Lakai: The Bad Beys of Central Asia


LAKAI The Bad Beys of Central Asia
Kate Fitz Gibbon and Andrew Hale
reprinted by permission of
HALI, The International Magazine of Antique Carpet and Textile Art

The rich textile tradition of Central Asia encompasses several; distinctive groups of silk embroideries. Best known are the large-scale ceremonial hangings and covers worked in the urban centers of Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan, with their derivative floral repertoire. In a more rural context, however, the women of the Uzbek Lakai and Kungrat tribes have, for at least a century, embroidered small non-functional bags and hangings which, with their archaic "animal Style" imagery, carry an echo of Inner Asia's long shamanistic past.

In the dramatic history of the Uzbeks, the Lakai were inveterate scene stealers. Today's Lakai are proud of their historic roles as horsemen, fighters and brigands. Though few in number and poor in resources, they never hesitated to challenge greater powers. Emirs, tsars and commissars attempted to annihilate them, foreign travelers maligned them. Their neighbors, with good reason, disliked them. Relegated to obscurity by their unsavory politics, their art was rarely published in the former Soviet Union. For Western collectors of their exceptional, powerful embroideries, they remained creatures of mystery.

The field studies of Belkis Khalilovna Karmysheva, undertaken in the late 1940s, have, however, been an invaluable source, both for contemporary data, and in elucidating the Lakai's own story.

Lakai ethnogenesis, much simplified, is this. Genghis Khan murdered all of his forty brothers except the elusive Karamysh. Regretting his fratricidal excesses after a demonstration of Karamysh's wisdom in a dispute over a three-legged goat, Genghis honored his last brother with sixteen brides. The sixteen brides produced sixteen sons, the fathers of the Katagan tribes. On his deathbed, Karamysh distributed his property, but neglected to give any to his youngest son, Lakai. Recalling himself, Karamysh told Lakai, "never mind, for whenever you need anything you can just take it from your brothers."

The Lakai tell this story with pride. They have put Karamysh's injunction into practice, and as a result have remained politically, economically and culturally individuated by comparison with other, more fluid Uzbek groups. The Lakai probably came with other Katagan tribes in the 16th century from the Dasht-i-Kipchak Steppe to the areas around Balkh and Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.

Numerous property disputes accelerated their separation from the loose union of Katagan tribes, and they took up pasturage on the right bank of the Amu Darya River in southern Tadjikistan. After a split in Lakai clans, the Essen Khoja and Baidra Ali went to Hissar (Gissar) and the Turt Aul and Bairam to Balzhuan. There they combined horse breeding with preying on their neighbors and on each other.

The Lakai area remained independent until 1869, when the Emir of Bukhara grew tired of dispatching tax collectors who never returned. The tribes were crushed in attacks so ruthless that the Russians termed them pogroms. By 1889, the entire loss of their herds forced them into settled agriculture for the first time. After years of abject poverty the Lakai became successful grain producers, and established an opportunistic political and military alliance with Bukhara.

Under the leadership of Mullah Ibrahim Beg, the tribe achieved notoriety in the 1920s as guerrilla fighters against the Bolsheviks. A former horse thief turned general, this charismatic leader figured prominently in the Pan-Turkic movement in Central Asia. His basmachi (bandit) fighters used hit-and-run tactics, crossing the into Afghanistan to evade pursuit. Ibrahim Beg's bold move to make alliance with the Kizil Ayak Khan in order to take over northern Afghanistan soured relations with the Afghans, and his border raids exacerbated tensions between the two countries. He was eventually pushed back into Soviet territory, captured and was executed in 1931.

The Lakai people presently living in a few small villages around Kunduz in northern Afghanistan appear to have arrived during this tumultuous period, while the majority of the tribe, estimated at 46,000 in the late 1920s, have been settled on collective farms on the northern bank of the Amu Darya River.  The Lakai came to prominence again during the mid 1970s, when material appropriate to the tenthold of nomadic Uzbeks - bag-faces, patchworks, pouches, hats and V-shaped embroideries - appeared on the Afghan market.

All Uzbek peoples, urban, rural and nomadic, made embroidery. With the exception of urban suzanis, it is very difficult to classify embroideries as anything but generically Uzbek. This did not prevent the Afghan dealers from being very generous with the title 'Lakai'. Any small embroidery was given that appellation just as any large one was called 'Bukhara'. Notwithstanding the ground breaking work contained in David Lindhal and Thomas Knorr's catalogue Uzbek, most Western literature followed the bazaar's lead. 

