Even after extensive research, Tibetan carpets are still shrouded in mystery. This beautiful mountaintops country is home to some of the most original and stunning designs. Local craftsmen, unmatched in skill, were able to turn mundane into extraordinary. Due to its cold, harsh climate, carpets were always a vital part of Tibetan everyday life, used as saddles (makden or maksho), beds (khaden) and seat coverings (khagang-ma). Contrary to the Chinese, Tibetans were extremely skilled in weaving from wool, one of their most important resources. However, what revolutionized the country’s rug-production, was a Buddhist expansion from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. Newly created monasteries quickly became centers not only of religion, but also culture, education and art. Their influence was what helped Tibetans to create their own national identity, separate from China or Mongolia.
As monasteries needed rugs for both religious and practical reasons, weaving craft started to flourish. Artisans and monks filled bare monasteries with rich designs which not always served only religious purpose. Instead of being sacred items of worships, rugs were treated as “gates” used to communicate with unknown and powerful forces around us. Soon geometric elements and lush colors started to seep into common houses, as Tibetans discovered their love for auspicious decor. Moreover, lamas, teachers of the Dharma and spiritual leaders, were often accomplished craftsmen themselves. It was not unusual for them to design all the decor in monastery and make some of it. Art was a part of training of the monks from all social groups who showed artistic talents. It had different purposes, from ritual to decorative. Every single monastery had its own group of skilled artists, always ready to decorate it with new creations.
What is so unique for Tibetan design is not that they don’t simply copy elements from foreign patterns, but instead integrate them, with not a thread looking out of place. While it is commonly accepted that majority of aesthetic influence came to Tibet from neighboring China, recently a new evidence resurfaced which suggests that Tibetan craftsmanship left an imprint on Chinese carpet designs. During the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties, people from northwest China and Tibet started to exchange information and various goods. As the exchange progressed, Tibetan craftsmen made most of patterns disclosed by the Chinese, influencing them with their own ideas at the same time. “Frog’s feet” or belak pattern is an example of a Tibetan motif copied by the Chinese. Curiously enough, many popular patterns and symbols in Chinese weaving, such as flowers and legendary animals were already of Buddhist origin and so were equally common in Tibet.
The majority of antique Tibetan carpets has a color palette restricted to a few hues, such as red, blue, yellow, brown and grey. This was due to the fact that at the time only natural dyes were available for the weavers. Luckily, as trade progressed in the nineteenth century, more and more synthetic dyes started to be used, resulting in a brand new designs. Motifs appearing on carpets dating from that period are usually divided into two separate groups: uniquely Tibetian geometric and amulet designs.
Flowers are a recurring motif in Tibetan carpets. They were often meant to symbolize connection with various Buddhist masters, but no flower was as revered as lotus, most commonly associated with “Lotus Born” known also as Guru Rimpoche, or Padmasambhava, who created the very first Tibetan monastery in Samye. Lotuses often appear accompanied by other popular Tibetan motifs, inter alia phoenixes, dragons, birds, pearls and mountains.
Designs were rarely created without any meaning. Particular elements were meant to bring luck and prosperity for any person sitting on the rug.
Tiger motifs are yet another popular element in Tibetan weaving art. Due to their association with Tantric meditation, they were common gifts for lamas and monks in monasteries. They were supposed to protect the person meditating on it due to their connection to wrathful gods, who wore tiger pelts as loincloths. Tiger rugs can be completely different from each other, depending on craftsman’s vision. Some of them were ultra realistic depictions of tiger pelts, looking almost lifelike. On the other hand, more artistic forms showing abstractive animals were just as common.
What was previously seen just as an imitation of Chinese craft is finally gaining recognition it deserves. Until now, Tibetan carpets were often overlooked by scholars and historians alike. Luckily, thanks to inter alia carpet aficionados, the world is finally recognizing them as a unique and valuable cultural heritage. Tibetan designs are imaginative, animated, full of color, playful, and, most importantly, alive with individual character as opposed to cold machine-made carpets. They form a separate and well-integrated tradition, deeply connected to the very soul of Tibet. Many of Tibetan carpets’ mysteries are still not explained but we are sure that in time we will learn even their biggest secrets.