Blog 21 30/11/2015 A Profusion of Flowers: Indian Carpet Weaving of the Mughal Era.

Posted in on 30 November, 2015 in News

 A Profusion of Flowers:Indian Carpet Weaving of the Mughal Era.

Amber Garden Palace

Amber Garden Palace

When chief minister Abu ‘l Fazl (1551-1602) wrote in his book, A’in-i kbari, “... 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 and Turan are no more thought of, although our merchants still import carpets from Goskhan, Khuzistan, Kermain and Sabzwar. All kinds of carpet-weavers are settled here, and drive a flourishing trade. These are found in every town, but especially in Agrah, Fathpur and Lahor,” he was referring to his master, the Mughal Emperor Shah Akbar the Great, under whose reign the classical period of Indian art began. It would be carried on by successive Mughal Emperors until about 1800.

Akbar the Great

Akbar the Great

The Mughals were of Mongol descent. The first Mughal Shah was Babur (1526-30), a fifth generation descendant of Tamerlane. Babur ruled Afghanistan after overthrowing the Hindu Delhi Sultanate. Ten years after his death, the Afghans revolted and Babur’s son, Humayan, was forced into exile where he spent nine years at the Persian court of Shah Tahmasp. When Humayan returned to India in 1549, he brought with him a love of Persian art. Two of the leading Persian court painters accompanied him and founded the Mughal school of painting, a style which blended the sophistication of Persian art with the rich exoticism and love of nature that characterizes Indian art. It was under Hamuyan’s son, Akbar the Great, that the Mughal Empire consolidated its power. Like the early Safavid Shahs, Akbar established workshops for the production of paintings, goldsmithing, arms and carpets. Between 1569 – 1584, he built the city palace at Fatehpur-Sikri where he covered the walls in murals, and in 1584, he established his capital at Agra. Akbar was a remarkable individual. By all accounts, he was an admired (and feared) leader and a courageous warrior. He could not read and it is thought that he was dyslexic, but he possessed a great intellect. He was a Sunni Muslim and open-minded and tolerant of all religions, much to the dismay of the orthodox Mullahs.

Elephant design. Fatehpur. Sikri or Agra.

Detail of elephant design. Fatehpur. Sikri or Agra.

The essential features of Mughal art were established under Akbar’s patronage. It incorporated a love and respect for the natural world, an interest in historical record and insistence on workmanship of the highest standard, and a synthesis of Iranian, European and Indian traditions. Although his legacy is best seen in illuminated manuscripts, he is credited with establishing carpet-making as an industry. Early literary references mention that carpets were manufactured before his time but they don’t establish whether they were actually pile carpets. Later references are often identified as Persian. Gujurat was a center of international trade and according to the Portuguese trader, Duarte Barosa, by about 1518, large carpets were brought to the small island of Diu for shipment to centers around the Arabian Sea. Experts speculate whether Gujurat was weaving pile carpets on a commercial basis or whether these brought in from elsewhere.

Abu ‘l Fazl’s work The Institutes of Akbar, has given us a detailed insight into the organizational and social aspects of Akbar’s reign. Workmen such as carpet weavers, at least those employed in commercial workshops, lived in virtual slavery at the service of nobles and officials, with a small wage in return. The private storehouse for the most prized textiles was known as the farrashkhana “carpet-house” and Akbar took a special interest in it. Unfortunately a fire destroyed most of its priceless contents in 1579. It seems that most of the carpets at that time were brocaded. References to pile carpets postdate the fire.

Pashmina Flower Carpet

Pashmina Flower Carpet. Northern India, Kashmir or Lahore, ca 1650

The main workshops were in Fatehpur, Agra and Lahore. Because Akbar demanded various types of carpets to be produced, an influx of weavers from Iran and Central Asia meant that carpet weaving flourished. Despite all this, the comments of Abu’l fazl that carpets from Iran and Turan (Turkish speaking Central Asia) “are no more thought of” is simply an expression of pride for Akbar as Persian carpets were still being imported.

Shah Jahan

Shah Jahan

After the death of Akbar, his son, Prince Selim, known as Jahangir or Shah Jahan, ruled. Inheriting his father’s orderly world, Jahan was thus allowed to engage in pleasurely pursuits and his mind was often clouded by alcohol and narcotics. He was a sensitive man who collected unusual animals, birds and objects. There is no written record of imperial workshops under his rule but judging by the artistic sophistication of carpets at this time, it seems likely that these would have continued. There was also a “carpet-house” within the palace bureaucracy as there was under Akbar. A Dutch merchant working for the Dutch East India Company at the time notes that carpets were woven to order (fine or course) in Agra and Fatehpur. Agra was a principal commercial center and carpets from Lahore were also traded there. An agent for the English company also noted that “Carpets to be well chosen would require a long a long time; those which are true Lahore carpets are not suddenly to be gotten.”

