In the Lands of Dastarkhwan

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INTRODUCTION: The old soul in me distinctly remembers the yellow well laid out dastarkhwan or cloth spread on the floor for ladies to eat sumptuously cooked food after the annual Majlis (religious congregation )at my Phuphi’s (paternal aunt) house in the old city of Lucknow.

On the well laid out dastarkhwan was a wide array of traditional Awadhi food like Korma, biryani, naan accompanied by a variety of assortments all neatly assembled in dishes of various shapes and sizes.

Women would gather together with their children seated next to one another sharing their meals and stories. Later in life I too would be following this tradition for the children’s majlis I would organise at home.


Dastarkhwan is a Persian and Turkish term which means, tablecloth or a cloth spread used for layout of food items which is spread on the ground, floor or table.


Dastarkhwan has long been a way of serving food items in Central Asia, Middle East and parts of Asia. It is associated with the traditional space where food is eaten broadly to refer to entire meal setup. It may be spread on the table, on the floor of a house or in an open area.

The food placed on a dastarkhwan ranges from simple tea and bread (small meals for a family) to an elaborate cuisine ranging upto 10 course meal which can comprise of a welcome drink, starters, main course and desserts, in simple words a grand feast.

Some of the delicacies on the dastarkhwan can be relished only in a traditional Muslim home and not in restaurants or eateries.


There are certain logical and scientific reasons behind the art of eating cross legged on the floor, one been that eating while sitting eases in digestion while eating food with fingers stimulates the 5 sensory elements and helps in secretion of digestive juices in the stomach.

There are also dietary rules to be followed and Islamic scriptures outlines food items that are halal (permitted) and haraam (prohibited).

Large cultural significance is placed on the Dastarkhwan among different people and various traditions, customs, values and certain  prohibitions surround the use of a Dastarkhwan.


In Islamic culture dastarkhwan is used as a sanitary space for food as such there are several etiquettes and rules that have to be followed before, during and after eating food.


1. All must eat on the floor to ensure similarities between all classes, from slaves to the riches all must eat on the floor.

2. Using right hand while eating and drinking and passing the dishes sitting on the right hand side.

3. Accept meal by invitation.

4. Wipe off the dishes ,lick fingers which ensures receiving all the nutrients along with Allah’s blessings.

5. Share food and never waste food.

6. Over eating should be avoided as it can cause health issues and laziness.

7. Compliment tasty food and not criticize it.

8. Praise Allah after eating and do miswak to avoid bad breadth coming from the mouth.

9. Always keep drinking water covered and drink while sitting on the floor and finish the drink in three gulps. Do not drink in gold or silver vessels.



India is a land of diversity and it has vast culinary heritage. Food is meant to be a sensory experience as such cutlery is not being used to eat food in the traditional Indian dining culture.

People sit together on floor mats and share meals.

Saapadu is a centuries old traditional South Indian meal served on a banana leaf, it is eco friendly and is considered healthy for body, mind and soul.

Muslims in India prefer to eat traditionally on a dastarkhwan, a table cloth which has distinct patterns like floral prints complete with a couplet (sher) associated with the culinary world.

In North India, especially Kashmir, Delhi and Lucknow a yellow coloured floral print is used for dining whereas in South India especially Hyderabad a red coloured printed cloth is used as dining table cover. Both the table cloths have a culinary couplet or (sher) printed over them which further enhances the dining experience.

Muslim cuisine in India ranges from Mughlai, Awadhi,  Kashmiri, Kutchi, Hyderabadi, Bengaluru and Bhatkali.

Utensils kept on the food spread are called by different names in different regions where they are cooked and served ,these utensils are designed to be used for a variety of purpose.

In early times there was no concept of a wash basin or sink and so the meals ended with guests washing their hands in beautifully made portable sink which were made in either copper ,brass or steel. They had a hollow base and were covered with a perforated filter disk so that food particles while washing would stay on the disk and above the disk cover grass was spread so that the water would not not splash outside. Besan (chickpea flour) powder was used instead of a soap to clean hands.

