Ashdeen Z Lilaowala walks us through the creation of the hallowed Zoroastrian kusti or sacred thread that is an integral part of spiritual tradition among members of the Parsi community [ TOI Article Link ]
The Sudreh and Kusti have become universal symbols of the Zoroastrian faith. While there are no written records of when the kusti originated and it is not certain who wove or wore the first kusti, it is clear that it is a part of the Indo-Aryan sacred tradition. It is seen in the janoi of the Hindu tradition and in the cord worn over priestly garments in the Orthodox Church.
The Avestan word for the sacred thread is aiwyaonghana, meaning to gird around. It originates from the yasna ceremony where a strip of the date palm is used to tie the Barsam twigs, in a ritual of uniting creation. The yasna, like the yagna, is a Bronze Age Aryan ritual which nurtures creation. The priest recites the ‘Yatha Hu Vairyo Mantra’, and whenever he utters the word Shyaothnanam, to act or of action, he ties the date palm cord into a reef knot. This is the reef knot which is tied when the word Shyaothnanam is uttered in the kusti ritual. So the girding of the kusti becomes symbolic of the Zoroastrian girding himself each morning in sacred armour, the sudreh and kusti, to become a warrior defending Spenta or Holy Creation.
Some legends state that Zarathustra initiated the kusti ritual, but according to the Dadestan-i-Denig and the Sad Dar, these symbols have been worn since the time of King Jamshed. Wearing the kusti is like performing Hama Zor and Hama Asho, uniting to perform good works and remaining connected with the
Zoroastrian children learn that when Zarathustra’s father asked his son what he wanted as he left on his quest for Truth, Zarathustra asked only for the blessing of the sacred cord.
Linguistically, the word kusti has various derivations. It can be derived from Pahlavi, kust meaning direction or side, thus coming to mean, That which shows the proper direction or path. Sudreh, literally, the good path and kusti the direction finder, tells a Zoroastrian how to lead his life. From another derivation, kusti may mean a badge distinguishing those who are on the kust or side of Zoroastrianism.
A kusti is made up of lamb’s wool or camel’s white hair representing the animal world. This white wool is considered to be an emblem of innocence and purity.
According to oral tradition, the 72 strands, from which the kusti is woven, represent the 72 chapters of the Yasna.. So, a Zoroastrian who ties his kusti with piety is said to have acquired the merit of performing the yasna ritual. In the Hormazd Yasht, 72 names of God are recited; the ritual then also becomes equivalent to its recitation.
Earth and sky
Technically, the kusti is a cream-coloured thread made of wool. It is a narrow, long, hollow tube with tassels at both the ends. The length of the kusti varies from three yards to about six yards. The average kusti is of four and half yards and is known as mapni kusti. The hollow tube is representative of the two layers, the sky and the earth. The hollow part in the middle is symbolic of the atmosphere in between, meaning that the wearer should always please and protect all clean and pure things, which exist between the sky and the earth.
Currently, Parsi women in several parts of India practise kusti weaving. Earlier women from the priestly class alone wove the kustis. Due to the diminishing boundaries between the Athornans or priestly class, and Behdins or laity, women of the laity have also started weaving kustis for economic benefit. Once considered a domestic skill necessary for every young girl and taught in all Parsi schools, kusti making has today become a specialised craft practised mainly by elderly women. Kusti-making is an art that takes years to master and due to poor returns, very few women take it up as a profession.
Warp and weft
Oon kantwanu or spinning is the first step in the making of a kusti. Most women start the process with a little prayer. The wool is spun into fine yarn with the help of a chaaterdi or drop spindle. Two spindles of single yarn are then twisted to form a strong and uniform yarn known as durry which is used for weaving. This process of double plying is known as val dewanu and is done on a bigger spindle or chaaterdo.
A walk in the Parsi Vads of Navsari shows women effortlessly spinning on their verandahs with their chaaterdis and chaaterdos and chatting with their neighbours.
Some women only specialise in spinning the yarn and provide the spun yarn to the weavers. According to an admirable age-old custom, the spinner gives the weaver enough yarn for two kustis. The weaver, in turn, weaves one for the spinner and one for herself. While no money is exchanged, it is an equitable barter.
The actual process of kusti weaving is carried out on the jantar or loom. This small wooden, folding loom consists of a simple framework of shafts and pulleys. The jantar is specially designed for weaving the kusti, which is a narrow and tubular textile.
Weaving on the jantar is very flexible. Since the loom is light, it can be easily carried from room to room and even while travelling. Most weavers believe that this loom must have originated in Navsari around the 1930s.
After the kusti is woven, it is taken off the loom in a complete loop. It is now handed over to the priest to be cut and consecrated. The kusti is now turned inside out with the help of a needle. In this process, all the loose ends are taken throughout the length of the woven kusti. If the kusti has not been woven properly and if any thread is loose and gets entangled with the needle, then the whole kusti is spoilt and has to be discarded. Most women breathe a sigh of relief when they see the needle come out of the other end. The kusti is now complete.
Symbolically, the difficult process is to remind us that we have come to this physical world for the sake of advancing into the spiritual world. It is not an easy task to grow spiritually and requires focused concentration.
The loose thread at the ends of the kusti, lars, are divided into nine parts and plaited to form a fine tubular finish. This process is known as lar guthvanu and is done on both ends of the kusti.
Consecrating the thread
Now the making of the kusti is complete but the cord has to be further treated before it is used. After a thorough wash, it is placed on a muslin cloth with a small vessel containing burning coal. A pinch of sulphur is added on the smouldering coal. The kusti and sulphur vessel is quickly covered with a larger circular vessel for 10 to 15 minutes. This process of bleaching is known as dhupvanu. Earlier, priests in the fire temple did this while consecrating the kusti.
An interesting feature of kusti weaving is that the jantar, being a foldable loom, does not occupy a fixed space. Even while weaving, the whole warp can be removed from the loom and transferred to another.
Whenever the weaver wishes to weave, the loom can again be stretched and the warp placed on it.
When women are menstruating and cannot weave, they generally fold the warp and place it aside. Very few looms in the world have this capacity in which a warp can be removed mid weaving.
Symbols of faith
Zoroastrians had regarded the sudreh and kusti as integral symbols of faith. When one studies and understands the intricate craft technique and its equally intricate symbolism, the true significance of this ritual becomes apparent. One hopes that this daily practice of the kusti ritual continues with a new respect born out of understanding, for the weavers and priests who so quietly have woven together this warp and weft of the Zoroastrian community.