السنة 18 العدد 169

No Pain, No Rain!

Rain-making ceremonies




Majid Labbaf Khaneiki

Assistant Professor

UNESCO Chair on Aflaj Studies (Archaeo-Hydrology)

One of the important examples of intangible water culture is the ceremonies performed to make rain. These ceremonies and rites vary from region to region, though some of them are strikingly similar. This similarity has tempted some scholars to contend that such rites share a mythological root dating back thousands of years. For example, according to the ancient Persians, the entire world was an arena where Tishtrya (God of Rain) and Apaosha (Demon of Drought) fought an everlasting battle. Tishtrya’s defeat could usher in a hard time of drought, famine and hunger. Hence, true Zoroastrians were obliged to side with Tishtrya against Apaosha by any means, which were manifested in a variety of prayers, customs and rites. The Persians believed in a group of powerful supernatural beings called “Farvashi” or sacred souls of the dead. When it rained, the Faravashi were believed to struggle and vie with each other to obtain more water for their own families and tribes. Farvardin is the first month of spring in Iran’s national calendar, which is the remnant of that ancient belief. Some of the ceremonies still practiced across Iran may be a holdover from those ancient times. 

When I arrived in Oman almost two years ago, one of my Omani friends told me that the people of his village used to go to the desert and pray in time of drought, but the way they prayed for rain was a little different from their ordinary prayers. They held up their hands in a gesture of prayer but with their palms facing the ground. This behavior might be a signal that things are in disorder without rain. This behavior takes on a more dramatic dimension in other parts of the world, forming some complex rituals that are studied in the anthropology of water. 

For example, in Iran, locals regard the rain as a right that has been withheld from them in time of drought. Hence, they do something weird in defiance of social and even moral norms in order to put pressure on metaphysical powers to give the rain back to them. For example, in the village of Kalkhoran in Ardabil, when it does not rain enough, a group of young women (sometimes men) parade along the streets, each with a wooden spoon in one hand and a small flint stone in the other, hitting them together to make a weird noise, and chant a traditional song. If their trick does not work and rain does not show up, this time a group of elderly women take off their headscarves and put a wooden yoke on their shoulders while walking around in the village, in the face of their tradition that necessitates wearing headscarves for women and respecting the elderly for all. If it does not rain again, the villagers come together and lever a very big boulder into a river named Ali Dervish as the last resort. If it starts raining, they roll the boulder back to its original place.

In the village of Dehbala, Meymand, Fars Province, all the men and boys come together and walk along the streets while hitting two pebbles together and chanting a special song. They knock at the doors on their way, until someone comes out, splashes water over them, and then gives them some dry fruits. They put all the dry fruits in a sack and then dump them all in a water spring as wastefully as possible to anger the metaphysical powers that are deemed responsible for their calamity. Afterwards, three persons among the crowd suddenly start running away, and the others chase them, until they catch them and drag them to a water canal. The crowd plunges the three persons into the water, until someone steps forward and mediates by promising that it would rain if the three would be released. The crowd let go of the three persons in the hope that it rains for the sake of that promise and those innocent people.

Sometimes this ceremony turns more violent. For example, in the Baseri tribe, Fars province, one of the best young men is chosen for the rain-making ceremony. He wears a felt coat awkwardly, putting his feet instead of his hands into the sleeves (Figure 1). The coat is fastened tightly around his waist with a leather belt, a bell is dangled from his neck, a turban is put on his head, and he is sarcastically called “old man”. The setting of this ceremony is intentionally envisioned against the social norms. He pretends to be sad while walking around and stopping by every tent, along with a group of people who sing a traditional song.

At this point, the young man suddenly leaps into the air with joy and shouts out: “I just brought rain. I want a reward in return”. Each tent gives him something like a handful of rice, flour, sugar, tea, dates, or some oil. The tent owner asks him that “hey old man! when will it rain?” He replies that “just in seven days”. Those who accompany the young man gather all the flour and then bake traditional breads called “Soolok”. They hide seven small stones in the breads and then distribute the breads among the group. They wait to see who is first to find the stone in his mouth. They grab him and beat him up, until someone intervenes and stands surety for him, promising that it would rain in seven days. When it finally rains, a group of children sings together the following song:

“It’s raining, rain of spring.

My brother is riding a hound!

He’s riding a rabid horse!