The seportable sinks alongside jugs were used for washing hands in a communal gathering after a traditional meal. They are called by different names  such as Tasht Nari (Kashmir), Silapchi (North India), Celumchi lota (Bohra Muslims).

Indian classical movie like Garam Hawa (1974) has one scene where dastarkhwan tradition is displayed in a dining scene, other movies that includes dastarkhwan dining scene are Umrao jaan (1982), Pakeezah (1972), Junoon (1978) etc.

Dining scene from the movie Garam Hawa (1974)


Dastarkhwan Imam e Hasan a.s (Kareem e Ahlul bayt)

Dastarkhwan of Imam Hasan a.s is considered a very important event in the Shia Muslim calendar. This dastarkhwan is organised in the month of Shaban.

Shia muslims in particular organise nazr for invoking blessings into their homes. This dastarkhwan is especially spread on a green coloured cloth. Imam Hasan a.s is considered as Kareem e Ahlulbayt (The Generous One),it said that he daily organised a dastarkhwan for the poor and needy of Medina (Saudi Arabia), people from all over came to eat from this generous spread of food with blessing .

This tradition of dastarkhwan has continued in Medina till recently Sheikh Amiri (from an esteemed family of Medina) and his son had continued this unique traditional food spread until 2019, unfortunately after the Covid-19 the Saudi  government forced this event to shut down .

This dastarkhwan used to take place in Bagh e Imam Hasan in Medina. It was an outdoor event which took place under the lush vegetation of palm trees .

Spread out for anyone after every Namaz or daily 5 time prayers everyday this was a very well planned and well executed event organised in Medina city.

Among various kinds of religious dastarkhwan is one which is observed to breakfast on the day of Ashura (10th of Muharram) it is also known as faka shikanee. This food spread is simple devoid of any extravagance.


Ramadan is the month of fasting ,Muslims around the world keep fasts throughout the day. Apart from not eating and drinking they are forbidden to be angry, utter lies and be morally conscious, they break their fasts after sunset.

The break of their day long fast is known as Iftar and the food eaten Iftari. Every Muslim household prepare delicacies which are unique to their region and culture.

Eating iftari brings families together which is a tradition unique to every Muslim country and people, their food, utensils and dining cloth speak volumes of the culmination of different cultures over centuries.


Sofreh, the traditional Iranian table cloth available in various materials and patterns goes far beyond a piece of cloth spread for serving meals is an important element in Iran where celebration, religious and mourning ceremonies take place, it is also associated with table manners and etiquette.

People around sofreh begin meal with eating some salt and end meals with praying. Elders are given respect on a sofreh, no one is allowed to lie down or even stretch their legs when the sofreh is spread. In short sofreh is manifestation of persian culture and beliefs like togetherness, family ties and hospitality.

There are different types of Sofreh that includes, Sofreh Aqd for wedding ceremony, Sofreh Haft Seen (Persian New year which falls on March 20), Sofreh in the Month of fasting or Ramadan, Sofreh spread on Yalda night, which is the longest and darkest night of the year which falls on (21st December) every year, Jashn e Mehrgan or sofreh of (harvest season).


In Libya this term is used for a low tray or low table, where groups of people sit to eat meals together.

In Bangalore (India) there is a diaspora of Persian community living, either through marriage or migration. They occasionally organise sofra for niyaz (vow) or nazr (gift) where a variety of traditional Indo -Persian food is cooked and served.  Bohra Muslim community in India dines out of one platter called Thaal, which can accomodate 8 people. It is elevated with a Tarakhti (stand) placed on a square piece of cloth called safra which is laid out on the floor.


Just like their counter parts in India ,Iran and Africa people in Middle East too have a tradition of dining on the floor. This tradition has been practiced by Bedouins and various tribes inhabiting these lands.

They usually eat on a mat made from palm tree leaves which is found in abundance, these palm mats are made either in oblong or round shape. Cone shaped palm covers are used to cover large food trays from insects and flies.

