Traditionally these carpets were used only as floor coverings, but now their usage has come to include furniture coverings and wall hangings. The hand knotting techniques used in these carpets adds considerable strength to the weave, thereby greatly increasing its durability and life span. Most of these carpets have been seen to last a lifetime hence many consider them to be a lifelong investment.
It is a popular belief in Kashmir that a Kashmiri carpet is the soul of any house and without it the house is incomplete. The craft of carpet weaving has been a closely guarded family tradition passed from father to son over many generations.
In this tradition carpets are woven with the help of 'Taalim' which is a hand written color coded instruction used as guide for weaving. In this long-standing tradition the eldest male member of a family would instruct the younger weavers on which colored knot to be placed next by singing the instructions in a unique chant like manner. At one time no more than two weavers follow the instructions from the caller. Starting at either side of the rug, each weaver weaves according to the colors in the design, working in an asymmetrical manner as he moves towards the center of the rug.
Myths & Legends
There is a legend, which claims to explain the origin of the Persian carpet, which is where the Mughals brought the art to Kashmir. King Balash was reputed to own a giant diamond, which was stolen and dropped onto a rocky plain, where it shattered into thousands of glittering fragments. When the king saw the 'carpet' of jewels he was so grief-stricken that he refused to leave it. To lure their leader back to his palace, his apprentice carpet maker and his fellows wove a silk carpet as brilliantly coloured with as much sheen as the one made of diamond. This legend is supposed to portray the healing power of art and the origin of Persian carpets.
Another legend about Persian carpets talks about the art coming to India and how the craft flourished here with a lot of mystery and luster. There are stories that 'Scheherazade', the queen would tell tales to her husband, a Persian king. The king had been in the habit of marrying a new bride every day and beheading her the following morning to ensure that she had no opportunity to be unfaithful. Scheherazade started a tale on their wedding night but didn't finish it; her husband was forced to spare her for a day in order to hear the end of the story, and the beginning of the next.
One of these stories relates how Prince Husain, the eldest son of Sultan, travels to India and buys a magic carpet, which can transport a man any distance 'in the twinkling of an eye'. Not so much a flying carpet as an ancient matter transporter! This story talks about the magnificence that the silk carpets in India had such that one glance at it could cause a twinkle in your eye so powerful that you would feel you travel the world.
Carpet weaving is one of the oldest known crafts having deep roots in central Asia. Experts claim that the nomads first produced rugs and carpets many centuries before the birth of Christ. They would insulate their tents with carpets and rugs to protect from the harsh winters of the desert.
In India carpet and floorings in India are an integral part of the homes and their evolutionary presence in history has been marked with mats and durries in a variety of materials. The history can be traced back to as far as 500 BC. It is said that when Babur came to India, he was disappointed by the lack of luxuries. He was the precursor of the crafts for extravagance. Akbar later laid the foundation of extensive carpet weaving in India in 1580 AD at his palace in Agra. These carpets were of the Persian style and were inspired by the designs of the Kirmaan, Kashan, Isfahan and many other places from Persia. The Mughals not only brought with them the techniques of carpet weaving, but also wove in many traditional Persian designs.
The kind of carpet, which caught fame was the pile carpet during the reign of Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. He had brought in Persian weavers and placed them in different parts of the kingdom. The carpets then got modified according to the region and the royal tastes. In Kashmir, Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (1341-1385 AD), the famous Sufi saint of Persia, had brought along highly skilled craftsmen through the silk trade route. He laid the foundation for the cottage industries in the Kashmir valley. The flourish came in the time of Zain-ul-Abadin in 1730 AD. The skill of carpet weaving was passed down from father to son like precious heirlooms. During the rule of Jahangir (1628-58), the Indian carpets rose in superiority. Materials like silk and pashmina were used which permitted greater number of knots.
Patterns of the carpets started resembling miniature paintings. Subtle gradations and shading were used artistically. Scrolling vines, plants, animals sprawled on the carpets more pictorially than before.
During Shah Jehan's reign (1628-58) warps and wefts of fine silk yarns allowed as many as 2000 knots per sq. inch. Silk or pashmina piles gave the carpets a velvety texture. During this era, the patterns were primarily floral, at times adorned with geometric or calligraphic trims. There were Chinese and European influences too. Today, commercial workshop weaving is commonplace. Small village based projects do exists. Hand-knotted silk carpets of Kashmir have earned great reputation for their craftsmanship and grandeur.
Kashmir carpet weaving has strong Persian influence and hence the designs found in the carpets are exactly the same or similar to traditional Persian designs. Even the method of nomenclature is the same where the carpets are named after where they were woven. Nature was the source of inspiration for the designs. Buds, vines, flowers, animals were commonly used. Other common motifs are the willow tree motif and the paisley or 'Keri' motif. Some have verses written in Persian script.
Symmetry is a strong concept except for the carpets with the design of five horses, tree of life and the prayer rug. The tree of life pattern appears symmetric though it is done asymmetrically. The prayer rugs have arches, mihrabs or niches within which a design of floral motifs may be composed.
The various compartments in the general layout of the carpet are:
1-Saadilat/saadlat or selvedge2-Kangar/Jenar or thin border
3-Hashish/Saad hashi or thick border
4-Islim or thin border
5-Chothai or corners of the body
6-Chand or central medallion
7-Dashi or warp tassels
8-Jhara/saadvaar is the simple plain line of different colours
9-Matan is the body enclosed within the border
The motifs on the carpets can be divided into three groups:
Body motifs: They cover the maximum area of the carpet and are generally repeating designs
Border motifs: They decorate the lateral bands of the carpet and are generally designs of latticework consisting of flowers and serrated leaf borders. Flowering creepers and sprawling veins with blooming flowers are usually used. Motifs used for smaller borders, which encase larger borders are simple and geometric. Simple single coloured lines are woven in between the broad and thin border to give more breathing space and enhance the importance of each motif. Some borders have calligraphic inscriptions on them. The script may either have the name of the weaver or the master or even a part of Quran written in. Stylized motifs of animals and birds are also used.
Decorative motifs: These motifs are the ones that are not repetitive and are used only in the medallion
The vertical loom on which the weaving happens is located in rooms which poor sources of light. The reason for a small and dingy setup is believed to be so that it can keep the weavers warm during the harsh winters. The weavers also face a lot of health issues, which involves backache and joint pains due to sitting on the floor and weaving for long hours.
However, it is a sad fact that this beautiful industry is dying a slow death. The artisans whose families have been engaged in the preparation of carpets for generations are slowly turning to other professions on account of the low profitability involved in carpet making. The carpet-producing units in Amritsar, Rajasthan, Agra, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh meet nearly 90% of the demand for carpets in the country. Export of Kashmiri garments has gone down. Figures indicate that the export of carpets was 400 quintals in the year 1973-74, which rose to 5750 quintals in the year 1995-96. This again went down to 650 quintals in 1999-2000. The major export markets for these carpets are USA, Germany, UK, Australia and Canada.
Some of the major reasons behind the lack of growth of the Kashmir carpet industry are lack of financial resources, lack of modern technology, availability of duplicate Kashmiri carpets, lack of training as well as lack of innovations. Artisans are nowadays trying to experiment with different types of fabrics and designs so as to breathe new life into the industry.