CARPETS OF CENTRAL ASIA, WEST CHINA AND EAST IRAN

CENTRAL ASIA CARPETS

The Caucasus and Central Asian regions of the former Soviet Union are famous for carpets. Turkish, Central Asian and Caucasian carpets are usually coarser and have jagged geometric designs and brighter and wilder colors. They have a knot count that runs from 60 to 100 per square inch. Famous varities include Bukhara, Tekke, Yomud, Kazak, Sevan, Saroyk and Salor. Many Samarkand carpets were woven Chinese Turkestan.

Many Turkmenistan carpets are misnamed Bukhara carpets because that is where they were sold. Rugs produced in Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan in Xinjiang in western China are collectively known as Samarkands. New York Times reported: “Samarkand rugs are not woven in Samarkand, the second-largest city in Uzbekistan. Most come from the villages of East Turkestan, in China, and are then passed through Samarkand, a 2,700-year-old city. It was a market town on the Silk Road, the trade route between China and Europe.“Everything was going on there,” said Nader Bolour, the owner of Doris Leslie Blau. “Samarkand was stuck in the crossroads between India and Russia, China and Europe.” The carpets “display themes from many cultures, including China (with fretwork borders, lotus blossoms and cloud bands); India (with the swastika denoting infinity); Turkey (with bold reciprocal borders and carnations); and Persia (with floral trellis work). [Source: New York Times, March 14, 2008 \=/]

“These are sturdy wool rugs, not like silk Persian carpets. “The weave in these carpets is actually quite coarse,” Mr. Bolour said. “They are all about color and design, not fineness of weave.” He is attracted to their unusual color combinations. “None are red and blue like Oriental carpets,” he said. “They have very soft colors with a little tweak: magenta with acid green, peachy beige with brown, saffron yellow with lacquer red, bone with brown or slate blue.”

Each rug incorporates woven symbols. Three medallions together may represent Buddha. Pomegranates signify prosperity and fertility.” \=/

Kyrgyzstan is famous for shyrdak (felt rugs with appliqued colored panels), ala-kiyiz (pressed wool designs), tush-kiyiz (cotton or silk wall carpets) and Kyrgyz-embroidered felt carpets with a traditional Turkmen design. Kyrgyz also produce fine leather saddles and silver jewelry. Shydaks have traditionally been made in the summer from pieces of felt (pounded and layered wool) that has been repeatedly dried and dyed and sewn together with camel-hair thread. Patterns are made by cutting away upper layers to reveal different colored felt underneath. Common motifs include the ibex horn pattern, plant patterns and decorative scrollwork.

Different regions have different motifs and different patterns. A good shydak can take a group of Kyrgyz women two or three months to make but it can last for decades. The best quality ones are hand made. They generally have irregular stitching on the back and even stitching around the panels. To make sure colors do not run lick your finger and run them over the fabric to make sure it doesn’t bleed. The best shydaks are said to come from the Naryn area.

Turkmen Carpets

Turkmenistan is famous for its carpets, which are regarded by carpet experts as descendants of the purest and oldest carpet-weaving traditions in Central Asia. Many Turkmenistan carpets are misnamed Bukhara carpets after the town in neighboring Uzbekistan they where they were sold.

Turkmen carpets are prized for their quality, rich colors and lovely geometric and floral designs. They have traditionally been brilliant red and decorated with indigo, black and white designs. The red has been traditionally made with madder and rubia tinctorum, an herb that produces extraordinarily brilliant and long-lasting reds. Other colors come from beetle dyes. The best ones are made with the soft, curled grey, black or brown wool from the pelts of Karakul sheep.

Each Turkmen tribe has developed its own unique design, or gul, which distinguishes the carpets of different tribes and clans from one another and Turkmen carpets from other Oriental rugs. Designs and patterns also traditionally vary from village to village. The Ersia clan near Caspian Sea uses an anchor motif.

Carpets have traditionally been prized by nomads because they were easy to transport, they provided warmth and they could be used as furniture and decorative wall and floor coverings. The Soviets transformed carpet making into a state industry with factories churning out mass-produced carpets. The world’s largest handwoven carpet hangs in Niyazov’s presidential place. The second largest is in Ashgabat’s Carpet Museum.

