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Shades of doubt and shapes of hope: Colors in Iranian culture


By Maryam Ala Amjadi, Tehran Times

Description: Gilani girls in traditional ethnic attire, Northern Iran

Gilani girls in traditional ethnic attire, Northern Iran

What we learn in the school of experience as we sit on the bench of memories helps to form our most personal proverbs. Everyone, perhaps even unconsciously, has an individual maxim that is born from the gist of their journey on the road of life. One can look for these personal proverbs in the frequency of words in their day-to-day conversations or that unique and semantic thread that runs through all their thoughts which in turn lends color to their dreams and actions and in other words, possibilities and certainties.

When we make our own proverbs we shape and color the framed possibilities of our lives and modify certainties with our willpower and creativity. Perhaps this is one reason as to why after over 150 years since the advent of color photography, monochrome photographs (black and white) still appeal to many people. Perhaps because, more than anything, a black and white photo calls for the active imagination of its viewers and is open to a range of color interpretations.

Interestingly, there is a Persian proverb that enfolds an instance of a black and white life experience:He who was bitten by a snake fears a black and white rope (close English equivalent: Once bitten, twice shy). Perhaps this proverb is more layered than its intended meaning. Perhaps contemplating in black and white terms, fumbling with the rigidness of binary thinking, moving only in and toward extremes is indeed a call for caution. Some relinquish the individuality of both colors and call for a mergence. After all grey, as they say, is the color of truth. But in truth, there is no truth but truths. There is not one reality but realities, because even though a color may be written with the same letters, it is never pronounced and voiced the same by everyone. After all, one person's black is another person's white. For instance, while in Iran black is the color of mourning, in India people wear white at funerals.

In restless consumerist thinking, everything that human beings can lay their hands on must have an end and nothing can go without a purpose and just "be" as it is. Therefore, even the world of colors is not free of this trend and they evolve to stand as symbols that vary regionally and culturally.

Color is actually the playfulness of light against the flirtation of the dark. While black is the absence of all colors, white comes as a consequence of the lovemaking of all hues.

How canst thou ever see red, green and blue
If thou dost not see the light before the hue? 
When thy mind is in all colors lost 
All colors veil the light from thy sight 

-- Rumi, Persian poet of the 13th century

This light which may manifest as yellow, golden or white connects the celestial world with the terrestrial. It is therefore not surprising that that the post office logo and telephone cards, which actually connect people together, are yellow. To common man, seeing "noor" (literally, light) is tantamount to realization of actualities that were previously hidden. So when they want to appreciate someone for their sense of awareness and intelligence, they say he/she is "roshan" (literally, light or bright, meaning enlightened). In this sense, zard (yellow) stands as the color of wisdom and connection. Also the lion (king of animals) and the sun (king of stars), both yellow colored, together formed an old symbol of power.

With the advent of Islam, the interplay of light and colors in Persian art gained even more mystical and religious symbolism.   Green, white and blue became manifestations of freshness, purity and detachment. In Islamic culture, green stands for the highest level of mysticism. For instance, Hazrat-e Khezr (Khidr, a prophet and a contemporary of Moses) who is the epitome of Persian Islamic mysticism is always depicted with green colors and renowned as "the ever green clad" mystic.

 While the color black stands majorly for death, loss and absence, its representation can vary contextually.

The moonfaced beloved's mole (beauty spot) and pepper seeds are black. Both can burn one but oh how different! 

Persian verse turned proverb

In Persian Islamic texts, black is also the color of mental revolution and rebirth. It can also stand for mystical sublimity as aab-e haayat (literally, the water of life or the fountain of youth, spiritual attainment) can only manifest in the Zolamaat (literally, blackness, the land of darkness) because it is only from the depth of the densest darkness that the most intense light, the colors of a valorous beauty can be born.

In fact, in Persian mystic literature, each level of spiritual attainment is marked with a specific color. In the Haft Peykar (literally, the Seven Beauties, a romantic Persian epic poem) by Persian poetNezami Ganjavi (1141-1209), the seven planes of mystical attainment appear as seven domes with seven different colors. Each dome and their colors represent the influence of a celestial planet, reconciling colors of physics (earth) with colors of metaphysics (sky). To the aesthetic eye, colors are translatable into different realms: sounds, music, words, moods and even planes of existence.  Orange (desire) is born between red (passion) and yellow (also a symbol of fear). Purple (nobility) happens between red (want) and blue (trust).

