Textiles and the Multi-Tiered Cosmos: Suzani

The People 

Suzani is created in several regions of western Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This region is located along the Silk Road, in use from around 2,000 b.p and linking China to the Mediterranean. Silk, horses, spices, and other luxury goods were brought by caravan along this road, facilitating the spread of culture and knowledge across the continent. Most trade goods changed hands several times in the oasis bazaars along the route. Local nomads provided fresh horses and camels and served as guides across the desert and mountain passes.

The oases, mountains, and rivers in Central Asia attracted all sorts of people from all over the continent. This part of the world is an incredible mix of ethnic groups and lifeways. The predominant ethnic groups of  this region are descendents of wave after wave of nomadic Turkic and Mongolian nomads, who came into the area in search of pasture. Some nomads mixed with the sedentary inhabitants of the oasis towns. Today, these include the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Uzbeks. Tajiks are descended from the original Indo-European inhabitants of the area and speak a Persian language. Arab peoples, whose ancestors brought Islam to Central Asia in the early 700s, together with Russians and a range of minority peoples, make up the remainder of the population.

The Textiles

Felted yurt decoration
Dr. Elmira Gyul says, "Admirers of traditional textiles value Suzanis for their vigorous coloring and original patterns, natural materials and refinement of embroidery skills." I love that description! Vigorous!!!

Nomads from northern central Asia lived in yurts and produced felted rugs, hangings, bags, and other textiles created from the wool of their animals. The designs of the textiles were passed down from mother to daughter and came to represent membership in a family group. 

Antique Ikat robe

The sedentary groups of central Asia produced beautiful, complex ikats (Ikat means "to tie a cloud" in Uzbek - isn't that awesome?). This makes a lot of sense, as the ikats were produced on (relatively) stationary looms, while the felts were more portable and could be worked on anywhere, even while traveling. Not surprisingly, Central Asia became a hub of the world's most beautiful and valuable textiles. Embroideries were developed in this hub over the following centuries.

According to Dr. Gyul:

Although belonging to the production of non-nomadic populations, suzanis
(silk embroideries on a cotton or silk ground) often have symbols linked
to the shamanistic iconography of nomads. long strips were woven by different
women and then sewn together. the young uzbek girls had to have at least ten
suzanis as part of their wedding dowry, and as these were neither hereditary nor
to be given away, they had to be especially embroidered for each wedding.
 Suzani is an Iranian and Tajik word meaning "needle." Production is centered in Uzbekistan, Tahikistan, and Turkmenistan, mainly in the towns of Bokhara, Samarkand, Nurata, and Tashkent. Large suzanis are very popular, and were/are used as wedding coverlets and canopies, funeral drapes, and wall decor. Smaller embroidered items include wall hangings, bags, purses, prayer mats, clothing for people and animals, food covering, etc. 

One woman draws (freehand) the pattern onto strips of hand-woven linen, velvet, silk, or cotton cloth, and the embroidery is carried out by a group of women with vegetable-dyed silk or cotton thread. After the embroidery is completed on each strip, they are sewn together to form a large finished piece. Suzanis were/are a major part of a girl's dowry. When a girl was 8 years old or so, she and her family would begin producing suzanis in preparation for her wedding. A well-off family may expect to have 10 or so suzanis to offer as a dowry when the time came.

Picture from The Little Silk Road

Weaver as Shaman!

In order to prove that Textiles are associated with shamanism, my task is to show how they are related to the multi-tiered cosmos. So far, we've seen how weaving itself can be an induction method to altered states of consciousness (ASC) and how ASC and entoptic images are precursors to a belief in a multi-tiered cosmos (underworld/this world/world of spirits), which is the basis of shamanism and (arguably) all later spiritual practices. We've also seen that entoptic images are ubiquitous in textiles from all over the world. If we can see depictions of a multi-tiered cosmos (the result of ASC and entoptic experience), we come that much closer to making an association between textile production and shamanism. Please see my post here.


