Of paisley, Persepolis and paradise | World Defense

Of paisley, Persepolis and paradise


Nov 19, 2017
721 28 0
Saudi Arabia


The cypress has an important place in Zoroastrian symbolism

Paisley, a decorative, distinctive swirling intricate pattern ,shaped like a tear droplet is ubiquitous today – whether we consider woolen shawls, branded expensive clothes on display, neckties, bags , carpets, curtains , walls, jewellery, the heavy embroidery on traditional wedding dresses or in architecture. The motif crosses barriers of gender, class,culture and religion. Its name may be different in your local language – for instance, old Punjabi women still call it ‘Ambian dee Chadar’. In Persian culture it is known as the boteh design.

Arguably one of the world’s most democratic prints, it has a long history spanning over many centuries and its travel from East to West and then back from West to East makes for quite the tale – many a long journey through time and across oceans and continents.


An instance of the boteh
(paisley) motif

The general perception about paisley is that it came from the West because the name itself, Paisley, is a town in Scotland .But this link with that town is at most two centuries old: going back to the early 19th century and involving mass-produced textiles, printing, bleaching and cotton thread. Paisley became the epicenter of the textile industry: more shawls were made here than in any other location. And so ‘Paisley’ became the generic term for the motif.

In 1812 weavers in Paisley, Scotland, were responsible for a revolution in the hand-loom process: adding an attachment which increased the colours that could be used from two to five. Within a few years, weaving went from being a cottage industry to factory-based production. In 1842 Queen Victoria bought several paisley shawls from Paisley. The situation was transformed, though, beginning in the early 1870s. Fashions changed and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 stopped exports of shawls from Kashmir, resulting in the collapse of the industry. By 1870 a woven Jacquard shawl could be bought for £1 with an identical patterned cotton shawl for a few shillings. Like any other luxury good, once the shawls were inexpensive enough that every woman could afford to own at least one, the desirability of the product plummeted! In the 1960s, paisley became popular amongst fashionable youth once again. This may have had much to do with immigration from the Commonwealth countries, which saw the Asian population of Britain grow rapidly.

But beyond modern commerce, the actual history of the motif goes back to Zoroastrian religion. It was once seen as a depiction of the Cypress tree, which is considered to be sacred in Zoroastrianism.


Deriving from a very old monotheistic religion, Zoroastrian culture has made significant, though often under-appreciated contributions to today’s art and culture. In Zoroastrianism, embroidery is a part of the love of life. This tradition began in what is today Iran, its motifs travelled through the Silk Route through Zoroastrians traders into China and then came back with Chinese, Indian and European influences to a small group of its originators!

The Paisley pattern has been used, for instance, on the traditional Parsi sari amongst the Zoroastrian communities of the Indian Subcontinent. The gara is a silk sari heavily embroidered with a fusion of both Chinese and Indian motifs – from the eternal fungus to flowers and birds. Especially popular were garas embroidered with birds of paradise.

Some textile design and fashion scholars believe the boteh is the convergence of a stylised floral spray arrangement from a cypress tree. The cypress was supposed to have been brought by Zarathustra (Zoroaster) from Paradise. The bent heavenly tree of the paisley motif can also be read as a figurative representation of the experience of historical Iran since the Muslim conquest: which sent Zoroastrian communities on a migration to India. In any case, the cypress (Persian: sarv) is rich with symbolism. It is a tree of life. As an evergreen tree that can seemingly live forever, it is the symbol of elegance, agelessness and longevity – of the triumph of life over the forces of evil. It stands also as a symbol of freedom and justice. The bent cypress is also a sign of resilience and strength. This floral motif was a major textile pattern in Iran during the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. In these periods, the pattern was used to decorate royal regalia, crowns and court garments, as well as textiles used by the general population. The design is also used to beautify Islamic architecture can be seen in the Nasir-ol-Molk mosque in Shiraz.


A relief from Persepolis showing the revered cypress guarded by Immortals – elite ancient Persian troops

Dr. Cyrus Parham, in his research, argued that the first manifestations of this ancient motif are in Scythian and Achaemenid art, mainly portrayed as the wings of Homa or Simurg , and which lasted in the same manner till the Sassanian period (224 – 651 A.D.)

He says: “In the arts of the final years of the Sassanians, and the early centuries of Islam, we witness certain indications of symbiotic relationship between the cypress and the boteh suggesting that this ancient motif has emerged from the cypress.”

The cypress tree is often mentioned in classical Persian poetry as a distinguished garden tree and occurs in a variety of metaphors (sarv-e-karaman, sarv-e-ravan, etc.) referring to the graceful figure and stately gait of the beloved. A sapling of the ‘noble cypress’ (sarv-e-azada) was brought from Paradise by Zoroaster to the Kayanid king Gostasp , who planted it as a memorial to his conversion to Zoroastrianism, near the first fire temple (Adar-e-Mehr Borzin)

Eventually, the droplet-shaped motif became a popular decorative element also in Central Asian culture and architecture. One of the best examples is a Tabriz Rug.

The industry of Kashmiri shawls sprang up as early as the 11th century AD, but found their first promoter in Ghiyas-ud-din Zain-ul-Abidin, Sultan of Kashmir, who ruled from 1459 to 1470 and encouraged weavers. Paisley shawls became popular in Mughal emperor Akbar’s time. During the last quarter of the 16th century, paisley patterns on shawls became popular male fashion in the elite. In the 17th century, Pashmina paisley shawls were a lavish gift from Mughal princes.

In 1750 the East India Company was holding two sales a year in London, featuring imported Kashmiri paisley shawls. These shawls quickly became the vogue, but they were in short supply and enormously expensive. As a result, they were imitated by British textile manufacturers who sold them for a tenth of the price. The Indian motif itself was reinterpreted and developed to conform to European taste. The impact was dramatic. Imitation Indian shawls were so popular that the weaving centres in Edinburgh, Norwich and Paisley were swamped with orders. For seventy years the patterned shawls remained fashionable, and the term ‘paisley’ became renowned throughout the world.

Today painters and visual artists have found much inspiration today from the cypress, much like the ancient Zoroastrians, to whom the paisley motif may be traced.

Today, wearing a headscarf with the paisley pattern, social and cultural activist Zareen Kamran says, “Most fashion-conscious people and even designers do not know its name and history. Mostly folks here call it Kayriyan wali chadar as the motif is shaped like unripe mangoes. But of course, paisley is equally loved and worn in Pakistan like in the rest of the world. I like this design because over a period of time, the paisley design never feels outdated or out of fashion – that is what attracts me most about the motif. I like paisley-bordered chadars, gota-kinari (embroidered borders) and dresses.”

Over the ages, peoples across the world have added their own layers of meaning and interpretation to the paisley motif. Rich symbolism and even a rebellious aura dating back centuries surround the paisley design and have kept it alive.

Perhaps the real secret to the print’s immortality is how it finds a place of acceptance in such widely divergent cultures across the world. So next time you look at the paisley print on, say, your wedding dress, do think of its long journey: starting out from reliefs on the walls of the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, and its history associated with ‘the good religion’, Zoroastrianism.

Joe Shearer

Nov 25, 2017
899 65 0
We in India have internalised the design, and think of it as realising a mango.