Weaving a legacy in exile
These threads flowed into boxes, resting behind the women, where they were neatly arranged into colourful bales. In the adjacent room, a pretty store selling Tibetan artefacts, a few visitors were enquiring about the handmade carpets that these women were weaving.
Right there at Dolma Chowk in Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh, far away from Tibet, this was the scene at the Tibetan Handicraft Co-operative Society Limited centre, when I recently visited them.
“This co-operative was started with the Dalai Lama’s blessings in 1963 to preserve the ancient craft of Tibetan carpet weaving,” told Tamding Tsering, who has been with the cooperative since 1972.
“In 1959, the year of the Tibetan Uprising, when the Chinese took control, thousands of Tibetans followed the young Dalai Lama’s flight to Dharamsala in India through the Himalayas.” He told me that his family was one amongst them and that he was still a child when he came to India.
“I grew up here and joined the co-operative as an employee, learnt carpet weaving, and in 1983, I was promoted to the position of a carpet teacher. And since 1992, I have been acting as the production manager.”
This centre and carpet weaving, he informed, have been creating jobs for refugees who arrive from Tibet as well as for those Tibetans like him who have grown up in exile. It has also been contributing to the Tibetan Government in Exile, he said, which is located a little down the road.
Art of weaving
An ancient and traditional craft, carpets have been an intrinsic part of Tibetan culture, where they have been used for a myriad of purposes: Sleeping, sitting, as horse saddles, wall hanging, flooring, etc.
Another teacher, Dawa Dolma, sitting beside a fellow weaver, where they were working on the same carpet on a loom, told me that the technique used in their weaving was unique. “We still use the archaic vertical loom and double knots.
You won’t find any other weaving tradition using the double knot. These knots,” she said beating at them with a wooden hammer, “Are tied over a rod. When a row of knots is done, we cut the pile and slip out the rod.” When the rod is out, what remains is an emerging pattern on a flat vertical surface.
I pointed at the graphs that I saw rolled and hanging from all the looms, to which the weavers kept referring in the middle of weaving. “These graphs carry the designs of the carpets,” Dawa told me, “And they are prepared by our arts section upstairs.
The patterns that are used for the carpets are traditional Tibetan motifs: animal, floral and figurative representations; but the colours of these patterns can change as per orders received from our customers.”
Tamding Tsering told me that there are about 63 weavers with the co-operative today. “We have three places here in Mcleodganj apart from this centre where these carpets are being produced.” And that most of the weavers had come from Tibet as children, and have learnt the craft here.
Dawa had learnt the craft in Nepal, where her family fled for exile. Incidentally, she told me, though carpet weaving still exists in Tibet, most of the work for its preservation has been done in India and Nepal. Over the years, in fact, these two countries have produced more Tibetan carpets than Tibet.
A young man called Tsering, who helps Tamding Tsering look after the production of carpets, revealed, “We export 85 per cent of our carpets, which are mostly sent to the US, Canada, Belgium, France and Japan. And we have a loyal clientele. We are the only ones in Mcleodganj making these handmade Tibetan carpets since 1963.”
Speaking about the longevity of these carpets, he said, “The best thing about Tibetan carpets is the quality: They last long. One carpet lasts for at least 40 years. For instance, the ones at my home were made by my parents about half a century ago; but they still look good. So I say Tibetan carpets last a lifetime. They are washable, but should be dried well.”
I further learnt from him that the centre trains youngsters in this art. “We advertise in the newspapers calling for young people interested in this craft to train with us. We provide them free training, give them free accommodation, and also pay them for their work. But the response has been disappointing.” Tamding Tsering added, “With time, the weavers are becoming less in number. The new generation is not taking an interest in the art. Probably because it involves a lot of hard work.”
As I heard him speak, I looked at the mesmerising patterns being worked out on the looms standing in front of the weavers. Two women were trimming carpets, spread out on the floor, with scissors, giving them the finishing touches. And as I left, I said a silent prayer for them, for their enchanting craft.