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Sudhra and Kushti
by Dr. Pallan R. Ichaporia
A commentary on an 1869 Catechism written in Gujarati by Meherjirana and recently translated by Kotwal and Boyd (A Guide to the Zoroastrian Religion, 1982, p40) states:
'If one believes in God and the Avesta as the word of God, but does not wear Sudrah and Kushti, he/she is not a Zoroastrian as without it, one's religious life ends. You cannot say prayers without Sudrah and Kushti. If prayer is said without them, it is a sin'.
Sudhra traditionally is a simple fine cotton knee-length undershirt, made and hand-sewn by Zoroastrian women from undyed cotton, however machine stitching on industrially spun cotton is used in modern times. The white color represents simplicity, purity and stainless behavior in the life.
The word Sudhra is also known as sadreh, shabiq, shib, nimak, namak, payrahan (see;Kotwal and Boyd, op.cit p40) It is translated as the 'Beneficial Path' , and is considered as the Garment of Vohu Manah
The cotton fabric of the Sudhra is folded over the shoulder to form the front and back panel (I have omitted the detailed measurements from my original article). This fold represents One Creation symbolizing 1: The Past and Future and 2. The connection of Material Existence to Spiritual Existence. Both panels are joined together at the side seams. At the base of V-neck opening is a small pocket which is stitched closed. This is Kisseh-i Kerfeh also called Gireban where wearer's good thoughts, good words and good deeds are stored away for the Day of Reckoning On the back edge is the Girdo, which reminds the wearer that he/she has to carry the burden of responsibility of doing good deeds.
At the lower side of hem there are three small Tiris (=pleats) of fabric on the left front and the back Tiri take a diagonal line to the side seam. The front right side sometimes has one Tiri running vertically which represents the Straight Path of Truth. Three small Tiris reminds of Manashni, Gavashni and Kunashni. Readers may note that presently the Sudhras available may lack Tiris. (Mistri 1983 and Jamasp Asana, 1887 have explained about reverse order for man's and woman's Sudhra).
It is not clear when cotton was cultivated in Iran but it is recorded that Iran traded cotton at the end of the 6th century CE.. It was specified that the Sudhra fabric should be of a natural vegetable fiber (thus linen is acceptable) to remind Zoroastrians of the creation of plant world, while the wool of the Kushti represents the animal kingdom, Early mediaeval chronicles reported that flax was grown in Fars (cf, Islamic Textiles, 1972).
On the middle of the Sudrah is wound the Kushti, girding the waist three times in the manner that the girdle of Ahura Mazda is worn by the Yazatas as per the saying of Dadestan-i Denig (chapt 39,11).
It is the sign of duty to keep thoughts, words and deeds free from sin (op.cit). The triple girdling of Kushti 'closes the door against sin' (Mody, 'The Religious Ceremonies and Customs' p187-9)
Unlike the Kushti of the Parsis, the Hindu Brahminic 'sacred cord' is worn over the right shoulder but there is a great fundamental religious and social difference. The Brahminic cord is knotted only once, both in design and time by their officiating priest and remains untouched. The Hindus slip the cord when necessary and keep the single knot (known as Brahma Granthi) intact, whereas the Kushti has two reef knots and repeatedly untied and tied by the Parsis for each of the five daily prayers, before and after bathing, going for toilet, and before eating. (at present very few do it).
While the Brahmanic cord is formed of three cotton threads twisted and triple-plied, the Kushti is made of lamb's wool (it is recorded that camel-hair was used). Silk is not acceptable as the filaments are perceived as an excretion of silk-worm and thus unclean.
The Kushti has a tubular weave, which symbolizes the space between the material and spiritual worlds. The weave is twill formed by a continuous weft passing across six groups of twelve threads. Number six represents the six religious observances called the Gahambars . It also symbolizes six directions, cardinal points and up and down. The number twelve represents twelve months of the Zoroastrian year as well as twelve words of Ashem Vohu.
The Zoroastrian priest has to cut and bless the Kushti on removal from the loom and the girdle is turned inside out which signifies that wearer's soul at the appointed time will pass from the material world to spiritual world. After knotting the last portion of warp thread at both ends are braided to form four-faced plait and then regrouped in three plaits which represents three principles of Zoroastrianism which are Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.
The secondary plait of the Kushti is made from three sets of eight warps, totaling 24 threads signifying 24 Kardas (Sections) of Visparad prayer. The 72 individual threads used in weaving the Kushti represents 72 Has (chapters) of the Yasna.
Thus one can clearly see that the Kushti is the badge of faith and together with the Sudhra symbolically represent the word of God, which is the whole corpus of Avesta.
The significance of Sudhra and Kushti is echoed in all Zoroastrian 'rites of passage'. In the past to mark a young girl's first menses she was presented with a new Kushti (cf Boyce, Stronghold). During the marriage ceremony the priest reminds the bride and groom of importance wearing the Sudhra and Kushti. At death both items figure in the funerary rituals. There is also a connection between the Kushti and the construction of a new 'Dakhma' (see Kotwal, The Parsi Dakhma, 1995, Mélanges offerts Phillippe Gignoux). , There is also a relationship between the Kushti girdle and tying of the woven date-leaf which binds the Barsom used by the Joti in front of the sacred fire in the Yasna ceremony.
Thus the Sudhra and Kushti with their simplicity not only serve as the declaration of faith but also as the continual reminder of the fundamental principles of the Zoroastrianism with the duties and obligations placed on each Zoroastrian. It is the embodiment of the word of Ahura Mazda, which is the Avesta
As I have written before the Reformists/Modernists face the problem which they have still not realized because on rejecting the whole corpus of the Avesta, they have to reject the Sudhra and Kushti. Their audacity of proclamation of self performed Navjots/Sudhra Pushans of their so called new converts is thus nothing but a sham and an exercise in futility.
Thank you for reading,
Dr. Pallan R. Ichaporia.