NAḴL, one of the principal objects related to the mourning rituals commemorating the suffering and martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn b. ʿAli, the grandson of the Prophet Moḥammad. 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 (FIGURE 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 (Dehḵodā, s.v. naḵl; Moʿin, Farhang-e fārsi IV, Tehran, 1968, p. 4691). The naḵl (or naḵl-e tābut) is so called because of its resemblance to the date palm tree (naḵl), which has a tall, slender, straight trunk.
Naḵl-gardāni is the ritual ceremony of carrying the naḵl, as a symbolic representation of the Imam’s coffin,in the procession of the ʿĀšurāʾ (i.e., 10 Moḥarram, the date of the martyrdom). On the day of ʿAšurāʾ, the naḵl is carried to a place where rawża-ḵᵛāni (mourning sessions commemorating the tragedy at Karbalāʾ) or passion play (taʿzia) is being performed. Sometimes, the naḵl is so colossal and heavy that it requires several hundred men to lift it up and carry it (FIGURE 2; FIGURE 3).
As ritual objects for the ʿĀšurāʾ, naḵls 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 naḵl is often referred to as a naql “conveying, carrying, transferring.” This large wooden structure is carried on the day of ʿĀšurāʾfrom one place to another. According to some, the edifice is called naḵl during the entire year except on ʿĀšurāʾ, 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 naḵl, which stands in front of Takia Amir Čaqmāq in the square of the same name in Yazd (FIGURE 4; FIGURE 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 (Afšār, II, pp. 709, 1194-96, pl. 167).
A naḵl 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 ḤḤosayn at Karbalāʾ. According to ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓim Puyā, 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 naḵl (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 Čaqmāq naḵl, the structure itself is likened to the beautiful corpse of the “Sultan of Karbalāʾ,” that is, Imam Ḥosayn.
The naḵl and naḵl ritual are primarily to be found in the towns and villages on the edge of the great central desert from Semnān to Dāmˊgān via Qom, Kāšān, Ḵor, Biābānak, Zavāra, Ardestān, and Nāyin. The largest naḵls, 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 naḵl. In addition to its ritual and religious manifestations, the naḵl is also a symbol of social unity for a town, village, or district. Naḵls 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 Ḥosayn was moved to the shade of a palm tree after his heroic death, and thus the designation of the bier as naḵl. 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 Karbalāʾ desert. With the passage of time, a simple stretcher became an elaborate structure with lavish decorations. For big naḵls 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 naḵl’s resting place (Moḥammad Abu-Fażli, pp. 87-106).
A naḵl 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 naḵl of ʿAqdā, however, is kept in a covered location called ḵāna-ye naḵl (Afšār, I, p. 454). The famous naḵl of the Amir Čaqmāq 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. (see Afšār, II, pl. 167). Allegedly, as a sacred object, the naḵl may not be destroyed and must be left to decay naturally. The same situation is also now occurring in Taft, where the old naḵl has been left to live out its days (Afšār, I, p. 410), with the new one standing close by (FIGURE 6). Since there is a popular belief that the naḵl holds miraculous properties, the abandoned naḵl is still venerated. People come and light candles in front of it as they make solemn vows or offer up supplications; the Amir Čaqmāq naḵl once caught fire from the votive candles that were placed near it. The larger naḵls 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.
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 naḵl 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 naḵl of Mehriz requires 156 men to carry it; there are thirty-nine places on each side of the structure for them to stand (Ṯorayyā).
Several days before the ʿĀšurāʾ, the wooden structure of the naḵl 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 naḵl is referred to as naḵl-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 Ḥosayn (FIGURE 7). During this process, one can hear constantly invocations for God’s blessing such as Allāh-omma ṣalla ʿalā Moḥammad wa Āl Moḥammad “O God, praise Moḥammad and his descendents.”
Once the wooden structure of the naḵl is covered with cloth, symbolic objects are attached to the structure. Mirrors are the main items of ornamentation (FIGURE 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 Ḥosayn. 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 Ḥosayn’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 naḵl 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 naḵl, 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 (Tabibi, pp. 175-78).
