Three balls and two stripes – the chintemani

Three balls and two stripes – the chintemani

Niki Gamm ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Three balls and two stripes – the chintemani

The photo above shows a aftan with three ball design. Most experts believe that the motif originally came from the East and is part of Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

The chintemani, (three balls and two stripes), is one of the best known of Ottoman motifs, but also one whose meaning is among the most elusive. Why three balls? Are the stripes tiger stripes, or Chinese clouds, or something else? We see this design primarily on cloth, ceramic tiles and carpets from the Ottoman period, especially the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Most experts believe that the motif originally came from the East and is part of Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Originally Sanskrit, “chintemani” has the meaning of wish-fulfilling jewel and has been compared to the mythical philosopher’s stone in the West, which was thought to turn base metals into gold or silver.

In Tibet, the Buddhists use prayer flags on which there is a horse carrying three jewels that are supposed to bring good fortune. The three jewels represent Buddha, Buddhist teachings and the understanding of Buddha. On the flags, these three jewels are surrounded by writing or mantras to various gods and are supposed to have been part of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion known as Bon.

It is not an insurmountable leap to assume that the writing or mantras became simplified and represented in the abstract as stripes or wavy lines, although no one has yet suggested such an obvious answer to the puzzle of what the stripes mean.

In Hinduism, the motif of the jewel is rather different and we don’t see three jewels or balls, only one instead, suggesting that the motif does not come from that direction. Yet today in Javanese traditional batik, certain patterns were restricted in their usage, and wider stripes or lines indicated higher rank.

Another interpretation of the lines underneath the balls is that they represent the stripes on tigers.

Then the spots are those of the leopard and the two together in some way suggest the power of the two animals. So any ruler would want to sport such a powerful symbol.

Chintamani derived from Chinese word ‘chi’

J. Iten-Maritz, a leading authority and dealer in Oriental carpets in Europe in his book on Turkish Carpets offers another theory for the origin of the motif. “The word ‘chintamani’ is said to be derived from the Chinese word chi (phonetically ‘tchi’), meaning the ‘origin of all things’; the symbol representing this concept is a circle. The name could, however, be derived from a different, though phonetically identical, word signifying ‘cloud’ or any of the various forms of cloud motif.”

Iten-Maritz goes on to relate the possible origin of the chintemani design to the tamga or seal of the famous Timur, which had three balls or circles in a triangular shape above three cloud bands. The motif was portrayed on his banners and was considered the visual form of the threat of destruction that Timur represented, as it was planted over all the fortresses captured by the Central Asian conqueror.

According to information provided by the Silkroad Foundation about Timur, “Early in his career, he took the title or epithet ‘Sahib Qiran’ symbolized by three circlets forming a triangle … It was an astrological term which means ‘Lord of the Fortunate Conjuncture.’ It expressed his sense not just of balancing or juggling ruler, nomads and sedentarists, as his predecessors had done, but of integrating them into a dynamic institutional system.” However, the foundation doesn’t provide any examples of his use of the wavy lines.

Timur invaded Anatolia and defeated Sultan Bayezid I at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. In spite of this, Bayezid’s lineal descendent, Yavuz Sultan Selim I (r. 1512-1520) is supposed to have had Timur’s seal woven into his caftan, a dark blue brocade with the motif in white and yellow and red and yellow. It’s not very clear why Selim would be attracted to the motif since it represented the defeat of his ancestor, over a century earlier. Did he even know that it was Timur’s motif? He obviously saw it elsewhere, on tiles or silk brocade imported from the East or even more likely during his Iranian campaign in which he defeated Shah Ismail I at the Battle of Çaldıran in August 1514.

Selim’s success at Caldiran was so complete that Shah Ismail barely escaped with his life but suffered the humiliation of having his entire encampment seized, including two of his wives. The sultan continued his success by going on to capture Tabriz, Shah Ismail’s capital. Although the Ottomans only stayed there eight or nine days, it was long enough for them to round up artists, merchants and the like. Some one thousand households were packed up and sent off to Istanbul. Iran’s royal atelier was in Tabriz between 1502 and 1550 and these artists would have brought their designs and techniques with them.

The ball and stripe pattern continued to be embroidered on materials used in the clothing of the imperial household. There are examples on the caftans worn by the young princelings of the dynasty and, according to a former curator of textiles at Topkapı Palace, Dr. Hülya Tezcan, the design was used in women’s clothing as well.

Topkapı Palace tiles

Determining accurate dates for the use of the balls and stripes among the Ottomans is difficult. One source suggested that the chintemani pattern was already found in Bursa silk velvet at the end of the 15th century. In that case Yavuz Sultan Selim I probably was not the first Ottoman to wear the design although we don’t have examples. The design continued in Bursa silk into the first half of the sixteenth century.

In the tiles at Topkapı Palace there are examples of the wavy lines with three balls that remind one of a geometric panel design. These tiled panels would have been from İznik or Kutahya in the 16th and 17th centuries. In particular, the pediment of the door to the Circumcision Chamber at the palace consists of the cloud and ball design, although the Ottomans were already showing their even greater love for floral displays by this time.

As for carpets, only those woven in Uşak with a light ground are known to have used the chintemani design. Even then these are rare, although a number of years ago an attempt was made to arouse interest in them again.

Today we can still see the chintemani design on plates, ceramic tiles and bed coverings, to mention just a few. So, in spite of so many centuries having passed, chintemani is far from dead.