July 1985

Illus. 1 Key to the “mah” (moon) motif.
Illus. 2. Typical “vase” motif of the Sistan Balouch.

Time and place of origin of a series of other designs cannot be identified. These designs are popular everywhere between China and Mesopotamia, and they reflect early religious ideas, which different ethnic groups had in common. For example, symbols were used to invoke the cosmological order. Rain at the wrong time, floods and droughts disrupted this order and were the work of bad demons to these early hunters, plant-gatherers, and cattle-raising nomads. In their view of life the moon was an important principle of order. It’s regular reappearance allowed the division of time; its disappearance meant rain in some areas. But its significance in connection with the female fertility cycle was even more important. This is not the place to dwell on the early moon symbolism. It is, however, still important, and moon symbols have always been used and are still being used on rugs, like on the Balouch rug from the area of Ferdows.

[This five-part article originally appeared in print in Volume 5/4 of Oriental Rug Review, July 1985, and is reprinted here with that publication’s kind permission. Translated from German by Lola Froehlich, August, 1981. Reviewed by Dr. Wegner, May, 1985]

Figure 9. Balouch, region of Ferdows, “mah” and “nim-mah” motif, c. 1900.

The two phased moon is shown three times (Ill. 1). Twenty-five years ago only some very old Balouch weavers and the Djulghe Khaf were able to associate these patterns with the moon.


Female fertility has long been invoked through lozenge and/or triangle patterns, male fertility through fish designs. These mythical symbols or their combination into one motif reach far east into the China of the Shang and Han periods (Hentze 1961; Buckens 1921) and west to Sumer (Parrot 1960 and 1970). They appear as cryptograms on findings from Mohendjo Daro (Kinnier Wilson 1974), and are finally found among Scythians in south Russia and in the Altai (Talbot Rice 1957 and others). In order for the clan to survive there have to be many descendants. This explains why the fertility motifs are still in use in central Asia. Fish and lozenge motifs are not only found on copper and ceramic receptacles of the sedentary population, but are also reproduced by steppe nomads, in whose environment there are hardly any fish. Tekke and Yomud Turkomans use these motifs in women’s jewelry and–more abstract–in rugs, too. Also Balouch rugs show lozenge and fish, sometimes even as a motif combination. The fish is stylized into the saw-teeth pattern which is the most important part of the “keshmiri” design that has been used by  around Turbett-i-Heidari and in Afghanistan. Today’s weavers cannot associate anything with the name “keshmiri.” It seems to have originated in the east. Old Balouch women among the Said-Mohammad-Khani Baluch related this motif to the “taifa,” the clan, and thought it important. The complete keshmiri consists of four fish, that are arranged around a lozenge. A possible interpretation is: “male fertility” (fish) plus “female fertility” (lozenge) lead to: descendants which means: “immortality of the clan.” For more than 100 years the keshmiri pattern of the Khorassan Balouch has been used also under the name of “herati” on rugs manufactured in Feraghan, west Persia. The name “herati” points also to an eastern origin. It is not clear whether both names have a common provenance, or whether the weavers adopted the name from each other. This is, by the way, the only design to which the Balouch attach “holy spheres” and sacrificial animals. I will come back to that later. The keshmiri pattern could not be found on really old rugs, neither among Khorassan Balouch nor in Feraghan.

The Balouch have also applied motifs that stem from Islamic symbolism. A hand is very often represented in the upper corner of the “akhundi” prayer rug. This motif is widely used in the Arab-Islamic world. It is the “hand of Fatimah,” a protection against the evil eye. Most of the Balouch weavers belong to the Sunni and they call this motif “pandjeh,” i.e. “five,” meaning five fundamental principles. It is implausible that the design serves as an indication for the positioning of the hands (and often heard explanation in the non-Islamic world), since the prayer knows this from childhood on, anyway.

Other Islamic motifs are very rare. In spite of an early Islamization animistic elements have survived. They originate in old Iranian beliefs, which are also at the root of the Khorassan Baluch’s concept of the omnipresence of evil gods and demons, like Djin, Pari, and Div. Gafferberg’s studies (1973) on the Sistan Baluch, who immigrated into the Turkmen SSR during this century, show many parallels to Donaldson’s description (1938) of folk belief in Khorassan and Bray’s study (1913) on the Brhu’i. Turkoman or early Turkish beliefs seem to have influenced those Baluch to a lesser degree.

