“Religion Behind the Scenes” spotlights the less discussed, but no less crucial, tasks that keep religious communities running, and the people who make it all happen.
In his book, Symbols and Their Meanings, Jack Tresidder explained, “The transforming effect of clothes has always given them considerable emblematic power.” Dressing in “special clothing” can denote a change in role or status—and donning certain sacred articles of apparel has long been a sign of dedication and preparation for “spiritual duties.”
Many religious traditions have sacred undergarments associated with the practitioners’ covenants or religious duties—the ancient priests of the Hebrew Bible temples, modern Haredi Jews, practitioners of Sikhism, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to name but a few. The ancient Zoroastrian faith is no exception to this fairly common practice.
In this installment of Religion Behind the Scenes, we will learn about two articles of sacred clothing worn by practitioners of Zoroastrianism, as we interview one of the owners of PalV’s Kasti, an India-based maker of Zoroastrian sacred apparel.
Most people who read this interview will not be Zoroastrian, so would you briefly explain to us what a sudreh and a kusti are—and why they are important in Zoroastrianism?
Yeah, so in Zoroastrianism there are actually two powers or parts: the first is the good part and the second is the evil. There are positive energies and there are evil energies. The sudreh (which is an undershirt) and the kusti (which is a corded belt) are articles of clothing practitioners of Zoroastrianism wear to protect them from evil energies. The sudreh and kusti function like armor which protects us spiritually. Just as an astronaut has a special suit to protect his body against radiation in outer space, the sudreh and kusti are designed to provide protection to their wearer from harmful spiritual energy that’s constantly assailing us in this world.
We wrap the kusti (or belt) around our waist three times—once for good thoughts, once for good words, and once for good deeds. The sudreh, on the other hand, is an undershirt that has a small pocket (or “giriban”/“gereban”) at the neckline, which is sometimes called the “bag” or “purse of righteousness.” Each day, the wearer is supposed to symbolically fill the gereban with good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. So, both the pocket and the belt remind us to nurture those three good things in our lives every day, and that will help to protect us from evil energies.
The word kusti is typically translated as “boundary,” reminding us to keep a boundary between higher appetites or desires and those which are primarily carnal or lower appetites and desires. So, it is wrapped around our waist, dividing the higher and lower. It reminds us to keep all things withing their proper limits. Similarly, the word sudreh is often translated as “beneficial path,” but can also mean “protection” (or the “protection” that comes through following the “beneficial path”). Thus, the sudreh serves to protect you from the evil energy and the evil one (Angra Mainyu, who is the devil). But it also reminds you to practice good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Those “protect” you from becoming a person of the world.
What are these two items made of?
The kusti is made of lamb’s wool. The wool is extracted and then we make fine thread from it. Each kusti is made up of seventy-two threads woven together into a belt. There are seventy-two threads because they are symbolic of the seventy-two chapters in the Yasna, our primary sacred text.
The sudreh, the undershirt, is made of mulmul or muslin—a pure white cotton.
Both of these are worn together throughout your life. Both men and women wear them starting around seven years of age—sometimes a little older. So, typically before a child hits adolescence or puberty, they go through a navjote (or sudreh-pooshi) ceremony, which inducts them into Zoroastrianism. (“Navjote” means “new life.”) The child is washed, wears white clothing, sits barefoot in front of a flame, and recites the tenants of faith—pledging to live them. And then the priest gives them their sudreh and kusti. This ceremony makes you “officially” a member of the Zoroastrian tradition. Thereafter, every time you tie that belt around your waist and say the associated prayers, you renew your pledge or covenant with God.
While the sudreh and kusti can be machine made, for the navjote ceremony, they are to be handmade or handstitched.
So why must the one worn during the navjote ceremony be handstitched?
Yeah, because it's a special occasion and this is an ancient tradition. During ancient times, there were no sewing machines. So, during the navjote, we do things in the most ancient way possible, which would be to handmake these items.
Nowadays, things have gotten so advanced, and we don't have much time or the human resources to make these by hand. So, we use handmade ones for the navjote rite, but not necessarily at other times.
And do you make both the kustis and the sudrehs?
I personally only weave the kustis. I have a relative who makes the sudrehs (that we sell on our website)—and they use a sewing machine to make those. But I make my kustis all by hand.
Is there a role of clergy in what you do (perhaps blessing or approving what you create)?
Actually, according to the original ancient process, when the kustis were on the verge of being finished, there was a small process where the mobed (or priest) had to cut the kusti cord that had been woven. That final cut used to be made by the priest. But, over time, this process has changed, and people don't do that anymore.
How long has your family been in this business—and how did you guys get into this work?
I am the third generation in my family that weaves kustis. Our family has been doing this for thirty-five years. It started with my grandmother, and then my mom, and now me. I have personally been doing this for about a decade.
Long ago, Parsi (or Persian) ladies were trained to stitch the sudreh and the kusti at home so that they could make extra income. So, that’s how my grandmother got stated in this work, and she then passed it down to my mother and me.
Why do you personally do this—particularly when you have a busy day job?