Here's a list of criteria that I think would prove a link between ASC and the textile:

These are discussed in more detail in previous posts):
  • A relationship between the creation of the artwork and an induction method to ASC ("proven" in another post: here).;
  • Depictions of imagery from the 3 stages of ASC on the artwork;
  • Depictions of various cosmic realms on the artwork, including
  • world of the living
  • world of the dead
  • passage or tunnel (In many (or most) cases, the tunnel should be accessible only to the shaman/celebrant and the decedent, as it may considered too risky for laypeople to make the journey; and
  • Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the production of textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms;
  • Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the use of the textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms (an association with death, healing, etc.). 
Caveat: All this is open to debate. I'm just condensing it here and presenting my own beliefs (based on personal research and field work). 

The Interpretation

Sample 1 is a textile currently for sale by Silk Ikat on Ebay.

Here's their description:
Here is antique classic Uzbek Shahrisabz silk suzani, wonderful silk embroidery on purple silk base, source vegetable dyes, around 60-70s of the 19th century; size is 57” x 62”, the silk embroidery is in very good condition but the silk base has a few small cracks. This wonderful item has historical and artistic value.
Sample 1

Induction method

Please see my post about weaving as an induction method here. So far, I see no evidence of intoxicants being used by the embroideresses, but it's possible that current traditions surrounding the creation of these textiles are vestiges of former inductive practices.

Creating suzanis for a dowry is often a fairly ritualized, communal event, with possible references to trance (e.g., music and dance). 

Angela Izrailova describes the "chashar" in which women gather to complete dowry suzanis. Her great article is available here: Suzani Vernacular: Technique and Design in the Central Asian Dowry Embroideries.
Gatherings like this were called "chashar" (meaning people getting together to help each other), and were an old and important tradition of the pre-wedding preparations. While embroidering, women frequently sang and told each other stories. During the breaks the embroiderers entertained themselves playing musical instruments [and] dancing. (Izrailova, 1998).

Depictions of Imagery from the 3 Stages of ASC

Please see this post here for a detailed discussion of images associated with the three stages of ASC. Here's a summary:

Images Associated with the Three Stages of ASC.
Stage 1 Entoptic images/Geometric images (grid/lattice/hexagon, parallel lines, bright dots/flecks, zigzags, nested curves with flickering zigzags on outer arc, filigrees/thin meandering lines, spirals)
Stage 2 Entoptic images of stage 1 are interpreted as objects from the natural world (a circle becomes a breast, a meandering line becomes a snake)
Vortex vortex or tunnel with bright light at the end. These can be represented by spirals, concentric circles, and other images.
Stage 3 This stage of ASC involves transformation. Images become more specific and are culturally based. (the breast becomes a particular goddess, the snake is interpreted as a specific species).

Entoptics, according to Lewis-Williams.
Jeremy Dronfield's Diagnostic Entoptics

Concentric circles, radials, 
zigzags, repeated lines

Stage 1 imagery

This sample has the following entoptic motifs that I can see:radials, nested radials, zigzags, nested zigzags, concentric circles, repeated lines, meanders, repeated chevrons, nested semi-circles, double semi-circles, and possible "fork" motifs (I don't know what else to call them. They're the motif pictured in Lewis-Williams' entoptic images figure, second from the right, last line).

Stage 2 imagery

This is a bit more difficult. We're looking for an image that appears to be transitional between entoptic and fully cultural.

Possible Stage 2 images here include meanders that turn into vines, radials that turn into flowers, and repeated lines that turn into plants.

Repeated chevrons, meanders

Stage 3 imagery

This may be a stretch, but the "fork" motif in the last line of Lewis-Williams' entoptic motifs document (second from right) may be represented here surrounding a cotton bud. So Cotton bud, flower buds, leaves, stems, whole plants, almonds, peppers, pomegranate.
"fork" motif around cotton bud



Vortex imagery

The concentric circles comprising the central motif may be representative of the vortex, especially since they also depict radials.