These are a few semantic instances of some mainstream colors whose name we know and are defined within the framework of human language. But what about those colors that do not have specific names, the colors that exist despite our unawareness? 

Traditional Chehel Tikkeh or forty pieces quilt stitched out of multicolored fabrics. The quilt can be found in various patterns and colors.

Perhaps one could even arguably say that red or blue or green do not exist as independent entities because when we see or imagine a color we have to see or imagine it in the shape of something, either on an object or a surface: a red carpet, a green shawl, a sapphire sky. When we name something we somehow make them our own, so what about those colors which indiscernibly merge into others, which are neither black nor white, nor grey and are undefinable like that imprecise moment when the day actually separates fully from the night, the moment when the light is detached from the dark?

In the age of random trauma and hopeful survival, fluctuating between the dark and the light, the chiaroscuro of doubt and faith, the age of big questions and fragmental answers, one cannot possibly afford colorblindness to the realist hues of life. When faced with colors we cannot name, perhaps it is best to run a thread of connectivity through the wise eye of the needle of alertness and stitch ourselves a proverbial chehel tikkeh quilt (literally, a forty pieces quilt woven of multicolored fabrics) of comfort from the colors that we know through memories and experiences. Perhaps this is one way to always feel related, stay connected, to endure the absence of or unawareness to other colors, to resist the lethargic black and white winter of the mind and to keep the feet of our life safe and warm until we arrive at the colors of the panoramic spring of answers someday, somehow.

Talking colors

From the realm of cultures and traditions, colors have also found their way into the day-to-day language of the Iranian people.  Of the many words and expressions composed with colors, we bring you a few examples.

The Persian word for color is "rang". The phrase, rang va boo (also pronounced as rango boo, literally, color and scent) connotes the texture and ambiance of an entity. For instance, rango booy-e-Irani or erfaani (mystical), means an entity which has Iranian or mystical elements. On the other hand, bi rang va boo (literally, colorless and scentless) mean lackluster and dull. Rang va rooy(literally, color and countenance) is used to refer to the overall health of a person, therefore rang parideh (literally, jumped color, meaning pale colored) connotes illness. Rang be rang shodan(going from one color to another, changing colors, turning red and white in the face) connotes embarrassment and coyness. Az hameh rang (literally, from all colors) means from all walks of life and can also stand for a sense of "variety" just like the phrase rango vaarang (colorful) or haft rang(literally, seven colors, many colored things). It also refers to women's makeup, as in "haft ghalam"(involving many items) makeup, which includes a lot of hues and lines. Do rang (literally, two colors or two colored), however is an adjective descriptive of a twofaced and deceitful person. Yek rang(yek rangi, literally, one color or mono colored), on the other hand, is a phrase used to describe a person who is sincere and honest. Hamrang (literally, same color/colored) stands for those people who go with the flow and the crowd.

Khahi nashavi rosvaa, hamrang-e jamaa'at sho

Literal translation: If you desire not to stand out in embarrassment, then become the color of the crowd, a Persian proverb which is closely equivalent, "In Rome, do as the Romans do".

Also to say, "Hanaat pish-e- maa digeh rangi nadaareh" (literally, your henna no longer has a color for me/us) means the "your words are no longer effective or make any impression" and it can also connote a sense of deception which was caught red handed.

Khoon-e- to az baghiyeh rangintar nist (literally, your blood is no more colored than others) is a saying which connotes equality for one and all and disfavors nepotism.

The terms sefid bakht (white fortune) and siyaah rooz (black day) or siyaah bakht (black fortune) refer to good fortune and bad luck respectively.

Baa lebaas-e sefid amadan va ba lebaas-e sefid raftan  (literally, to come in white clothes and return in white clothes) is said of the loyalty of a married woman who steps into her husband's house in white wedding clothes and their marriage survives until "death do us part", after which she is shrouded in white according to Muslim funeral traditions.  Also, taa moohaat mesl-e dandoonaat sefid besheh (literally, until your hair becomes white like your teeth) is a saying that connotes a long time, usually a long time of suffering and endurance.  Also khat-e ghermez (literally, red line) refers to boundaries which should not be crossed.

Balaatar az siyaahi rangi nist (literally, there is no color beyond/above black) is a Persian saying that connotes fearlessness, courage and resistance. Black could stand for an ending, death or a catastrophe which can be endured with resistance and willpower. 