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Cambay , in Gujurat, was noted to weave carpets with Persian patterns while in Bengal, pile carpets were woven “of various kinds of skill.” Shah Jahan ruled for thirty years and tensions grew between the Muslim and Hindu population. In many ways, the defining event in Shah Jahan’s life was the death of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, in 1631 as she was giving birth to their fourteenth child. She had been his confidante and adviser on state affairs and the loss was so profound that he remained in mourning for two years. Her death aroused a spirituality in him and he set about building her tomb – the Taj Mahal – a costly edifice that began in 1632 and was completed in 1648. Rich materials were used without restraint. Shah Jahan’s rule is characterized by the copious use of marble in his buildings, and of pietra dura, inlays of contrasting colour. Historical references to carpets are rare at this time but one important letter, written at Lahore in 1640 by Islam Khan, a vizier of the Mughal Empire, to the grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, comments that “Arslan Agha is being sent by one of the royal ships. He has been given a box of a speciality of this country, and two prayer carpets of rare quality made in the kharkana –i Padsahai at Lahore and Kashmir, so that he may present them to the Sultan on his own behalf.”

Illustrated album leaf. Shah Jahan

Illustrated album leaf. Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan was succeeded by his son, the ambitious, Aurangzeb, who preferred to focus on military campaigns and who became increasingly reactionary in religious views. He was not the patron of the arts his father and grandfather had been and his zealous reforms resulted in the closing of the painting ateliers and the suppression of music and poetry at court. Hence, the absence of carpet workshops at this time was due more to lack of encouragement than lack of talent. Aurangzeb was the last Mughal emperor to wield authority. He was followed by a long line of pleasure seekers and weaklings who ultimately became no more than British puppets at the turn of the 19th century.

Tree Carpet Kshmir or Lahore

Tree Carpet. Kashmir or Lahore. Pashmina pile on silk ground. ca. 1650

Amber Palace, Jaipur

Amber Palace, Jaipur

Materials: Cotton and silk were the main fibres used in the foundation of classical Indian carpets, and the pile consisted of wool from goats, sheep, (sometimes camel), and silk. Except for pashmina (fine goat’s hair) which was imported from central Asia, all the materials were readily available in India. Wild or uncultivated silk was produced in the provinces of Bengal and Assam but the silk used in pile carpets was imported from China or northern Iran. The finest carpets of all were those made with a pile of pashmina wool. Pashmina comes from the Persian word for wool and refers to the underside of the Himalayan mountain goat. The west knows it as cashmere wool, from the old spelling of Kashmir. India is the only carpet weaving society where silk is not the luxury material of preference. The main knotting technique used is the Persian, or asymmetrical knot which allows for a more curvilinear design than the Turkish knot. Occasionally the Jufti knot was used which results in a courser carpet. One of the best known carpets of Mughal origin is the Amber Garden Carpet, now in Jaipur. Fragments of two other carpets dating from around the 17th century are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Others are in St Louis, Boston, Detroit, Washington, the Louvre, and the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. A second set of carpet fragments has animal heads dotted around the field; elephants, deer, lions, wolves, geese, etc, and covered by a spiraling arabesque. Again, they are scattered around the world. Of all hunting carpets, only Indian carpets have the elephant in the ground. Except for a small group of animal designs, the majority of Mughal carpets are of a formal floral design. More importantly for Indian carpets, the asymmetry and pictorial realism in design denotes the presence of Hindu designers and weavers.

Boston Carpet

Boston Carpet

Gilders carpet

Girdlers carpet

The Boston Carpet is typical of Indian carpets of early 17th century in that it depicts scenes with pavilions, a leopard attacking a a spotted bull and an ox-cart being driven by a bearer, on the back of which is a cheetah., known to have been a favoured hunting animal among Indian princes. Delicate plants and birds in rich profusion are depicted throughout the body of the carpet. The Girdlers’ Carpet, still in the possession of the Girdler’s Company in London (one of the medieval trade guilds), is another masterpiece from the reign of Shah Jahan. 24 ft. in length, it contains heraldic designs, the central one with the motto, “Give thanks to God.” The initials, ‘R.B.’ (Robert Bell) denotes that it was commissioned for the Girdler’s Company. The field is an array of large flower heads on foliate stems. Shah Jahan’s court painter, Mansur, was commissioned to produce albums of flower paintings, of which over a hundred survive. This love of flowers gave rise to depictions of flowers and shrubs rendered in glowing colours and detail. The largest surviving group are the “Lahore carpets” and are preserved in the Jaipur museum.

There are essentially four groups of floral Mughal carpet designs. The first group have a lattice pattern with a palmette, single flower, or shrub, within the trellis framework. Another group have designs consisting of directional rows of whole flowering plants on a red ground (tulips, carnations, iris, chrysanthemums and primroses). The third group is derived from Persian vase carpets with Indian but with an Indian interpretation and the fourth group are prayer rugs and are quite rare.

Prayer carpet with chrysanthemums

Prayer carpet with chrysanthemums. Northern India, Kashmir or Lahore. ca 1630-40

Excerpt from The Embroiderer Chapter 16. Page 135

Picking her way through the ruins, her eyes rested on a fragment of carpet hanging from a fallen beam. In the grayness of its surroundings, the colours were as wonderful as they were on the day they were woven. This was all that remained of the famous hunting carpets. Sophia picked up the fragment, brushing her hand across the soft velvet pile as if it were a lover.

       ‘The weaver is a poet,’ Dimitra had once told her. ‘He breathes life into his work. What you are looking at is his soul.’

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