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Tibetan Rugs – Untangling the Threads of History
Tibetan rugs continue to grow in popularity – even as the market for traditional oriental rugs suffers – why? And why are they mostly made in Nepal and India – can they really be Tibetan rugs if they are not made in Tibet? Tibetan rug making is an ancient, traditional craft that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years. In their nomadic tradition, these rugs served mainly practical purposes – such as horse saddles, seat rugs and wall coverings to protect against the harsh Tibetan winters. Therefore, they are necessarily made to be extremely durable and warm.
Tibetan rugs are unique in two ways. First, the traditional material for weaving – the wool of Tibetan highland sheep – is one of the best wools in the world. Tibetan highland sheep live at high altitude and develop wool that is elastic and strong, with a high content of lanolin, which gives it a “soft hand”. Second, Tibetan rugs are made with a unique “Tibetan knot” that increases the density per knot compared to the traditional knot used in all other countries. The combination of these two factors results in durable carpets that are soft and flexible and provide optimal warmth.
Tibetan culture has developed under the influence of many factors, including its remoteness and the strong Buddhist influence that permeates all aspects of life. Tibetan rugs made in a traditional design are often made in an abstract form that includes Buddhist symbols such as the lotus flower and the crane. Traditional colors are derived from vegetation, so they are often more muted.
Tibet has a long history as a sovereign state and was a completely independent country until the Chinese invaded in 1949. Since then there have been many discussions about the political and social issues related to this occupation, but we won’t go into that here! When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and was granted asylum in India, he was joined by more than 80,000 Tibetan refugees. Today, there are approximately 130,000 Tibetan refugees worldwide, but the vast majority live in India, Nepal and Bhutan – usually settled in large agricultural or artisanal centers.
Although most fled with only the clothes on their backs, Tibetan refugees have managed to preserve their culture and identity over the past 50 years. When the first refugees left Tibet, they brought their carpet-making skills with them and eventually opened weaving centers to keep their heritage alive and produce products that would help them be self-sufficient and independent from their host countries. Today, these centers are often hubs of social interaction where healing is available, schools have been set up and many custom Tibetan rugs are handmade in traditional Tibetan style for export around the world.
Many Tibetan weaving centers in Nepal and India, which produce the majority of Tibetan rugs for export, now often focus on modern styles popular in the West. This is unique because you can get a traditional, handmade rug that will last for generations, in today’s styles and colors. These rugs appeal to people who want quality but don’t like the “grandma” look of traditional oriental rugs. Because they often have simple repeating patterns without borders, they can be placed under, next to or away from the sofa without creating an imbalance in the room.
Confusingly, you can also come across “Tibetan rugs” that are actually made in Tibet. Although there may still be some traditional high quality carpet manufacturers in Tibet, the carpets now made in Tibet are more often made from imported (cheaper quality) wool, cheap dyes and are often machine made! They are made mainly for the tourist market or for visiting Chinese delegations.
So the reasons for the popularity of Tibetan rugs should be obvious – high quality, beautiful design – made by dedicated Tibetan refugees using ancient methods. Just remember that “Made in Tibet” does not necessarily mean a traditional Tibetan rug, and a beautiful, high quality, durable Tibetan rug is more often than not NOT made in Tibet!
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