Turkmen Carpet Making

Carpets have traditionally been made in villages by family groups of women who worked in their homes with primitive looms that lie on the floor and just three tools: scissors, a comb and a knife with a hooked blade. Most of the designs are made from memory and have been passed down to each generation from mother to daughter. Men traditionally bought the finest wool they could afford for the women to card and spin and took the wool to the markets where dyers specialized in specific colors like red and indigo.

Describing a Turkmen women at work on their looms, Sabrina and Roland Michaud wrote in National Geographic, “A weaver...knots a strand of wool around a thread of warp, cutting the ends with the sickle-shaped knife. After each row she tamps the line with a heavy comb. Finally, using shears, she clips several inches of shaggy tuft to an even height. The weavers work with every ounce of their energy, burying their joys and sorrows alike in their carpets, forgetting even the baby in its hammock hung above the loom.” They “wield great scissors with which they even the strands of wool...They cut themselves off from their world; they accept their lot with calmness and serenity.” [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, November 1973]

In recent years the demand for Turkmen carpets became so great that men have been recruited to work in large workshops. In the drive to mass produce carpets cheaply, carpet makers have abandoned traditional designs and use chemical dyes.

A six-by-nine-foot carpet typically takes two months to make and earns the weavers about several hundred dollars. It takes three months to make a larger wool carpet, a little longer to make a silk one. Small ones are used for prayer rugs. Large one used in the homes.

Kyrgyz Carpets

Carpet weaving is important to nearly all Central Asian people and has a long history in the region. It occupies its own separate category of arts and crafts with its own customs and traditions. The artistic traditions and craftsmanship used in making carpets are unusually high. Indeed, the carpet weaving was one the few means of aesthetic expression practiced by the stock-raising peoples of Central Asia. [Source: advantour.com]

Carpets have traditionally been used in yurts to help cover the ground, decorate the walls, cover different things and provide warmth. Carpets helped make the yurt cozy and served as furniture and decorations. The outside of a yurt was sometimes hung with a carpet curtain. The entrance often consisted of carpet rather than a door and the threshold was covered with a small narrow rug. The yurt dirt floor was covered with soft and warm koshmas (felt carpets), palaces (pileless carpets) and carpets. Special carpet carryalls were used to keep different things.

For all stock-raising peoples of Central Asia carpets have traditional been an integral part of a girl’s dowry. According to old customs, a new bride became part of to her husband’s family and was responsible for decorating the inner part of his yurt. Mothers had to give at least three carpets to their daughter’s dowry. Often the most skillful women from the bride family gathered to weave the carpets before here wedding day.

Urban people also have traditionally decorated their houses with different carpet items. As wooden furniture was not so common and people liked sitting on the floor carpets were the most often the most treasured and useful possessions in their houses.

The Kyrgyz began using the felt for weaving of carpets and other things many centuries ago. The development and perfection of every kind of Kyrgyz carpet art were affected by different factors, such as: conditions of life, climate, natural environment and social factor. Kyrgyz carpets are famous for their high quality. This is due to the subtlety of artistic devices and techniques. The Kyrgyz traditionally have not practiced carpet making as business or commercial activity, they mainly wove carpets for their own needs. That has changed now as Kyrgyz carpets have acquired a good reputation throughout the world. Among the most popular kinds of carpets are tush kyjiz, shyrdak, piled rugs, kurak, chiy and ala-kyjiz.

Pile Weaving

Teasel weaving — weaving using a frame — holds a special place in the rich and diverse heritage of Kyrgyz people. Piled carpets and other items made using this technique are colorful and known for their original designs. Carpets and woven items have their own stylistic traits, creating a harmony of patterned motifs in a variety of colors. This type of weaving is mostly associated with the southern parts of Kyrgyzstan. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Kyrgyz pile-woven items come in various sizes and are used for different purposes. Small bags are used for storing clothing and household articles, small carpets, horse harnesses, and a long band called a tegirich are used for decoration of the yurt. Large piled carpets called kilem are a greatly valued. Their size is approximately 150x300 centimeters. Kilems are widely used. When nomads and herders move from one place to another, they covered a loaded camel with a carpet. Carpets are laid upon felts and mats on the floor of a yurt at weddings, funerals, celebrations and when receiving guests. The carpets are stored faced down on the Juk - the central part of the yurt.

Kyrgyz piled articles are decorated with great variety of designs. Pattern plays a key role in decoration. Specific shapes often have symbolic value with a deep meaning to the Kyrgyz and other Central Asian people.

