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Secrets of Tibetan Weaving The Greensmith Collection


Secrets of Tibetan Weaving The Greensmith Collection

Karma Trinley Darchen


First published in 2012 The Greensmith Collection Copyright ©The Greensmith Collection and Karma Trinley Darchen The Greensmith Collection and Karma Trinley Darchen assert the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. The views and opinions expressed in this book are the author’s own. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright holders.

Photo Credits: pages: iv, 10, 11, 14, 25, 27, 43, 49, 59, 67, 68, 72, 75, 81, 90, 91, 99, 101, 106 and back cover ©Douglas Morton, Asia Pacific Media Services / Hong Kong www.asiapacificms.com/photography/ All other photos ©2012 The Greensmith Collection or as attributed. Book Design by 72 Studio, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Dedicated to Frank Kirkland Greensmith and the dyers and weavers of Tibet and Nepal.


iv — Secrets of Tibetan Weaving

TIBET Shigatze PENAM

DRONGTSE

gyantse WANGDEN GABU

gampa dzong

BHUTAN SIKKIM Map ©Douglas Morton, Asia Pacific Media Services


Contents The Origins of Tibetan Weaving . . . . . 7 Looms and Techniques . . . . . . . . . . 17 The Making Of Tibetan Rugs . . . . . 35 Chequer Rugs (Shomig) . . . . . . . . 48 Cushions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54 Gampa Dzong Carpets . . . . . . . . . 63 Gyantse Carpets . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78 Horse Trappings . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85 Wangden Monastic Carpets . . . . . . 95 Recommended Reading . . . . . . . . 112


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Secrets of Tibetan Weaving — 7

The Origins of Tibetan Weaving I

n the 6th century BC the doctrines of the Buddha Tathagarta started to flow from northern India into the surrounding countries. As in Europe, there is no written history of Tibet during this period. However China at this time had a structured society. The first reference to weaving we have is from a Shang Dynasty (1600 BC - 1046 BC) bone oracle inscription which mentions wool cloth (Tib: nambu), being given as tribute by tribes of the north eastern Tibetan region to emissaries of the Chinese Emperor. We have to assume these tribes were much like present-day nomadic herdsmen, living in yak hair tents with flocks of sheep as well as herds of yak. Where these herdsmen may have originally migrated from is unknown. The inhospitable Tibetan plateau, much of which is above 4500 metres, has a short growing season during which barley can be cultivated; vegetables such as potatoes, spring onions and radish are traditionally grown in some areas, but lack of vitamin C and iodine can lead to goitres and considerable infant mortality. Tibetan genes mean a majority of male babies are born and this has often led to women having two husbands. Amongst nomads, one man goes to the high pastures and shepherds the flocks, while the other stays with the family; taking animals to be sold at market and other trading business keeps one man away

Pottery designs from early strata

for weeks at a time, so the system works. This also prevents family land being split up when two or more brothers marry the same wife. Many men take life-time vows as monks, and before Buddhism the Bon religion also had monasteries. All this led to a very stable traditional country, very much self-sufficient and with resources of wool and salt beyond its requirements. Situated as it is, at the end of the Silk Route and close to India, Burma and China, the influences and knowledge available to Tibetans were diverse. Excavations in 1977 at Karo village, near Chamdo in eastern Tibet, yielded finds ranging from large clay and stone buildings to painted pottery, tools of bone and stone, clay spindle-whorls and pottery with cloth impressions for design. The earliest date back to 3000 BC and some of the pottery designs are similar to those found on present day animal trappings and sling-shots. An early possible influence on Tibetan pile weaving was thought to be a small piled and knotted rug fragment found by Sir Aurel Stein in Miran, though no designs remained. During the period of strata excavated (around 7th C AD), the Tibetan Empire was expanding vastly, probably due to the army’s superior horsemanship. This area was controlled by Tibet so the fragment could be an early Tibetan rug. However it is more likely a product of silk road trading or