Very soon purely decorative elements from other traditions were added to the already existing multitude of symbols. Little flowers were scattered all over, as were simple crosses and other small figures. All these different style elements may be incorporated in a single rug which seems to have appealed to the European aesthetic feeling.

The composition and the assimilation of the different motifs were completed by the middle of the 19th century. Even though Balouch weavers have usually kept to their traditional patterns, they have sometimes developed new combinations. The Ghara’i Balouch in Petro provide many examples for that. New variations and creations, however, seldom survive one generation because they are the individual weaver’s literary property only. It is, therefore, very difficult to classify such rugs. The Balouch’s ability to weave completely new designs shows their creativity and proves that their pile rugs to not have cultic meaning.

In order to attribute certain patterns to certain areas of production, it is necessary–according to the above explanations–that the patterns meet the following characteristics:

  • They must be more than simple ubiquitous ornaments.
  • They must have survived several generations within the same Balouch group.
  • They must have been reproduced in rugs for personal use. Not only on “main” rugs, but also on other pile-woven fabrics.

Patterns that meet the above criteria may change their outer form with time, or may be arranged differently within the composition of design. Such modifications remain insignificant as long as the characteristics of the motif are definitely identifiable. This, for example, applies to the “Keshiri” pattern (Fig. 17-22).

A summary of the most important patterns and their occurrence in specific regions follows. First I will discuss Turkoman patterns that have only slightly changed, or not at all.

Turkoman Tribal Guls and Secondary Patterns

It is surprising that octagons with the “Mar” gul of the Salor dominate in the north Khorassan down to the region of Gha’in, on either side of the Iranian-Afghan border. These octagons have clan-specific center parts, which are, too, most often of Turkoman origin. Tekke guls are very rare in this part of Khorassan. They are, however, almost exclusively used south of Gha’in. There they are reproduced amazingly precisely. Only the proportions of the octagon are changed into a square-like figure. This change is seen in most Mar guls, too.

Figure 10. Balouch, N.W. Afghanistan, Tekke (Turkoman) “ghorbaghe” gul on prayer rug, c. 1870.

A rather numerous group of weavers around Zabol uses–besides the tribal or main Tekke gul–a secondary gul, which is most often seen among the Merv-Tekke. It is the “ghorbaghe,” or “frog” gul. The other traditional secondary gul, used by Akhal-Tekke and the Yomud, is the “tshemtshe,” or “spoon” gul. It does not appear together with the Tekke gul in Balouch rugs from Zabol, nor anywhere else in north Khorassan. The Ghorbaghe gul can become the primary motif in the field (Fig. 10). on rugs showing the primary Tekke gul, the secondary “frog” gul can be substituted by a small vase, from which a trefoil rises between two petioles on either side (Ill. 2). This non-Turkoman motif is found on Zabol Balouch rugs together with other designs and is characteristic of that region (see Fig. 21). Some pieces show both secondary designs, “frog” and “vase,” side by side.

Most main and minor borders have patterns of the Turkoman origin. For example, the Volute cross is a heraldic square (“kotshanak aine”), which the Tekke and the Salor use as a field design. In some of the rugs the guls are arranged in three vertical rows, with seven or nine guls in each row. This is clearly a Tekke tradition. The Tekke tradition is less obvious in the colors: Aubergine tints in the field, green and gold orange shades in the borders and in the secondary guls are characteristic of the “Zabol-Tekke.” This color combination discriminates their products from those made by the Mahdad-Khani Balouch, who lived around Nehbandan at the eastern edge of the southern Lut desert in 1950. These Balouch reproduce the Tekke gul and the ghobaghe secondary gul very accurately, but without “vase” motif and with Turkoman colors; i.e., red ground color and no “Zabol” green (Fig. 11). Tekke influence can also be seen in the borders and in pile-woven “herring-bone” stripes on the web-ends. There are never more than two vertical rows of guls, and four or six guls per row are most common.

