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RUGS FROM THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT

A History of India, Pakistan and Kashmir By: James M. Keshishian 
Mark Keshishian 
& Sons, Inc. Chevy Chase, MD

Part 1 of a 2 part article
Originally Published July, 1983, VOICE magazine

Northern India and neighboring Pakistan today produce more hand-woven floor coverings than any other area in the world, -but the Indian subcontinent has been an area of great changes over the cen­turies. It has an enormous population, second only to China. The people here speak over 180 lan­guages, but primarily 14 major dialects, incomes in this region from a few cents a day to families with enormous wealth.

After numerous invading armies throughout the centuries, the Indians were dominated by the British from 1757 (The British East India Company) until their independence on August 15, 1947. On August 14, Pakistan too had become an independent nation.

Early History

The Scythians from Southern Central Asia conquered northern India in approximately 120 A.D. I· mention this in light of the 1947 discovery of the Pazyryk rug in a Scythian burial barrow.1   This places northern India as the area of the oldest known rug-500 B.C.  However, if we are to have a complete overview of current rug weaving in the Indian subcontinent. We should begin with Baber, the founder of the Mogul Dynasty of India.

This man of wisdom, military triumph and letters was most responsible for the fine art of rug weaving in India. Baber's love for the finest things in life extended to fine rugs and carpets and he saw to it that they became a part of the good life. Humayan, Akbar and Shah Jahan continued the production of the fine things in life and, of course, rugs and carpets.

 As we look at the map, it should be noted that all this activity took place in the north of India. Here the population was mostly Muslim as was Baber. To the south, the population was predominantly Hindu and Buddhist. This religious division still exists today. .It was through this religious, linguistic and geographical composition that Pakistan was later to become a separate country which was then subsequently divided into Pakistan in the west and Bangladesh in the east.

 

 

  If you could take the time to enjoy the art form of the Moguls, Muslims, Turk, Persians and Arabs, you would see a definite correlation. The lines flowers, arches, placement of calligraphy, human and animal forms all fall into a specific style. This style is predominant in miniature paintings, tile work, metalwork, jewelry, architecture and of course, rugs and carpets. The link was always there through religious differences and conquering wars. During these wars, much beauty was lost for ever, and many producing areas were devastated. Art was burned, rugs and looms were destroyed, artists dispersed and much was carried off as booty.

  During the Safavid Dynasty (1532-1736) in Persia and con current with the Mogul Dynasty in Northern India, the craft of rug weaving flourished. In Persia, rug weaving was both practiced and familiar to the area. But in India, the craft was imported. There is no doubt that the rugs in the Palaces of Baber (1483-1530) and his successor Humayun were imported from Persia. But with the arrival of Akbar (1556-1605) an ob server wrote, "His majesty has caused carpets to be made of wonderful varieties and charming textures; he has appointed experienced workmen, who have produced many masterpieces. The carpets of Iran (Persia) and Turan (Turkestan) are no more thought of, although merchants still import carpets from Goskhan (Joshaghan), Khuzistan (southeast Persia) and Sabzwar (northeast Persia). All kinds of carpet weavers have settled here and drive a flourishing trade. These are found in every town, but especially in Agra, Fathpur and Lahor.3

Following Akbar, Jahangir (1605-1628) perpetuated the art. He commanded the famous artists Mansur and Murad to paint the Birds, animals and flowers that were native to Kashmir. He called Kashmir "the garden of eternal spring." Art from the brush found its way into the art of printed fabrics and then knotted rugs.