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Wangden sitting sq. found in Nepal in the ‘70s by Bob Van Grevenbroek. something made in that area. Now this area is referred to as Gansu which uses ‘senneh’ asymmetrically knotted pile in its rug production. The rug fragment is perhaps available for further study in the British Museum. If it were found to be made with the Tibetan system of cut loop bar system only then could we really call it Tibetan. In the mid 7th C AD, Tibetan troops defeated the T’uyu-hun in north eastern Tibet (present-day Qinghai). During the second half of the 7th C, Tibetans joined forces with those of the Buddhist kingdom of Khotan, a strategicallyplaced oasis to the south of the Taklamakan desert. Together, they controlled the part of the Silk Road which ran from the Kunjerab Pass, in the west of Eastern Turkestan, to Xining, close to Kumbum Monastery in north eastern Tibet. Alliances with the Khotanese and also Ferghana, in Central Asia, must have led to ‘slave’ weavers, and there is a painting from this period in the Dunhuang frescos which depicts minister ‘Ga’ standing on carpets with thickly piled edges. They resemble present day warp-faced back rugs from the Wangden valley, and it seems likely rugs were being

made prior to this period. Up until the 7th C AD, to the west of central Tibet in the valley of the Tsangpo, was Shang-Shung (Zhang-Zhung). Its capital was Khyung-lung, to the west of Mount Kailash. The people of Shang-Shung had their own language and script and, before King Songsten Gampo introduced Buddhism in the mid 7th C, practised Bon, the Shamanistic religion of Tibet. They traded to the west, over the passes to northern India, from where the very fine Kashmiri art and weavings must have influenced the style of woven textiles. Evidence is in the wall murals of Tsaparang, the ruined capital of the kingdom of Guge founded in the10th C AD. It seems likely that finely-knotted saddle rugs, as in this example sold in New York a few years ago (see page 13), were made by this culture. Perhaps if the tombs of Tibetan kings in the Yarlung valley were excavated, Tang-style rugs would be found. For now, all we can see are the Tang lions standing guard. Thanks to Dan Miller, Arthur Leeper, Hugh Richardson and Namkhai Norbu


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Selection of yak and sheep collars.


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Flat weave (nambu) made on thaktre loom.


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Ningxia wood dragon design 17thC.

Chinese silk influencing Ningxia and Tibetan rug design.


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Tibetan bedsize (khaden) influenced by Chinese silk, 17thC. Koos de Jong collection.


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Pre Gyantse master weaver saddle rug, 17thC.


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Nambu coat c1900 (above) and Tang lion protector of the royal tombs at Chongye (right)


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Weaving yak hair for nomad tent. photos: Dan Miller


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Looms and Techniques T

he black and white action shot by Dan Miller shows the long loom used to make strips of yak hair flat-weave in the construction of nomad tents. This is not a back-strap loom. The only back-strap loom (Tib: pangthag) I’ve ever seen in Tibet was in the village of Gabu, where I took the shots of a girl with warps which were apparently strung for the making of Lieu-type material. The loom was for strips of a wider type than the old pieces, which we can assume were also made on back-straps. However, none of the other flat-weaves or piled textiles from Tibet are made on a backstrap. The all- purpose loom (Tib: thaktre) is responsible for: flat-weave (Tib: nambu); aprons (Tib: pangden); blankets (Tib: tsukdruk) and rugs (Tib: tsukden). Hence none of these can be considered exclusively nomadic. One has to assume that the taktre loom is a later innovation, and that these techniques were originally made on back-strap looms. The insulation mat, made with a hooked technique and with one madder-dyed and 2 natural yarns is, along with yak-tent strips, truly nomadic, even though it has a relationship to the much finer saddle rug mentioned under ‘Horse trappings’, and also to the waistcoat in the Wangden chapter worn by a girl in Gabu village, Wangden valley. Nomads, with their herds of yak and sheep, which produce milk and butter as well as wool and hair for sale and trade, buy saddle carpets