He’s going to fight a jackal!

The jackal says that he’s drunk.

A broken sword in the jackal’s hand!

I should have killed the blind judge”!

The abovementioned song sounds like an encrypted statement, as if it does not make sense at all. Some readers may tend to interpret such songs to discover deeper layers of their culture, rooted in their collective unconscious. But I prefer to take this song at face value and conclude that those people use even such surreal words as an act of defiance against the logic of language to spite the divinity who is expected to surrender to their awkward behaviors, in order to obtain more rain. Language is another social norm that has been put in place by the same divine being that is asked to loosen its grip on the rain, otherwise that norm would no longer be observed. 

Similar ceremonies are practiced in the village of Samiyeh, Borazjan, province of Bushehr, but with some differences. The men get together and pick someone as a bride who is called Galin. However, their bride is male, who wears a felt cloak and a long white beard made of sheep wool. The male bride ties a rope around his waist and wears a straw hat to which two goat horns are attached. He hangs a bell from his neck and whitens his face with wheat flour. They put a bridle on the bride and drag him from street to street by his bridle, while singing a strange song.

The men who follow the male bride beg for foodstuff from every house on their way. Sometimes the house owner ambushes them from the rooftop and surprisingly splashes a bucket of water over them as soon as they knock at the door.  In the end, all men sit together, and the male bride divides the foodstuff among them, but he stealthily hides a small stone inside one of those shares. One of the men jumps up and runs away as soon as he finds the stone in his food. Other men chase him to catch and beat him up. But he runs to someone’s house and takes refuge there. The house owner stands surety for him and promises that it would rain in a few days, if they release him. The men accept the surety and disperse. After a few days, if it would not rain, the men gather around the same house again and angrily claim for rain. If the house owner repeats his promise and acts as surety again, the men give more time to the unlucky man, otherwise they look for him and beat him up. The man may take refuge in another house and it continues until it rains. 

This ceremony has some elements that apparently challenge the social norms, like choosing a man as bride and even exaggerating his masculinity by putting a wool beard and a felt cloak on him. It is also very strange to put a bridle on a human, whereas only donkeys and horses are bridled. Putting the blame on innocent people and beating them up for a drought, can be interpreted as defiance against the divinities who are out of their reach but still responsible for both social norms and their calamity.

In many regions on the Iranian central plateau, the act of defiance revolves around a donkey’s skull. In the village of Nazl Abad, Razavi Khorasan province, the women find a donkey’s skull and put makeup on it, as if they do it for a real bride. When they finish with the makeup, they stick the skull on the tip of a cane and carry it out of the village to a water well. One of the women plays a frame drum while following the donkey’s skull whose garish makeup is so hilarious. The crowd shout the word “Shabash” that means “cheer up”, which seems irrelevant to their predicament because of the rainless season. When they reach the well, they drop the donkey’s skull down the well in the belief that it will rain. In this performance, different elements are intentionally put in a contradictory order seemingly to challenge the social orders. They go for a donkey’s skull that is less valued than the other farm animals, and they offer a dead one that is even more useless. They put human makeup on the donkey’s face, which makes it sillier and more laughable and can be very offensive to the deities if it is meant to be a sacrifice. Playing a happy drum and cheering up can be sarcastic at the time of a calamity when all crops are wilting since it does not rain. 

There is a wide variety of such rites across Iran, whose ultimate aim is to disturb the social norms in order to spite the supernatural forces that are believed to determine, rule and own the norms.   For example, In Maragheh, Eastern Azerbaijan province, they climb up the rooftops and steal the gutters. In Minab, Hormozgan province, people go on a short strike and do not work on a Thursday. In Zanjan, Zanjan province, some people wash a donkey’s head. Sometimes they gather human bones from a cemetery and burn them all, a sinful act that is subject to punishment in their tradition. In Mazandaran and Gilan, they take a pulpit out of a shrine and put it in water until it rains. Sometimes they even take off a shrine’s door and put it in water, as if they take it hostage until it rains. They unconsciously believe that an act of defiance may make the forces responsible for drought relent and loosen their grip on the rain, like modern workers who riot against the factory management to force it to compromise.


Figure 1- A rain-maker who wears a felt coat awkwardly, putting his feet instead of his hands into the sleeves (by Kiana Labbaf Khaneiki).


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