At the apex of the naḵl, front and back, is a šadda, 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 šadda. 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 Ḥosayn and his seventy-two companions were killed on the plain of Karbalāʾ, 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 Karbalāʾ could fashion their garments. In the middle of the roof of the naḵl, between the two šaddas, stands the ensign of the Imam, called ʿalam (see ʿALAM WA ʿALĀMAT). 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.
When the entire back panel in the rear of the Amir Čaqmāq naḵl is dressed, it represents the Imam’s tomb shrine at Karbalāʾ. The characteristic and easily recognizable architectural features of his mausoleum are woven with golden thread into the black canvas (FIGURE 9). In this fashion, the naḵl symbolically represents not only Imam Ḥosayn’s stature and his coffin, but his tomb as well. The Amir Čaqmāq naḵl, though no longer in use, is decorated for the ʿĀšurāʾ day with this canvas (Chelkowski).
Many rituals are performed in large communities of central Persia, where the big naḵls are employed on the day of ʿĀšurāʾ. Once these rituals are finished, all attention turns to the naḵl. Barefoot men dressed in black shirts and pants take up their positions around the poles protruding from underneath the naḵl’s lattice. Four guides stand on each side facing the naḵl, holding green shawls. On the top of the naḵl, next to the šaddas, 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 naḵl, are believed to bring good luck (tabarrok). People collect rocks and pebbles along the path of the naḵl so that the naḵl carriers won’t hurt their bare feet. Finally, it is the decisive moment to lift the naḵl (FIGURE 2; FIGURE 3). The man in charge, called bābā, invokes the Imam by crying “Yā Ḥosayn,” and, with a clash of the cymbals, the naḵl is raised. This action is called naḵl-bardāri (FIGURE 10).
The procession of the naḵl, called naḵl-gardāni, follows (FIGURE 11). The naḵl, guided by four men (sometimes, in the case of a very big naḵl, 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 (mātam) by striking their heads with their hands. Soon the naḵl comes to a stop so that the naḵl-carriers can rest. During the pause, dirges are sung and a chest-beating mātam is performed. In a town square location like that of the Amir Čaqmāq, the naḵl can be carried around the square as many as seven times (Chelkowski).
In other places, such as Qamṣar of Kāšān, the naḵl-gardāni has a linear structure. The naḵls of several districts file one after the other as they traverse the town. In Qamṣar, the naḵls are preceded by ʿalams and followed by chain-beaters. Women line the entire path of the naḵl-gardāni on sidewalks and on the flat roofs of houses. Even the bystanders are drawn into this ritual by joining in various mātams (Chelkowski).
Moḥammad Abu-Fażli, “Naḵl-gardāni dar Qamṣar-e Kāšān,” in Majmuʿa-ye maqālāt-e naḵostin hamāyeš-e Moḥarram wafarhang-e mardom-e Irān, Sāzmān-e Mirāṯ-e Farhangi-e Kašvar, Tehran, 1990, pp. 87-106.
Iraj Afšār, Yādgārhā-ye Yazd, 2 vols. in 3, Tehran, 1969-75, II, p. 709, n. 2.
Peter Chelkowski, unpubl. field research in Yazd, Mehriz, and Taft, June 1999.
Napier Malcolm, Five Years in a Persian Town, London, 1908, illus. facing p. 134.
ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓim Puyā, “Jostār-i dar bāra-ya naḵl wa naḵl-bardāri dar Yazd,” in Majmuʿa-ye maqālāt-e naḵostin hamāyeš-e Moḥarram wafarhang-e mardom-e Irān, Sāzmān-e Mirāṯ-e Farhangi-e Kašvar, Tehran, 1990, pp. 107-20.
Hechmatollah Tabibi, “Cérémonies traditionelles du naxl à Natanz,” Objets etMondes 17/4, Musée de L’Homme, Paris, 1977, pp. 175-78.
Sayyed Mahdi Ṱorayyā, “Gozāreš-e marāsem-e naḵl-gardāni-e ruz-e ʿĀšurāʾ dar Mehriz, 1991,” unpubl. fieldwork report.
April 7, 2008
Originally Published: April 7, 2008
Last Updated: April 7, 2008