for their horses and nambu flat-weave for clothing from villagers or at festivals and town bazaars. The finest nambu, called Sheyma, is traditionally produced in Chetishol, and orders are taken for lengths to make special new-year dresses and coats (chukkas). Coats, also known as chubas, are made from sheep-skin, with the wool on the inside. Nomads on pilgrimage to Lhasa can often be seen using them. All these traditional techniques for diverse uses are still practised to this day, and over millennia have influenced and drawn inspiration from tribes in all surrounding areas. Examples include: an Uzbek rug with the tie-dyed design (Tib: tigma) on nambu edging of Tibetan rugs; the looped pile cotton blankets made by the Burmese Rawang tribe; and the stepped cross design Ningxia runner, which was probably inspired by rugs like the oldest Gamdrum in the ‘Making’ chapter. Currently there are projects in Wangden valley (see www.wangdenrugs.com), Lhasa itself and Boudha in the Kathmandu valley. To preserve these weaving and dyeing techniques are all possible, and we hope for help in their sponsorship in the future, for they preserve the real secrets of Tibet­—sponsorship being the first step on the path to enlightenment.


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Making of nomad blanket (Lieu).

Close up of nomad blanket loom.


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Nomad blanket (Lieu), 19thC.


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Fragment of nomad blanket with extra embroidery, E20thC.


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Nomad blanket with rare embroidered designs, 19thC.

Fragments of embroidered nomad blanket (Lieu), 19thC.


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Sheep collar, all natural dyes, 20thC.

Selection of nomad blankets.

... back


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Yak collars of two different flat weave techniques and yak and sheep collars with knotted pile, 20thC.

Yak collar outside Tashi down the valley’s house, Wangden valley.


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Looped pile blanket (thaktre) loom in Wangden valley.


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Tsukdruk blanket, 20thC.

Tsukdruk (looped pile) sitting sq., 19thC.


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Sonam behind flat weave (nambu) loom.

Close up of flat weave on loom.


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Apron (pangden) made on thaktre loom, 20thC.

Close up of Burmese Rawang tribe looped pile blanket.


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Thick embroidered jacket for protection against carrying sacks of hard fuel.

Nomad insulation mat, 19thC.


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Tsukdruk with knots and shemi chenzhum design, E20thC.


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Finely woven tie dyed flat weave fragment, E19thC.


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Flat weave (nambu) door cover (goyo), E.20thC.


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Uzbek rug influenced by Tibetan tie dye designs in nambu edged rugs.

Ningxia double dorje Lamas sitting square, 17thC


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Looped pile tsukdruk, L.19thC made on thaktre loom


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Secrets of Tibetan Weaving — 35

The Making Of Tibetan Rugs S

ir Charles Bell labels a photograph of weavers in Drongtse thus: ‘Woman and child weaving rug at typical upright loom. Such small rectangles were probably intended for use as occasional seats. The warp is wound in a continuous loop around an upright frame. Until the 1930s, traditional vegetable dyes were still frequently used, the most common being madder or lac for reds, indigo (from India) for blues, walnut for browns and the rhubarb root, barberry or buckwheat for yellows.’

The bar—or cut-loop bar system—can be seen in the plates from the ‘90s, which show our natural dye project in Chetishol. Rather than fermenting indigo with urine for long periods of time, hydrogen sulphide can be used in a 2:1 ratio to give a similar reaction while heating for only ten minutes. No mordanting is necessary. Madder dyeing requires the wool to be boiled with alum and left overnight. The wool is then washed and steeped (but not boiled) in madder for 30 minutes to achieve an adequate red. Fermentation after mordanting, and adding orange peel

(in Nepal a dried fruit called labchi can be found and used for this purpose) to the madder for only three or four days, produces a brighter red. Rhubarb barely needs mordanting and hence is the easiest, also being available locally in Tibet. Villagers still practise drop-spinning to make yarn for their own use. Hand-spun wool using spindles, rather than being drop-spun, is available in several thicknesses for purchase in Lhasa. Combs for carding wool after it is washed and dried are available on the Xigaze market, and raw wool and soft yak hair (Tib: kulu) are available on the Lhasa market with the spun wool. Villagers who have no sheep have the choice to card and drop-spin themselves, or buy yarn which is already spun. Split-ply back protection, or seating pads, are still made in Wangden, but, being much more labour-intensive, are expensive. A seating pad in an approximately 0.8 x 0.4 metre size costs twice the amount to make as a Wangden khaden which, at 1.6 x 0.8 metres, is double the size. Some weavers are more familiar with reading graph paper designs and some, as in the Wangden Valley, can still weave from their imagination or from looking at a sketch, so all the techniques of antiquity are still preserved and practised.