Depictions of Various Cosmic Realms

Normally, this is a rather easy section to fill out. With suzanis, however, it becomes a little more complicated. Scholars believe that the vegetal elements included in most suzanis are actually morphed celestial images that originated from ancient spiritual traditions (Mongolian shamanism, for one). So a flower or plant, that could normally be considered as representing the earthly realm, might actually be, at its core, representative of the night sky or the heavens. So the floral images may be cosidered to be both earthly and heavenly. Sample 2 has depictions of horses, which, like the flowers, represent both earthly and heavenly realms.

Dr. Gyul says:
Suzanis of each regions or center have their own local features. Astral and solar symbols predominate in Tashkent and partly in Samarkand Suzanis. In Tashkent Suzanis are known as palak (heavens, arab.), oy-palak (moon heavens) or yulduz-palak (star heavens).The images of heavenly stars are the ancient tradition, which roots go to the ancient strata of culture. The artisans considered these patterns provided the heaven protection. Step-by-step old cults were replaced by the new ones – as a result, astral symbols transformed into vegetative and floral symbols (Surkhandarya and Samarkand Suzanis, for example). Transformation of solar forms into vegetative symbols reflects the change of religious representations in a society and depreciation of old symbols. Some motives, especially in rural embroideries, are related to nomad’s art. Carpets of semi nomadic tribes are the basic source of this influence. The “carpet” motives include kuchkorak and mujiz-nuska (ram’s horns) motives, the most ancient and most widespread in steppe art. Thereby, some part of patterns is a heritage of local ancient settled and nomadic cultures; the content of these patterns have been connected with Zoroastrism, Sun and totemic cults, and also a cult of nature revival. The other part was formed under the influence of Islamic aesthetics (some floral compositions, which can also be seen in other kinds of medieval textiles). Nevertheless in each case Suzani drawings is the image of an ideal universe, unity of magic and beauty. Suzani embroidery is the unique phenomenon of late medieval culture of Central Asian’s cities and villages; it has kept the ancient archetypes and medieval symbols in the patterns and has reflected interaction of various historical and art traditions.

According to Pomegranate Textiles,  Eastern suzanis:
“… are much closer to the traditional nomad designs of the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who in pre-Islamic times worshiped the sun, the moon and the stars. These are bold designs, with an archaic symbolism centered on a circular motif, whose exact meaning is debated by specialists: Does it represent the sun, the moon, the heavens, a flower—or an open pomegranate, a symbol of fertility from the Mediterranean to China? It is clearly a positive image of continuity and survival, and it appears over and over again in the life of the region: It is painted or incised on the walls of houses, stamped onto bread, sewn into other embroideries used for everyday tableware, and even echoed in the brickwork of the domes of mosques and madrasas (religious schools). It often employs powerful contrasts, as if to distinguish dark and light, good and evil, life and death, and strong colors such as red for blood, brown for the earth and blue-black for the sky.”
Sample 2: This unusual suzani was being sold on Ebay by East Treasures.
Sample 2 is an unusual suzani with horses. The seller offered this description:
The composition consists of the varied magical stallions. The motifs are connected with folklore and mythology. The "Horse" is one of the main figures of Turkic mythology; Turks considered the horse an extension of the individual -though generally dedicated to the male- and see that one is complete with it. The wind horse is an allegory for the human soul in the shamanistic tradition of Central Asia. Also, a symbolical rideless horse connected with the Buddha depiction in the southern Uzbekistan. One legend says that in the high valleys of what are today the Tien Shan Mountains, on the eastern edge of the Turan Flats, there stood an oasis, a spring which supported the valley's grass. The grass supported a herd of wild steppe mares; smallish in stature, but slim and elegant, and untouchable. Every night, the mares would travel from their pasture to the oasis to drink; and each night, from the water of the oasis, a magical stallion would appear-tall, and strong and fast, the color of liquid fire. He flew from the oasis to the clouds, and back to the earth, and stayed with the mares until daybreak, when he disappeared into the water once more. One night, hearing of this stallion, a young nomad--in some stories a young boy, in others, a young Amazon-set out to see this magical stallion, and-in some stories, through stealth, and in others, through understanding-this young nomad was able to approach the stallion, to speak to him, and at last to bridle him, and to ride to the stars on his back. Brought back to earth, it is said that this stallion became the ancestor of all the Central Asian Thoroughbreds-the Golden, Heavenly Horses of the Turan Flats.

world of the living

Flowers and plants, horses

world of the dead

Celestial images (flowers and plants), horses

passage or tunnel 

(In many (or most) cases, the tunnel should be accessible only to the shaman/celebrant and the decedent, as it may considered too risky for laypeople to make the journey): 

The large circular floral images in Sample 1 and the magical horse in Sample 2 that took the boy to heaven!


Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the production of textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms

The designs were drawn freehand by artists, usually old women, called kalamkash (kalam = "pencil"). The art was passed from mother to daughter during a special ritual. As stated above, communal embroidering parties (Chashar) were held as part of the pre-wedding preparations. Women sewed, sang, danced, ate specially prepared foods, and painted their eyebrows with Usma. These gatherings often took place during long, cold winters when outdoor activities were limited. 

O my god, I love this lady.
Usma is an herb that is dried and sold in markets. The leaves are ground into powder and used to paint on a "unibrow" that is very popular, especially with Tajik women. The following is PURE conjecture and would need to be more fully researched: I have found reference to the Htuti Wer in association with the unibrow. The Htuti Wer is the central Asian version of the werewolf, as near as I can figure out. This is a half human/half animal figure, a classic shamanic association. 



Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the use of the textiles reflecting the different cosmic realms (an association with death, healing, etc.)

There are a number of anecdotal accounts of the spiritual significance of suzani motifs.
According to the Textile Arts Center Blog, shamanism is the domain of women, and embroidery is considered a "vital protection against evil." In general, the symbols included on suzani fabrics are thought to have powers of healing, protection, luck, and fertility. The symbols have meaning that is readily decipherable by another embroideress or one who is versed in such things. The intent of the original artist is conveyed with the symbols. In other words, someone who knows the symbols would be able to understand the intent of the embroideress, what protections were being offered, what desire was being prayed for, etc.).

From Journeys in Between
Most often suzani designs comprise symbolic representations of a blossoming garden. In the midst of the rich decorative patterns one can make out talismanic symbols: a pomegranate for fertility, knives for protection from an evil eye, a pepper so that evil spirits will pass you by, a lamp for purification from evil, a bird for luck. Legend has it that all authentic suzanis have an intentional mistake in them, as a reminder of human imperfection.
Suzanis are most frequently associated with weddings. Since the suzanis were/are used primarily at weddings and depict ancient symbols of fertility, perhaps they are thought to actually bestow fertility and happiness on the couple. 

Suzani bridal veil. Pic from Superstock.
Tajik Wedding under a suzani canopy. Pic from the World Digital Library

According to Gyul: 
Apart from having a practical function, these embroidered pieces were also used by women to gain control over their immediate environment... Lotus, hyacinth, carnations, tulips and the botah pattern (similar to the paisley) are seen very often, sitting within circles, or being sprayed from vessel like shapes. A popular image is one called ‘ Palak’, a heavenly orb and often represented with big red flowers. Some say, it may also be related to the Pomegranate fruit.
Their true sense are often hidden from us. The important role of Suzanis are connected with the belief to the magic forces of their patterns. Scholars have already marked the common protective value of suzani embroideries, such as their usage in ceremonial and cult practice as protective force. The patterns within the embroideries also carry the same protective meaning, as well as having their own unique historical interpretations. Each element is a part of the Universe, and the composition is a image of the World, with harmony and balance, sometimes unachievable in real life.
Suzanis were also made in the form of small bags and cases. They are used for storing tea, kitchen utensils, and other domestic items. Mirrors were covered with suzani cloths in order to prevent genies from entering the yurt through the mirror and doing harm to the occupants. 

