<---previous article

TIBETAN CARPETS: FROM A CULTURAL CROSSROAD

by Tom Cole


Originally appeared in Oriental Rug Revirew Vol 13, #3


An early article that I wrote many years ago, with some interesting ideas, some of which have formed the basis for the subsequent research and text prepared for Dream Weavers-Textile Art from the High Plateau. The singular nature of the both dragon throne back rugs endures over the test of time; I have not seen analogous examples in the interim.

Nor have I seen another rug like the Plate 1, a finely woven carpet with exceptional dyes, of the same group as the throne back, possibly made in the environs of Lhasa circa 1840.

And the final carpet is still without analogous examples, an exceptional weaving of great artistic merit with many unusual features including a unique border system and a plethora of color. Certainly, those early days in Lhasa and Kathmandu were very exciting times, yielding great treasures, the likes of which we have not seen since.



The subject of tribal origins of Tibetan rugs has been discussed previously in this journal, perhaps to the point of belaboring this non-issue, but, due to the general unfamiliarity with the art form, I felt it has been necessary to discuss the question at length. However, the existence of tribal rugs in Tibet, and the probability of nomadic production, does not preclude (nor dismiss) the existence of a sophisticated production from a sedentary population. Locating examples of an urban production reflecting the plateau aesthetic in addition to influences from beyond the traditional Tibetan realm previous to the decadent period of workshop carpet art is difficult as so few exist. But it is my belief that Tibet has always been at the juncture of Asia; as well as representing a blend of different ethnic groups of Turko-Mongol and Indo-European nomads, apparently it served as a cultural crossroads for art from the Moghul courts, the sedentary culture of the oases of east Turkestan, and, yes, Imperial China.



Plate 1. Tibetan RugCompare the unusual meandering vine design in the main border to an Indian saph from the 18th century. The use of primary color is reminiscent of Caucasian rugs. The Caucasian analogy can be carried one step further in identifying the central medallion as a Lesghi star variant.


The rugs in Plate 1and Plate 2 are apparently representative of the same production; an examination of structure, weave and palette supports this belief. But the anomaly of various influences on the designs rendered becomes evident while comparing these pieces to the iconography of other diverse examples. The main border in plate 1 bears a significant resemblance to Plate 3, an Indian saph from the 18th century (Eiland, figure 115, p 142). The meandering vine design in the Tibetan example is unusual.



Plate 2. Dragon throne back, Tibet.


The use of primary color in Plate 1 is reminiscent of Caucasian rugs, the juxtaposition of red, blue, and gold contributing to a striking image. The Caucasian analogy can be carried one step further in identifying the medallion as a Lesghi star variant, but the drawing of this device apparently incorporates devices from other cultures. The swastikas in the four corners may be attributed to a Central Asian origin, or as having been incorporated into this rug as part of the religious vocabulary of the weaver derived from the animist/shamanist beliefs of the steppe people. The forms in white of this medallion vaguely resemble the shapes of Buddhist stupas as well, stupas which serve as reliquaries for the remains of "precious" souls and objects. A peculiar form at the bottom of these white stupas may be interpreted as the heads of bulls or yaks, a suggestion of ancient symbolism (neolithic cult of the bull) perpetuated in textile art.


Plate 3. Indian saph, 18th century. R63.00.15. Courtesy of The Textile Museum


Addressing the possible interpretation of the various elements, one may conclude the symbols embodied here represent inspiration from diverse sources. Comparing this piece to Plate 4, an example depicted in Herrmann Volume X (plate 123), the similarities become more apparent. Beyond the atypical red field of this 18th century Ningshia example, the "butterfly" elements and the floral forms in the corners of the respective fields should be noted. The Herrmann rug is very uncommon for a number of reasons, but perhaps the single most interesting feature is the peculiar drawing of the medallion with the cloud collar forms outlining the floral center. The use of a primary red ground color in conjunction with this design suggests a relationship to rugs from the oases of Turkestan.



Plate 4. Chinese rug


The dragon throne back rug (Plate 2) is an exquisite example of a type commonly associated with the monastic communities. The symbols depicted in the border apparently represent two schools of thought, Buddhism and Taoism. This symbolism appears to depict a common theme, the supernatural. From the lower left corner up, these symbols may be interpreted as a sword (supernatural power), the fan (to revive the souls of the dead), flute (magic through music), canopy (protection from evil, appropriately placed at the top of the rug), another flute, two gourds (for storing medicines and drinks), pomegranates (fertility), a basket (carrying blossoms of supernatural effects), and a peach (symbolic of immortality and longevity).