Kyrgyz Pile Carpets

Aijbek Aitbaev wrote: “Piled carpets are mainly made in the South of Kyrgystan and are a special example of a weaving process. The Kyrgyz were weaving the carpets beginning from early Middle Ages, but in spite of this fact, only a small quantity of carpets were made at production level. The First Russian travelers appreciated Kyrgyz piled carpets very much. However, it should be noted that the Kyrgyz began developing their carpet weaving in industrial scale as late as in the 19th century. Heretofore the carpets were made mainly for domestic usage and in after years, they were sold in the markets and exported abroad. [Source: advantour.com]

“Some carpets were used as bags, covers for saddles and otherwise. Large carpets at size of 150 to 300 centimeters called kils were normally decorated with a fringe twisted into threads. They were used to cover the cargo carried by camels that moved from jailoo (pasture) to jailoo, or were placed over the felt carpets (ala-kyjiz and shyrdak) in the yurts. The majority of these carpets were made of wool, but sometimes cotton was used for this purpose. Normally the Kyrgyz prefer to use camel pile because of its strength and durablilty. Weaving of the piled carpets is a team work which involves several women working together and who are normally representatives of one family.”

The piled carpets add coziness and home-like atmosphere to Kyrgyz houses and, in the summer time, to yurts. In summer pastures – jailoo the tourists and guests of the country may watch de visu magnificent Kyrgyz yurts decorated with piled carpets. “

Unique features of Kyrgyz applied arts found in piled carpets includes succession of background and pattern colors and an interaction of blue and red colors. The majority of piled items have a central field and a border. Each part has its own rules of ornamentation including fixed character pattern arrangement and certain color combination. On hand carpet patterns are stable, keeping close with traditional shapes and symbols. One the other hand, new ideas are constantly being added by the craftsmen with each new carpet.

Marking a Pile Carpet in Kyrgyzstan

Traditionally, carpet weaving has been a skill practiced by craftswomen called cheber, who have been involved into the production of carpets since they were 9-12 years old. Gifted craftswomen who wove patterned carpets have always been respected. Many of them were also good at rolling felt and were excellent needle women.

Kyrgyz carpets are famous for high quality and durability. They are mainly made of wool, but some are made of cotton. Wool of sheep, goats and camels is used to weave carpets. Preference is given to camel's wool because of its strength. Sheep's wool of grey or brown color is used for making warp (up and down threads) , weft (sideways threads) and pile (an upper layer of pile attached to a backing). Coarse wool is used for warp and a weft. Soft wool is used for making a pile. Sometimes white goat's fluff is used for the pile. The lengthwise threads of the carpets (the longitudinal warp) are spun and twisted very tightly and evenly. They are treated in a special fashion to make them stronger resulting in a firm and thick carpet. The crosswise threads (latitudinal weft) are not spun as tightly as the lengthwise threads because the weft does not have to be stretched on a loom in the way that the warp

The device used for making carpets — the loom — is very simple. It is fixed to the ground and the frame is made of four wooden bars. Such devices are used through out the country and more or less the same as those used in ancient times. The tools of carpet makers are simple: 1) a wooden comb or tokmok used for adjusting threads of the weft and pile; 2) a knife, or pychak applied for cutting thread of the pile; and 3) scissors, or kaichy for leveling the pile. Traditional carpet making is accompanied by observance of some old traditions such us kilem ashar, which means to provide assistance in carpet making. In accordance with this a carpet maker is helped by several women. When the work is finished they are given presents and food.

The process of making a pile carpet begins with the weaving a thick border 7-10 centimeters in width. It is usually a grey or brown color. Most carpets ended with long fringe of plated threads.

The basic color combination of carpet consists of two colors - red and blue. This tradition is rooted in ancient times. Both colors have delicate and soft shades. Kyrgyz carpet makers use plant dyes to make many of their colors. In addition to red and blue colors, they used orange, yellow, pink, green, brown and white.

Shyrdak

The most popular kind of felt carpet in Kyrgyzstan is a shyrdak. It is woven using a mosaic technique, which is one of the more complicated weaving methods, but at the same time makes the carpet very durable. By some estimates the average lifespan of a shyrdak is about 100 years, and often much longer.

Shyrdak carpets have traditionally been among the most valuable things owned by a Kyrgyz family. They comprise an indispensably part a girl’s dowry. One of the key elements of these carpets is its stitching — shyryk (which gave rise to word shyrdak) which enhances the carpet’s durability. The stitching follows design drawn on the carpet, creating its pattern inside the felt. The size of a shyrdak is about 1.5 meters by 3 meters, which is convenient for handling.

