The story of the carpet starts with the silkworm and wool of the sheep, eventually finding its way to the spinners twisting the threads, bubbling cauldron of colourful dyes, artisans that weave and create a beautiful map into existence and eventually homes that house these carpets.
The history of carpet production has existed in the subcontinent and Central Asian regions for millennia, reflecting varied indigenous styles, lifestyles and systems. Tracing the tales of the carpet in the subcontinent can be linked to the time of trading silk between the Middle East and Asia along the silk routes.
However, Persian carpet craftsmanship peaked in its ‘Golden Age’ during the sixteenth century in Safavid Iran. The Shahs provided heavy patronage to the carpet manufacturing industry feeding widespread elite markets as far away as Europe. They were actively invested in the development of this craft into a complex symbolic narration of Islamic concepts which were at times derived from Sufi philosophy.
The Indo-Persian culture can be defined by the influence of Persian culture on the Subcontinent and vice-versa through language, literature, and even mannerisms. An example of this is the adoption of the Persian language as an official court language during the Mughal Empire, although, this phenomenon may also be linked to the Turkic-Mongol-Persianate ancestry of the Mughal rulers
Persian carpets became one of the many artisanal products exchanged and adapted from Persia to the Sub-continent. During the Mughal empire, Kashmir was often given the title of Heaven on Earth by Mughal emperors due to its natural beauty and resources, which also inspired the carpet colours and design to some extent.
The production boom and eventual development of the carpet industries spread into various regional hubs such as Lahore. This was evident during the seventeenth century under the rule of Emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan who poured a lot of patronage into the industrial set-up and having weavers create small vocational hubs. Lahore has historically flourished as a craft and trade centre. The city had always been an important trading hub for the Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arabs and Europeans for centuries. The importance of the city made it an ideal area of cultural arts to flourish and to set and acess trends of textiles, architecture and fashion. The city was also a powerful administrative seat over the course of the Mughal, Afghan and, Sikh empires and eventually the British colonial era.
All this led to a variety of influences on craft production- even carpets. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Lahore carpets had become distinctive for the vibrant colour palette (red, orange, yellow, and green), and elaborate floral motifs. Most of the carpets produced were exported to European markets and new motifs found their way into the carpets including naval scenes and varieties of figurative depictions.
Carpet production had become a lucrative business, and the industry began to attract weavers, designers, farmers, and traders. The impact of the Lahore carpet industry increased in conventional cities and beyond the north Indian regions. A famous example described is the Amber Palace or Sawai Man Singh which became a prominent center for carpet manufacturing.
Experiments with gold and silver thread interwoven with silk were carried out here. Beautiful pieces were made by royal and private patrons. They were eager to experiment with technical finesse and pattern design. Some of the most intricate and rare carpets have been produced in Lahore by the talented weavers, designers and producers of carpets.
These carpets were made to tell stories of wonder, travel and even the sublime subtle acknowledgement of the mystical depictions of the universe through figures and patterns. However, the impact of colonialism led to the dismantling and mismanagement of production hubs. This, in turn, led to the emergence of problematic craft erasure and degrading policies for local weavers and manufacturers. Perhaps one of the most terrible outcomes of this was ‘Jail carpets’, carpets woven by force by prisoners living in inhumane conditions. The problematic factors led to the industry's eventual decline, which saw a brief comeback during the 1950s-60s in Pakistan.
Written by: Fattima Noor
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