Figure 11. Mahdad-Khani Balouch, Nehbandan, Tekke tribal gul and secondary gul (chemche), c. 1925.

The Tekke influence diminishes from Sistan toward the east. It was still evident in a rug made by Balouch in 1930, who lived as nomads south of the Afghan city of Shindand (Sabzewar) in 1955 (Fig. 12).

Figure 12. Balouch, West Afghanistan, deformed Tekke gul, c. 1930.

Once in a while the Tekke gul can be seen on pieces from central and north Khorassan. But only one small group of half-sedentary weavers in the area of Tsheshme-Gul, a mountain village at the northern edge of the Djulghe Djam, not far from Turbetti-i-Sheikh-i-Djam, reproduced the Tekke gul exactly. These weavers, who live in Balouch type tents, were not sure of their Balouch origin, denying, however, any relation to Turkomans or the neighboring Timuri. They have made gul rugs with Balouch structures for generations, but have applied Tekke designs for all other details at the same time, e.g., on borders. Tekke guls are also used in prayer rugs with a horizontal top line of the mihrab. It is interesting that not even old damaged pieces were for sale, not even at exaggerated prices. Another Turkoman pattern used by these weavers will be discussed later.

More or less distinct Tekke guls are also found among the Rahim-Khani near Serakhs, among the Ghara’i Balouch in Petro, and among some Bah’luri clans in the Djulghe Khaf. At the same time these groups use variants of the Mar gul (Fig. 13). The Mar gul seems to be of more importance in this part of Khorassan, because even the Tekke gul is enframed by an octagon figure, which is unmistakably derived from the Mar gul. Keshmiri patterns are also used in this region occasionally between tribal guls, or as secondary guls (see Fig. 4).

Figure 13. Balouch, Djulghe Rokh, Salor turreted gul, 1905.

Variants of the Mar guls have frequently been applied–without claims to completeness–by the following pile rug weavers:

Rahim-Khani Balouch region of Serakhs
Said-Mohammed-Khani (Salar-Khani) Balouch Djulghe Khaf
Ghara’i Balouch Djulghe Khaf
Moreidari Timuri Djulghe Khaf
Arabzadeh Arabs (?) Djulghe Khaf
Bah’luri Djulghe Bakharz
Hassanza’i Balouch Djulghe Bakharz
Porbuzi Timuri Djulghe Rokh
Name Unknown Balouch (?) western central Afghanistan
Name Unknown Balouch Djulghe Rokh
Name Unknown region of Gha’in (Bidokht)

The central shields in the main guls are probably peculiar to each group or clan. Where there are two rows of guls across the field, the designs in the two rows between them are probably also specific to a group of weavers, e.g., the rugs of the Ghara’i Balouch. They reproduce the typical stepped cross not only in their “gul rugs,” but also in the rugs of the keshmiri pattern. Details within the cross possibly distinguish individual weavers. Main and minor borders also help identify the group of weavers; the border designs also help identify the group of weavers; the border designs seem to occur always in combination with a particular field variant.

Tribal guls from the Ersari were either never reproduced by the Beluchi or have disappeared from their collection of patterns, for example, as among the Afghan Balouch. However, North of Herat “tauk” guls were found in Balouch rugs. This points to contacts with the Tshub-bash Turkomans, who are of Chaudori origin (Fig. 14).

Figure 14. Balouch, N.W. Afghanistan, “tauk noshka” gul of the Tshub-bash Turkomans, c.1910.

Between Nishapur and Meshed and in the Djulghe Djam the Tekke-Salor volute cross (“kotshanak aine”) is very often part of field patterns. The volute form was originally only fill-in motif inside the lattice-work of the field. It was used on small Turkoman rugs and bags. It also fills the lattice-work of the second–and more popular–field pattern of the Tsheshme-Gul weavers. This motif is also common in  “multiple field” rugs. Three or four fields are arranged one beneath the other (Fig. 15),

Figure 15. Balouch, region of Nishapur c. 1902.

or the center area is divided into two to four field pairs (Fig. 16).