The dragon motif in the field is most unusual, unique in my experience. The singular picture presented here is most
intriguing while considering the negative space delineated by the dragons' bodies. This form may be interpreted in a number of ways, a highly sophisticated example of pluralistic symbolism and interpretation. I believe it was the weaver's intention to imply the outline of a flayed animal skin bearing the appropriate brown ground color, symbolizing power and imparting some status upon the user of the rug. Another interpretation may be that of flames; the bodies forming the outlines of a fire with small flames leaping out and up (at the tip of the tails). Ancient religious beliefs of the steppe people (animism) and the Zoroastrian influences on the ancient Bon beliefs of the plateau inhabitants are apparently represented in this dualistic interpretation of the primary design element.



Plate 5. Dragon throne back, Ningshia, 18th century or earlier, 2'10"x2'10". Courtesy of Ronnie Newman..


Ultimately, I must also consider the scorned (and still 'unproven' as spurious) image of the Mother Goddess with the explicitly drawn symbol of a jewel (a child) moving through the birth canal (the space between the dragons' heads). I am not suggesting the existence of a Mother Goddess cult in Tibet, nor am I dismissing the theories of Mellaart (and others) as a hoax; I am proposing the goddess image to be a part of our collective subconsciousness. My perception of the form in this manner is not, I believe, a figment of my imagination but rather a component of all of our collective imaginations. If one pauses to contemplate the implications of these diverse and contiguous symbols, it is clear the weaving acquires added significance; it may be the throne back rug for an accomplished sorcerer of one of the many cults on the plateau, not necessarily confined to those of the Buddhist religion, or a cushion cover for an exceptional member of the aristocracy.



Plate 6. Tibetan rug. 17th century or earlier


The third Tibetan rug (Plate 6) pictured here is probably one of the oldest and certainly one of the most beautiful plateau weavings I have encountered. The border is comprised of apparent butterflies and bats in an interesting orientation suggestive of similar motifs encountered in Caucasian rugs and Anatolian kilims. The negative space formed in the blue ground is an ancient form often seen in Turkoman rugs.

As Alan Marcuson initially observed, the floral medallions bear a remarkable resemblance to a 13th century western Chinese or Central Asian needle loop embroidery. It is most interesting to note what may be regarded as the continuation of an aesthetic over at least 400 years. Or the rug may be older than the 17th-18th century as I have speculated in the past. The delicacy with which the elements of the roundel have been rendered is striking, a sense of serene naturalism imparted. The embroidery could not have been made any later than the early 15th century, when this laborious and expensive technique became obsolete. Therefore, it is possible the rug is contemporaneous with this unusually beautiful and rare embroidery.

The colors used here are representative of the Tibetan aesthetic, a preponderance of indigo blue with red, light purple, gold, and green, some shades of which I have not observed in other weavings from the plateau. All the dyes are corrosive inclusive of the white areas; the indigo treated wool stands higher than the

remaining pile and the light blue is slightly more worn than the dark blue. The delicate manner in which the dyes are handled complements the drawing. The clouds are also purely Tibetan; the workshop versions from China are much different.

Apparently sedentary plateau weavings portray a rich tradition with varied sources of inspiration as derived from consideration of these three examples. The geographical position of the Tibetan plateau appears to have contributed to this unique blend of styles and aesthetics, occupying the very heart of Central Asia. Wedged between the rich cultures of the subcontinent, China and Turkestan, one may speculate the sophisticated aristocracy enjoyed benefits through trade. Ebbs and flows of empirical power perhaps account for this unique melange as the Tibetans took what they could from others and revitalized all their art forms. The carpet tradition clearly enjoyed a period of renaissance in the urban centers.

But why do we see so few examples of this type of sedentary production? Are these pieces too old to expect to see many other examples? Due to the apparent regard for these rugs among Tibetans, it is no wonder they survived, having received special care which they deserved. The art is so developed and sophisticated, one could hardly entertain the notion they represent an anomaly, an aberration. But where are other examples?