Category Archives: culture

Focus on culture: The Khamsa amulet (or Hand of Fatima)

Author: Bluewind via Wikipedia Commons
Collection of various Khamsa

Today’s blog post will take us to Israel and the Near East as well as to North Africa and to an ancient symbol of good luck and an amulet to ward off the Evil Eye, namely the Hamsa or Khamsa, which is also known as the Hand of Fatima or the Hand of Miryam. The Hamsa is a symbol of good luck in the Muslim and Jewish, but also Christian culture of the region.

The name hamsa (חַמְסָה ) comes from the Arabic word khamsa خمسة‎‎ and from the Hebrew word hamesh  חמש , both meaning ‘five’. In Berber, the Khamsa is called ⵜⴰⴼⵓⵙⵜ Tafust. In a Jewish context, the five fingers of the talisman refer to the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and the Jewish Hamsa is also called the Hand of Miriam, who was Moses’ sister. In a Muslim context, the hamsa is also called the Hand of Fatima, who was one of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughters, and the five fingers refer to the Five Pillars of Islam (faith, fasting, prayer, tax and pilgrimage). The number five itself is also associated with fighting the Evil Eye. In the Levantine Christian community, the Khamsa is also called Hand of the Virgin Mary (Kef Miryam in Arabic).

The Khamsa usually takes the form of an open hand with three extended middle fingers and a thumb and pinky finger on either side, which are always symmetrical and are either curved outwards or just significantly shorter than the middle fingers. The fingers can be either closed together to bring good luck as a talisman, or alternatively the fingers can be spread apart to act as an amulet to ward off evil. Usually, the image of an eye is embedded in the palm. It represents the all-seeing eye and is said to watch out for the owner and to protect them from the Evil Eye, or ayin hara (עין הרע).  Other symbols that frequently appear on the Khamsa are fish  דָגִים   dagim, which are said to be immune to the evil eye since they live underwater (according to a line in the Torah “the water covers the fish of the sea so the eye has no power over them (Berakhot 55b)”) and which are also symbols of good luck. Also the Star of David מָגֵן דָוִד Magen David, prayers for the traveller, the Shema  שְׁמַע, the blessing over the house, the Hebrew word  mazal or mazel  מַזָל, meaning ‘luck’, and the colours red and blue, which reputedly repel the evil eye, are often featured on the talisman.

The Khamsa is an ancient symbol that probably predates Judaism and Islam, though its precise origin is not known. The symbol of the open hand first appears in Paleolithic cave art in Spain, France, Argentina, Algeria and Australia. Predecessors of the hand symbol can be found in various ancient cultures: The Phoenician goddess Tanit was symbolized by a woman raising her hands, and in Egyptian art, the human spirit ka is depicted by two arms whose two fingers are held in a horseshoe shape and which reach upward. The Etruscans decorated their tombs with paintings of hands with horns and some Jewish Levite graves had images of hands, representing a religious blessing, on their stone markers.

The Khamsa first appeared in Sephardic Jewish culture תרבות ספרדית , which flourished alongside Muslim culture. The symbol of the hand, and in particular of priestly hands, can also be found in kabbalistic manuscripts and amulets, where it doubles as the letter Shin, which is also the first letter of the divine name Shaddai. This association of the hand with the divine name was believed to create a bridge between the believer and G’d. However, amulets or kamiyot קמיעות , from the Hebrew word for ‘to bind’ , are seen as somewhat ambivalent in Judaism, because the Torah prohibits magic and divination, whereas the Talmud mentions them on several occasions and accepts them, and one law approves the wearing of an amulet on the Shabbat (Shabbat 53a, 61a).

In Islamic folklore, the Hand of Fatima as a symbol has its origins in a legend: when Fatima’s husband Ali brought home a new wife one day, Fatima, who had been cooking at that moment, dropped the ladle she was using and, lost in thought, continued stirring with her hand, hardly noticing that she was burning herself.

The Hamsa is intrinsically bound up with the concept of the Evil Eye or Ayin hara ( Hebrew ʿáyin hā-ráʿ (עַיִן הָרַע‎), Arabic ʿayn al-ḥasūd (عين الحسود‎ eye of the envious)), or the belief that a malicious look can bring about evil, which most often manifests itself through jealousy, but receiving the evil eye can also lead to misfortune and injury. To ward off the evil eye, many Jews will say ‘bli ayin hara’ בלי עין הרע (‘without an evil eye’) or ‘keyn eina hara’ קיין עין־הרע (Yiddish: no evil eye) after making a compliment or saying something positive. Muslims will say ‘Masha’Allah’ ” (ما شاء الله‎) (“God has willed it.”) and also “Tabarakallah” (تبارك الله‎) (“Blessings of God”) instead. Some people also use the saying ‘khamsa fi ainek’ خمسة في عينيك (lit. ‘five in your eye’) together with the gesture of their raised right hand with the palm showing and the fingers held slight apart, or  use the phrase ‘khamsa wa khamis’ خمسة والخميس  (lit. ‘five and Thursday’), since Thursday, being the fifth day of the week, was traditionally considered to be a good day for magic rituals and for pilgrimages to the tombs of saints.

