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Warp and weft of stories

Through their designs, carpets reflected social and political changes; for instance, the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark became a recurrent motif in dhurries produced in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Last Updated : 04 May 2024, 20:16 IST
Last Updated : 04 May 2024, 20:16 IST
Last Updated : 04 May 2024, 20:16 IST
Last Updated : 04 May 2024, 20:16 IST

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A tradition of carpet-making has thrived in the Indian subcontinent since the 10th century, rising to prominence in the 16th century under sustained Mughal patronage. They were also a major trade textile, and during the colonial period, following a surge in demand for Indian carpets after the Great Exhibition of 1851, they were often produced by inmates in prisons.

Typically made of wool, hand-knotted onto a woven cotton base, most carpet-weaving traditions use the asymmetrical Persian knot, which is characterised by a strand of yarn that is tied around two adjacent warp threads. The fineness of the carpets is determined by the kind and number of knots.

Since the 16th century, many carpet varieties have borrowed design elements from Iran and Central Asia, but carpets from the Indian subcontinent soon came to be distinguished from these traditions by the relatively brighter colours of indigenous natural and mineral dyes. Carpets often feature recurring motifs, either geometric or inspired by flora and fauna or a combination of the two. Some carpets also contain representations of landscapes.

Through their designs, carpets reflected social and political changes; for instance, the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark became a recurrent motif in dhurries produced in the 19th and 20th centuries. Notable types of carpets and rugs from across India include gabba, kaleen, galeecha and dhurrie. Kerman carpets, which were woven in Kerman in present-day Iran and introduced to India through trade routes and widely used during the Mughal era, are also produced in the region today. Flat-woven, pileless kilims were similarly used extensively in Mughal India, although they were originally produced in Iran, Turkey, Central Asia and Afghanistan. Since the 1950s, another type of rug, the Tibetan khabdan, has been produced by Tibetan artisans at centres in Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Assam.

Carpets and rugs serve multiple uses. For instance, the gabba — an embroidered Kashmiri rug made by repurposing old woollen blankets and waste cloth — is used as a prayer rug, blanket, and sometimes, as a mattress. Namdas — produced in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan — is frequently used as a mattress as well.

One of the most notable rugs produced in India is the dhurrie. Thick and flat-woven, dhurries are characterised by their lightness and reversible designs and are used as floor coverings, mattress covers and even as wraps. The decorative woven patterns of a dhurrie are based originally on the vernacular tradition of temporary or painted floor decorations such as rangoli and kolam.

Most historic carpet and rug manufacturing centres were located in the northern and western regions of the Indian subcontinent, while contemporary centres include some in the south and northeast India as well. The subcontinent has a rich history of carpet weaving, and the continued practice and use of these objects make them significant even today.

Discover Indian Art is a monthly column that delves into fascinating stories on art from across the sub-continent, curated by the editors of the MAP Academy. Find them on Instagram as @map_academy

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Published 04 May 2024, 20:16 IST

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