Kelagai is an Azerbaijani women’s quadrangular headdress made from silk threads. In the western regions of the country, it is also called “chargat.” Along with the symbols of beauty, dignity, loyalty and reverence, the kelagai kerchief also reflects the ancient history, culture and traditions of the Land of Fire.
Note that the Azerbaijani kelagai is included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO.
All roads lead to Sheki
Kelagai production is known in Azerbaijan since ancient times. High quality kelagai was produced in Tabriz, Ganja, Shamakhi, Sheki and Nakhchivan cities. Despite the fact that today kelagai is produced in many regions, this art is most common in the city of Basgal, 165 km north-west of Baku, and also in the city of Sheki, located 320 km away in the same direction.
A key factor in the quality and prevalence of kelagai production in these regions is Sheki silk. Fabric production, which is then used to make kelagai, is a long process with a long history.
In Azerbaijan, sericulture has been spread and developed for a long time. Studies show that the history of sericulture in Sheki has more than two millennia. Sheki for many years remained in the status of the silk-breeding center of Azerbaijan and the entire Caucasus. The largest silk factory in the world operated in the 19th century in Sheki.
Sheki silk was known and highly valued not only in Azerbaijan, but also in the countries of the East, Europe and Russia. During the reign of Nicholas II, Sheki silk was added to the composition of the Russian Empire’s banknotes in denominations of five hundred rubles to prevent their collapse and rapid wear. At the international exhibition in London in 1862, Sheki silk was awarded a medal. The Saint-Etienne company from French Leon, was one of the regular customers of Sheki silk. It is not surprising that at the beginning of the XIX century, for success in the field of silk production, Sheki was called Caucasian Leon, comparing it with the French capital of silk.
Also highly valued clothing, embroidery and head covers, made from Sheki silk. That is why the craftsmen engaged in the manufacture of kelagai preferred to buy Sheki silk, even if they themselves worked in Basgal. Thus, despite a certain remoteness of the two regions, they were firmly connected by “silk threads”.
Travelers and diplomats who visited Azerbaijan in different years, for example, Adam Olearius, Anthony Jenkinson, Evliya Celebi, Alexandre Dumas, Fedot Kotov told about kelagai in their travel notes. It is also known that in 1870, kelagai from Basgal won the silver medal at the exhibition in London.
Verge of craftsmanship
Since the centuries-old history of kelagai production involves a complex process, representatives of a number of professions are involved in manufacturing – a tailor (creating kelagai), a dyer of kelagai fabric, a pattern artist (creating patterns using ready-made stencils) and an ornamentalist. Making this head blanket weighing 125 grams, easily passing through the ring, requires two days to paint and apply patterns, and, strange as it may sound, this women’s head blanket is usually made by men, since only they can cope with the heavy work related to boiling dyes and heavy stencils.
The dye is considered to be the most important in the production process of the female blanket, since painting the finished kelagai at high temperatures requires a lot of work, masterly skill and a delicate sense of taste. In the painting of kelagai in predominantly white, black, onion and green colors, dimensions 150×150 cm, and also 160×160 cm, natural dyes derived from barberries, paradise apples, saffron, currants and other plants are used. Silk fabrics are boiled to ensure that they do not fade in the future. Indeed, kelagai may wear out, but never lose their original color.
After dyeing, the material is dried, smoothed and then begins its decoration. Kelagai patterns are applied using a wooden or metal stencil. Yelyan (edges) of kelagai, and sometimes Khoncha (center), are decorated with the basmanahysh method (pressure impregnation) with geometric or arbitrary patterns. The patterns applied to the kelagai carry a meaning and remain unchanged for centuries. The main patterned line is buta – as one of the most common elements of the ornamental art of Azerbaijan. The buta is a symbol, in the form of an almond-shaped pattern, with a pointed curved upper end. Something he recalls the imprint of the underside of the hand folded into a fist. It is assumed that this widespread ornament in Azerbaijan goes back deep in history.