The evil eye is also discussed in the Talmud תַּלְמוּד and the Kabbalah קַבָּלָה , though it is not mentioned in the Torah תּוֹרָה.

Other methods to ward off the evil eye in Jewish culture, besides hanging up or wearing a Hamsa, include wearing a Chai (חי) around the neck, symbolizing life ( Hebrew Chaya חַיָה life) or wearing a red thread around the wrist.

Author: Jehoshuapinto via Wikipedia commons
Chai symbol




Focus on art/foco en arte: Arpilleras from/de Chile (bilingual post/entrada bilingüe)

Scroll down for the English text!!

¿Dónde están?/Where are they? Anon. Chile, early 1980s Photographer, Martin Melaugh (all images © Roberta Bacic), via

¿Dónde están?/Where are they? Anon. Chile, early 1980s
Photographer, Martin Melaugh (all images © Roberta Bacic), via

Esta semana, nuestro viaje nos lleva a Sudamérica, más precisamente a Chile, y a una forma distintiva de arte popular de este país – las arpilleras.

Arpilleras son tapices o imágenes textiles multicolores hechas con retales distintas que cuentan una historia y las experiencias de la vida cotidiana del pueblo. Son documentos históricos, mensajes de protesta y una forma del arte popular y del patriomonio al mismo tiempo. Tienen su origen en la dictatura militar de Augusto Pinochet Ugarte en Chile (1973-1990), durante la cual servían a documentar, a expresar y a denunciar la opresión y los crimenes del régimen porque todas otras formas de expresión libre normales eran prohibidas.

Las arpilleras chilenas fueron hechas por arpilleristas, grupas de mujeres cuyos maridos y/o  hijos eran entre los víctimas del régimen, los así llamados ‘desaparecidos’ o ‘detenidos’. Fueron hechas en talleres organizados por una comisión de la Iglesia Católica chilena y entonces distribuídas en secreto al extranjero por la Vicaria de la Solidaridad, un grupo de derechos humanos de la iglesia católica de Santiago. El gobierno chileno consideraba las arpilleras traicioneras y prohibía su venta o exposición en el país, y por eso las primeras tapices fueron pasadas de contrabando al extranjero en bolsas diplomáticas. El régimen también confiscaba todos los paquetes, bolsas o maletas en los que sospecharon arpilleras. Por esta razón y para proteger a las mujeres, los tapices generalmente eran sin firmar. A menudo las ganancias de su venta en el entranjero eran los únicos ingresos de las arpilleristas porque a los parientes de detenidos o desaparecidos prohibieron hacer la mayoría de los trabajos.

Las raíces de las arpilleras datan de la época de los años 60 cuando una industria casera se desarrolló que producía bordados decorativos con escenas de la vida doméstica y rural con lana y hilos coloridos. Sin embargo, después del golpe militar en 1973, había escasez de lana y como consecuencia las arpilleristas empezaban a utilizar retales de paños por sus tapices. Las mujeres se reunían en pequeños talleres de un sólo cuarto en las afueras de Santiago cada semana para trabajar juntas. Cada taller tenía más o menos 20 miembros y a cada arpillerista se le permitió hacer sólo una arpillera cada semana, a menos que su necesidad de dinero era tan grande que el grupo decidió que podía hacer dos.  El grupo también determinó el tema de las arpilleras cada semana. Cada arpillera era el trabajo de una mujer individual que desarrolló el diseño en el taller y luego lo cosió en casa.

Había algunas reglas respecto a los temas y a lo que podía ser mostrado en los tapices o no: por ejemplo, escenas de tortura u otros temas abiertamente políticos eran prohibidos, tanto como otras imágenes fuertes que puedan provocar el gobierno a detener a las mujeres. Solo eran permitidos eslóganes y palabras que también aparecían en la vida cotidiana, como sobre pancartas de manifestantes. Temas corrientes y comunes de las arpilleras son escenas de la vida rural y cotidiana, generalmente con los Andes en el fondo como testimonio e indicio de que las cuentas representadas tenían lugar en Chile, y casas, árboles y figuras humanas – generalmente tridimensionales con piezas como cabezas, brazos, etc. que resaltan de la superficie plana. Imágenes recurrentes incluyen ollas comunes (grandes calderos negros sobre un fuego) que la Iglesia chilena suministraba, los talleres de arpilleras mismos, las bombas de agua comunales y panaderías y lavanderías cooperativas que eran organizadas para ayudar a los pobres. Representaciones más políticas incluían grupos de manifestantes que llevaban pancartas y distribuían folletos políticos – ambos actos ilegales – , la policía militar con uniformes oscuros o puertas de fábricas y hospitales con una X sobre ellas, lo que significaba que eran cerradas a las familias de los desaparecidos o detenidos. Otros temas frecuentes eran niños que rebuscaban y coleccionaban cartones para venderlos, que lavaban coches o hacían cola delante de los hospitales o para recibir leche, o líneas eléctricas que la gente conectaba con las líneas eléctricas principales durante la noche para robar electricidad después de que el gobierno cerró su suministro de electricidad. Otros materiales, como por ejemplo frijoles secos, piezas de plástico, de papel, metal o de madera, fueron también cosidos o pegados a la superficie de las arpilleras.