Symbol interpretations
I'm going to put all these words from a great article with motif interpretations here. I realize this is an extremely long quotation, but the interpretations are fascinating. here you go!
Vegetative patterns
Compositions created from vegetative patterns such as wild and cultivated flowers, herbs, etc. are diverse in their sizes and destiny creating different movements, rhythms and turns. Embroideries usually contained those plants that, along with their decorative meaning, possessed some healing power and were used for treating various illness.
The most frequently embroidered flowers were roses, irises, carnations, tulips, and apple-tree bosoms among others. The most frequently embroidered fruits and vegetables were pomegranates, cherries, almonds, peppers. One of the popular flowers looks like something very close to a tulip or a lily; a flower with similar shape can be often seen in ancient works of art. It is one of attributes of Anahita, the Goddess of fertility.

It is known from history that flower festivals were celebrated in Uzbekistan in past. They were connected with the blossoming of certain plants and reflected in embroideries. However, the prototypes were changed by fantasy of the embroiderer every time. Vegetative patterns were stylized but details of flowers were always thoroughly elaborated.

Leaves in vegetative patterns can be of several shapes, namely, oval, serrate like lilac’s leaves, trefoil and cinquefoil, long ''fishbone'' leaves serrate on one side. Garlands of leaves and rosettes are also widely used. A wavy stem of the bindweed signified wealth and vitality. It can assumed that vegetative patterns often conceal pre-Islamic motives; for instance, round patterns possibly reflect ancient astral conceptions.
Almond-shaped motives called ‘bodom’ in Uzbekistan symbolize fertility and life. Their thin and prolonged shape is called ‘calampir’, meaning pepper. It can also be viewed as an amulet. In Uzbekistan, children, especially newborns and babies as well as pregnant women requiring their protection (for instance, during childbirth) are protected against evil forces by amulets, which contain almonds or peppers. These patterns can also imply the practical use of almond and pepper possessing medicinal properties.

Some scholars associate the origin of the ‘bodom’ pattern widely used in Uzbekistan with birds, regarding it as a representation of a pheasant, cock or peacock which have lost certain attributes in the processes of stylization. Many Central Asian peoples attributed magic qualities to these birds.
Motives associated with cult of animal have existed since ancient times and contain elements of early religions, totems, and magic and fertility cults.
For instance, various parts of birds' trunks and bones of animal served as amulets to Karakalpaks. They were believed to possess supernatural powers. Such powers were also attributed to the footprints of some animals. Thanks to cult of dogs widespread in Karakalpakstan some elements connected with this animal are used in the applied arts, including embroidery. For instance, this motive decorates tea-bags - shai-kalta and some other embroidered articles.
Almond (Bodom) motif

This ancient motive is widespread among many Turkic ethnic groups, from Siberia to Asia Minor. A ram (kuchkor) played a magic protective role. A ram's skull used to be fastened to the gates and doors or in the garden. Rams were given preference as sacrificial animals. In families where song died a newborn boy was named Kuchkor in order to keep off evil spirits and protect the baby. Khorezm residents used to keep rams in their homesteads; they believed that its horns turned away the evil eye caused it lose its evil force.

Representation of ram's horns was also a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

It is assumed that the pattern of ram's horns, especially its spiral version, symbolizes the Universe and eternal movement.

Representations of wriggling are frequently used in embroidery patterns. It can be assumed that the idea of the magic power of snakes was connected with the past cult of the snake, some elements of whose worship can be traced to this day.

The snake was a totem animal personifying good and evil. The snake cult has existed in Uzbekistan, as well as in a number of other countries, since ancient times. As Makhmud Kashgari wrote, in 11th century existed the day of the snake and the Year of the Snake. There was also a snake gem. The snake or ‘ilon’ was attributed a lot of positive functions. It was considered a protector of the house, the family, wealth, livestock, grain, water, treasures, etc. It was also respected as a protector of women and children, especially newborns. According to mythological traditions, the pattern ‘ilon izi’ (snake trail) widespread in tape embroideries also performed the function of an amulet.

Geometric patterns are considered the most ancient ones, know since Neolithic period. As a rule, simple geometric figures conveyed the most capacious notions such as the earth, water, the sun and fire.