The most exciting textiles to appear were small square and shield-shaped wall hangings embroidered in silk. They were quite unlike the familiar floral works of the town or village dwellers of northern Afghanistan, and featured scorpions and spiders, not bouquets. The designs were highly abstracted, often asymmetric in composition. They were never sentimental, and the best had an energy, rigor and dynamism unmatched in Central Asian textiles. In the case of these small, 'electric' embroideries, persistent questioning of the traders who traveled from village to village buying them elicited two Uzbek tribes as sources, the Lakai and the Kungrat.

The word ilgitsh means pouch or container, but among the Lakai it refers specifically to decorative embroidered pouches in pentagonal or rectangular shape. They range in size from some 40-80cm (15" - 30") square.

In the rectangular ilgitsh, an envelope shape is sometimes rendered symbolically in an overhanging flap at the top of the square, or merely indicated by a line of chain stitch embroidery in imitation of a line of zhiak trim. This style is reminiscent of the form of Turkoman bread bags (bokche) used on ceremonial occasions.

The pentagonal uut kap ilgitsh are similar in shape to the uut kap tent pole bags, household storage bags with multiple uses that are common to many Uzbek tribes. Both types of ilgitsh are usually constructed like bags, but are physically too delicate to be used as containers, and the openings are almost always tacked shut. A few light stitches close the top opening, or pats of dough hold front and back sides together.

Ilgitsh embroideries are not widely distributed among the Uzbek tribes. They can be divided by artistic style into two main categories, one associated with the Kungrat, and the other with the Lakai. The materials used, stitches employed, and to some extent their coloration reinforces this division. Two smaller groups of this material have yet to be given provenance: one resembling Shakhrisabs suzani work, and another type with fat petaled flowers and scorpions worked exclusively in a thick chain stitch.

Among the Kungrat the rectangular ilgitsh are called ainak posh or 'mirror bags'. However, Afghan dealers have used this term for all small rectangular embroideries, and refer to the pentagonal types as suwari. Karmysheva mentions kilim ainak posh used in traditional Lakai yurts, but these are not the ilgitsh embroideries.

A Lakai bride of decent means would have three to four pairs of ilgitsh in her dowry, at least one pair of each kind, while poorer Lakai made do with what they could scrape together. The embroideries were made during the period of the bride's seclusion, just prior to her marriage. By 1950, however, ilgitsh were no longer embroidered in Tadjikistan, as the young women were too busy working in the fields to prepare a proper dowry. 

The patterns for embroidery were drawn with chalk, or outlined in simple stitches, by old women who worked as pattern designers, called sysgytsh. The Lakai bought silk from traders who came from Bukhara, or local silk from Kuliab or Kabajan. If the silk was not dyed when they bought it, they purchased dyes from gypsies and dyed it themselves.

The pairs of ilgitsh were hung on the lattice walls of the yurt on opposite sides of the chuk, the traditional bedding pile placed in the tor, the place of honor opposite the yurt door.

Embroidered mafrash are shaped like large, open-topped boxes. They were used to form the base of the chuk. The Mafrash was supported by a framework of wooden slats, and placed on a base of adobe plugs or bricks. It was topped with stacks of brightly colored quilts. Teapots and bowls were placed in the open space beneath. The long central front panel of the mafrash is usually executed in an all-over geometric patterned cross-stitch, often in Memling-gul format. Chain-stitch pieces of identical design are often more recent, though the wide distribution of embroidered mafrash among other Uzbek groups makes dating and attribution difficult. The short sides have smaller patterns in chain- and blanket-stitch on exposed red grounds. These side sections are often constructed from scraps of ilgitsch. The back panel and bottom are not seen when the mafrash is in place in the yurt, and are usually made of coarse cotton, as are the multiple suspension loops.

The mafrash embroidered bags are the same size range as the wool-piled mapramach common to many Uzbek groups. Prior to the 1940s, a wool-piled (sometimes cotton-wefted) mapramach as storage bags for all kinds of household goods. They are hung by their multiple straps along the lattice walls of the yurt.

Lakai culture was intensely focused on horses and horse breeding. The pastoral life remained the cultural ideal, even when commercially successful agriculture had entirely replaced it. At birth, shreds of clothing from a brave djigit (horseman) were tied to a newborn boy. Wealthy Lakai presented a horse, decorated saddle and tack to sons at the age of fifteen, usually announcing at a game of buzkashi that the child had 'become a horseman'. At the death of a man in his prime, the lamentations were centered on the man's horse, not his corpse.

