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1. Drawing of a nakhl (by Goga Chelkowski) from the Yazd area ready to be carried in procession. Parts and ornamentation: 1. Four legs (paya, one shown), making a stand; 2. Poles for the bearers, forming a base for the nakhl. They represent the bier of Hossain; 3. Mirrors (aʾina); 4. Representation of a cypress tree (sarv); 5. Sadda (see text), a standard from which hang; 6. Colorful fabrics; 7. Ensigns of Hossain

Nakhl is one of the principal objects related to the mourning rituals commemorating the suffering and martyrdom of Imam Hussain b. ʿAli, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It is described as a wooden structure resembling a bridal pavilion and decorated with colorful silk shawls, precious fabric, mirrors, lanterns, etc.; flowers and green branches are also added for ornamentation (picture 1). It is further described as a large, tall bier to which daggers, swords, luxurious fabric, and mirrors are attached. Sometimes such a coffin is also fashioned for a young man who has met an untimely death [1]. The nakhl (or nakhl-e tabut) is so called because of its resemblance to the date palm tree (nakhl), which has a tall, slender, straight trunk.

2. The nakhl carriers awaiting the order to lift the nakhl (Photo by K. Bayegan, Mehriz, 1977).

Nakhl-Gardani[edit | edit source]

nakhl-gardani is the ritual ceremony of carrying the nakhl, as a symbolic representation of the Imam’s coffin, in the procession of the ʿAshuraʾ (i.e., 10 Moharram, the date of the martyrdom). On the day of ʿAshura, the nakhl is carried to a place where rawza-kani (mourning sessions commemorating the tragedy at Karbala) or passion play (taʿzia) is being performed. Sometimes, the nakhl is so colossal and heavy that it requires several hundred men to lift it up and carry it (pictures 2 & 3).

3. The nakhl carriers awaiting the order to lift the nakhl (Photo by J. Ghazbanpour, Mehriz, 1997).
4. The famous nakhl of Yazd, called the Amir Chakhmaq nakhl, resting unclad in front of the Takiya Amir Chakhmaq (Photo by Tara Bahrampour, 1997).
5. Amir Chakhmaq nakhl in front of the Takiya Amir Chakhmaq (Photo by Tara Bahrampour).

As ritual objects for the ʿAshura, nakhls are built from wood in various sizes, from simple constructions that can be carried by two persons to colossal structures about three stories high that have to be supported by hundreds of men. In Yazd and the surrounding towns and villages, a nakhl is often referred to as a naql “conveying, carrying, transferring.” This large wooden structure is carried on the day of ʿAshura from one place to another. According to some, the edifice is called nakhl during the entire year except on ʿAshura, when it is referred to as naql (since on that day it is moved in procession), but this opinion is not universal. It is interesting to note that on the dedication plaque attached to the biggest and most famous nakhl, which stands in front of Takia Amir Chakhmaq in the square of the same name in Yazd (pictures 4 & 5), the word naql is used. It bears the date 20 Rajab 1229/9 February 1882 and measures 8.50 m in each of its three dimensions.[2]

Nakhl’s Structure[edit | edit source]

A nakhl has four wooden legs that support a rectangular base made of intersecting tree trunks that stick out laterally in four directions. Men use the trunk poles to carry the structure on their shoulders and in their arms. These poles metaphorically represent the lances that pierced the body of Imam Hussain at Karbalaʾ. According to ʿAbd-al-ʿAzim Puya, the legs are made from wood from the plane tree; the shoulder and hand poles from aspen; and mulberry wood is used for the lattice that rests on the grids formed by the poles. The lattice is held together by nails and metal braces and decorative objects are attached to it with nails and ropes. Although it is called nakhl (date palm), the shape of the lattice more closely resembles the cypress tree. In Persian literature, the cypress is a metaphor for beauty, in particular for a beautiful and handsome figure. In the dedication plaque to the Amir Chakhmaq nakhl, the structure itself is likened to the beautiful corpse of the “Sultan of Karbala,” that is, Imam Hussain.