A circle symbolized outer space and the cyclical nature of time, the sun and some of gods. A circle divided into two parts signified day and night, summer and winter, and yin and yang in Chinese mythology. Many Central Asian ethnic groups used a circle as a symbol of the Sun or, more rarely, of the Moon, worship of which was a part of people's religious conceptions since antiquity. According to popular beliefs, representation of the sun protected against the evil eye and all kinds of evil spirits. Circular motives were widely used in many kinds of applied arts, and its meaning was associated not only with the celestial bodies such as the Sun and the Moon, but also with idea of fertility.

Another symbol of fertility consist of two isosceles triangles. The top of them points upward, which is a symbol of heaven and a ‘yang’ sign, while the top of other one points downward, which is a symbol of the earth and ‘yin’ sign. The two opposites, the ‘yin’ and the ‘yang’, the heavenly and earthly, unite the two worlds creating a family.

Triangle as such was considered to have a sacred power. Cases in which sayings from the Koran were usually kept used to have a triangular shape. Ethnic groups who lived in steppe associated the triangular gape of amulets with ancient magic protective conceptions of hunters' cult, and it was also an emblem used in shaman's amulets of human spiritual and vital forces.

Beshik-tuyi ceremony for an infant. Picture from Design2Share
Suzani are used in many many ceremonial contexts. Here are a few:
bridal bed coverbridal attire
bridal canopy
newlywed home decor
cradle cover
Lakai shields (more on this later)
 prayer rugs
holiday decor
funeral shrouds

Before a Kyrgyz wedding, women unbraid the 40 braids worn by a maiden and rebraid her hair into the two braids of a married woman. All beneath the suzani! Pic from Sour Cherry.
Suzani bridal canopy. Look at those ikat robes!!!
Great article:  Angela Izrailova's article, Suzani Vernacular: Technique and Design in the Central Asian Dowry Embroideries

Here are two interesting descriptions from her article:

Bolinpush (about 150 cm x 150 cm) embroideries were designed around a large floral or geometric motif with elements radiating to the four comers, and were used to cover the bride's head or held above her as a canopy. The ornamentation of djoinamoz (a place for prayer) embroideries was often similar to suzanis, although much more delicately executed.
Used as a prayer rug, it had a pointed niche, mihrab, its arch usually decorated with floral motifs and arabesque forms, leaving the central field either empty or with a single motif at the top of the niche. Often elements of fertility, such as pomegranates, worms, or snakes would be included in the design.


All stages of ASC are depicted in the textiles. All cosmic realms are represented. There are rituals associated with both the production and use of the cloths. There is some evidence that induction methods may once have been associated with the production of the textiles.

Worldwide, shamans are thought to be able to control their environment with their chosen tools (e.g., rattles, wands, special powders, invisible darts, etc.). With these tools, they are able to summon spirits, communicate with ancestors, and facilitate healing, among other things. The embroideresses, then, were/are able to use these textiles to control their environment. 

Not surprisingly, then, I now believe that suzanis are associated with an endogenously-generated belief in a tiered cosmos. 

This brings up some questions for me regarding my own relationship with the textile that I have in my home. I am in awe of this textile. I wonder about the cultural appropriation aspect of having it in my home and participating in the commodification of these items. I admit I am bothered by all the pictures of suzani-adorned "ethnic" or "tribal-style" American homes and American women. It seems to cheapen the richness of the fabric. So why is it all right for me, then? It's a complicated transaction. Any thoughts on this?

I invite you to participate in more commodification! Visit Miri.


  1. Beautiful textiles! Are you working on a thesis? You included a lot of detailed and wonderful references, which is why I was wondering.

    1. Hi Amy! Not working on a thesis...I'm just very very obsessive!

  2. Wow !!! What an absolutely fantastic research article......I enjoyed reading every last bit of it.

  3. Wonderful blog!
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  4. Much love,
    "Thank you for the read <3

  5. Useful information shared on suzani embroidery. I am very happy to read this article. Thanks for giving us nice info. Fantastic walk through. I appreciate this post.

    1. Thanks, Willson! These textiles are fascinating!