Ḵel’at or khil’at, meaning ‘robe of honour’ is an Arabic term to refer to gifts in general, but in particular to a robe of honour given by the ruler to a subordinate. The tradition of bestowing a garment of honour as an indication of special favour dates from ancient times in the Middle East. The term khil’at was used interchangeably with the Persian term sir-o pa (literally, ‘head to foot’).
In Persia, luxurious robes were used as early as 333 BC when Alexander conquered Persepolis and found several of them. Robes were also used during the Sassanian period, from the fourth to the seventh centuries. In the Byzantine Empire, there were robing ceremonies for bureaucratic promotions as well as personal recognition by the emperor. As the Byzantine Empire spread, so did the tradition of robing, incorporating local styles and traditions.
‘In the Sufi tradition, the presentation of the robes by a Shaikh to his followers remained one of the core ceremonies of legitimacy and loyalty for centuries. Sufi teachers had a practice to give their own ‘patched’ robe (khirqa, frock and muraqqa) to their followers as a visible symbol of discipleship.’1
Robes of honour were presented in the durbar or formal court of the rulers. Clothing symbolized authority, conveying information about rank at the court as well as the wealth of the dynasty. Robes were also used for diplomatic purposes, between rulers who exchanged gifts that demonstrated their wealth.
The creation of textiles was among the most important of the arts in the medieval Muslim society. Royal garments were inscribed with the caliph’s name and came to be known as tiraz – from the Persian tirazidan, ‘to embroider.’ The term later came to describe a line of embroidered or woven inscription, and then the weaving institution itself.
Inscribed textiles, with the names of the rulers as well as the dates and sites of production, were highly valued in the early Islamic period and were produced until the fourteenth century in both caliphal and state-run public factories.
During the Fatimid period (909-1171), the khil’at ceremony gained importance during the reign of the Caliph-Imam al-Mu‘izz. ‘In this ceremony, which can be traced to the time of Prophet Muhammad, the Caliph would bestow robes of honor upon deserving subjects. In Fatimid Egypt, silk robes woven with gold tiraz bands were reserved for the vizier and other high-ranking officials.’2
This custom spread to the Indian subcontinent in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. After overcoming initial philosophical issues about the clothing of the Hindu rulers, they adopted this custom, rewarding anyone they wished with luxurious robes.
The khil’at began to disappear in the nineteenth century. For those who led nationalist movements, the robes were a reminder of monarchy: old fashioned and out of style with the modern changing world.
1 Balkrishan Shivram, From Court Dress to the Symbol of Authority: Robing and ‘Robes of Honour’ in Pre-Colonial India (accessed April 2016)
2 Maryam Ekhtiar and Julia Cohen, Tiraz: Inscribed Textiles from the Early Islamic Period, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (accessed April 2016)
Steward Gordon, Suitable Luxury, Aramco World (accessed April 2016)
Encyclopaedia Iranica (accessed April 2016)
Compiled by Nimira Dewji