Weaves of magic

monideepa sahu finds herself floored by the beautiful and unique hand woven carpets from the Caucasus region where the history of weaving traces back

Warm natural colours woven into striking geometrical patterns distinguish traditional carpets hand woven by tribals from the Caucasus region. The art of weaving vibrant, artistic carpets is considered to have originated on the plains of Central Asia or the Caucasus region nearly a millennium ago.

tradition Weaving carpets is a way of life for women in the Caucasus region.The nomadic tribes needed something more manageable than their traditional sheepskin wraps to ward off the harsh winter chill. They used wool from their sheep and goats to spin yarn and weave it into carpets. Bright patterns and colours also made these carpets lovely decorations for their tents. Smaller carpets were woven as door coverings, or used as bags. Long, narrow carpets would be used as decorative bands circling the felt tents.
Other carpets were used for sleeping. These colourful carpets added welcome flashes of liveliness to the bleak, desert-like environment. With the passing of time, the tribes have settled into a less nomadic and more modern lifestyle. The creation of beautiful and unique carpets hand woven in the traditional way is now a dying art. Antique tribal carpets over a century old are now rare and prized as collector’s items.

The history of weaving in the Caucasus region traces back to the Middle Ages. Pieces of knotted pile carpet from the 13th and 14th centuries have been found in cave complexes in Georgia. During the 17th century, the Persian Shah was believed to have set up carpet manufacturing facilities in the Shirvan and Karabagh districts. Till the beginning of the 19th century, Caucasian carpet weaving continued as a folk art. Once upon a time, each traditional carpet was lovingly handcrafted and unique. In more recent times, a growing demand from the West has resulted in carpet weaving on a larger and more commercialised scale.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, major production areas of the past included parts of Dagestan around the city of Derbent, the towns and villages around Kuba (now Quba) in north-eastern Azerbaijan, and parts of the old khanate of Shirvan, including villages around Baku, Shemakha, and areas just north of the Iranian border. The carpets produced in these regions had a relatively short-piled weave of medium fineness, woven with the symmetrical knot typical of all Caucasian rugs. These were mainly sheep wool-based. Cotton was also occasionally used in later times.

In the light of this rich heritage, Indian collector Danny Mehra’s collection of antique carpets makes for fascinating viewing. There are tribal carpets from numerous weaving regions outside India such as the Caucasus mountain regions; Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Dagestan which fall between the Black and Caspian Seas; the Zagros mountains area of Persia; the Kurdish regions of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria; the high and middle Atlas mountains of Morocco; and some Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Way of life

Carpet weaving was once an important part of tribal life. Traditional weavers were usually groups of women who gathered to share stories as they wove magic on their looms. The women wove abstract patterns representing things from nature into carpets.
The men usually sheared, carded and spun the wool from their sheep, and dyed the wool. Vegetable and mineral-based dyes such as indigo were used in the earlier tribal carpets. These colours have retained their rich, mellow beauty through the centuries. In the early twentieth century, weavers also used chemical dyes, says Mehra. Some of these early chemical dyes were called fugitive dyes because they changed colours or faded in the course of time.

Traditional tribal carpets were spontaneous compositions and not copied from a pattern or picture. The designs emerged from the weaver’s heart, gradually taking shape on warps (vertical yarns) strung on simple wooden looms. The looms were easily dismantled and carried along with partially woven carpets when the tribe shifted camp. These movements and variations in dye tints and yarns caused shifting lines in the weave.
These lines are called brushes, and they enhance the beauty of handmade carpets. As the weft or horizontal yarns were woven in and knotted one row at a time, dazzling patterns took shape. After the carpet was woven, the pile was sheared evenly. Then it was washed, says Mehra, and the colours were fixed by applying iron filings and other substances which remained on the surface and did not bond with the wool. Each carpet took months and even years to create, and they were symbols of the pride and joy of the weavers.

While the nomadic tribes shared some cultural influences, they also had their distinctive styles. Carpets from western Azerbaijan, the T’bilisi area in Georgia and parts of Armenia, for example, are rougher and have a longer pile or fur. Adding this pile or third dimension to a carpet requires more effort and expertise. The Kilim carpets derive from ancient traditions maintained by hundreds of generations of Anatolian women. As Turkish tribes settled in Anatolia and interacted with the local people, their mothers and daughters perpetuated this tradition for the last millennium. Mehra’s personal collection includes some uncommon pieces such as Turkish sleeping rugs with shaggy, uncut pile, and unclipped pile rugs woven by Iranian tribal women.

As the tribes migrated in search of food and pastures, or to escape the bitter cold of desert winters, they picked up designs and symbols for their carpets along the way. These symbols thus did not remain confined or exclusive to particular regions, and the carpets became a delightful potpourri of diverse ethnic influences. The basic designs for the tribal carpets were inspired by the natural habitat. Notable traditional designs and motifs included the avshan (geometrised calyx and stem), the harshang (crab), and lattice designs incorporating stylised animals and dragons. Some of these motifs are influenced by Persian designs, but the tribal carpets are bolder and distinct from the fine weaves of Persian carpets. Flowers, birds, animals and human figures, all have their place in these stylised patterns, making these carpets pictorial stories of tribal life. Octagonal gul motifs are repeated in rows across some of these carpets. Variations in guls can also indicate a tribal identity. It is next to impossible to decipher the significance of each and every unique motif. Many remain, like the antique carpets themselves, as mysterious expressions of the weaver’s unique imagination.

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