moreover, today there are female artists who work in the hot-wax batik technique, creating interesting artistic canvases in silk. This first type of painting like this, the artistic portrait, was, according to the [12th-century Azerbaijani poet] Nizami, the portrait of Alexander the Great, which was, on the orders ofQueen Nushaba, made by the court master craftsmen. This is how it happened.


An almost romantic story

The great conqueror appeared before her in the garb of a pilgrim. But a sharp eye, mind, quick-wittedness and female intuition allowed the queen to discern from the way he held himself, the manner of his behaviour and thinking, who it was who was really standing in front of her. Without letting on, the queen continued to talk to the visitor and when the time came for a meal, the queen ordered that a huge dish of precious stones should be placed before the starving Macedonian instead of food. There was no end to the king's amazement and indignation. But Nushaba taught him a lesson in Eastern wisdom, namely that a person needs food - bread, water, wine and grapes in order to live; nobody can feed their appetite with the sparkle of precious stones. Then, after telling him that she had recognised him as the conqueror and king, she gave him the portrait on silk as a gift. Alexander was overwhelmed not only by the cleverness of her courtiers, but also by their talent, (Nizami, "Iskandernama") [The Tale of Alexander the Great].



This fact is one of the pieces of evidence that the art of hot-wax batik on silk is one of the most ancient traditions on our Earth. This is similar to the gift to Ivan the Terribleof gloves made of silk threads stitched with pearls. Even at that time, the dense silk fabric produced in Azerbaijan, which was very popular in Russia, was called Samaxi silk (tayta) and was a much desired expensive present. Silk fabrics were highly valued in Europe, because they were hygienic and convenient in everyday life for sheets, underwear, court dress, tapestries and simply as wall hangings. Therefore descriptions of Azerbaijan as a land where wonderful fabrics were made are found in the writings of [French novelist] Alexandre Dumas and [Venetian merchant] Marco Polo, and in the 15th century in the writings of the traveller Schiptberger and the Venetian ambassador Gasparo Contarini and the ambassador of the Russian mission Afanasiy Nikitin and others.

Silk is still revered in many countries of the East. In Japan, for example, when a proposal of marriage is made, it is still customary to present the future fianc?e with a piece of natural silk. This is a symbol of well-being. Cosmetics containing silk are now becoming fashionable.

Numerous types of tokens are still retained in Azerbaijan. It is a kind of unwritten rule that people should regard silk production as a sacred process, including the making of kalagayi, and the master dyers should be respected.


Tokens and superstitions

For example, you must never steal silk. If you do steal it, you will be punished by the Almighty. If you bring offerings to the dyers, God will reward you for your kindness. You should not boast to your friends how your silkworms are growing well, because then they will die. So, they would hang gozmuncug (a protective amulet) at the entrance to the silkworm hatchery. You must not enter the worm-incubation premises wearing gold or silver jewellery, a wristwatch, in a bad mood, if you have had a bad dream the night before and so forth. It is possible that the silkworms, unlike us, are capable of sensing and reacting to vibrations of a higher frequency. The same is true of the process of making the kalagayi. There are numerous tokens and rules such as a real master dyer never folding a kalagayi with the pattern outside. You must not do this because the soul of the article needs to be inside it. It needs to be folded in such a way that a 150x150cm square is gradually formed into a long narrow strip, which is then folded several times more, so that the pattern is right inside. Among them there are even people who have been occupied with this trade for eight generations. These people know exactly how to place a certain pattern, how to apply the dye (only natural dyes are used) and what needs to be done so that the wax (a special mixture of slightly runny consistency) does not drip and leave stains.


The reality: the beginning of the 21st century

Azerbaijani women are very fond of silk kalagayi. Many foreign women have started to like them, eagerly buying them for Christmas presents for their relatives and using them as shawls [pareu] to complement an evening outfit. Please note that you should not get upset if there are spots of colour along the border (the pattern on the kalagayi goes to the edge), but on the contrary be pleased about it. This simply confirms that this is really hand-made, which is the only thing that is a kind of guarantee of quality. Unfortunately, we take little interest in what we should know about our birth on this Earth.





How many silk cocoons are needed to create a single silk headscarf, if the weight of one cocoon is 1g, and the weight of a headscarf 150x150 cm is 150g? The length of the thread in the cocoon may range from 350 to 1,200 metres. Dozens of kilograms of silk are obtained from 30g of silkworm eggs. To ensure that the thread is kept clean, during the time that they are growing, the little caterpillars need to be carefully and constantly tended.The little caterpillars eat a lot, so the waste needs to be cleared away in time so that the silk is of good quality and the thread iridescent. One peculiarity of natural silk is that it does not lose its lustre, reflecting rays of light and becoming iridescent in the light, with a play of the shades of the gamma of light, giving rise to special visual rhythms and a sense of the gently changing colour of the surface.