Making an 80 knot per sq. inch Gamdrum by eye from a photo in Chetishol.


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Tibetan sheep. photo: Dan Miller

Indigo by fermentation in the Wangden valley.


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Cooking madder in Wangden.

Madder by fermentation with orange peel.


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Wangden weavers buying raw and spun wool in Lhasa.

Indigo and madder dyed wool in Chetishol.


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Making an 80 knot per sq. inch Gamdrum in Chetishol.

Earliest Gamdrum being copied in top image.


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Tiger 80 knot per sq. inch Gamdrum made in Wangden


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Madder 80 knot per sq. inch Gamdrum made in Wangden.


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Ningxia runner ordered by Tibet, 19thC.


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Inspiration for new tiger rugs, mid 19thC, Gyantse


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Sitting sq. copied from saddle rug in Dan Miller’s Auspicious Carpets book in 100 knot per sq. inch.


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Inspiration for first rug made in Chetishol project (my favorite and E19thC)


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Split ply textile, Gabu village, Wangden valley.


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Khaden (bedsize) wool warp, some chemical dyes. L.19thC.


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Chequer Rugs (Shomig) A

lthough some have guessed that these rugs were made as practice for apprentices, it is fairly obvious these pieces are composed of such high quality wool and dyes they were for the use of Lamas and aristocrats, either made to order or given as special donation. The multi-coloured piece attributed to the 18th C is on a very rare warp and weft of mixed goat hair and sheep wool, and has even fading of good dyes. It is very likely the oldest rug in the collection. The Lama giving blessing is using a patchwork chequer-board of silk; these are sometimes found made from antique silk, so

Trushe Rinpoche with patchwork sutra wrap.

this tradition goes back at least to the 16th C. (Antique silks which predate the 16th C have been found made into this style). Chequer-board wall murals, which are astrological calendars, are found on the walls of monasteries. Both concepts may have led to the continuation of the chequer design on rugs, but since chequers are also found on looped pile tsutruk and tsukden rugs made in strips, of which there was a tradition prior to rugs made on vertical looms, it is likely to be the oldest ‘design’ of the region.


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Khaden (bedsize) high quality wool, Gyantse knotting, L.19thC.


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Khagangma (sitting square), high quality wool, Gyantse knotting, L.19thC.


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Saddle top (markden) with multi-coloured stepped cross design, 1920s.

Gyabnyi (cushion face), E.20thC.


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Khaden (bedsize) mixed goat and wool warp and weft, 18thC.


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Cushions T

hese small, purpose-made rugs, were made in pairs to be at the ends, or along the length, of a bed-sized rug, on top of a single bed-sized plinth. Usually they had a four-inch border of flat-weave and a hard square cushion interior stuffed with straw or wool so they could stand up on their edge. The pieces in the images span the full range of Tibetan rugs usually ever seen from the early 19th C to the mid 20th C. In Tibetan they are known as ‘gyabnyi’. Tiger

pillar rugs, stuffed and hung as in the image of Tashilunpo monastery in Xigaze, usually denote that the next room is an audience room of a Lama, letting one know that one should prepare offering scarves. These could be referred to as pillar rugs (Tib: kathum). Most pillar rugs in Tibetan monasteries were made in Ningxia, and often contain dragon designs. A notable example is the collection at Kumbum monastery in Amdo (north-eastern Tibet/Qinghai)

Previous page: Tiger pillars in Tashilunpo, Xigaze. Western use of gyabnyi (above)


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Cushion face with Central Asian style lion with flaming jewels on his back, 1930s.

Multi-coloured chequer , circa 1900.


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Pair of abstract lotus gyabnyi, L.19thC.


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Cushion face with design of lotus growing from mount Kailash, 1890-1900.

Large cushion face with double swastika mandalas, 1880-1890.


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Pair of cylindrical gyabnyi (cushions), 1880-1890.


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Pair of gyabnyi with repeat mandalas and endless knots, 1870-1880.


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Flaming jewels and Khotan-style flowers, 1860-1870

Clouds on a walnut ground, the border broken with lotus design denotes post 1850 (1850-1860).


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True Gampa Dzong gyabnyi (1840-1850).