The kelagai of each region differs in ornaments applied to the edges of the scarf. In Kelagai from Sheki and Basgal, the patterns “Shah buta”, “Saya buta” and “Hirda buta” can be found most of all. Kelagai “Kheyrati”, “Sogany”, “Istiotu”, “Albuhary”, “Abi”, “Elyani” were also popular among the peoples of the Middle East and the Caucasus.
Some forms and motifs in the kelagai patterns reflected, among other things, the life of the local population. So on confectionery and bakery products elements of kelagai patterns can be found. The veil, as a symbol of beauty and purity, is often mentioned in Azerbaijani folklore, poetry and decorative art. Of course, all these factors led to the fact that the kelagai ornaments found their place in the art of other nations of the world.
One of the features of kelagai is that it creates both warmth and coolness. Silk cloth, being very thin and soft, takes care of the skin and protects it from various microbes.
And today, kelagai in Azerbaijan remains a common element of women’s wardrobe. Women of different ages wear kelagai of various colors and shapes. For example, older women wear it in the form of a turban or a small kerchief (“dinge”), while young women and girls tie kelagai like a scarf. Women wear black on mourning, and kelagai of bright colors on weddings. In general, older women wear kelagai of dark color and larger size, and young women wear bright colors and smaller size. Nowadays, kalagai can be worn, for example, as a shawl draped over shoulders, as a pareo, pancho, etc.
At one time, kelagai in Azerbaijan was not only a symbol of female beauty. It was also considered an attribute of family relationships. The girl who gave the kelagai to the young man, thus, gave a vow of lifelong loyalty to the chosen one. Or, during the matchmaking ceremony, after obtaining the consent of the girl, the woman representing the groom’s side presented a jewelry wrapped in red kelagai. In addition, during the henna ceremony of the wedding, the bride’s head was covered with kelagai and then henna was applied to her hands and feet. Speaking about the role of kelagai at wedding ceremonies, it should be noted that the groom and his closest friends also tied kelagai on their necks, as well as tied to a side mirror of a wedding car. Moreover, on trays with gifts from women arriving at the wedding, kelagai was considered the most expensive gift. This tradition is still preserved in several regions of Azerbaijan.
In some Azerbaijani families, the deceased is covered with black kelagai before the burial process. This indicates that kelagai is one of the elements accompanying Azerbaijanis throughout their lives. Also, the veil is a symbol of peace. So, if a woman throws kelagai between two fighting men, they immediately stop the fight.
Kelagai remains relevant at all times. Despite the vagaries of fashion, the size and shape of the patterns of the bedspreads remain unchanged. Kelagai can be considered one of the most ancient headgear in the world.
Showcase of traditions
The great demand for kelagai in Azerbaijan and abroad ensures the life of this ancient art form. And today in the city of Sheki and the village of Basgal whole dynasties are happy to make kelagai. The craftsmen from Sheki and Basgal who at various times moved not only to other regions of Azerbaijan, but also to Georgia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Russia and Uzbekistan, created the basis for the production of kelagai in these countries.
At the initiative of the “Development” scientific organization, the Kelagai Silk Center was established and operates in Basgal. All traditions of kelagai manufacturing have been fully restored here. So, the most valuable 6 or 7 colored kelagai, produced in Basgal until now. By the way, kalagai in the Center are also made to order.
The Center has a unique interactive “Kelagai” museum. Visitors to the museum can not only familiarize themselves with the history and traditions of kelagai, but also live to observe the process of their production and even participate in it themselves, and then save their own work in keeping with the long memory of Basgal.
Kelagai and its significant role in the life and life of the Azerbaijani people are represented not only in the Museum of Basgala, but also in the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, the National Museum of History of Azerbaijan, the National Museum of Art of Azerbaijan.
We can state with confidence that the art of kelagai will continue to live as an integral part of the Azerbaijani people, since this tradition is preserved not only thanks to those who are associated with it, but also to the whole people.