A complete horse outfit consisted of silver ornamented saddle and bridle, and saddle cover. An ordinary cover was made of several layers of felt, topped with a coarse, handwoven cloth, quilted with multicolored wool threads and embroidered in chain-stitch. Light kilim horse-covers were used in bad weather. The very rich owned da-our horse cloths, used on the horse that brought the bride to the house of the groom. Da-our were made of coarse red or black cloth with a twisted silk fringe , and were heavily embroidered.

Women had their own prized saddle and tack, more highly decorated than that of the men. They also made their own girth straps, woven in wool pile on a cotton foundation. Women's saddles and other horse equipment were kept with the bedding in the yurt.

The fifteen or so Lakai da-our saddle blankets we have seen repeat a design formula of large boteh or scorpion shapes. Saddle blankets we would identify as generic Uzbek are much more common, and feature branching floral patterns on a red ground. The horse head cover with discrete patterns (cover) is classic Lakai, but most horse trappings have no clear provenance.

Lakai costume was not highly decorated, with two exceptions, the cross-stitched skullcaps worn by children and males, and the yellow over-pants worn by riders in buzkashi games and by shepherds when moving their flocks. These were made of a coarse, home-woven cotton cloth, and were heavily embroidered at the slit cuff.

In most cases the embroidery is done in silk on a surface of imported napped wool flannel (mogul) or a plain weave cotton. The ground color is most often red, sometimes black or grey. Occasionally we find Kungrat pieces embroidered in silk and wool on a hand-spun wool plain weave fabric of red or green. A fringe of crocheted or twisted silk (or wool in Kungrat pieces) may surround the embroidery. Backing fabrics are usually a coarse cotton of Central Asian manufacture. A few pieces have silk ikat linings.

In classic Lakai material, an outline of chain-stitching is filled with rows of fine, angled blanket stitch. The consistent size of the lines of stitches and intense color contrast reinforce the hard-edged appearance of Lakai material. Clean, sharp lines and flat surfaces of clear, saturated color are characteristic of true Lakai embroidery.

Kungrat embroideries exhibit a greater variety of stitches. Couching, overcast-stitch, satin-stitch and blanket-stitch are combined, and make for a lumpier and less consistent surface. While colors may be as fine as those of Lakai embroidery, many pieces include peach and pastel tones.

Attached border strips of petit-point or cross-stitch are often found on both Lakai and Kungrat pieces. But all Uzbek embroiderers seem familiar with this stitch, and only exceptional embroideries of solid cross-stitch have sufficiently distinctive designs to justify a tribal identification.

We bought two small cross-stitch tent-hangings from a Lakai wandering in the Kunduz horse bazaar in 1978. We pressed him for provenance until he finally admitted that they had been made by members of his own family. He firmly denied, moreover, that he was Uzbek. "No, Lakai!"

Other cross-stitched wall hangings bear strong resemblance in design, size and shape to ilgitsh. Some also share the dominant Lakai aesthetic: technical precision combined with an inspired and eccentric design. It is quite possible that some more sober and repetitive pieces are also Lakai. But we know that many more recent cross-stitch hangings have been made in Samangan and other Afghan villages where there are Kungrat people, but no Lakai.

Similar designs are found in Lakai and Kungrat embroidery, but they are as different in their treatment of design as they are technically distinct. 'Electric' is a word often used to describe Lakai embroidery. The embroiderers excelled in the dynamic use of line and color, and figures almost leap out of the fabric. The embroideries are also exceedingly well composed. Figures float against the background. The field may be full, but not cluttered.

The utter absence of floral images, and the menacing quality of the abstracted animal figures give the pieces an archaic feel. In Lakai embroidery there is a continuation of the 'animal-style' art of the ancient nomads. Despite the high degree of abstraction we recognize creatures that evoke a totemic past. We see not an idealized urban garden, but Nature as phenomenon, powerful and uncontrolled.

Lakai design is by no means static, and follows no rigid formula, but many embroideries may be placed in sub-groups by type. Central figures of cruciform shape are common. Multiple horns extend from diamond-shaped or square centers, and smaller elements fill the corners.

In another group, the field is filled with whirling sun-like images edged with wave or horn shapes. Scorpions are favorite subjects of this women's art, and are the central figures of many shield-shaped embroideries. Sawtooth patterns edge the large figures: they seem to vibrate with nervous energy. Chain -stitch imitations of zhiak trim are often used to outline large areas of color.

And- many embroideries fit none of these general types. Some appear almost deconstructed, like a jigsaw puzzle incorrectly put together. Lakai work is infinite in its variety, and always challenges the viewer.

By contrast, Kungrat embroidery shows a degree of urban influence, and a broader range of designs. The embroiderer uses floral patterns as well as all those designs present in Lakai material. Design elements often branch towards one another, and the field may be crowded with small designs. The eight-pointed star, especially repeated in the border, is a Kungrat marker, while the 'cloud-band' pattern is illustrative of the creative borrowing found in Kungrat work.

