Have you ever been inside an authentic rural hut – one carefully constructed of pine logs – somewhere out in the backcountry of the Polesye region in southern Belarus? If you haven’t, it’s highly recommended, as the unique characteristics and local way of life offer plenty to behold.
Outside the huts, you’ll find the obligatory birdhouse atop the roof, where the white storks (Ciconia ciconia) make their home, and the draw-well that reminds one of a token Belarusian crane (Grus). Inside, the huts feature a large oven for baking bread, women’s dresses decorated with beautiful patterns and flowers, woven runners made of wool and textiles that cover the floor’s wooden planks, as well as an abundance of rushniki (pl.) – traditional hand-made towels. Rushniki hang on the walls and cover both the icons of saints and the headboards of the beds.
In a typical Belarusian home, rushniki are the principal attraction as well as valued assets.
So what exactly are rushniki? An individual rushnik (sing.) is an embroidered or woven cut of cloth, usually made of linen, which looks like a towel and typically features both geometric and floral figures, as well as Vedic (ancient) symbols. Interestingly, the patterns are similar to the ornaments that are used by Native American tribes. Sizes may differ, but the widths are usually fifteen to sixteen inches, and the length of classical rushniki may reach five to seven feet, sometimes longer. The image featured on one half of the canvas is mirrored on the other.
Those that make Belarusian rushniki use a number of ancient pagan symbols in their designs. Some of the more popular symbols personify the Tree of Life, Mother Earth, the Heavenly Sky, and various symbols of fertility, love, good housekeeping, and happiness. In addition, Yarila, the Sun God; Makosh, the mother of good harvest and happy fortune; and Lada, the protector of women giving birth, are all commonly featured. Different compositions of Vedic symbols make up the system of creation – the Universe – so in other words, rushniki represent the laws of Belarusian lives on Earth. This is why the rushnik is the main talisman that accompanies a Belarusian from birth until death. It should be noted, however, that, while the Vedic signs on rushniki are reminiscent of Scandinavian runes, they also have outlines and features which are inherent to Belarus.
Made according to ancient rules, a rushnik not only serves a decorative purpose in the everyday lives of Belarusians, it also provides a symbolic reminder of the invisible ties that bind each person to God, family, and their ancestors. It’s no overstatement to say that the ornaments which are found on rushniki show an encrypted tale of both people’s lives and nature all around them. And one place rushniki hold extra special importance is in wedding ceremonies.
Today’s tradition of weaving or embroidering beautiful rushniki before a wedding has been preserved from ancient times. Historically, a Belarusian bride had to prepare no less than thirty rushniki for this main celebration of her life (thankfully, the older women were allowed to assist her).
Let’s travel back to the turn of the 20th century and observe the creation of a Belarusian rushnik and its subsequent use in a wedding ceremony. Imagine a Belarusian bride who, after saying her prayers, sits at the wooden weaver’s loom, called a krosny. Next to her is a more experienced weaver – her mother, a neighbor, or her grandmother – who advises the bride on the right way to “print” the fabric and compose the ornamentation. The bride’s hands are hurting, the hour is very late, and the poor girl wants to sleep. But even more than that, she wants to get married, start her own family, and have children. The working hours drag on, and the Slavic proverb “Burning desire is worse than fire” is a good way to characterize the joyful pre-wedding bustle.
But finally, the rushniki are ready, and it’s time for the wedding ceremony.
Tradition demands that the bride gift the rushniki to her groom, his parents, relatives, wedding officials, and guests. Rushniki are used to dress the important guests – the mother-in-law, the matchmakers and the bride’s parents – but the most beautiful rushnik is, of course, given to the groom, as a sign of the bride and her parents’ agreement to the marriage. Then, rushniki are used to decorate the wedding train, wrapped around the bows and laid on the horses’ backs. During the wedding ceremony, the bride and the groom are bound together with rushniki, and, in the church, stand together on a rushnik adorned with special symbols. Often, these rushniki depict pairs of birds, such as larks and doves, as well as the wedding bands, since these are symbols of marital bliss, faithfulness, and love. Afterwards, the newlyweds are given bread and salt on a painted “bread-and-salt” rushnik.
The embroidery is mostly red in color, signifying the sun, its warmth and its beauty. But the “church wedding” rushnik is white, as a symbol of the white cloud that the newlyweds use to ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven, where their marriage is given the highest blessing. The long canvas of the white rushnik symbolizes the long communal walk of life.
After observing all the rushnik-related customs, the guests then congratulate the newlyweds and begin celebrating. The newlyweds slice cake and pass it out to the guests, and, once the celebration is over, the bride hides the most beautiful rushniki in her trunk to keep for a long, long time.
Of course, today’s Belarusian weddings are somewhat different, but the tradition of preparing and using wedding rushniki remains, fortunately, both in Belarusian villages and throughout big cities.
In Belarus, there are several different varieties of rushniki with specific rules associated with each one. For example, there’s the custom of “covering the field,” which requires one to tie a beautiful rushnik to the last harvested sheaf, regardless of the fact that most harvesting is now done by modern harvesters. Women in traditional costumes make their way out into the field, cut the last heads of wheat with hand sickles, make a sheaf, and bind it with a “bread” rushnik. And during traditional harvest celebrations, known as dolzhinki, Belarusian women show handmade rushniki that attest to their remarkable skill and diligence in the craft.
It’s also customary to lay someone to rest covered with an embroidered rushnik, and there’s also a tradition of using rushniki to decorate the church icons and roadside crosses that can be found on the outskirts of virtually any Belarusian town or village.
But one of the most popular traditions is to give a “maternal” rushnik to someone who’s traveling to a distant land. Once upon a time, the popular Ukrainian singer, Dmytro Hnatyuk (Belarus and Ukraine are blood brothers), performed the following song:
“My dear mother, you bid me farewell at sunrise and gave me an embroidered rushnik to keep for my good fortune…”
It is a song that is loved and remembered by all Slavic people.
Today, the home-woven rushniki with handmade embroidery are often replaced with those made by modern machinery, but the majority of the Belarusians prefer the handmade kind. My grandmother, Anastasiya Borisovna – may she rest in peace – was a Belarusian peasant, and she was a beautiful embroiderer, decorating rushniki with elegant ornaments and patterns. I once offered to buy her a state-of-the- art embroidery machine, but she refused, point-blank.
“What about my hands, my head, my soul?” she asked.
And I wasn’t really able to answer…
…Several years ago, there was an exhibit in London on the traditional costumes and handmade rushniki of Belarus. Simon Bass, a well-known British composer and producer, was among the many visitors of this unique exhibit. He mentioned that it was a real eye-opener and admitted that the traditional costumes and embroidered rushniki impressed him much more than the magnificent, ancient Belarusian castles.
“It’s amazing that regular people could create such masterpieces,” he said.
One can contest Simon’s opinion, of course, but there’s one thing I know for sure: if people say that architecture is “frozen music,” then Belarusian rushniki contain the flickering, lucent soul of my country.
By Alexander Volkovich, Writer
You can reach Alexander Volkovich at email@example.com