Mera dil hai Tajikistani..? Part 2

Cultural, Creative Industries

Mera dil hai Tajikistani..? Part 2

McComb, Jessie F.


After a night of recovering from the long and bumpy journey from Dushanbe to Khorog the group headed out into the surrounding villages. We climbed even further into the snow-capped Pamir Mountains, around twisting gravel and dirt paths. At our first stop we were greeted by a group of village women who had been expecting our visit for days. We were ushered into their traditional Pamiri house and offered tea, cakes, coffee, dried fruit and nuts. Traditional Pamiri houses are originally based on Zoroastrian symbolism that was later adapted to reflect Muslim faith and stories. The houses are usually one room with five different levels surrounding a sunken, center level. In the middle of the ceiling a series of wooden squares rotate up, creating a hole in the roof where smoke escapes. Although most people now use coal or electric heaters, the houses were originally made to take advantage of the natural environment.

After the tea was finished, the women showed us their craft. Traditionally they made knitted jurabs (stockings/socks) that kept their families warm during the long and cold winters. The socks bore traditional geometric patterns specific to the Pamir region. The patterns are rumored to have been inspired by Greek art that was brought to the area with the invasion of Alexander the Great. More recently the women begun working with a local organization called De Pamiri Handicrafts to expand their skills and products. Today they make knit hats that blend traditional patterns with modern designs. These hats are one of the hottest selling items in De Pamiri’s shop in the center of Khorog.

Based in Khorog, De Pamiri Handicrafts was started in 2004 as a project under the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme. The initiative was driven by a small group of motivated and creative artisans in the surrounding villages. The project began by encouraging artisans to sell the products they made with their traditional craft skills and quickly moved on to developing more market-based designs. De Pamiri focuses on supporting the creative production of handcrafts based on traditional techniques and designs. Through this work De Pamiri fosters new economic opportunities and promotes Pamiri culture and identity. All the artisans that we met with during this trip are members of De Pamiri.

After a morning with the women of Dashtak village, the group traveled on to meet with more artisans, drink more tea and eat more bread. One of the artisan groups we visited that afternoon were producers of felt, one of the most widespread crafts in the Tajik mountains. Felt is made by arranging cleaned and carded wool, soaking it with water and then pressing it until the wool melds together. Traditionally, felt had been used to insulate the wood, stone and mud Pamiri houses during the winter. However, during Soviet control fuel was often cheaper than insulation and many people abandoned the tradition of felt making. In the past few years both women and men have started making felt rugs, pillow covers and wall hangings again as both functional and decorative items. Through De Pamiri’s work in the villages the artisans have also been able to generate income through their craft.

The next day, the assessment team continued on to another village, even higher in the mountains, on even steeper and narrower paths. We were forced to walk the last half-mile to the village because an abandoned car blocked the road. However, once we arrived at the top, we were pleasantly surprised to see some of the most innovative craft in the region. As in most cases there are a few people who stand out as leaders amongst their peers and Midensharv village contain a two of them. The two brothers that worked in Midensharv were motivated to learn new techniques and widen their markets. Although one of the brothers was a leather maker by trade, he has been creating felt rugs and toys when there weren’t enough hides to keep him busy. His willingness to build upon tradition and innovate was clear in his whimsical designs and vibrant use of color. He was also working to revive traditional natural dyes for felting and wool yarns. By using the region’s indigenous shughni plant (also used to ward off the evil eye), he had managed to create yellow, blue, green and pink dyes.

In addition to felting and wool knitting, many of the woman artisans also embroider and create beaded jewelry. Although traditional Pamiri dress was quite plain, usually a basic outfit of a tunic and pair of pants of red or white woolen material, the costumes were often embellished with intricate embroidered cuffs and necklines. The dramatic and flowing tunics were also accented with long, beaded necklaces, often reaching to the waist. And in their hair women would wear yarn and tassels braided into their plaits. Today, most women wear loose dresses and headscarves, yet the skills and patterns used to create the embroidered dresses and beaded necklaces live on in the crafts these women create.

In other parts of Tajikistan the craft varies even further. Decadent, embroidery covered wall hanging, throws and tunics. These embroidered pieces, called suzanis, are one of the most well known types of craft from Tajikistan. Other crafts include metalwork, ceramics, basket weaving and patchwork embroidery.

The history and breadth of Tajik crafts is obviously too long and wide to cover in a short column. However, I do hope that I was able to pass on a taste of the beauty and poignance of Tajik craft through these images and words.

Despite our expertise, our education and our years of experience, we can all learn so much from the smallest steps on a mountain path or a fleeting glance from a passing stranger.

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McComb, Jessie F.