For me personally, I do this because right now there are only a few people left with this skill and knowledge. And, personally, I don't think that this knowledge should get lost or become extinct. Someone needs to carry this knowledge forward. That’s why I have created my website—so that people can know about this work. Soon I will have a new series of videos on the site where I'll discuss how the kustis are made. I also have a YouTube channel where I teach people how to make these. So, I’m trying to prevent something ancient from being lost forever. That’ one of my personal motivations.
Why is the weaving of kustis sacred to you? What does it mean to you to be involved in this work?
Well, it's peaceful, it's very peaceful work. Also, in our religion, you have to give service to the community and to people around you in order to make the world a better place. It’s a commandment. Our religion always advocates doing good. Hand weaving these kustis is a service to our whole community, not just in India, but throughout the world.
The sudreh and kusti are the most basic element of our religion. If people don’t have access to them, so that they can wear them, what will happen to our religion? How will it continue? So, that’s important to me. I feel like I am doing work that Ahura Mazda (or God) has asked or commanded to be done, and I kind of act as God’s hands in creating this sacred thing.
Have you ever had an interesting or unique experience in what you do?
Yeah, so the kusti has to be made of an unbroken woven cord. It can’t have seams or breaks in it. It must be made of seventy-two unbroken threads. It has to have continuity. So, if it breaks, you can’t mend it or stich it back together. I mean, you could, but it isn’t appropriate to. It simply needs to be discarded by burning it. But some people funny, and they don’t want to spend any money, so they will break their kusti, and they’ll come to us and say, “Can you mend this for me?” They’ll say, “I can buy a pair of pants or a shirt for the cost of one of these.” I understand they are thinking about the money, but how much money is too much money to maintain your religion properly? So, the kusti needs to be in one piece, and we can’t mend a broken one. You simply have to properly discard of it and purchase a new one.
You know, a sudreh can be made in a day, but it takes me nearly 14-15 days to weave a kusti by hand. You have to get the wool from the sheep, you have to extract the threads from the wool. It takes about a week to accomplish that process. And then it takes me another week to weave the kusti from the threads I’ve made. That’s why it is so expensive.
How has this work changed you for the better?
Well, as I already pointed out, Zoroastrianism focuses heavily on doing good deeds. Such acts are given great importance in my tradition. So, through my work, I am fulfilling the purpose of life for a Zoroastrian—I am doing good deeds each day. This is “good” work.
When you finish making a kusti, you feel a very positive feeling. It's really good and peaceful. You’re concentrating (as you work), you're basically meditating. When people meditate, people focus on one thing, right? So, it's the same thing when I make a kusti. It is like doing a meditation and it's performing a service. You have to keep in your mind that you're serving your community as you create a sudreh or kusti.
Wearing these two items helps you to keep away evil influences, but doing this work also does that for you. Angra Mainyu, or the devil, is limited in his access to you as you performs work like what I do.
How has making sudrehs and kustis changed in the centuries since Zoroastrians first started making and wearing them?
Nothing has really changed. We are weaving kustis with our hands, as per the ancient process. That ancient information has been passed down from one generation to another to make sure that it's done properly, that it’s done the same as it was anciently.
The sudreh and kusti were worn by the Mazdayasnis even before the age of Zarathushtra. But it is believed that the prophet Zarathustra started teaching this knowledge to his followers. He is believed to have said that we should wear the sudreh and kusti to protect ourselves from the evil energy. So, from that ancient time forward, the people started wearing these.
It’s been said that the next generation of Zoroastrians may be unwilling to take interest in knowing how kustis are made. Do you foresee a time when these will only be made by machine because nobody is willing to craft these by hand, as you currently do?
Yes, actually. And as far as the kusti is concerned, it needs a dedicated time every day to make one. And, as lifestyles evolve, people don't really have time that they’re willing to dedicate to something like this because, in India, we have a very fast paced life. So, if you want to make kustis, you need to dedicate significant time, and people just aren’t willing to do that anymore.
A sacred Alat (or “spiritual instrument”) like the sudreh can never be stitched by a non-Parsi, a non-Zoroastrian. Unfortunately, however, today most Parsi shops sell sudrehs which have been outsourced to non-Zoroastrian tailors. They justify this by saying that Zoroastrian women are unavailable to stitch the sudrehs or that the ones made by non-Parsis are more economical. All of this just shows that the sacred craft of making sudrehs and kustis is dying among the rising generation.
What else should a person know about these two sacred articles of clothing that might help them to better understand Zoroastrianism?
Probably that people really should wear the sudreh and kusti. They are legitimate, and people must know that, when you wear them, there is a sense of protection that comes to you. Angra Mainyu, or the devil, is kept away from you when you wear these.
The sudreh and kusti are such intrinsic elements of the Zoroastrianism that many (in the faith) would consider one who no longer wears them as not a “true Zoroastrian.”
Interview conducted, transcribed, edited, and condensed by Alonzo L. Gaskill.
ABOUT ALONZO L. GASKILL, PH.D.
Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology/comparative religion, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.
9/16/2021 5:49:06 PM