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Venturing into the World of Omens

Fal, and Falnamah's - a tradition lost

Fal, a local form of cartomancy, has gradually been lost to the passage of time. Soothsayers and fortune tellers, sitting upon dusty footpaths, dressed in crisp, starched and ironed shalwar kameez, with their trusted old friend, a parrot as their companion, used to be heard calling out their wares.

Should a customer walk up to them, the parrot would be directed to walk away. The fortune-teller would then shuffle the cards and hold them out and call to the parrot, "Totay, totay, iska fal nikaal!" (Parrot, parrot, pick out his/her augury!)

The parrot would then choose a card. Upon reading it, the fortune-teller would explain to you the omen in exchange for a few coins.

Falnamah manuscripts were usually exquisite, from Ottoman Turkey all the way to Mughal India in the16th and 17th centuries; a book of divination and omens, they used to predict the future and tell fortunes.

In this folio from the Falnamah of Ja'far al-Sadiq, dating back to the 1550s, records an event from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), The illustration narrates the story of an old woman named Umm Mabid, shown crouching in the foreground, as the Prophet (PBUH), shown veiled (as per Islamic tradition of pictorial representation being considered disrespectful) and haloed in the centre, healing the boy as onlookers watch in awe.

This exceptionally large folio from Safavid Iran depicts the Seven Sleepers and their dog Qitmir, who escaped persecution by miraculously sleeping in a cave for 309 years. The contrasts between the dark cave and the colourful rocks, the commotion outside and the peaceful sleepers inside reinforce the narrative. The crowned figure on a white horse, most likely the Roman emperor Decius (ruled 249-51 AD) who persecuted the men, is led by Satan, portrayed here with dark skin, a white beard and a serpent emerging from his neck. The picture would have faced a text page that contains a positive augury.

An illuminated page from a Falnamah manuscript from Qazwin, the capital of Safavid Iran.

A page from a Falnamah from Mughal India, circa 1580, depicting a personified version of the planet Saturn. The Persian couplet inscribed shuns impatience and greed and stresses patience's importance in one's life.


Please note that Folkloristan does not own these images and that these are material subject to copyright. The credits are owed to Getty Images, MET Museum, Christie's, and Sotheby's (in order of posting).

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