Colors in Persian literature

Persian poetry and prose are a vast verbal panorama of the interplay of words and hues. Poets employ colors to represent sensations which have an aesthetic impact on the thought process and imagination of the readers. If poetry is all about imagery, then what is an image without colors? More than anything colors serve as a platform of impression, expression and contrast through which the reader's perception of text are shaped.

Interestingly, colors have also found their way into Persian literary terminologies. For instance, blank verse is mostly known as white poetry (she'r e sepid) or she'r e no (new poetry).

Another exciting term, "jigh-e-banafsh" (literally, purple or violet scream) which initially originated as a Persian poetry movement is now used casually to refer to loud or harsh screaming. The term came into existence in the writings of Houshang Irani (1925-1974) an Iranian poet, journalist and painter who is known as the "pedar" (father) and pioneer of Surreal Persian poetry. Irani was among the first poets who developed intangible and innovative compositions like "purple scream" and "ghaar-e-kabood" (azure cave) in the four collections he wrote, two of them entitled as "Hot Purple over Grey" (1951) and "Grey" (1952). Irani was a painter who used the pen as his brush to build resplendent imagery with words.

In the realm of classical Persian literature, Iran's long epic poem, the Shahnameh (literally, the book of kings) written by Ferdowsi (between c.977 and 1010 AD) serves as a primary example where colors are employed to create a unique imagery of culture and tradition.  Ferdowsi uses the word "rang" (color) at times to connote splendor, prosperity and wealth, although in a different context it could also stand for an entirely different impression, "neyrang" (trickery, hoax). "Rang va booy" (literally, color and scent) is a recurrent phrase in the Shahnameh and its meaning contextually varies from "decoration" to "deception". Ferdowsi also assigns different colors to the sarapardeh (habitat, like a tent which kings and courtiers live in while in travel or at war) of each hero in his epic poem. For instance, the habitat of Kay Kavus, a Persian mythological king, is haft rang (seven colors, in Persian culture, the number 3, 7 and 40 are significant). Keykavus is a very ambitious king and a conqueror and the seven colors of his habitat stand for his multihued wishes and ambitions. The color siyaah (black) is used to connote "viciousness" and "evil". The phrase div-e-siyaah (literally, the black demon/ogre) can stand for sadness, funeral, or even the apparition of an army from a distance, all of which should be resisted and battled with the will and faith of the heroes. Another color which is abundantly visible in the Shahnameh is sepid (or sefid, white). While white stands as a long lasting symbol of purity and peace, many ancient poets have associated the color with mourning and funeral. Perhaps, this has to do with the kafan (shroud, white clothing over the body of the dead, a Muslim practice). Ferdowsi, however, uses white to offer a vast range of connotations, from dideh sepid (literally, white sighted, meaning blind) to Div-e Sepid (literally, white demon/ogre) who is skilled in necromancy and the chieftain of all divs (demons) in Northern Iran. This is one of the rare instances where "white" has a negative connotation. The frequency of this color in the Shahnameh is over 300 times.

Another Persian poet whose poetry is replete with colorful imagery is Hafez of the 14th century. Gol-e-sorkh (literally, crimson flower) and laleh (tulip, which is also crimson/dark red) are a recurrent symbol of passion and love which are reminiscent of rang-e-rokh-e-yaar (literally, the color of the beloved's face) and lab-e-la'l (literally, ruby lips, red ruby colored lips). Sometimes colors are not directly stated but various elements help to build a colorful image.

My heart is all blood when the wind of the meadows opens the laces of the flower bud's cassock

From the Ghazals of Hafez, 14th century Persian poet

Khoon-e- del (literally, blood of the heart) is an expression that connotes extreme sadness and longing. Here the poetic persona is reminded of the beloved's face whose lips are red like the rose, a color which is well contrasted against the green of the chaman (grass, meadow).

These are just a few instances of colors in Persian literature. There are of course many more classic and modern poets and writers like Khaghani and Sa'di (classic) Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farrokhzad (contemporary) who explore the world of colors within the realm of their poetry.   

National Colors; The Iranian Flag

Description: c_330_235_16777215_0_http___www.tehrantimes.com_images_stories_feb02_22_07_pic-3.jpgThe Iranian flag was born with the advent of the first Persian Empire, the Achaemenid Dynasty. The tricolored flag as we see it today was in fact adopted on July 29, 1980.

Its field is a tricolor comprising equal horizontal bands of green, white, and red. The red emblem in the center of the flag is a highly stylized composite of various Islamic elements.