Sin embargo, no todas las arpilleras mostraban escenas políticas y denunciantes: Algunas retratan una vida ‘idealizada’ como las mujeres la habrían deseado, con niños alegres, un paisaje pacífico, mercados florecientes y un buen Sistema de asistencia sanitaria, etc. – en breves palabras, retratos que expresaron el deseo y la esperanza de un futuro mejor. Por otro lado, había también talleres de arpilleras sancionados por el gobierno en los que mujeres fieles a la dictatura cosían tapices de propaganda, con temas alegres que retrataron a Chile como un país próspero con un gobierno benévolo. Con el tiempo, el arte de las arpilleras fue también adoptado por la gente en otros países latinoamericanos, especialmente en Perú, Nicaragua y Colombia, y sus tapices casi siempre retratan una vida feliz.


English text:

Today’s blog post is taking us to South America and Chile and to an art form that originated in this country, namely the Arpilleras, patchwork tapestries that were made by groups of women, the arpilleristas, during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1973-1990) in Chile. The name arpillera derives from the  Spanish word for ‘burlap’ (=arpillera), a type of sackcloth onto which the designs were sewn.

Arpilleras are small figurative patchwork tapestries made from scraps of fabric, which tell a story and the experiences of daily life of the makers and typically depict images of hardship, violence and of oppressive living conditions and human rights abuses during the regime. They are historical records, protest messages and a form of folk art and heritage at the same time. They have their origin in the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in Chile (1973-1990), during which all normal means of free speech and of free expression were prohibited and so they served as an outlet to document, denounce and express the oppression and crimes of the regime.

The Chilean arpilleras were made by the arpilleristas, groups of women whose husbands and sons were among the desaparecidos, literally ‘those who have disappeared’, and the detained. They were made in workshops organized by a commission of the Chilean Catholic Church and then distributed abroad in secret by the Vicaria de la Solidaridad, the Vicarate of Solidarity, a human rights group of the Catholic church of Santiago. The Chilean government considered the arpilleras as traitorous and prohibited their sale and exhibition in the country. Therefore, the first tapestries had to be smuggled out of the country in diplomatic pouches. The regime also confiscated all packages, bags and suitcases in which they suspected arpilleras. For this reason and to protect the women, the tapestries were usually not signed. The proceeds from their sale abroad was often the only source of income of the arpilleristas because the relatives of the detained and disappeared were barred from most jobs.

The roots of this folk art practice date back to the 1960s when a home-based industry developed which produced decorative embroidered wall hangings with scenes of domestic and rural life made from wool and colourful threads. However, after the military coup in 1973, there was a scarcity of wool and so the arpilleristas started using fabric scraps for their tapestries. The women met in small one-room workshops in the outskirts of Santiago each week to work together. Each workshop had about 20 members and each arpillerista was only allowed to make one tapestry each week, unless she was so needy that the group allowed her to make two. The group also decided a topic for the tapestries to be made that week, but each arpillera was nevertheless the work and design of an individual woman who developed the design in the workshop and then sewed the tapestry at home.

There were several rules about subject matter and about what could be shown in the tapestries and what not: for example, scenes of torture and other overtly political topics were prohibited, as well as other strong images which could provoke the government to detain the women. Only slogans and phrases which also appeared in daily life, like on banners of demonstrators, could be included. Recurring and common subjects of the arpilleras are scenes of rural and daily life, usually with the Andes mountains, los Andes, in the background as a testimony and an indication that the stories represented in the tapestries took place in Chile, as well as trees, houses and human figures – generally three-dimensional with pieces like arms, heads, etc. projecting from the flat surface. Other recurring imagery includes the so-called ‘common pots’, or ollas comunes (big black cauldrons on a fire), i.e. soup-kitchens which the Catholic church provided, the arpillera workshops themselves, communal water pumps and co-operative bakeries and laundries, which were organized to help the poor. More political images include groups of demontrators who carried banners and distributed political pamphlets – both of which were illegal actions – , the military police with their dark uniforms or doors of factories and hospitals with an X on them, which signalled that they were barred for the families of the desaparecidos, ‘those who have disappeared’, and of the detained. Further recurring subjects are children who searched for and collected cardboards to sell, who washed cars or were queuing in front of hospitals or to receive some milk, as well as electrical lines which people connected to the main power lines at night to steal electricity after the government shut down their own power supply. Other materials, like for example dried beans (frijoles secos), pieces of plastic, metal or wood, were also sewn or glued to the surface of the arpilleras.

However, not all of these patchwork tapestries showed political or denouncing subject matter: Some painted the picture of an ‘idealized’ life which the women would have wished to have, with happy children, peaceful landscapes, flourishing markets and a good health care system, etc. – in short, images which expressed the wish and hope for a better future. On the other hand, there were also workshops for government-sanctioned arpilleras, in which women loyal to the dictatorship sewed propaganda tapestries, with cheerful subject matter which portrayed Chile as a prosperous country with a benevolent government. Over time, the folk art of making arpilleras was taken over by people in other Latin American countries, especially Peru, Nicaragua and Colombia, and their tapestries almost always show scenes of a happy life.


Further reading:

What is an Arpillera?