Among the traditional drawings of a shyrdak are animals, deer horns and inscriptions, which often have special meaning to the carpet’s owner. Nowadays many shyrdak carpets are made in the provinces of Naryn and Issyk–Kul. They are presented to girls as a dowry for their wedding-day. In ancient times Shyrdaks are not available just for everybody, while today it is an integral part of interior of most of Kyrgyz houses. Shyrdaks laid down in the center of the yourta, on the place called Tor, just across the entrance. A few of them also kept on Djuk.

Shyrdaks are one of the best known felt hand-made articles. They are known for their fine stitches and decorative patterns, balancing the background and main patterns with rhythmical simplicity and expressiveness. The repeated motifs are often inspired by things in the natural environment such as kochkor muiuz (mountain sheep horns) or teke muiuz (mountain goat horns) or ky'yal (fantasy images). The interface between negative and positive, light and dark, and fullness and emptiness creates the feeling of richness in spite of simple materials and limited colors used to make the carpet. In 1960s multi-colored shyrdaks became popular. In recent years large traditional patterns have been replaced by geometrical designs such us rhomboids or hexagons.

Making a Shyrdak

Shydaks have traditionally been made in the summer from pieces of felt (pounded and layered wool) that has been repeatedly dried and dyed and sewn together with camel-hair thread. Patterns are made by cutting away upper layers to reveal different colored felt underneath. Common motifs include the ibex horn pattern, plant patterns and decorative scrollwork.

Different regions have different motifs and different patterns. A good shydak can take a group of Kyrgyz women several months to make but it can last for decades. The best quality ones are hand made. They generally have irregular stitching on the back and even stitching around the panels. To make sure colors do not run lick your finger and run them over the fabric to make sure it doesn’t bleed. The best shydaks are said to come from the Naryn area.

Making a shyrdak is very labour-intensive. It can take a woman two to six months to weave one carpet depending on how much time she can devote to it and how busy she is with her other chores. Normally Kyrgyz women work in groups, mainly made up members of a single extended family, especially to produce the larger ones. Working in this way smaller carpets take about 15 days to make, while the larger ones can take about one and a half monthes. Working on her own a single generally needs six months to a year to make a three meter by two meter shyrdak,

The basic process of make a shyrdak carpet is as follows: 1) the carpet is made of two kinds of felt — an upper layer made from thin felt to which a colored drawing is applied, and a lower layer made of thick felt of brown or black color. 2) The pieces of the dyed felt are folded and sewn together. Ornamentation is applied with the help of a piece of chalk and made by cutting away pieces of cloth with a fine knife to reveal the cloth underneath. [Source: Aijbek Aitbae, advantour.com]

To make a shyrdak the felted wool is first washed, then dried and dyed. Before dyeing, big sheets of felt are cut into square pieces. The background normally has dark color and uses only thick pieces of felt. To make the upper panel two colored pieces of felt (say red and green) are loosely stitched together. Then the outline of the pattern is drawn in chalk in a corner of the top layer of felt. The second half of the pattern is produced by folding the felt over and pressing it so that the chalk outline is imprinted as a mirror reflection on the same piece of felt in such a way that the pattern covers half of the square piece of of felt. This process is repeated to produce another mirror image on the other half of the square. In this way a perfectly symmetrical pattern is produced. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

A sharp knife is then used to cut along the chalk outline. The result is four pieces of felt — two backgrounds and two inner patterns — in different colors. The two background pieces, which are still connected by the thread originally used to join the two squares, are separated.

The inner part of the color is then sewn into the background piece of contrasting color to form a square form. When the second panel is completed: 1) The two are sewn together to give a mirror image of contrasting colors; or 2) a large carpets are made by sewing the colorful panel together with dark panels. The panels of the carpet are then surrounded by a border. The outer edging usually consists of two or three borders of different widths; each of them sewed on individually. The edging features a chain of curls, triangles, broken lines or other shapes between two narrow borders. The last is sewing on a backing to give the shyrdak extra thickness and strong. The is especially important if the shyrdak is placed on the floor.