Although the three colors have represented different symbols during different historical periods, their present symbolism was defined after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The color green, which is associated with Shia Islam, represents the majority of the Iranian people who are Muslims. It is also the color of prosperity and friendship. The white color represents peace and purity. The red color, however, has many interpretations. On the one hand, it represents the blood of martyrs who staked their lives for the betterment and prosperity of their country. On the other hand, it also stands for resistance and dynamism. It could also stand for the saga of Karbala, a symbol of resistance and martyrdom. Some also believe because the Persian Constitutional Revolution was won in the month of August, the color red represents the heat and also martyrs of that period.

Some scholars, however, trace the significance of these colors back in the Sassanid period, proposing that they were representative of the three social classes in that era:

Green which was the color of the attire of Persian courtiers and princes (the aristocrats)

White which was the color of the attire of Zoroastrian priests (the clergy)

Red which was the color of army uniforms (the military)

All the three colors are also visible in the ancient sculptures of Iran.

Regardless of its color history and story, the Iranian flag represents the solidarity and historical awareness of Iranian people, above all.

Description: Colored eggs are an item on the Norouz, Persian New Year spread.

Colored eggs are an item on the Norouz, Persian New Year spread.


1- All the sculpting and engravings in Takht-e-Jamshid which was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE) were painted in different colors; for instance, the outline of the Persian king, Darius the Great's figure which remains to this day in the Tachara palace.   The king's crown was in gold, his beard in Sapphire and his necklace and other jewelry were from different colorful gems.

2- Persian carpets are known the world over for their unique patterns and colors. The colors used in one type, ghaali kermaan (the Kerman carpet) ranges between 15-30 hues. The main colors used in Kerman carpet patterns are light and dark laaki (a kind of red color used in carpet weaving), beige, annabi (jujube color), mesi (copper), light and dark blue, navy blue, pink, light and dark green.

3- Kerman is also one of the rare carpet weaving points in the country where chemical pigments are not used. Most of the colors used in the Persian carpets, shawls and scarfs were natural but after the Second World War, artificial and chemical colors also found their way to carpet weaving workshops.

4- Natural colors used in Persian carpets and fabrics include nili (natural indigo), ghermez daaneh (literally, red seed, which is actually cochineal dye), ronaas (rose madder), walnut skin, pomegranate peels, vine leaves and hanaa (henna) among others.

5- Ethnic costumes in Iran display a range of colors, particularly in cities other than the capital. The official dress code for offices, universities and almost all state owned institutions welcomes rather dark colors like black, navy blue, grey, brown, etc.

6-In the green and mountainous regions of northern Iran and tea plantations, women usually wear clothes that have a strong color contrast with their environments. This is perhaps in order to be visible to their families from a distance and therefore in the safety zone. This is also true of women in the dry and arid mountainous regions.

7- Persian architecture is rich with symbolism of colors. According to the Iranian literary critic and writer, Dr. Eslami Nodooshan, blue and azure in traditional Iranian architecture connote the skies and also water, both of which are significant symbols in mysticism. These colors are reminiscent of minoo (Persian poetic, word for heaven, paradise). Also while saying a prayer; people usually look up at the sky which is blue. 

Bizarre BUZZ!
An earthly rainbow on an Iranian Island

Description: Iranian artist Ahmad Nadealian experiments with the multicolored earth of Hormoz Island. The strong red color cannot be easily washed with detergents.

Iranian artist Ahmad Nadalian experiments with the multicolored earth of Hormoz Island. The strong red color cannot be easily washed with detergents.

Among the many tourist attractions of Hormoz Island (located in the Strait of Hormoz, South Iran) is the beautiful and multicolored earth that expands across an area of 42 km2. Known as the Island of Colors, the land is covered by sedimentary rocks, layers of volcanic material on its surface and has many white salt and red earth mines. One can indeed see a rainbow of earthly colors in Hormoz Island. The rich red earth (known as Gelak to locals) is an ingredient in a traditional local recipe, "Soraagh" and it is made of organic earth, local fish and naaranj (bitter lemon). This earth is also used by artists for pigmentation, giving a very fast and dark crimson color, and if held in hands, it cannot be easily washed off with detergents.

Estimated to be over 500 million years old, the Island is also an attractive research target for geologists. It is said that Hormoz Island is a unique museum and laboratory of geology.

The highest point of the island is about 200 meters. One can also get an overtop view of the Iranian flag which is painted along the seashore.

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