‘Boteh’ is a Persian word meaning bush, shrub, a thicket (a small dense forest of small trees or bushes), bramble, and herb. Some would even take it to mean a palm leaf, cluster of leaves (perhaps as a repeated pattern) and flower bud. In Azerbaijan and in Kashmir (in the north of the Indian sub-continent), the name used to describe the motif is ‘buta’.
Tracing its roots to the Zoroastrian temples, the boteh symbol has a remarkable resemblance to the image of the urn with the fire shooting from the top of the vessel. This flame flame has sometimes been referred to as the Flame of Zoroaster and is a symbol of the flame that burns continually in Zoroastrian temples. The Zoroastrian flame is the heart of worship practice of these fire temples.
These special urns are often highly decorated, much like the designs on the inside of the paisley. It is easy to see the connection between the boteh and the eternal flame.
Some suggest the boteh is a combination of a floral spray and the symbol for the cypress tree. The cypress tree is a Zoroastrian symbol for life and eternity. The cypress tree appears frequently in Zoroastrian folk art dating back to Iranian works of the 17th and 18th centuries, suggesting the connection of the works to its Zoroastrian roots.
The interpretation of the boteh as the cypress tree also has Zoroastrian roots. The symbol of the Cypress tree is often found throughout Persian rugs.
All evidence points to the roots of the boteh in ancient Zoroastrian religious practice. It is easy to see the connection between the boteh and both the eternal flame and the cypress tree. The roots of the symbol in ancient Zoroastrian religion are clear. Zoroastrianism arose in ancient Persia and is one of the oldest religions in the world.
Commonly, this motif represents the ideas of eternal life and fertility, and can also symbolize fire, and the season of autumn. It is often used to symbolize expectant mothers and pregnancy.
It might be noted that there are as many variations of this ancient pattern as there are interpretations of its meaning. There is no standard format, but the elements are always the same. The symbol consists of a border in the shape of a teardrop, sometimes with an elongated and curved top. It typically contains an ornate design in the center, but not always.
In general, the motif was placed as an isolated bush, as flowers or sprigs, on a plain ground. This motif is specifically known as a buteh. This form of the motif was used during the Sassanian period (224-651 AD) in architecture, on tiles, as well as on silk textiles.
Several examples of the boteh symbols can be found in Sassanian silks from the 6-7th century CE. They are typically found on silks and appear in both carpets and textiles throughout the region. Although the word translates to “bush” or shrub, its meanings are much deeper than that.
Dr. Cyrus Parham, in an article published in 1999 in Nashr-e Danesh, vol.16, no. 4, 1378, Tehran, states "We have a multitude of outstanding examples of this motif in the pre-Islamic and Post-Islamic Iranian arts. We find the first manifestations of this ancient motif in Scythian and Achaemenid art, mainly portrayed as the wings of Homa or Senmurv (Simorgh?), and which lasted in the same manner till the Sassanian period."
Silk Twill with Sassanian royal device (senmurv)
Silk fabric discovered Akhmim, Egypt and dated to 7-8th cent. CE
Silk panel from Akhmim also dated to 7-8th cent. CE
The motif is not just found in fabrics and weaves, but also found its place in architectural adornments. By the 9th century the motif can be found in various parts of the Iranian plateau, including Afghanistan, notably among the reliefs (left) in the Noh-Gumbad (Masjid-i Haji Piyadah) mosque in Balkh, in northern Afghanistan
Haji Piyada Mosque is the oldest known Islamic building in Afghanistan and one of the earliest structures in the entire eastern Islamic world. There seem to be no similar surviving structures from that time period, endowing the mosque with unparalleled cultural and architectural significance. The Haji Piyada Mosque was built in the second half of the ninth century, only two centuries after the establishment of Islam and immediately following its arrival in Central Asia.
By the late Safavid period (1501-1736) the motif had evolved in Iran from the floral form into its more recognisable (modern) shape with a hook. This version of the buteh spread widely throughout the Iranian plateau and elsewhere. Technically the hooked variation of the motif is known as the kalga or kalga buteh, but nowadays it is generally simply called by the same term as the earlier version, namely the buteh.
The end of the 17th century also saw the hooked buteh becoming a popular motif in Mughal India (c. 1526-1857), which maintained close cultural links with Iran. It was used especially on the fine woollen shawls that were hand woven in Kashmir in northern India. The earliest surviving examples of the boteh motif in the weavings of Kashmir, are from the third quarter of the 15 century CE. reportedly commissioned by Sultan Zein-al-Aabedin (d. 1468). This Sultan is the one who, according to Kashmiri historians, geographers and researchers, brought the “decorative designs from Iran to India.” The motif has since become a very popular theme of Kashmiri woollen scarves.
The iconic tear-drop motif, or boteh (a flower in Hindu), which now characterises the Kashmir shawl, came to be the dominant design element from about the 17th century. It started as a simple drooping flower complete with roots, but by the late 19th century had become a complex of elongated stylised swirls.
In the first half of the 17th century CE, the British East India Company introduced boteh shawls other fabric articles made in Kashmir to Europe via the ‘silk routes’ and following the arrival of luxurious Kashmir shawls (some of which cost the price of a small house), the pattern took the continent by storm and soon, demand outstripped supply.
The shawls were soon imitated throughout Europe, notably in Wales and the town of Paisley in Renfrewshire, Scotland. From that point onwards the English term for the motif was ‘paisley’, though it is also known in the United States among quilt-makers as ‘Persian pickles’ or in the Welsh textile industry as ‘Welsh pears’.
European weavers in France, England and Holland took advantage of the demand to produce imitations. European hand weaving technology, however, was less sophisticated than the age old hand-weaving techniques of Persia and Kashmir, and the number of colours in the European weave was initially limited to two. While local manufacture made fabrics with the boteh design more accessible in Europe, the original Kashmiri and Persian fabrics commanded a premium in price because of their beauty and superior quality.
The modern French words for paisley are boteh, cachemire ("cashmere"; not capitalized, which would mean "Kashmir, the region") and palme ("palm", which – along with the pine and the cypress – is one of the traditional botanical motifs thought to have influenced the shape of the paisley element as it is now known).
A preserved loom at a weaver's cottage in Kilbarchan close to Paisley.At one time there were 900 looms in Kilbarchan Image credit: The Beckett Blog
Through the rise and fall of Paisley's fortunes, hand-woven Kashmiri shawls continued to be synonymous with high quality, many becoming a part of a family's heirloom. At the peak of their popularity, the cost of a high quality Kashmiri shawl in Britain was equivalent to the price of a small house. The East India Company continued to sell them at twice-yearly shawl sales in London.
Though the ‘boteh’ came to be known most popularly as ‘Paisley’, Indian owing to its vastness of culture and languages still in different languages….In various languages of India and Pakistan, the design's name is related to the word for mango:
- In Bengali: kalka
- In Telugu: mamidi pinde', young mango pattern
- In Tamil: mankolam, mango pattern
- In Marathi: koyari, mango seed
- In Hindi/Urdu: carreyor kerii, means unripe mango
- In Punjabi: ambi, from amb, mango.