Figure 16. Timuri, Djulghe Djam, c. 1930.


Balouch Special Motifs

Said-Mohammad-Khani Balouch, Djulghe Khaf, “keshmiri” pattern, c. 1920.
Figure 18. Bah’luri, region of Ghurian, “keshmiri” pattern, around 1900.

The above mentioned “keshmiri” motif composition deserved special attention (Fig. 17-20). It is found in the region of Kashmar but mainly in an area east of a line from Meshed to Turbett-i-Heidari to Gounabad and across to central Afghanistan. It is reproduced in a multitude of varieties, not only by Balouch, but also by groups of Timuri, Moreidari and Bah’luri. The motif has undergone many changes, to the point where it became a mere ornament (Wegner 1978; 292).

Figure 19. Salar-Khani Balouch, Djulghe Khaf, “keshmiri” patter, c. 1900.
Figure 20. Said-Mohammad-Khani Balouch, Djulghe Khaf, “keshmiri” pattern, c. 1930.

In older pieces the Balouch repeated the keshmiri in only one vertical row. Later, namely since the first decades of this century, has the motif been arranged in two or more rows and incorporated in a lozenge lattice-work made up by fish. The Mar gul has gradually been replaced, and the originally more natural representation of the fish become more linear, i.e., more rigid form (see Fig. 19 and Fig. 20).

In the studied area, the following group of Balouch use the keshmiri as traditional pattern:

1. Asgharza’i Ghal’e now, Bakharz Valley keshmiri lattice-work
2. Ghara’i Balouch Petro Khaf Valley sometimes stepped polygon instead of center lozenge
3. Gurg-‘Ali Regan, Shawar, Khaf Valley keshmiri lattice-work
4. Hassanza’i Mohammedpur, Bakharz Valley keshmiri between Mar gul
5. Hussenza’i Ghal’e, Bakharz Valley lateral fish heads integrated into one head
6. Khodadad-Khani Husseinabad, Khaf Valley similar to number 5
7. Said-Moh’d’Khani Bagh-e-Bakhshi, Kuh-e-Khebar, Khaf Valley classical design
8. Salar-Khani Aljak, Bakharz Valley classical designed “winged fish”
9. Abdul-Sorkhi Anabad, Kuh-e-Khab (Kashmar) similar to 5, parts in-between similar to number 2

Eight more variations were found on older, but no closer identifiable, Balouch rugs.

Among the sedentary or semi-nomadic weavers, who stressed that they were not Balouch, the keshmiri was found as follows:

1. Name Unknown Around Ghurian, west Afghanistan (Bah’luri Clan)
2. El-Khani Farhabad, Hadjiaead (Timuri?)
3. Khoshabi Darwiz, Kuh-e-Bakaharz (Bah’luri Clan)
4. Moghulzadeh Aliabad, Sangan bala, Sar-e-Tsehehel, Khaf Valley (?)
5. Moreidari Abbasabad pain, Khaf Valley (Timuri)
6. Nurza’i South of Shindand, west Afghanistan (Bah’luri Clan)
7. Porbuzi Murababad, Bakharz Valley (Timuri)
8. Sarbuzi Ghazemabad, Khaf Valley (Moreidari Clan)
9. Seldjuqi  Khoshkhak, Khaf Valley (?)
10. Name Unknown Around Shar-e-now, Bakharz Valley  (Timuri)

And two not identifiable subgroups of the Timuri.

Figure 21. Khoshabi-Bah’luri, Djulghe Khaf, “keshmiri” variant.
Figure 22. Sarbuzi-Timuri, Djulghe-Khaf, “keshmiri” variant, c. 1920.

The designs of the Khoshabi and the Sarbuzi shall be discussed as an especially typical deformation of the keshmiri pattern due to the lacking apprehension of its meaning. On the Khoshabi rugs the four fish merge into a lozenge figure (Fig. 21). In the Sarbuzi design, the field is divided into up to five pairs of strong transversal bars. The fish in between them, at times deformed into triangular shapes, are quasi-repelled by their lozenge, so that the motif is practically dissolved (Fig. 22).

Part I | Part II | Part IV | Part V