Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Varzesh'e Bastani

Varzesh’e Bastani (ورزش باستانی) is a traditional Martial art and a style of wrestling that originated in Iran. Varzesh’e Bastani combines elements of the pre-Islamic Iranian culture with philosophical and spiritual components. Participants are expected to be pure, truthful, and good tempered and only then strong in body. The principles of unpretentiousness are exemplified by a verse recited at many meetings: "Learn modesty, if you desire knowledge. A highland would never be irrigated by river." 

Varzesh’e Bastani was particularly popular in the 19th century, during the reign of the Qajar king Nasereddin Shah. Performances inspired by Persian mythology were held at the Shah's court every Norooz. The sport declined following the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1920s and the subsequent modernization campaigns of Reza Shah. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi attempted to revive the tradition and practiced it himself, and during his reign, the last national competitions were held. Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the tradition has lost some of its popularity. The climax of the sport was in the Safavid dynasty while today it is associated with nationalism.

The Varzesh’e Bastani rituals mimic the rituals and traditions of Sufi orders, as evidenced by terminology like morshed "master" (beating the drum and reciting poetry), pish kesvat "leader", taj "crown" or faqr "poverty". The ethics involved are also similar to Sufi ideals, emphasizing purity of heart. Every session begins with pious praise of prophet and his family or recital of stories from Iranian mythology, such as those of the Shahnameh. The main part of a Varzesh’e Bastani session is dedicated to gymnastics or calisthenics, notably wielding of wooden clubs (mil) and metal shields (sang), pulling of bow-shaped iron weights (kaman), lifting various types of weights, push-ups, whirling and juggling. The sessions end with submission wrestling between two champions.  

The main instruments utilized and their usage are as follows: 

1. Kabadeh: The Bow The kabadeh is inspired from the former war bows and in fact resembles it. It is a rod of iron, widened in the center to form a hand grip, and is connected to a chain, generally with sixteen links each containing six discs. The string of links is attached to an iron rod which is the grip. The bow is gripped with both hands, kissed as a sign of respect, then raised above the head at arms length and balanced to the rhythm of the drum and shaken in all directions. The athletes shake the bow while turning on the spot. Then they pass the chain around their neck and, while completely letting go of the bow, turn once again dragging along the bow which descends in this turning movement, from the shoulders down to the hips. Then the turner picks up speed and bends down in such a way that when the bow reaches his ankle he jumps over it by throwing himself sideways. The bows can weigh from 10 to 50 kilograms. The most experienced gymnasts work with the heavy bows while they notices use the lighter ones. 

2. Sang: The Shield The two shields are made of walnut wood and with a long parallel piped form. The edges are rounded and the center is pierced with a heart-shaped hole through which a horizontal iron bar is passed which serves as a handle. For this portion, the athlete lies down and holds the shields at arms length in such a way that the curved upper portions meet. He turns alternately from one side to the other. When he leans to the left he raises his right arm as high as he is able and vice versa. The shields can weigh sixty to one hundred and twenty kilograms, are generally more than a meter long and approximately seventy centimeters wide.  

3. Mil: The Club Formally the clubs were made of wood and iron-like maces, but today, they are cut of elm wood. They are characteristically symmetrical around the axis and bulge towards the top. There are two types of clubs: those reserved for training exercises and those for juggling. A pair of the former weigh from 5 to 40 kilograms and those for juggling from 4 to 6 kilograms. The handles of the heavy clubs are shorter than those of the juggling clubs. While holding the clubs, the athletes swing one club to the back while keeping the other club straight in front. He then brings it back to the straight position in the front and repeats with the other club. The swinging is done in a rhythmic fashion guided by the drum of the morshed.  

Membership at the zoorkhaneh is by rank. The lowest rank is that of nocheh or novice, who is being trained by a designated champion. The next rank is nokhasteh or advanced student is a nowcheh who has made a substantial degree of progress under a designated champion. Finally there is the pahlevan or champion. The uniform of the champions consists of either a loin cloth or a pantaloon, or a tight pair of short pants made from leather or some durable material. The pants are usually decorated with beautiful embroidery. There are several champion grades: Pahlevan’e Pahlevanan, which included court-sponsored sportsmen. Pahlevan’e Zoorgar, the master wrestlers or strong men. Pahlavn’e Keshvar, the acclaimed pahlevans including many of Iran's wrestlers at World and Olympic events (such as Gholamreza Takhti). Pahlevan’e Bozorg approximately equivalent to the Grand Master in Far-East Asian martial arts. This title was only accorded to very few pahlevans, such as Pourya Vali (c. 1300) and Haj Seyyed Hasan Razaz (1853–1941). Jahan Pahlevan, the highest rank of Pahlevani in the Iranian army before the Arab invasion. A title given to Rostam, the legendary Pahlevan of Ferdosi's Shahnameh. The contemporary Gholam Reza Takhti is another Pahlevan who is given this title. 