Samarkand and Khotan Carpets

Rugs produced in Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan in Xinjiang in western China are collectively known as Samarkands. Typically, long and narrow with simplistic spacious designs rendered in a glossy wool, Samarkand rugs frequently employ colorations of lacquer reds, Chinese yellows, heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of China and Turkey and have been produced in this region since at least the seventeenth century. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau *~*]

According to Doris Leslie Blau The antique rugs of the oasis towns of East Turkestan are incomparable. These exotic oriental carpets from Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan in the Chinese occupied Autonomous Region of Sikiang are collectively known as Samarkands. Samarkand & Khotan Rugs typically, they are in a long and relatively narrow format with simplistic spacious designs rendered in a glossy wool, occasionally embellished with richly brocaded silk and metal-thread. The distinctive and prevailing colorations of lacquer reds, Chinese yellows, heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of China and Turkey, have been produced in this region since at least the seventeenth century. For thousands of years these lands of arid steppes, deserts and brutal mountain ranges were traversed by caravans of merchants and traders from China to Western Europe along the Silk Route. *~*

On an exhibit of 60 Samarkand carpets at Doris Leslie Blau made between 1880 and 1930, the New York Times reported: “Samarkand rugs are not woven in Samarkand, the second-largest city in Uzbekistan. Most come from the villages of East Turkestan, in China, and are then passed through Samarkand, a 2,700-year-old city. It was a market town on the Silk Road, the trade route between China and Europe.“Everything was going on there,” said Nader Bolour, the owner of Doris Leslie Blau. “Samarkand was stuck in the crossroads between India and Russia, China and Europe.” [Source: New York Times, March 14, 2008 \=/]

“The city has been inhabited since 700 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered it in 329 B.C. The Mongols sacked it in 1220. Tamerlane made it his capital in 1370. “Samarkand is history’s definitive melting pot,” Judith Glass, an antique-rug consultant, writes in the catalog. The carpets “display themes from many cultures, including China (with fretwork borders, lotus blossoms and cloud bands); India (with the swastika denoting infinity); Turkey (with bold reciprocal borders and carnations); and Persia (with floral trellis work). \=/

“These are sturdy wool rugs, not like silk Persian carpets. “The weave in these carpets is actually quite coarse,” Mr. Bolour said. “They are all about color and design, not fineness of weave.” He is attracted to their unusual color combinations. “None are red and blue like Oriental carpets,” he said. “They have very soft colors with a little tweak: magenta with acid green, peachy beige with brown, saffron yellow with lacquer red, bone with brown or slate blue.”

Each rug incorporates woven symbols. Three medallions together may represent Buddha. Pomegranates signify prosperity and fertility.” \=/

Khorassan Rugs

According to Doris Leslie Blau: “Khorasan consists of two words, "Khor" and "Asan," meaning "rising sun" as befits a region on Iran’s eastern border. Bordering the Salt Desert to the west and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to the east the Khorassan region (or more correctly, province) is home to many well-known Oriental rug workshops in the towns of Amoghli, Khamenei, Makhmalbaf, Saber, Zarbaf, and, of course, Meshad. With a good supply of soft wool, high quality craftsmen, a mix of larger city-based workshops, looms in smaller villages, and access to the Silk Road, Khorassan has a reputation far and wide as a source of the largest and most varied assortment of beautiful Persian carpets and rugs. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau *~*]

“Carpet weaving has a long and rich history in Khorasan. The region has been famed for fine rugs and carpets going back to Timurid times in the late middle ages. Later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Khorassan became a center for the production of high quality room-sized carpets due to its large stable supply of city-based weavers who could accommodate the larger anchored looms required to produce these larger carpets. Although still Khorasan carpets, many of these are sometimes known by more specific sub-region of origin designations such as Meshad or Doroksh. The range of designs is extensive, from allover and arabesque medallion patterns in the classical tradition to designs influenced by its proximity to Turkmenistan yielding Khorassan carpets displaying geometric patterns rather than the more traditional Persian motifs. The palette on antique Khorassan rugs and carpets is varied as well. *~*

“Many antique Khorassan rugs have a softer, more decorative coloration, sometimes using deep, rich tones featuring main colors of dark burgundy, indigo, ivory, and light green. But whatever the design or color, antique Khorassan rugs and carpets maintain a high standard of drawing and weaving technique; Khorassan rugs and carpets are made with a soft wool woven into thin, tight piles making them durable despite their soft lustrous wool. Further differentiating themselves, Khorasan carpets make use of an unusual artistic effect produced by unevenly trimming of the pile which makes the figures of the design stand out from the background.” *~*