Maintenance[edit | edit source]

6. An unclad nakhl in front of the Takiya of Taft (Photo by Tara Bahrampour).

A nakhl structure is usually left in the same location uncovered and exposed to the elements throughout the year. As a result, the wood begins to deteriorate. The nakhl of ʿAqda, however, is kept in a covered location called khana-ye nakhl.[3] The famous nakhl of the Amir Chakhmaq Square of Yazd was endowed in 1882 and is still standing there, but as the structure has decayed and is no longer safe to carry, it is not used in the annual procession.[4] Allegedly, as a sacred object, the nakhl may not be destroyed and must be left to decay naturally. The same situation is also now occurring in Taft, where the old nakhl has been left to live out its days[5], with the new one standing close by (picture 6). Since there is a popular belief that the nakhl holds miraculous properties, the abandoned nakhl is still venerated. People come and light candles in front of it as they make solemn vows or offer up supplications; the Amir Chakhmaq nakhl once caught fire from the votive candles that were placed near it. The larger nakhl usually have storage places nearby for the various items that are reused every year for decoration. In some cases, the necessary ornamental paraphernalia is stored in a takia.

History of Nakhl Ritual[edit | edit source]

The nakhl and nakhl ritual are primarily to be found in the towns and villages on the edge of the great central desert from Semnan to Damqan via Qom, Kashan, Khor, Biabanak, Zavara, Ardestan, and Nayin. The largest nakhl, however, are seen in the Yazd district, which is also the region with the greatest number of them. In this area, there is not a single village that does not have its own nakhl. In addition to its ritual and religious manifestations, the nakhl is also a symbol of social unity for a town, village, or district. Nakhls are found standing in central communal and public spaces such as town squares or in and around takias. It is a common belief that the body of Imam Hussain was moved to the shade of a palm tree after his heroic death, and thus the designation of the bier as nakhl. A more plausible belief is that the makeshift bier, which carried the Imam from the battlefield to his resting place, was made from the branches of the palm tree, which is all that was available in the Karbala desert. With the passage of time, a simple stretcher became an elaborate structure with lavish decorations. For big nakhls in the Yazd region, fifty trees were sometimes required. Very often those trees were carried on the shoulders of people for long distances to the place of construction, which would then become the nakhl’s resting place.[6]

Nakhl Ritual[edit | edit source]

Sometimes the front and back log-poles of the lattice are laid across the side poles, and sometimes the side poles are laid on top of the front and back ones. The logs thus form a grid pattern. The men carrying the nakhl at the front and rear have it on their shoulders, while those on the sides carry it resting on the biceps of their bent arms. The distance between the poles on each side is less than one meter. The nakhl of Mehriz requires 156 men to carry it; there are thirty-nine places on each side of the structure for them to stand.[7]

7. A modern covering of the nakhl features paintings of various Shiʿite personalities (Photographer unknown).

Several days before the ʿAshura, the wooden structure of the nakhl is dressed from top to bottom. The predominant colors of the fabric covering the skeleton are black, symbolizing mourning, and green, representing the family of the Prophet. The ceremony decorating the nakhl is referred to as nakhl-bandi. Everyone is welcome to help in this process: some contribute their efforts as the result of private vows; others do it as an expression of their love for Imam Hussain (picture 7). During this process, one can hear constantly invocations for God’s blessing such as Allah-omma salla ʿala Mohammad wa Al Mohammad “O God, praise Mohammad and his descendents.”

8. The nakhl at Mehriz seen from the front, covered with mirrors (Photo by Judith L. Goldstein).

Once the wooden structure of the nakhl is covered with cloth, symbolic objects are attached to the structure. Mirrors are the main items of ornamentation(picture 8). Some of the mirrors are donated by members of the local community as votive pledges; some are bought and given as offerings; and some are lent for the occasion. Young women offer mirrors with the intention that their wishes for a good husband will be granted. Many believe that such an offering will in return result in the answer of their prayers through the intercession of Imam Hussain. Symbolically the mirrors represent the shining aura of the corpse of the Imam. The mirrors reflect light, thereby turning the bier into a glittering object. Moreover, the participants in the processions, seeing their reflections in the mirrors attached to the bier, feel that their wish to identify with Imam Hussain’s suffering is fulfilled.

