Karakalpak ornamental design is the most valuable historical material that preserved its ancient origin and is a very important source for the studies of ethnic genesis and ethnic history of people who created it. That is why it is sometimes also referred to as pictorial folklore. One of the key reasons behind the ornamental character of Karakalpak art is the world view of a semi-nomadic nation that lived in severe climatic condition of steppes. For a nomad, human greatness is manifested in the ability to contemplate and in one’s own way comprehend the universe and the world around. The conventional language of ornamental design enabled, in a generalized way, ascertaining life in all its richness and diversity. Ornamental design is the most ancient way of modeling the world by means of art. For a nomad, it contains information sourced from the nation’s mythology, genealogy, its world order, its systems of protection from evil and so on. That is why most of the items surrounding Karakalpak people are decorated with elements of art saturated with traditional symbols.

Being a specific form of pictorial art, ornamental design, in a conventional and symbolic way, reflects the most important ideas and realities for a human being; it is a concentration of people’s notions about surrounding reality along with their magical, totemic and consmogonical notions. Ornamental design helped an individual to assert and maintain the feeling of love for one’s nation, its genealogy and traditions. It was at the same time given protective functions. The art of ornamental design that has always been an integral part of the daily life of Karakalpak people requires consideration in connection with material objects. Austere lines of signs and symbols contain the whole world of vivid images associated with real world. Along with magical and protective function, the ornamental art has an equally import aesthetic role.

The most convenient and capacious material to study Karakalpak ornamental system are the specimens of traditional Karakalpak wedding dress-cloaks called kiymeshek, which, when spread out, have a shape of a rhomb that since the Aeneolithic times has been the most ancient «universal symbol of fecundity and fertility closely related to the notions about Progenitress-Mother who was thought of as both Mother Nature and Great Woman Mother and thus as an original progenitor (1, p. 67).

The correlation between a rhomb and the image of a Progenitress-Mother is indirectly confirmed by a rare specimen of a Karakalpak doll (Fig. 1) from the collection of the Russian Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg (Inv. No. 23884). The doll is wearing a dress with longitudinal stripes and flowers, a red cloak and a wedding head-dress saukele. The face is also a rhomb created with intersecting silk threads of white, deep-blue, vinous and yellow colours.

The symbolism of a rhomb as a marker of the idea of fertility is interpreted on the basis of its shape, which is made of isosceles triangles (Fig. 2). One of them is pointing upwards, representing a celestial symbol and the symbol of masculine origin, whereas the other is pointing downwards, an earthly symbol and the symbol of female origin. The union of the opposites of male and female, earthly and heavenly links the two worlds creating a family. Thus, the very shape of the ritual wedding dress kiymeshek represents a symbiosis of shapes (triangle and rhomb) with their most ancient semantics.

Hundreds of studied samples of kyzyl kiymeshek and its components, kyzyl kiymeshek aldy, found in private collections in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, France and the United States have help the author identify the following specificities in the embroidery they bear: the design of the central wide stripe called kyzyl kiymeshek aldy — orta kara (literally, the middle black) uses twelve main types of patterns. Presumably, each of the pattern types on the orta kara that had been analyzed, belonged to one of Karakalpak tribes, as their number (12) matches the number of Karakalpak tribes — also twelve: kyiat, ashamaily, koldauly, kostamgaly, balgaly, kandekli, karamoyin, myuiten, kytai, kypshak, keneges and mangyt.

A scholar Tatyana Zhdanko noted: «In the past the design of Karakalpak karshyn (carpet bags I. B.) in the art of carpet weaving differed from tribe to tribe, as was the Turkmen custom» (2, p. 380), where each of the traditional gyol groups indicated belonging to a particular tribe: tekin, salor, saryk, yomud, ersarin, chovdur or igdyr. Apparently, the same principle was followed in Karakalpak embroidery too. Moreover, for a Karakalpak girl there could not be more appropriate and significant occasion than the day of her wedding to underline her belonging to a certain kin by means of ornament on her attire. We may assume that in the past Karakalpak wedding ritual was, most probably, a very close reflection of the customs of a particular tribe (3, p. 53). Therefore, it would be justified to think that bride’s attire was decorated with embroidery characteristic of her kin.

The author has identified 12 consistent types of ornament found on orta kara: (1) shubal nagys (creeping pattern); (2) kauasha oryerikgul (cotton or apricot flower); (3) tokalak muyiz (severed horn) in a rhomboid grid; (4) sagiz or on yeki muyiz (eight or twelve horns); (5) khorasani muyiz (Khorasan horns); (6) ayilnagyz (saddle-girth) with shtak elements (metal plate); (7) ortangy kara with a ‘crawling serpent’ design; (8) kalta gul (pocket pattern); (9) it taban (dog tracks); (11) Шуе taban (camel tracks) — so far, only one specimen is known; and (12) koltyksha muyiz (corner design, for an armpit).