  To look at these knotted rugs you see Persian rugs. However, as make a study of the designs and color the difference shows. There more yellow, more vegetation, more detail and nature are drawn more realistically. Symmetry is not important, rather nature rules. Following Jahangir was Shah Jahan (1628-1658) whose most memorable monument is the Taj-Mahal.? Agra became the new capital. Commerce, workshops, weaving, metalworking, gold and silvermithery, painting and the like were prevalent in Agra. The same was true in the city of New Delhi. Under Shah Johan's royal patronage the artisan flourished. Without this support, the artist could not hope to continue. As the 18th century approached, the last of the Moguls, Aurangzeb (1659-1707), was replaced by the increased presence of the British in the form of the strong English government-supported East India Company. The, Muslims originally occupied northern India and the last of these Muslim Mogul emperors, Aurangzeb was in increasingly mindful of Muslim law and tradition. He began to persecute the Hindus who were primarily in the southern part of the country. Hindu temple were destroyed and a full scale rebellion ensued which eventually led to Aurangzeb’s defeat. In November 1738, Nadir Shah (Aurangzeb’s brother) entered northern India, took over the country and systematically removed vast spoils to Persia. He supposedly took the famous bejeweled Peacock Throne and left Delhi to be pillaged by the local populace. As a side note, I once visited the vault museum located in the Bank Meli in Teheran, Iran. This museum held millions of dollars in precious gems and gold. They were displayed in bulk, and encrusted in jewelry and other royal wealth items-even thrones. There were many visitors and it was an amazing sight to behold. I'll never forget, however, an Indian looking fellow who asked me if one of the three thrones on display was the "Pea cock Throne"? The answer to this was, "No." This most famous and valuable throne is suspected to have been melted by the local people with some of the larger precious stones finding their way into royal jewelry in other countries.

 

The British Influence

During the 1600's several East Indian Companies were established. These were European companies that received special trading agreements from their governments to conduct business in the Indian subcontinent. Portugal enjoyed most of the European Commerce be - fore 1600, due to its large fleet of trading ships. The British East India Company came to India in 1600, followed by the Dutch in 1602, the Danes in 1616 and the French in 1664.

The Enterprising British Company protected its trading position by promising no territorial ambitions and one by one the other company’s were eliminated. As I mentioned previously, the Moguls had their difficulties and in the 1700's they began to lose their control over the area. The British Government finally established full control of India by buying the East India Company and consequently, India became part of the British Empire. When the British gained control they took gold; precious jewels and many rugs as well. While the British further developed the rug trade; the quality of the woven product, however, fell lower and lower. The overall quality of Indian rugs still remains low today (today meaning 1983 when this article was written). This is not to say that specific areas and companies did not maintain high quality, but by and large the average quality was lower. Kashmir, Jaipur, Amritsar, Srinagar, Lahore, Agra 'and other lesser known areas are still producing above average rugs.

The 1947 Independence of India and Pakistan

Finally with the end of World War II, the world-wide movement to independence by masses of colonized people took shape no more emphatically than in the Indian sub continent. Mohandas K. Ghandi single-handedly orchestrated passive resistance and saw his country more toward independence. Con currently, Western Pakistan (a rug-weaving area) and East Pakistan (known to the rug world as the major source of jute) became independent nations.

Both Western and East Pakistan are almost entirely Muslim but otherwise very dissimilar in culture and traditions. Civil war in March 1971 produced the nation's separation when West Pakistan became Pakistan and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The civil war, augmented by India's support of East Pakistan, developed into a war between India and Pakistan. During that conflict, India dispatched troops into the Kashmir region and laid claim to the area, which was already in dispute. The troops, by the way, are still there today.

 

 

Prayer design rug. Indian. During the early 171h century. when India was under Muslim rule, 
luxuriously designed carpets such as this were woven. Notice the colorful floral filled Mirhab 
surrounded by a delicately colored ground and stark contrasting main border.                       

 

RUGS FROM THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT Part 2

 Editor's note: This is part of a two-part article on the history and manufacture of rugs from the Indian Region. Part Two will appear in the August issue of VOICE.

REFERENCES

1) Rudenko, Sergei. Frozen Tombs of Siberia, University of California Press, California Press, Berkley & Los Angeles, 1970.

2) Dilley, Arthur Urban. Oriental Rugs and Carpets, J. B. Lippincott Co., New York, Reprinted 1959, pp. 128-142.

3) Abu'I-Fazl. The A'in-j Akbari, Trans. H. B1ockmann, Second Edition, Orig.Trans. 1927 Lahore, Quasain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 1983-2012 James Mark Keshishian Trust, Mark S Keshishian Mark Keshishian and Sons Inc.. All rights reserved.
No part of this article can be reprinted with out permission.