Telling the story


Hebrew vocabulary: Rosh Hashana

This week’s blog post is taking us to Israel and to the Jewish diaspora again and we are going to look at the vocabulary related to the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana ראש השנה, which was celebrated this week, and the foods that are usually eaten on this holiday (these vary depending on the country of origin).


The colours associated with the cardinal directions in Chinese, Turkish and Lakota

Today’s blog post will take us to Asia and America, namely to Chinese, Turkish and the Native American Lakota language. All three languages and cultures associate different colours with the four cardinal directions.

Colours associated with the cardinal directions in Chinese

In China, each of the 4 cardinal directions is associated with a colour, as well as an animal and a season. The centre is yellow and is associated with the human realm. The North is associated with the colour black, as well as winter and a turtle  Guī or snake. The South is thought of as red, and its associated animal is the phoenix 凤凰 Fènghuáng and the summer season. The East is associated with the Chinese colour qing 青, which denotes green as well as blue. (See a previous blog post on colour perception in different languages). Its animal is the dragon  lóng and its season is spring. The West is white, and its animal is the tiger   and the season of autumn.

colors/directions in Chinese and Turkish

Colours associated with the cardinal directions in Turkish

Also the Turkish language associates different colours with the four directions. The North is thought of as black (kara), the East is associated with the Turkish colour gök, which is a sky blue or turquoise, the South is seen as red (kızıl, a rusty shade of red) and the West is associated with the colour white (ak). What is interesting in Turkish is that the seas surrounding the Turkish peninsula and Anatolia take their names from these colour associations: the Mediterranean, which is west of Turkey, is called Akdeniz, or the White Sea, the Red Sea is Kızıl Deniz, and is located to the south of Turkey (its name is said to come from the rust-coloured sediments flowing into it) and the Black Sea, or Kara Deniz, is north of Anatolia (the Black Sea is also rich in iron sulfides, where only sulphur bacteria can thrive, and its sediments are dark).

Colours associated with the cardinal directions in Lakota

The Native American language Lakota associates not just a different colour with each of the cardinal directions, but each direction also has a value or virtue attributed to it as well as an animal nation, and a stage of life. There are two different systems of colour association, which vary from dialect to dialect. The centre of the sacred circle, or hocoka, is green and blue, the green standing for Grandmother Earth and the blue for the Sky. The North is associated with cold, discomfort and hardship (the direction from which winter comes), the East is associated with the sunrise, the South is the direction from which the sun is strongest, and the West is associated with the sunset and, by extension, the end of life.

colors/directions in Lakota


Focus on art: Indian aesthetic theory (rasas), murti and concepts of art

krishna 576px-Indischer_Maler_um_1710_001

Today’s blog post will take us to India भारत Bharat, and to Indian art, कला kala, and aesthetic theory.

Indian art is based on the ancient aesthetic theory of rasa रस (Sanskrit lit. ‘juice’, ‘extract of a fruit’ or ‘essence’) which, by extension, refers to the finest quality of an object. The term rasa रस  generally refers to the ‘essence’ and emotional qualities crafted into a work of art (or a performance) by the maker and to the response the contemplation or perception of the artwork evokes in the viewer, or sahṛdaya सह्रदय. So it is a viewer-response theory. Rasas are created by bhavas भव (or states of mind). The concept of rasa has its origins in performance theory. Emphasis is therefore always on the spectator, and the artwork or performer only serves as a means for the viewer to experience the different rasas. That is the reason why in Indian paintings and sculpture a narrative mode predominates: a narrative gradually unfolds over the area of a painting or the length of a wall or even building.

Author: Bodleian Library Oxford

Author: Bodleian Library Oxford; Krishna (with blue complexion and yellow garments) moves through the painting, thereby telling a narrative

The concept of rasa is fundamental to many forms of Indian art, and can be found in dance and performance, music, musical theatre, literature as well as cinema.

The Rasas were first described by Bharata Muni भरत मुनी, an ancient Indian musicologist and theatrologist, in the Nāṭya Śāstra (Sanskrit: नाट्य शास्त्र, Nāṭyaśāstra), a Sanskrit Hindu text on dramatic theory and the performing arts, written between 200 BCE and 200 CE. According to this text, there are 8 original rasas, each of which has an associated deity and a specific colour. Later authors have added a 9th rasa, plus some additional rasas.

  • Shringaram (शृङ्गारं) Love, attractiveness, erotic. Deity: Vishnu. Colour: green; the erotic rasa is blue-black. Considered the ‘king of rasas‘.
  • Hasyam (हास्यं) Laughter, mirth, comedy, comic. Deity: Ganesha. Colour: white.
  • Raudram (रौद्रं) Fury. Deity: Rudra. Colour: red.
  • Kāruṇyam (कारुण्यं) Compassion, tragedy, pathetic. Deity: Yama. Colour: dove-coloured (grey-white).
  • Bībhatasam (बीभत्सं) Disgust, aversion, abhorrent, shocking, odious. Deity: Shiva. Colour: blue
  • Bhayānakam (भयानकं) Horror, terror, fear, terrible. Deity: Kala. Colour: black
  • Vīram (वीरं) Heroic mood. Deity: Indra. Colour: wheatish brown (yellow, ochre)
  • Adbhutam (अद्भुतं) Wonder, amazement, wonderful, wondrous. Deity: Brahma. Colour: yellow
  • The 9th rasa is Śāntam (शांता) Peace or tranquility, quiescent. Deity: Vishnu. Colour: perpetual white (silvery, the colour of the moon and of jasmine)

The 9th Shanta-rasa is simultaneously seen as an equal member of the rasas, but also as distinct, since it represents the clearest form of aesthetic bliss and has been described as “as-good-as but never-equal-to the bliss of Self-realization experienced by yogis”.