In his time, A. Allamuratov, a well-known researcher of Karakalpak embroidery, identified four main types of kyzyl kiymeshek aldy based on compositional solution for the central patterned stripe, the orta kara (4, pp. 50-51). In our view, the division of the orta kara stripe on Karakalpak kyzyl kiymeshek into twelve main pattern types is more fully and accurately reflects the number of primary pattern types for this garment.

The presence of tribal distinctions in the pattern is also confirmed by academic literature. For instance, when analysing field materials of 1950s and informant reports, N. P. Lobachyova pointed out that «with the Myuiten, the embroidery pattern was presumably the same and the middle stripe on aldy was wider than one found with the other groups of Karakalpak people» (5, p. 56). Numerous measurements we took of orta kara (in width) on kyzyl kiymeshek aldy have shown that the most suitable types of ornamental stripes among the Myuiten could be stripes with the following pattern types (Fig. 3): ortangy kara — up to 9 cm wide (я); shubal nagys — up to 10 cm wide (b); and kauasha or yerik gul — up to 10 cm wide (c).

The stripes with kauasha or yerik gul pattern, more often than others have width up to 10 cm. A statement made by I. V. Savitskiy that «stana embroidery along rhomboid grid was particularly widespread among the Myuiten Karakalpak» (6, p. 172) brings us to conclude that kauasha or yerik gul pattern belongs to the Karakalpak tribe of Myuiten.

Of no less interest is the following observation: the ornamentation of kyzyl kiymeshek aldy is usually structured following a certain scheme correlated with the World Tree that is vertically correlated with number 3 or the triad, the symbol of absolute perfection and dynamic process that involves emergence, evolution and completion.

As a result, the ornamentation of the kiymeshek lower parts (Fig. 4) includes the images of creatures associated with under-the-earth (chthonic) world: frogs, serpents, spiders and scorpions, but more frequently these are aquatic, zoomorphic and vegetable motifs, i.e. symbol-signs associated with earthly domain of existence. These are the motifs that also adorn side parts ofkyzyl kiymeshek aldy. Various ornamental figures covering the upper part of the dress-cloak are basically cross-shaped, which links them to cosmogonical symbol-signs (the celestial domain of existence). The central (or interim) part between earthly and heavenly spheres is the orta kara stripe that, in our opinion, bears a similarity to a besik, an ancient Karakalpak cradle.

Although orta kara stripes may vary insignificantly in shape, one may still find a resemblance to a schematic image of a cradle (Fig. 5). This assumption can be supported with data showing that Karakalpak wedding ritual kokmar (blue heaven) is associated with a blue bull — the male totem (7, p. 9); at the same time Karakalpak people associated light-blue and deep-blue colours (the colours of celestial sphere) with female origin (8, p. 9). On the other hand, a she-goat or syinakylak, an «earthly» animal (9, p. 9), is associated with the female totem, which drives us to a conclusion about the union of male and female origins both in the upper (celestial) strata, and in the earth-heaven system, and the besik is a logical link between them. Thus, the besik depicted on the orta kara, a stripe bearing information about bride’s kinship, is the symbol of birth of the next generation of this particular kin.

Patterns on kyzyl kiymeshek aldy also feature the images of the woman herself, bride and wife, which emphasize her social status (10). For instance, on the red background of one of the kiymesheks, under the orta kara one can find two rows of -elements shaped as stylized female figures with wide hips and spiral-like little arms. Stylized heads are shaped as a droplet and positioned strictly at the centre. Judging by the fact that on the conventionally portrayed dress of female figures in the bottom row there is no vertical chest slit (that was made only on the dress of women and breast-feeding mothers), the embroidered elements picture young maids (the slit on the dress of an unmarried girl was made horizontally along the shoulder). The female figures in the second row are turned in the opposite direction, thus symbolizing the woman’s changed status and way of life once she got married. Now the vertical slit on their dresses is present, causing an association with the image of a Woman-Mother and Woman-Feeder, and the droplet-like element, now turned upside down, is already perceived as an emerging newborn baby.

Analyzing the semantics of ornamental motifs in the Karakalpak art, it should be nofed that virtually all of them had protective functions which where given to me certain kinds of birds, animals, plants and geometric shapes. All of them are highly expressive and naturally interlaced with the overall imagery of ornamental objects, reflecting historically evolved potential of local traditions. Ornament is used to convey the specificity of aesthetics and world view of the nation that is smoothly interacting with the surrounding nature and has learned to transform its particular perception of the world into the universe of signs and images.

Irina Bogoslovskaya