Miniature swastika border and vase similar to E.18thC Chinese Ningxias (pre 1840).


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Gampa Dzong Carpets G

ampa Dzong is located on the old trade route between Xigaze and the Tibetan border with Nepal and Sikkim. It was the home of rich traders who could afford the best quality carpets. Weavers from Gyantse tell us that rugs were first made at Gampa in the province of Tsang and the craft was later brought to Gyantse by Lady Nangsa. Her story is told in a Lhamo folk opera and she is a real historical figure from the 10th C. Wangden weavers refer to this type of carpet as ‘Gamdrum’. ‘Drumtse’ means ‘carpet’, so the town of ‘Gampa’ has given its name to the technique in which the pile of cut-loop knotted pile rugs, made with high quality wool, are so diligently hammered that one can rarely see the wefts from the back. ‘Gampa’ is not to be confused with ‘Khampa’. Khampas are the larger kind of people from the area of eastern Tibet generally known as Kham. ‘Dzong’ means castle or fortress; towns with a Dzong, into which people could withdraw, are truly ancient settlements. Copying Chinese silk was not something confined to the 20th C. The 18th C velvet chair seat-cover and the 19th C yak saddle half bear a striking resemblance to one another. This is rare for Gamdrum and perhaps we should set this piece outside the official Gamdrum category. The main motif of Gamdrum is the mandala. Sand mandalas, as in the photo of present day Tsurpu monastery, are made as offerings. Somewhat more permanent mandalas are created for Lamas, who do puja for protection of their villages and crops. They attach themselves by mini thunderbolts and string to the centre of the mandala,

so their prayers emanate perfectly in all directions. The stupa is the most permanent mandala and is an offering and embodiment of the Lama’s mind; the plates are from Anagarika Govinda’s ‘Psycho-cosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa’. The German-born Buddhist Anagarika Govinda is also author of ‘The Way of the White Clouds’. In a marvellous lecture at the Denver American Conference on Oriental rugs, Jim Dixon referred to mandalas as ‘the pavilion of Heaven floating in the void’, and as such are the appropriate seat for one’s meditation. Swastikas are considered appropriate for monks or laymen while crossed Dorjes are for Lamas only. Khaden are for the bed-sized benches used for meditation, puja and sleep. Often wear on the carpet indicates the use of a small table for texts and the boot mark of the practitioner. Tiger carpets were used for this purpose by Lamas, replacing real tiger skins which were more likely used for Guru Yoga - usually in a specially-assigned room to the left of the monastery’s front doors. Rugs with holes in the centre, such as the Lama’s meditation and puja khaden, are very common, affirming the saying: ‘One man, one rug’. The tiger rug and the dragon yak-saddle half are not the Gamdrum type. This kind of looser weave, where one can see the wefts on the back of the rug, is better attributed to Xigaze. The backs of the other rugs in this chapter show the well-hammered pile is stiff and thick. These types are the truly old Tibetan Gamdrum, and the looser type of weave was made into the 20th C, as shown in Charles Bell’s photographs of Xigaze market.

Centre section of floor carpet (Sahden) with archaic mandala, L.18thC.


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Yak saddle with confronting dragon copied from Chinese silk, L.19thC.

Chinese silk velvet chair seat cover back, pre-1722.


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Lotus mandala sitting square (khagangma) with looser later technique than Gampa Dzong, mid-19thC.

Sitting square with rare archaic mandala, 1st quarter 19thC.


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Clean weft threads and colours solid to their roots when pile is cracked.

Gamdrum with 2 archaic mandala styles, 2nd quarter 19thC.


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Rockhill rug type central mandala with Chinese style swastika maze mandalas, 2nd quarter 19thC


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Classical Gamdrum of larger and even size with high quality madder, 2nd quarter 19thC.


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Mandala offering.

Sand mandala at Tsurpu monastery.


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Gamdrum found in Wangden, mid 19thC.

Gamdrum copied from piece found in Wangden valley.


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Govinda’s stupa.

Govinda’s mandala stupa base.


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Tiger of coarse and loose weave, not Gamdrum. Mid 19thC


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Sitting square with crossed dorjes and strawberry red fruits in border, 1st quarter 19thC.