In Indian art, the rasas become apparent, for example in the colour in which a certain deity is depicted which hints at the predominant character trait associated with this deity, or in the colour of the aura of a person. For instance, a black aura indicates a frightened person, and a red aura indicates that the character is angry. The god Krishna, who is the archetypal lover and hero, is always depicted with a blue-black complexion and yellow garments.

Two additional rasas appeared later on, in particular in Indian literature. These are:

  • Vātsalya (वात्सल्य) Parental Love
  • Bhakti (भक्ति) Spiritual Devotion

However, a specific deity or colour has not been assigned to these two rasas.


Another important term in Indian art is Murti (Sanskrit: मूर्ति Mūrti) which usually refers to any solid object that has a definite shape and is made from material elements like wood, stone, pottery or metal. The term murti basically refers to any statue, or to an image or idol of a deity or person, as well as to any incarnation, embodiment, manifestation and appearance of a deity. Murti constrasts with the immaterial world of mind and thought of ancient Indian literature.

Medieval Hindu texts like the Puranas (Sanskrit: पुराण, purāṇa, lit. ‘ancient’, ‘old’), the Agamas (Sanskrit: आगम, lit.’tradition’, from the verb root गम gam meaning ‘to go’ and the preposition आ aa meaning ‘toward’ -> ‘that which has come down’) and the Samhitas (Sanskrit: संहिता, saṁhitā, lit. ‘put together, joined, union’) described the proper proportions, positions and gestures (mudra) for the murti.

The expressions in a Murti vary, but there are two major categories in Hindu iconography:

  • Raudra रौद्र (lit. dire) or Ugra उग्र (lit. fierce, violent, furious) symbolism – used to express fear, violence and destruction (deities: Kali, Durga). Typical elements include adornment with skulls and bones, weapons, and wide, circular eyes.  Raudra deity temples were invariably located outside of villages or towns, and in remote areas of a kingdom. Ugra images were worshipped by soldiers before going to war, or by people in times of distress.
  • Shanta शांता (lit. peaceful) and Saumya सौम्या (lit. gentle, benign, kind) symbolism – used to express joy, love, compassion, kindness, knowledge, harmony and peace (deities: Lakshmi, Saraswati). These temples were predominantly located inside towns and villages. Saumya images symbolize peace, sensuality, knowledge, music, wealth, flowers, etc.

Apart from anthropomorphic murti, some Hindu traditions prefer aniconism, that is the absence of figurative representations of the natural or supernatural world. Here the murti take the shape of the linga for Shiva, the yoni for Devi, and the shaligrama for Vishnu.

A murti may be found inside or outside homes as well as temples, and in some cases it can just be a landmark. A murti is often considered as an embodiment of the divine or Brahman, and may be treated as a welcome guest in homes and serve as a participant in Puja rituals.

The artist, कलाकार kalakar, or artisan who makes any works of art or crafts, including murti, is known as Shilpin शिल्पिन्, (for a male artist) or Shilpini शिल्पिनी (for a female artist). The Shilpins design the murti according to the rules of canonical manuals like the Agamas and the Shilpa Shastras. The term Shilpa Shastras (Sanskrit: शिल्प शास्त्र śilpa śāstra) literally means the Science or Discipline of the Shilpa (i.e. the arts and crafts). Shilpa शिल्प refers to any art or craft, while Shastra शास्त्र means ‘iconography’, ‘a work of scripture’ or ‘discipline’. Man-made works of art are termed Shilpani शिल्पनि. The Shilpa Shastra is an umbrella term for various Hindu treatises and manuals on the arts and crafts, which outline Hindu iconography, design principles and rules, composition, the ideal proportions for human sculptures, as well as the principles and rules of architecture.


The Brihat Samhita बृहत् संहिता (lit. ‘Large Codex’), a 6th-century encyclopedia covering a wide range of topics from astrology to horticulture to murti and temple design, and the 6th-century treatise  Manasara-Shilpashastra मनसारा शिल्पशास्त्र (literally: ‘treatise on art using the method of measurement’), specify 9 materials that can be used for the creation of murti: stone पत्थर patthar, wood लकड़ी lakadee, copper तांबा taamba, gold सोना sona, silver चांदी chaandee, earth (= clay मिट्टी mittee or terracotta टेरकोटा), sudha सुधा (a type of mortar plaster or stucco), sarkara सरकार (gravel, grit), and abhasa आभास (various types of marble or stones, which have a range of colours and opacity). Metal murti are often made from a special alloy called panchaloha, which is believed to have auspicious properties and is considered of sacred significance. Panchaloha (Sanskrit: पञ्चलोह), which is also known as Panchadhatu (Sanskrit: पञ्चधातु, lit. ‘five metals’), is an alloy consisting of 5 metals, namely gold (Au), silver (Ag), copper (Cu) iron (Fe) and lead (Pb); the lead is often replaced by tin (Sn) or zinc (Zn).

