You Are Invited to a Falaj Wedding!
Dr.Majid Labbaf Khaneiki
UNESCO Chair on Aflaj Studies (Archaeo-Hydrology)
One of the weirdest traditional rites is the marriage between an inanimate object and humans. This custom is rooted in a dichotomy between male and female objects according to the villagers’ mythology. In many Iranian villages, people believe that some water sources are female whereas some others are male. For example, in Iran, Markazi province, the aflaj or qanats in whose water the worker’s skin becomes dry and develops xeroderma are regarded as male, otherwise, they are called female. In Izadkhast, Fars province, the gender of water sources is recognizable by their sounds. If a falaj flows gently and quietly, it proves to be female. But if a falaj gurgles down, it is regarded as male. In the village of Garmab, Hamedan province, the falaj whose water fluctuates from year to year is regarded as male, whereas the falaj that enjoys a more stable water discharge is believed to be female. In Tuyserkan, Hamedan province, the falaj whose tunnel still enjoys groundwater seepage even downslope from its mother well, is called female.
One of the best examples of a marriage between falaj and humans has been reported from the village Alim-Abad in Arak, Markazi province. This village enjoys two aflaj named Kahriz Bala and Kahriz Payin. According to the locals, the falaj of Kahriz Bala is a male falaj, since its water carries more minerals and it is hard for them to digest its water. The falaj of Kahriz Payin whose water is fresher and purer is regarded as female. Nevertheless, they never try to marry Kahriz Payin off to the male falaj of Kahriz Bala, but they believe that their male falaj gets more satisfaction from a marriage with humans. The last time the falaj of Kahriz Bala married a woman was in 1971.
According to the villagers, a severe drought struck the village around 1963 and persisted until 1971, when many of their farms and orchards withered away and many of the inhabitants had to migrate to the cities. Their falaj was about to dry up, and its water dwindled to the extent that its water could not wet their thirsty farms. They did whatever they could to save the falaj. At the exit point of their falaj, they sacrificed a couple of sheep in the hope that more water would flow out in return. Several times, all the villagers went to the desert and held a mourning gathering to beg Imam Hossein to intercede for them with God and stop that calamity. But none of those solutions worked until they came to decide to marry one of the village women off to the falaj, as the last resort. They remembered that in the past the falaj enjoyed a happy marriage with a woman named Mah-Taban who eventually died around 1958 and left the falaj a lonely widower. They realized that the only thing amiss was a wife that they should have found for the falaj.
The villagers nominated a woman called “Aunt Zobeideh” whose husband had recently passed away. The falaj’s future wife should have lived up to a few qualifications of which being a needy widow was very important. Eventually, a group of villagers along with the village Mullah came up to Aunt Zobeideh to propose to her on the falaj’s behalf. Aunt Zobeideh accepted the falaj’s proposal, so everyone sat together to negotiate about other details like the amount of her dowry and allowance. Her allowance was agreed to be shared among the villagers on the falaj’s behalf. In return, Aunt Zobeideh accepted to bathe in the falaj water at least once a week to do the falaj’s heart good.
The villagers celebrated this wedding, and the next day Aunt Zobeideh privately went to the exit of falaj to consummate her marriage by sitting in the water flow. On the same day, she was given 300 kilograms of wheat. Afterwards, everyone in the village was obliged to give her between 15 and 30 kilograms of wheat twice a year, one time in the month of Ramadan and again in the month of Muharram, which are both revered by Shia Muslims. The falaj water started increasing shortly thereafter, according to the locals.
The villagers felt indebted to Aunt Zobeideh for saving their falaj from desiccation and for such an upturn in their cultivation. Everyone treated her well, and never withheld their favours from her. Aunt Zobeideh lived an easy life until 1981 when she lost her sight and became blind. Nonetheless, she still groped her way to the falaj water to fulfil her marital duty that was believed to keep the water flowing. In 1986, her marriage ran out of steam and Aunt Zobeideh wanted a divorce, since the allowance could not keep up with the rising inflation.
She had to pay in cash for the goods she needed, whereas her allowance was paid in kind as sacks of wheat. Her husband had not updated his financial affairs that were alien to the modern economic relations of the village, in which the ministry of agriculture monopolized the purchase of their wheat harvest, and the farmers could spend this money on whatever they needed including bread in the village market. The village traditional watermills and the home bakeries fell out of favour, and there was no longer point in storing wheat at home, asking the miller to grind a sack of wheat for her, stoking the oven and managing to bake loaves of bread. There was no watermill left to grind Aunt Zobeideh’s wheat, and she wanted to enjoy a better life in which more various products could be consumed through the new monetary system.
When the villagers faced Aunt Zobeideh’s insistence on divorce, they tried to change her mind by offering some money instead of wheat. Aunt Zobeideh was reconciled with the falaj over her last years, when she received a diversified stipend including money as well as tea, sugar, clothes, etc. Although the falaj of Kahriz Bala eventually gave in to the socio-economic transition in the village by upgrading its financial system, his wife did not last any longer and eventually died in 1992. She was the falaj’s last wife, and after Aunt Zobeideh her fellow villagers lost their belief in falaj marriage at all.
Aunt Zobeideh the last falaj’s wife in Iran
In many places, this cultural rite had an economic function as well, which benefited the falaj more realistically. Falaj cost is not limited to the money spent on its construction, but it continues into its operation because a typical falaj needs repair and cleaning once in a while to keep running. Sometimes, the falaj marriage was subtly associated with the financial affairs of falaj. In some regions, the locals used to hold a wedding ceremony for their falaj only when it came to drying up. The villagers treated this wedding and the falaj’s wife with the same attitude they had toward a real bride, and all the wedding customs were observed exactly like a real one. One of those customs was the wife’s allowance, and the onus was on the husband to pay it according to their culture. Given that the falaj could not fulfil its commitment, the village people raised an amount of money once in a while to pay the bride on her husband’s behalf. Of course, the money collected this way was more than what the falaj’s wife needed, so the rest went to the falaj maintenance and cleaning. Thus, those people were right in their belief that marrying off their falaj can increase its water. Although this custom has long been abolished, there still exists its vestige in many Iranian villages. The allowance paid to a wife is called “Nafaqe” in the Persian language but this term also now refers to the money that villagers collect to clean and repair their falaj. The name of that ancient custom is living on, though there is no longer a trace of it in reality.
A falaj bill called Nafaqe issued to collect the shareholders’ contributions, in the falaj of Hossein-Abad Rostaq, Yazd province, Iran