Many designs are common to all Dasht-i-Kipchap tribes of nomadic descent. As in the case of their pile and kilim weavings, it is the treatment of designs and the use made of colors that characterizes the work of the different groups. Designs are given names, but the names are merely current usage. Karmysheva collected the terms for designs among the Lakai; 'colored worms' was a particular favorite. In her opinion, the different titles given by different tribes were matters of semantics, not substance.

The V-shaped and triangular sectioned embroideries called segusha, three-sided, are made by multiple Uzbek groups who maintain nomadic traditions. These embroideries are placed between layers of bedding quilts at the back of the yurt or guest room. Most older segusha are worked with a fine cross-stitch in the V-section, often with a sewn-on panel of chain-stitch and/or couching inset in the V. Twisted or crocheted fringes of silk are common. Some fringes have beaded ends, and occasional examples of cross-stitch have a seed-bead or two stitched into the field, probably for magical effect.

Shorter strips of cross-stitch in patterns similar to segusha are folded in half and stitched together to form small pouches. A long string, sometimes tasseled, is attached to the top, to close the bag or tie it to a belt. The pouches are used to carry tea, cosmetics and other small personal items. The patterns of authentic pouches are made to fit the bag's shape, while many spurious ones are constructed from cut down segusha.

An item often classified as children's equipment is the baby wrapper, usually a lengthy strip[ of green or red flannel with embroidered designs. Sections of patchwork in cotton and silk are sometimes interspersed. We have also seen a few examples in solid cross-stitch.

Uzbek children are swaddled as tiny babies and transported in wooden cradles, to which they are bound in these wrappers. The baby wrappers decorated the child's bed and provided protection. They were also used to ornament and secure the bedding piles of the chuk.

The multiple triangle patterns of caroq patchwork echo the form of the ubiquitous doga, embroidered talismans common to all the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Patchwork wall hangings had a double function; as decoration and as protection for the most vulnerable, children and the sick, against evil. A Kabul University student told us that his Jamshidi Uzbek mother hung these patchwork caroq in the guest room during his visits home. The patchwork served to prevent any evil influence from the world outside from affecting family health and harmony.

Our own subjective references for dating Lakai and Kungrat material are based partly on color, partly on ground or backing materials and partly on how much we like the piece, that is, its degree of eccentricity. We would hesitate to place any of the pieces illustrated before the end of the 19th century.

The question of the antecedents to ilgitsh embroideries is still open. Clearly the Lakai are not novice embroiderers, but what ground cloth did they embroider on before these commercially made flannels and cottons came into their hands? One possibility is a super-fine felt similar to mogul, mentioned as a Central Asian export item in several 19th century sources. Urban fabrics have always been available to Central Asian nomads through trade, but the original inspiration for these wall hangings probably lay in embroidered and appliqued felts. There is a very rare antique mapramach of light red felt in the Andreev Museum of Ethnography and Archeology in Dushanbe, the capital of Tadjikistan.

The finest works of the Lakai and Kungrat always carry with them a symbolic sense. They reference common everyday objects - they are bags in households that traditionally lived out of bags. The fragile, triangular tasseled tent-bag shape is a case in point. But whereas other decorated objects had real functions and a specific place in the household, these embroideries were produced as art.

As women's art, they naturally incorporate auspicious forms that in other circumstances act as talismans, as prophylaxis against harm. Household magic is women's business in Central Asia, and shamanistic traditions are retained within its chants and powdered ram's horns homeopathy. There are certainly designs that refer to these traditions in embroidery. The scorpion and the snake may be the underworld, the hazards of the dark and unknown. The powerful bird may be the spirit of the hero-warrior.

Some Soviet sources have claimed that the forces of light and dark go to battle in every folk art of the Uzbek, although it is not likely that, unbeknownst to themselves, the tribes are secret Mazdaists. For us, it is enough to recognize these elements within the art, and to be aware that these 'shamanistic' images have been vital to Central Asian art since the Bronze Age. We cannot see through the eyes of the Lakai any more than we can through those of the ancient Scythians.

Our romantic vision of the Lakai nomads as steppe brigands must give place to one of peaceful agriculturalists. A once fearsome and unbridled energy is now contained within an artistic tradition. From our individualistic Western perspective these embroideries rank as art. They express the character, creativity and accumulated knowledge and skill of the maker. They are the high point of Lakai and Kungrat material culture, the pride of the family and the reputation of the tribe.

Copyright © Kate Fitz Gibbon and Andrew Hale