Author: +rex, via Wikipedia Commons, a Panchaloha Murti (a metal alloy made of 5 elements)

Author: +rex, via Wikipedia Commons, a Panchaloha Murti (a metal alloy made of 5 elements)

References: Indian Art, by Vidya Dehejia, Phaidon Press, London, 1997

Focus on culture: Turkish coffee/Türk Kahvesi

Author: Silverije via Wikipedia Commons

Author: Silverije via Wikipedia Commons

Today’s blog post is taking us to Turkey (Türkiye) and to the tradition of Türk kahvesi or Turkish coffee, which is recognized as an Intangible Heritage of Turkey by UNESCO.

Türk kahvesi is a special method of coffee preparation (i.e. not a special kind of coffee bean) in which coffee is generally prepared unfiltered from roasted and finely ground coffee beans (kahve çekirdekleri; sing.kahve çekirdeği) which are simmered (but not boiled) in a cezve, a special Turkish coffee pot. The term cezve derives from the Arabic term جذوة‎‎ ’ember’. The coffee is served in a cup, fincan, where the coffee grounds (kahve telvesi) are allowed to settle. If prepared well, the coffee has a thick layer of foam at the top (köpük). The word for ‘coffee’ kahve comes from the Arabic word قهوة qahwah. The importance of coffee in Turkish culture is also reflected in the word kahvaltı, breakfast, which literally means ‘before coffee’ (kahve + altı ‘under/before’.

Cezve, a special Turkish coffee pot

Cezve, a special Turkish coffee pot

To prepare Turkish coffee, finely ground coffee powder is immersed in hot, but not boiling, water. For each cup, 1 – 2 heaped teaspoons of coffee are used, which along with some sugar, are usually added to the water rather than first being placed into the coffeepot. The mixture is then heated until it starts to boil – at this point it is taken off the heat source. When prepared properly, a layer of foam called köpük forms on the surface of the coffee.

Author: Oliver Merkel, via Wikipedia Commons Preparation of mocha coffee (Turkish Coffee). 1: Ground coffee, water, sugar, and heat source. 2, 3: heat the water till it starts bubbling. 4: add coffee. 5: continue heating and mixing. 6: heat until the mixture starts to rise, then take off the heat source to settle it down while mixing the upper part (repeated many times). This creates a foamy top. 7: pour and serve hot

Author: Oliver Merkel, via Wikipedia Commons
Preparation of mocha coffee (Turkish Coffee). 1: Ground coffee, water, sugar, and heat source. 2, 3: heat the water till it starts bubbling. 4: add coffee. 5: continue heating and mixing. 6: heat until the mixture starts to rise, then take off the heat source to settle it down while mixing the upper part (repeated many times). This creates a foamy top. 7: pour and serve hot

Turkish culture distinguishes between four degrees of sweetness of the coffee, depending on the amount of sugar, şeker, that is added:

  • sade (plain; i.e. no sugar added)
  • az şekerli (little sugar; about half a level teaspoon of sugar)
  • orta şekerli (medium sugar; about one level teaspoon)
  • çok şekerli (a lot of sugar; 1.5 – 2 level teaspoons).

The coffee grounds left in the cup after finishing your fincan (cup) of Turkish coffee can be used for fortune-telling, called kahve falı or tasseomancy: the cup is turned over on the saucer to cool down and the patterns left by the coffee grounds, kahve telvesi, can then be interpreted to tell one’s fortune.

Author: Eaeeae via Wikipedia commons, A Turkish cezve coffeepot

Author: Eaeeae via Wikipedia commons,
A Turkish cezve coffeepot

For more information:

Is there also a special beverage in your country or are there any special customs or superstitions associated with a beverage in your country? Tell us about it in the comments! 🙂

Focus on culture: A calçada portuguesa (Portuguese pavement)

Author: Krzysztof Żwirski, via Wikipedia Commons, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisboa (Belém).

Author: Krzysztof Żwirski, via Wikipedia Commons, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisboa (Belém).

Today’s blog post is taking us to western Europe and to South America, namely to Portugal and to Brazil and to a characteristic feature of public spaces in Portuguese-speaking towns and cities, a calçada portuguesa or mosaico português , or Portuguese mosaic pavement. This type of mosaic pavement can also be found in other Portuguese-speaking countries (=former Portuguese colonies).

Author: Miguelgouveia71, via Wikipedia Commons

Author: Miguelgouveia71, via Wikipedia Commons

The most characteristic feature of this type of pavement is that the paving stones are arranged in geometric or figurative patterns. These patterns are often, though not always, in black and white,  and are made up of small stones, the so-called tessera, which are often irregular, and usually consist of black and white limestone (calcário negro/preto and calcário branco) or basalt (basalto). The stones are arranged on the ground according to either a linear sequence (friso, or frieze) or two-dimensional patterns (padrões). They are then hammered into place and are finally finished by a cement mix that is poured on them.