Meshad Rugs

According to Doris Leslie Blau: “Meshad, is the administrative seat of the Khorassan province which is located in Iran’s east, bordering the Salt Desert to the west and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to the east. It was a major oasis along the famed Silk Road, which stretched some 4,000 miles from China and India all the way to the Mediterranean which in turn allowed European access to Chinese goods. Meshad is currently Iran’s second largest city with over three million residents. The broader region is home to many well-known Oriental rug workshops in the towns of Amoghli, Khamenei, Makhmalbaf, Saber, and Zarbaf which produce antique Persian rugs that feature both symmetrical and asymmetrical knots. Antique Meshad rugs are 'jufti' knotted, a technique used in antique Khorassan carpets and antique Doroksh rugs as well. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau *~*]

“With a good supply of soft wool and high quality craftsmen, Meshad has had a reputation as one of the most prolific, creative, and highly stylized sources of beautiful Persian carpets making them easily identified throughout the centuries. Most Mashhad carpets have corner-medallion designs strewn with flowers. The medallion, quarter-foils, and the main field of the carpet are typically dark-red or black-blue. The medallion in Mashhad carpet is often circular with sixteen appendages or oval. The main field of the carpet is frequently strewn with motifs adopted from filigree works of Kerman and Yazd. Considering the design, weave, and coloring of these carpets, they are very easily distinguished from carpets woven in Yazd or Kerman. *~*

“Meshad carpets feature multiple borders with eclectic color palettes, designs based on classical models, but executed with East Persian spontaneity with color schemes ranging from traditional burgundies and midnight blues, to the more contemporary tints of ice blue and beige.

As is typical of workshop rugs produced in larger towns, Meshad rugs can be larger and of a more consistent quality than rugs produced in a smaller village and, of course, by nomadic tribesmen. This is a result of the sturdier looms typically used in larger towns and cities (they are ill-suited to village settings and not at all feasible for nomads. They are too large and require an anchored placement) and the better quality-control which weeds out deviations and irregularities that would pass muster in a smaller setting not up to the level of Meshad’s artisans. Reflecting their pride in workmanship, Meshad weavers frequently signed their work.

Indian Rugs

According to Doris Leslie Blau: “Indian carpet weaving was at its height during Mughal dynasty. The earliest Mughal carpets from the 16th century reveal the heavy influence of Persian carpet weaving traditions, which were brought to India by Persian rug weavers. However, by seventeenth century, Mughal rug designs had begun to reflect more Indian motifs and had also become more naturalistic due to the affect that European trade had on the arts of India. Despite the array of influences, the rugs of Agra, Lahore, and Fatehpur Sikri as a whole reflect the Mughals' great respect for and appreciation of nature, along with their high standards of craftsmanship. The steady demise of the Mughal Empire was accompanied by a decline in the production of fine Indian rugs that was only revitalized by the British in the nineteenth century. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau *~*]

“The production of antique Indian rugs and carpets in any quantity dates from the Mughal period of the late 1520's. Beginning with the conquest of Northern India by Babur, weaving workshops developed around the imperial cities of Agra, Fathpur and Lahore. Akbar the Great (1556-1605) and his successors sponsored and encouraged the weaving of splendid Indian versions of classic Persian floral, garden and hunting rugs and carpets. As an eminent patron of the arts, Jahangir (reigning from 1605-1628), possessed a deep love for the beauty of nature, influencing the artists of his court. Unlike antique Agra carpets manufactured in the prisons of India, antique North Indian rugs were products of a cottage industry controlled by families of carpet weavers. With a knotted pile of the softest pashmina wool, the antique North Indian carpets originated and perfected by these weaving families, have to this day, rarely been equaled. *~*

“While the rugs that were made during the late 19th century in India recall Mughal designs, for the most part, they were finely-knotted interpretations of both classical Indian and Persian designs, often in subtle color palettes to cater to European decorative preferences. The two main cities of late 19th century antique Indian carpet weaving are Agra and Amritsar. While Amritsar rugs are often whimsical, informal and in soft earthy tones, Agra rugs are frequently characterized by their deeper colors and fine weaves.” *~*

