More widely known in the UK as ‘paisley’ the boteh motif dates back thousands of years to the ancient Persian Empire. It adorns the columns of the 9th century Noh Gonbad Mosque and is present on the crowns and clothing of Persian kings in numerous portraits.
Kashmir shawls with the boteh motif made their way along the Silk Road to Paisley in Scotland in the 1800s. Paisley was Europe’s top producer of textiles and producing shawls at an industrial rate, these shawls using the boteh motif became known as the paisley design.
Meanings shift with time and migration, so let’s explore some of the different meanings that have been associated with the boteh.
The style of boteh that is widely used in the West, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, is curved and clearly botanical. It is often filled with smaller floral motifs, has a pair of sepals at its base, and has other boteh or sprigs growing from its stem. While nomadic tribes constructed simpler, geometric boteh, this more intricate version developed with the more complex city carpets and in Mughal India – some considering it an Indian symbol of fertility and growth. These later versions sometimes incorporated a frilled outline which some argue is the merging of the floral spray with the cypress tree motif.
An interesting association as the cypress tree is in itself considered a recognisable motif (straighten the boteh’s curl and there you have it). It is a symbol of everlasting life – not surprising when you consider the Cypress of Abarkuh has been stood in Iran for over 4000 years, said to be planted by Zoroaster. Also said to be planted by Zoroaster is the Cypress of Kashmar featured in the epic poem Shahnameh, where a branch of the cypress was brought from paradise by Zoroaster and planted at the entrance of the first fire temple.
The fire temple link leads us quite nicely to the next association…
The eternal flame
Without a doubt, the shape of the boteh captures the movement and shape of a flame. This association is also rooted in Zoroastrian traditions, with fire a symbol of purity, central to worship and which burns continuously in fire temples.
While of course the boteh doesn’t look like a sun, symbolically it makes sense. The sun, like the flame, is important as a source of light to Zoroastrians. In ancient Persia, the god of sun was Mithra. Interestingly, some consider the cypress tree as being symbolic of Mithra.
So while you may see different meanings associated with the boteh, always present are the very common themes of divinity and eternal life.
To read our feature on the mythology and mystique of Persian carpets, click here.