These days it is less common to see the great number of daggers, swords, and shields that were attached to the nakhl in the past. Symbolically these arms represent the weapons used by the enemy to wound and kill the Imam. The mirrors appear on the front of the nakhl, sometimes covering it completely and sometimes placed in an arch around a cypress tree fabricated of narrow wooden strips and painted green. Standing out from the black background surface, the cypress tree, representing the Imam’s body, has arrows affixed to it, which illustrates those that entered the imam’s body. The overall shape of the lattice also recalls the cypress.[8]

At the apex of the nakhl, front and back, is a shadda, a vertical pole surmounted by metal rings. This name might be used with its meaning “fringe,” which the attachments to the ring form around the pole, or with analogy to the open, ring-like shape of the Arabic diacritic sign shadda. Hanging from these rings are colorful fabrics donated by local people, and each one is large enough from which to make a dress. According to tradition, after Imam Hussain and his seventy-two companions were killed on the plain of Karbala, the enemy plundered their tents and looted whatever they could carry away before setting fire to the encampment. These fabrics symbolically represent the cloth from which the women of Karbalaʾ could fashion their garments. In the middle of the roof of the nakhl, between the two shaddas, stands the ensign of the Imam, called 'alam. The ʿalam is a huge, sometimes three-meters high metal blade attached to a wooden shaft. ʿAlams come in three sections. The wooden shaft has a horizontal metal crossbar; on this crossbar are several small metal blades. Various metal animals are attached to the crossbar, including lions, peacocks, and doves, and precious shawls also are suspended from it. ʿAlams are usually carried separately in the procession.

9. Nakhl in Mehriz, 1974. A view from the rear of the nakhl shows golden thread on a black canvas in the shape of the mausoleum of Hossain at Karbalaʾ (Photo by Judith L. Goldstein).

When the entire back panel in the rear of the Amir Chakhmaq nakhl is dressed, it represents the Imam’s tomb shrine at Karbala. The characteristic and easily recognizable architectural features of his mausoleum are woven with golden thread into the black canvas (picture 9). In this fashion, the nakhl symbolically represents not only Imam Hussain’s stature and his coffin, but his tomb as well. The Amir Chakhmaq nakhl, though no longer in use, is decorated for the ʿAshura day with this canvas.[9]

10. The lifting of the nakhl. Mehriz, 1977 (Photo by K. Bayegan).

Many rituals are performed in large communities of central Persia, where the big nakhls are employed on the day of ʿAshura. Once these rituals are finished, all attention turns to the nakhl. Barefoot men dressed in black shirts and pants take up their positions around the poles protruding from underneath the nakhl’s lattice. Four guides stand on each side facing the nakhl, holding green shawls. On the top of the nakhl, next to the shaddas, are men with cymbals. Dirges are sung while bags of sugarplums are tossed to the cymbal players, who in turn shower the heads of the crowd below with the sweets. Even those bags of sugarplums that are not caught by the cymbal players but nevertheless have touched the nakhl, are believed to bring good luck (tabarrok). People collect rocks and pebbles along the path of the nakhl so that the nakhl carriers won’t hurt their bare feet. Finally, it is the decisive moment to lift the nakhl. The man in charge, called baba, invokes the Imam by crying “Ya Hussain,” and, with a clash of the cymbals, the nakhl is raised. This action is called nakhl-bardari (picture 10).

11. Nakhl-gardani, Mehriz, 1977 (Photo by K. Bayegan).

The procession of the nakhl, called nakhl-gardani, follows (picture 11). The nakhl, guided by four men (sometimes, in the case of a very big nakhl, additional guides stand on the protruding poles), moves majestically on a circular path in an anti-clockwise direction. It is surrounded by a crowd of softly treading men clad in black who parade their ritualized grief and sense of mourning (matam) by striking their heads with their hands. Soon the nakhl comes to a stop so that the nakhl-carriers can rest. During the pause, dirges are sung and a chest-beating matam is performed. In a town square location like that of the Amir Chakhmaq, the nakhl can be carried around the square as many as seven times.[10]

In other places, such as Qamṣar of Khasan, the nakhl-gardani has a linear structure. The nakhls of several districts file one after the other as they traverse the town. In Qamṣar, the nakhls are preceded by ʿalams and followed by chain-beaters. Women line the entire path of the nakhl-gardani on sidewalks and on the flat roofs of houses. Even the bystanders are drawn into this ritual by joining in various matams.[11]

Source[edit | edit source]

Reference[edit | edit source]

  1. Dehkhoda, s.v. nakhl; Moʿin, Farhang-e farsi IV, Tehran, 1968, p. 4691
  2. Afšār, II, pp. 709, 1194-96, pl. 167
  3. Afšār, I, p. 454
  4. see Afšār, II, pl. 167
  5. Afšār, I, p. 410
  6. Mohammad Abu-Fazli, pp. 87-106
  7. Torayya
  8. Tabibi, pp. 175-78
  9. Chelkowski
  10. Chelkowski
  11. Chelkowski