Mughal Carpets

Marika Sardar of New York University wrote: “Before the time of Akbar (r. 1556–1605), it seems that few carpets were produced in India—perhaps because of the climate—but his court historians record royal workshops in the capitals of Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, and Agra. Early Mughal rugs closely resemble those from contemporary Persia, and in particular those produced in Herat. Later in the seventeenth century, patterns changed as European engravings and illustrated books circulated at the court, and a Mughal idiom, distinct from the Persian manner of depicting flora, developed. With the work of European traders, Indian carpets traveled to the West and as far east as China and Japan, and were avidly collected in England and Portugal.” [Source: Marika Sardar, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Describing a 833.1-x-289.5- centimeter, late-16th-or-early-17th-century. Mughal period cotton and wool carpet, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Across the imperial red field of this carpet, wild animals move freely about among decorative trees and plants. One lion is attacking an ibex, a type of wild mountain goat. Small birds are perched on the branches of the blossoming trees. Beneath them, large cranes stand about. It is as if one were looking into a royal Mughal hunting park filled with lions, tigers, ibexes, and palm trees, all native to South Asia. Closer examination reveals, however, that not all the beasts are real. Some lions and ibexes have flamelike attachments on their bodies, resembling those that appear on the qilin, a mythical Chinese beast. Since the thirteenth-century Mongolian invasions in Iran, Chinese motifs such as the dragon, phoenix, and decoratively curled clouds often appeared in Persian art. The Mughals, who greatly admired Persian art, brought to India this taste for Chinese motifs. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Iranian court weavers imported by the early Mughals introduced the Persian style of carpets in which a symmetrical field of stylized flowers, birds, and sometimes animals in combat were arranged in dense arabesque patterns based upon geometric order. The challenge faced by later Mughal weavers was how to adapt this traditional ornamental style to the growing imperial interest in pictorialism. Here the animals, birds, flowers, and trees are placed in a design that repeats three and a half times, each revers- ing the direction of the last. Although a sense of decoration and repetition still prevails, the area in which the birds, animals, trees, and flowers exist is more like a landscape. The field has opened up, the patterns are less insistent and symmetrical, and the animals charge about with natural energy.” <*>

Book: Walker, Daniel Flowers Underfoot: Indian Carpets of the Mughal Era. Exhibition catalogue.. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999.

Different Types of Indian Rugs

According to Doris Leslie Blau: “Amritsar Rugs: The city of Amritsar, situated in Northwestern India, became a center of Indian rug and carpet weaving in the nineteenth century when the Maharaja Ranjit Singh annexed Kashmir, the flourishing shawl weaving center. The rise of British supremacy in the 1850s along with the Crystal Palace Exhibit in London, captured the attention of the public and sparked the dramatic development of rug production in Amritsar. Under the influence of European rug importers, the establishment of looms and the availability of fine quality wool from sheep raised in nearby mountains and valleys, the rug weavers of Amritsar adapted their traditional carpet designs to correspond with western tastes and European demand. Antique Amritsar rugs and carpets are characterized by large scale patterns featuring millefleurs designs, mythical beasts and Persian inspired florals, in subdued colors including light blues, yellows, teal, burgundies and mauves. The rich heritage and beauty of antique Amritsar rugs continue to make them among the most decorative components of today's interiors. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau *~*]

“Agra Rugs: During the sixteenth century the city of Agra, famed for the Taj Mahal, was the capital of the Mughal Empire and the cultural center of Indian art forms such as inlaid stonework, jewelry, miniature paintings, architecture, textile design and rug & carpet weaving. In nineteenth century northern India, the art of oriental carpet weaving as a commercial enterprise was revived with stunning results. Since the golden age of Mughal India the production of rugs and carpets had virtually disappeared until it was regenerated under British rule. Prisoners in the country's jails - including those of Lahore, Yeraoda and Montgomery, as well as Agra - wove some of the most beautiful carpets. Designs for these antique Agra rugs were often based upon classical Persian pieces from the sixteenth and seventeenth century especially antique rugs and carpets in the collection of the Maharajah of Jaipur. Many of these exceptional antique Agra jail carpets were commissioned by special order and found their way, via the powerful Anglo-Indian trading companies of the time, to the great houses of Britain and Europe. *~*

“Dhurrie Rugs: “Traditional Indian Dhurrie rugs had been overshadowed by luxuriant Mughal pile carpets for too long. In the twentieth century these antique flat-woven Indian rugs began to be recognized and lauded as a significant art form of the Indian subcontinent. Transcending social boundaries, the Dhurrie rugs were used by both commoner and royalty. As versatile and welcome in a dirt-floor hut as it is in the most palatial home. At its simplest, it was a multi-purpose textile used as a floor covering, or for bedding or packaging, while the most elaborate were woven with the finest fibers and enhanced by gold-wrapped thread and graced the palaces of royalty. *~*