Zoorkhaneh, literally "house of strength is a traditional gymnasium where Varzesh’e Bastani is practiced. The Zoorkhaneh itself is a covered structure lit by a single opening in the ceiling with an octagonal pit about 1 meter deep in which athletes train. The main section, almost all around the pit, is given to the audience. A small section is used by the athletes for changing clothes and storing their equipment. By the entrance, there is a kiosk-like elevated structure where the morshed sits and recites poetry. In front of him is a bell for informing the audience of the arrival of prominent guests to the gathering. The most well-known zoorkhaneh in Iran was at the Bam Citadel. In contrast to gymnastics practiced in the West, the exercises consist of team sports that combine tests of physical strength and flexibility, specific rituals, and respect for traditional moral and ethical rules. The rituals change to keep pace with the sound of a drum played by the morshed, who is typically seated in an elevated position within the hall.  

The origins of the zoorkhaneh is its present shape is not clear. It is believed that during the fall of the Persian Empire to the Arab army, Iranian athletes and warriors alike lost their ability to perform their traditional sports in the open. Consequently, they decided to gather in private homes and carry on their normal routine there. Later on they moved into the type of covered structure that we recognize now. It was during these clandestine gatherings that, based on the ideology of the individuals who managed them, two types of zoorkhanehs emerged: those that followed the traditions and rituals of the Sufi orders and those that followed the manners of the national champions of ancient Iran. 

In 2008 Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism Organization (ICHTO) registered Varzesh’e Bastani on its National Heritage list as Iran's ninth National Spiritual Heritage.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cypress of Abarkooh

The Cypress of Abarkooh (سرو ابرکوه), also called the Zoroastrian Sarv, is a cypress tree in Abarkooh, Yazd province. It is an Iranian national monument and tourist attraction standing an estimated 25-28 meters high and with a perimeter of 11.5 meters at its trunk and 18 meters higher up around its branches. Russian scientist Alexander Rouf has estimated its age as over four thousand years old and thus it may be the oldest living being in Asia. Some legends attribute its origin to Japheth, the son of Noah, while others believe Zoroaster himself planted it. Favorable natural conditions of its location has been credited as the main reason for the tree’s longevity, although it is now been enveloped by an urban park and is thus open to disturbances by unnatural elements.  

In ancient Iran, planting a tree was of great importance and can be seen in some of the carvings of Persepolis. In particular the cypress tree was considered significant to Zoroastrians as it remained green all year long. References to the tree have been made as early as the 14th century by Hamdollah Mostofi. In his book “NezhatolGholoob” he describes Abarkooh as “there is a cedar tree there with global fame”. Cypress has been the first choice for Iranian Gardens. In all of the famous Persian Gardens, such as Fin Garden, Mahaan, Dowlat Abad, and others, this tree plays a central role in their design.  

While the cypress tree of Kashmar was chopped down by the orders of the Abbasid Caliph Motevakkel and transported to Samarra, the Cypress of Abarkooh withstood the test of time. It was never forgotten by the Iranians and in fact its legend grew ever stronger with the passage of time while poets and artists kept depicting it in their works.  

In the past there have been a number of occasions where steps have been taken to prolong the tree’s life and rid it of damaging natural elements such as termites. There is a dedicated gardener/guard who also tends to the tree although there are no signs or impenetrable fences to assist him in his guardian duties. While the tree can be considered a living ecosystem of its own, with it housing many birds’ nests and being home to other living creatures, however, the tree shows signs of vandalism. Furthermore locals and tourists periodically tie pieces of cloth to the tree in an attempt to make votive offerings in order to gain from its natural spirit for fulfillment of a wish. One can hope that the recent rumors of finding the burial site of one of Imam Bagher’s children in the area will divert such traffic away from the Cypress of Abarkooh.  

Unfortunately as of late, the Cypress of Abarkooh may be approaching its demise. The main reason, apart from the side effects of tourism, is the neglect in taking care of the soil of the area around the tree. Between 50 and 100 people visit the cedar daily and this has made the soil around the tree more compact. Thus the activity of the microorganisms in the soil and also the permeability of the soil has become limited. Furthermore a street had been constructed near the tree that has contributed to the living environment of the tree becoming polluted.  

There have been unsuccessful attempts at registering the Cypress of Abarkooh on UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage’s list.