During family gatherings and functions people sit next to one another cross -legged around these palm leaf mats spread on a beautiful carpet. This mat ensures that the food is respected and the carpet is clean from food mess and wastage.

Sharing meals enhances dining experience and develops a feeling of togetherness and nearness with one another. It is a unique way to bond and create good happy memories and socialise with everyone.

It is only recently with the boom in petroleum industry and change from traditional lifestyles to modern way of life that eating habits and customs surrounding them have changed drastically in the Middle East.


In Central Asia, Ughur region in China and in parts of Iran there is a distinctive item of furniture called Tapchan.

A tapchan is a raised wooden divan that is used outdoors for relaxing ,it is first covered with a persian rug, then covered with thin quilted blankets called kurpachas (made in silk, velvet or cotton) which are layered over, leaving a square in the middle for a small table, this small table is covered in embroidered cloth. This space is usually reserved for food, tea and fruits.

Colourful cushions and bolsters are placed all around to make the seating more comfortable. A tapchan can accommodate at least6 people for anexotic outdoor dining experience.

A well used tapchan takes shelter under a barn or a canopy until summers .Hot summers call for outdoors where families, friends and guests are found sitting perched on a tapchan sharing meals together along with a wide variety of food. They relish food, exchange notes, news and information with one another under the shade of a cherry tree or in the middle of an orchard.

One can find tapchan used outdoors in homes or as a traditional piece of furniture in restaurants across Iran and in Central Asia especially in Chaikhanas (tea cafes) which adds to the aesthetic beauty of the place and decor.


The continent of Africa has a diverse culinary heritage and way of life and amongst the vast dining tradition of it’s people one unique dining tradition of Ethiopia stands out. The city of Harar (Ethiopia) has a special basket table made out of locally grown dried grass and palm leaves called Mesob. Mesob is used to store injera or local flatbread.

Mesob come in all sizes, small ones can be decorative or used to store household items while large mesob play the role of a dinner table or serving or table. In many traditional Ethiopian homes people eat together and sit around this woven wicker on low -to -ground stools called barchumas.


Ismati Dastarkhwan : Recipe books printed in undivided India have been written by writers who were mostly females one such book of Indian cooking which has been well acclaimed is the Ismati Dastarkhwan (pure dining )in Urdu.

It was published in 1938 (Delhi )by feminist, writer, educator Amina Nazli . She collected recipes from affluent families and riyasat’s (princely states) and complied the recipes from women of Awadh.

It has served as a kitchen guide for new brides, the Indian diaspora and all those interested in cooking exotic recipes.



In the vast galaxy of culinary books on Indian cuisine, I chose this title especially for the uniqueness of it’s name Dastarkhwan as this name evokes feeling of nostalgia and exotic smell of Indian cuisine and culinary heritage.


Depleting local cultural traditions have robbed the dastarkhwan culture of it’s authentic self, although it is still struggling to survive having been kept alive by a handful of all those who have experienced love and warmth around it.

Colourful table cloths have been replaced by cheap plastic versions of the food spread, they not only make the space look dull and ugly but somewhere the aesthetic’s behind serving and eating food also gets lost.



My grandmother (Ammajaan) always stressed that food should look presentable and pleasing to the eyes before eating , she is particularly remembered for hosting memorable family dining and get together’s as she always believed in the thought that, “the most loved food to Allah is that which is touched by many hands (shared)”, Prophet Muhammed PBUH.

Also Read more from this Author: War On Journalism

Edited By Adam Rizvi

Curated and Compiled by Humra Kidwai

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Shahana Naqvi

Shahana Naqvi

CULTURAL MOSAICS : Shahana Naqvi a librarian by profession she loves to read on arts and culture and writes a blog , Museum of Passion, dedicated especially on various cultural traditions of the Islamic world . Having been brought up under the tender care and guidance of her maternal grandmother Ammajaan and the rich heritage tapestry of her beloved city of Lucknow is what shaped her life. Her quest to research Islamic traditions started when she was questioned about her faith, a beautiful journey to unearth the hidden treasures is what she has embarked upon and which according to her is her calling in life ……

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