The workers who lay the pavement mosaics are called calceteiros. Once a profession performed by thousands, the number of craftsmen is dwindling nowadays, since low wages and the hard work fail to attract new apprentices. Traditional Portuguese mosaic pavements are therefore increasingly becoming restricted to conservation areas and other high-profile architectural  projects due to the high cost involved in laying the stones, and the reduced longevity of the paving in comparison with other materials such as concrete (o betão) or bitumen (o betume). Another disadvantage of traditional paving is that the stones are prone to become very slippery when wet and that they may become loose and so constitute a hazard to pedestrians. However, in Brazilian cities like Rio de Janeiro traditional paving remains popular and can be found in nearly all wealthier areas.

Author: Carlos Marques da Silva, via Wikipedia Commons

Author: Carlos Marques da Silva, via Wikipedia Commons

Author: Miguelgouveia71, via Wikipedia Commons

Author: Miguelgouveia71, via Wikipedia Commons

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro

Author: rdrs, via Wikipedia Commons

Author: rdrs, via Wikipedia Commons

Is there also a distinctive feature to be found in the public space of towns or cities in your country or place of residence? Tell us about it in the comments!

Colour perception in various languages


Today’s blog post will be about colour perception in different cultures and languages around the world.

The terms for colours cannot always be translated in a straightforward manner since some colours, esp. green and blue (“grue”) in some Asian languages, are often perceived differently from those in the West, and are considered separate colours in those countries whereas in English there is just one term for both shades or vice versa.


In Russian, there are two different terms for blue which are considered as separate colours and not just as shades of the same colour as in English: голубой (‘goluboy’) light blue and  синий (‘siniy’) dark blue.


In Hungarian, there are two separate terms for red: piros is a bright red and vörös is a dark red.


In German, there are two different terms for pink: Pink is the same bright saturated shade as in English, but when the colour is pale pink it is called rosa.

‘Grue’ or green and blue in various Asian languages

The origin of the perception of a green-blue (‘grue’) colour, which in English is called ‘teal’ or is seen as two separate colours (blue and green), comes from the Chinese character 青 (qīng).

The colour qīng 青 can mean either of the colours that in English are referred to as ‘green’, ‘blue’, or ‘black’, depending on the context and the nouns or fixed phrases it is used with. To give an example, qing means ‘blue’ when used with ‘sky’ 青天 (qīngtiān) or ‘eyes’青眼 (qīngyǎn) , but ‘black’ when used with ‘hair’ 青丝(qīngsī) and ‘green’ when used with the character for ‘mountain’ 青山 (qīngshān), ‘grass’青草 (qīngcǎo)  or ‘vegetables’ 青菜 (qīngcài).

Qing  , according to tradition, is the colour of things that are born and the term 青春 (qīngchūn ‘green spring’) means youth. This is connected to its meaning ‘black’ since young people in China have dark hair, or 青鬓 (qīng bìn) ‘black temple hair’, an idiom referring to young people. Qing can also refer to black clothes or fabrics and one of the main female roles in Chinese opera, 青衣 (qīngyī), refers to the fact that most actors wear black clothing.

Qing can also refer to the colour ‘blue’, which originates from the dye bluegrass which in ancient times was used to dye things in the colour of qing. The idiom 出於藍,而勝於藍青出于蓝,而胜于蓝 (qīngchūyúlán ér shèng yú lán, ‘blue comes from the indigo plant but is bluer than the plant itself’) describes how a student could come to excel their teacher.

The character 青qing originally derives from the components for 生 ‎’growth of plants‘ and 丹 ‎’cinnabar‘, which was also used for dyeing and by extension came to refer to ‘colour’ in general, so 青qing came to be known as the ‘colour of growing plants’ and green-blue, and came to describe a range of colours from light green through blue to deep black 玄青 (xuánqīng). Over time, the character for cinnabar was exchanged with the similar character for ‘moon’月.

The modern Mandarin Chinese language, however, also has the blue–green distinction with 蓝/ 藍 lán for blue and 绿 / 綠 for green. Another peculiarity of Chinese colour perception is the case of ‘red’ / , hóng and ‘pink’ 粉红, fěn hóng (lit.’powder red’), which are considered varieties of a single colour.

青 qing (Cantonese 廣東話 )

In Cantonese, qing 青 can describe the same range of colours as in Mandarin Chinese. It means ‘green’ when referring to grass, plants or the mountains, ‘blue’ when referring to the sky or stones, and ‘black’ or ‘young’ when referring to hair or fabrics. However, in Cantonese (廣東話), 青 qing meaning ‘black’ is still used in contexts where the use of  黑 would be inauspicious since it is a homophone of ‘乞’ (beggar), for example 黑衣, ‘black clothes’, would also mean ‘beggar’s clothes’.


Vietnamese has taken over the green-blue colour perception from the ancient Chinese character and is read as xanh, which can mean both ‘green’ or ‘blue’ depending on the context. To specify which shade exactly you mean, you have to add some descriptive terms, so xanh da trời means ‘blue as the sky’, xanh dương or xanh nước biển means ‘blue as the ocean’ and xanh lá cây means ‘green like the leaves’. Vietnamese sometimes uses the terms xanh lam for blue and xanh lục for green, which derive from the Chinese characters 藍and 綠 respectively.