“Dhurrie rugs have been made by the people of India for thousands of years. By definition, a dhurrie (the word is sometimes spelled "dari" or "durrie") is a flat-woven rug indigenous to India and the surrounding regions -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Burma. Dhurries are always weft-faced, which means that the warp, or lengthwise threads of the rug, are never visible except at the fringes. Dhurries can be coarsely or finely woven and, best of all, they are reversible. *~*

“Dhurries have few structural or stylistic restrictions. They can be as small at 12” by 12” or as large as 20’ by 20’. The carpets usually feature "dovetailed joints," which means that the same warp is shared when wefts of different colors meet, resulting in an unbroken weave. But they sometimes employ the slit-tapestry technique used in kilims, which creates small gaps when different blocks of color are introduced. Traditionally Dhurries are 100 percent cotton or wool, flat woven on a loom, ensuring a truly hand-crafted, all-natural product. Stripes, geometrics, and rudimentary Islamic images, such as mosques and minarets, are traditional dhurrie motifs, largely because they were easy to create on the simple horizontal looms used to weave them. But as Britain's influence grew in 19th-century India, so did the popularity of European designs, particularly, brash Victorian floral patterns. *~*

Chinese Rugs

According to Doris Leslie Blau: Decorative oriental rugs and carpets have been a significant art form within the Chinese culture for many centuries, if not for several millennia. Mostly in blues and beiges, with classical symbols of longevity, elaborate lotus blossoms, chrysanthemums, cloud-band motifs, foo-dogs and birds, antique Chinese rugs are frequently visible in paintings from as early as the T'ang Period. In contrast to earlier Chinese antique rugs, twentieth-century Chinese Art Deco rugs can be quite spare in design, catering to modern western or Art Deco taste, and quite radical in color. The most recognizable producer in this genre was Walter Nichols, and American who manufactured art deco carpets in Tientsin. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau *~*]

“Rugs produced in Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan in Xinjiang in western China are collectively known as Samarkands. Typically, long and narrow with simplistic spacious designs rendered in a glossy wool, Samarkand rugs frequently employ colorations of lacquer reds, Chinese yellows, heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of China and Turkey and have been produced in this region since at least the seventeenth century.” *~*

Tibetan Carpets

Tibet has a long history of making rugs from Tibetan highland sheep's wool, called changpel. Tibetan rugs are used for many purposes ranging from flooring to wall hanging to horse saddles, though the most common ones are “sadian” (carpet for covering floors) and “kadian” (puff, a plush mat for coving cushions). The knotting method used in Tibetan rugmaking is different from that used in other rug making traditions. Some aspects of the rug making have been supplanted by cheaper machines in recent times, especially yarn spinning and trimming of the pile after weaving. However, some carpets are still made by hand. The Tibetan diaspora in India and Nepal have established a thriving business in rug making. In Nepal the rug business is one of the largest industries in the country and there are many rug exporters. Tibet also has weaving workshops, but the export side of the industry is relatively undeveloped compared with Nepal and India. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

By size, carpets larger than 18 square feet are called sadian, and the others are called “kadian”. Kadians are widely used as cushions. They are usually about 0.9 meters by 1.8 meters in size -- this size fits the function as both a seating area and small bed in many Tibetan houses. Ka of Kadian means "above" in Tibetan. This is because the Kadian is placed up above the seat. Traditionally, Kadian, made of colorful cashmere and felt, wears well. It is used for sitting or sleeping on, rather than for spreading out as floor coverings. It can be used to keep warm, and is waterproof. It is not only comfortable bedding but also a beautiful adornment.

The felt produced on the Tibet plateau is hard but flexible, and contains long fibers, which makes it good raw material for Kadian. Kadian is produced all over Tibet. The ones from Gyangze of Shigatse area are special. The area of Gyangze, with a history of 600 years in rug-making, has long been famous as 'the home of Kadian.' In Gyangze, every family knows how to make carpets. Gyangze is well known for not only its singular weaving technique, but its especially bright colors. All the dyes are made from local leaves, the roots of herbs, and mineral stones, except for red and black. These colors are very bright and colorfast. Kadian of Gyangze is not only famous in China but also has a big market in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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