Also Japanese has the colour green-blue, or ao ‎(hiragana あお, romaji ao, historical hiragana あを), which also derives from the ancient Chinese character and its connotations. So ao can mean ‘blue’, ‘green’ or ‘black’ depending on the context. In the case of Japanese, the colour connotation ‘black’ comes from the bluish-black colour of a horse’s hair. Ao is also used in particular to refer to the green of traffic lights and to the colour of plant leaves, vegetables and apples. By contrast, other ‘green’ objects will generally be referred to as being midori, e.g. clothes, cars, etc.


Also in the native American language Lakota (‘Sioux’), one word is used for both blue and green, namely the term tȟó. However, a term for ‘green’ – tȟózi- has come into use, which is made up of the terms  tȟó meaning ‘blue-green’ and meaning ‘yellow’. In the same way,  zíša/šázi refers to the colour orange, šá on its own meaning ‘red’. The colour purple or violet is thus šátȟo/tȟóša.



Some interesting links for further reading on the topic:

Does your language also have a different colour perception from the English one? Let us know in the comments!! 🙂

Focus on architecture: Badgir or Malqaf (windcatchers)



Today’s blog post is taking us to the Middle East again, to Persia, India and the Arab world, and to a special architectural feature of these hot regions of Asia, namely the so-called badgir or windcatcher (wind tower) (Persian: بادگیر bâdgir, from bâd ‘wind’ + gir ‘catcher’, Arabic malqaf  الملاقف )(Arabic: also known as barjeel  بارجيل )


The Badgir can be found in all regions of Asia which were historically influenced by the Persian Empire. It is a windcatcher or windscoop that usually takes the form of a tower or turret and which is installed on roofs, often one for each room. It is usually built in a fixed position on the roof with one downward opening since the locally prevailing winds always blow from the same direction. The badgir tower has small slots or vents which admit the wind and deflect it down a shaft, which often reaches to the ground floor, and at the bottom of which is an opening. Air circulation is guaranteed by the difference in air pressure on the wind side and leeward side of the house. The air flowing into the interior of the building can still be warmer than the air already inside, but a cooling effect is achieved by the enhanced evaporation caused by the constant airflow, which moves humid and stale air. To increase the cooling effect, water vessels are often placed inside the shaft or damp straw mats are hung across the vent.

The badgir‘s effectiveness in cooling has led to its being used as a refrigerating device, e.g. for water reservoirs (Ab anbar) (Farsi: ab anbar آب انبار‎‎  ab = ‘water’, anbar ‘storage facility’).

Badgirs have been in use for at least 500 years, their exact origin being uncertain, but they have already been known in Ancient Egypt.


Author: Guillaume Blanchard, via Wikipedia Commons Maison miniature : Pièce de jeu (?) en ivoire provenant d’une tombe d’Abou Roach (près du Caire) contemporaine du roi Den (Période thinite)

An interesting article on ab anbars:

Is there also a similar architectural device in your culture?? Tell us about it in the comments! 🙂


Focus on culture: Święconka in Poland


Author: Błażej Benisz via Wikipedia Commons Deacon blessing the Easter food (Święconka), Ołtarzew, Poland 2007

Today’s blog post is taking up the topic of my last blog post, and is keeping us in Poland and in Eastern Europe for a little while longer.

Easter is an important holiday in Poland and a popular Polish Easter tradition is the ‘blessing of the Easter baskets’,  or Święconka [ɕvʲɛnˈtsɔnka], on Easter or Holy Saturday. Baskets lined with a white linen or a lace or embroidered napkin are decorated with evergreen twigs of bukszpan (boxwood) and ribbons, and filled with a selection of Easter foods and are then taken to church to be blessed.

The foods in the basket all have a special symbolic meaning:

  • chleb (bread), symbolizing Jesus
  • jaja (eggs) [jaja na twardo barwione w łupinkach cebulihard-boiled eggs dyed in onion skins] , symbolizing Christ’s resurrection
  • kiełbasę (sausage) or ham, symbolizing abundance
  • sól i pieprz (salt and pepper), symbolizing purification
  • owieczka (a lamb), either as a figurine or as a cake or bread in lamb-shape, symbolizing Christ
  • chrzan (horseradish), symbolizing the bitter sacrifice of Christ

Depending on the parish, the baskets are either lined up on tables or taken to the front of the altar in a procession of the parishioners. The priest or deacon then sprinkles the baskets with holy water, using either a straw brush or a metal aspergillum (i.e. a liturgical sprinkling wand). Special prayers addressing the various contents of the baskets, i.e. the eggs, cakes, meat, etc., are said. Traditionally, the blessed food remains untouched either until Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning.

The Christian custom of Easter eggs has a long history, reaching as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, where early Christians stained eggs red in memory of the blood shed by Christ at his crucifixion. The Church officially adopted this custom, and eggs came to symbolize the resurrection of Christ: The hard egg shell symbolizes the sealed Tomb of Christ, which, when cracked open, symbolizes Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the empty tomb left behind. Another interpretation sees the egg as being dormant, while containing seed for new life and renewal.

The custom of Easter baskets is also observed in some other Slavic countries, like Croatia.

Is there a similar custom in your country or region? Tell us about it in the comments! 🙂