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Sitting square with exceptional wool quality, 1st quarter 19thC (khagangma).


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Boudha stupa, Nepal.

Fragment of runner that is considered a Tantric design, E.19thC.


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Rows of swastikas to imply rows of monks doing puja, 2nd quarter 19thC. Tom Jamieson collection.


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1940s Lama’s throne back.


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Gyantse Carpets ‘G

yantse carpet’ is synonymous with high quality rugs made with the best wool, well-designed and finely-knotted. They may in some cases have been made by itinerant weavers carrying out the Gyantse tradition in situ by working in the courtyards of aristocrats or monasteries. The ‘40s Lamas’ throne-back with no damage or reduction is very rare but, in comparison with the other pieces in this section, is not so fine and was probably made in a ‘factory’ originally encouraged by the Younghusband trade mission from around 1910 onward. The other rugs pre-date British intervention. I’ve only seen the flying fish design one other time: an image was published in an ‘80s Nepal Traveller magazine owned by Bob Van Grevenbroek. The reduced dragon throne-back and runner fragment are what Ted Worcester referred to as the ‘bounce-back effect’, where designs originally given by Lamas to Ningxia are copied from

Ningxia rugs. In this case the knotting is of very high-quality, with half and quarter size knots giving better definition of design. The single mandala khaden also has these different sizes of knotting and the wool is from the second cut of the sheep, as described in Hans Bidder’s book ‘Carpets of Eastern Turkestan’, and of equivalent quality to those Xinjiang rugs, images of which he published. This piece is of an even higher quality than the round-ended saddle rug in the ‘Origins’ chapter, which matches the quality of Cole’s single medallion and elliptical cloud khaden published in Hali. Cole’s rug and the saddle-rug considerably pre-date this piece, as they have design attributes common in the Ming dynasty (pre-1644). This one has exceptional quality of wool and workmanship from the mid 19th C.


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Flying fish khagangma (sitting square), L.19thC

Dragon throne back, mid 19thC.


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Runner fragment copied from Ningxia possibly pillar decoration, L.19thC.


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Ultimate quality wool weave and dyes on what may be considered master weaver work for an aristocrat. Bedsize (Khaden), mid 19thC


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Frog foot runner fragment, mid 19thC.


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Lamas yoga rug circa 1900. Wasim Zaman collection


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Yak saddle circa 1900 with the character for number 7

Tibetan horse with saddle top under a blanket of a flat weave (nambu), 1990s.


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Horse Trappings T

hese ‘horse trappings’ represent most of the known periods of Tibetan rug-weaving from the 17th C (see the round-ended saddle in the ‘Origins’ chapter) to the 1940s. The horse head decoration (Tib: tekheb) shows the chemical pink found in so many rugs of the ‘40s; the complex mandala saddle shows the high quality of the ‘30s; the flared ‘Younghusband’ style saddle with fish is so well made that it probably predates the mandala piece. The yak saddle with two Tibetan characters has been translated as ‘dun’ (seven), implying it must be part of a set which was made for a yak train, but it has also been interpreted as resembling the character ‘dan’, which is the connecting word in some numbers - but this is probably due to the weaver not being familiar with the character. The blue ground mandala piece with nambu centre comprises all natural dyes and may have been made later than 1900 and sold in Xigaze, whereas the yak saddle from the Lin Willis collection very likely well predates the blue ground piece. Its complex design, fine knotting and shining wool show most diligent work and quality control. The blue on blue single mandala piece with miniature swastika border is wool foundation and may be

much older than it looks. The Ningxia rug dated to before 1722 is so similar in border design to the purple saddle top that there is a great case for this small group of mini-swastika border pieces, both from Tibet and Ningxia, being looked at more closely. The purple piece has mandalas unseen before and is unusually fine. It is important to note that it does not necessarily follow that, in dating Tibetan rugs, the larger the knots the older the piece. Another group with some controversy regarding their source are ‘Sahdrum’—commonly referred to as ‘embroidered’, but in fact hooked and cut. This technique was also used to make sitting squares and bed-sized khadens, and one can only assume from their high-quality wool that they came from Central Tibet. Diverse and archaic designs presuppose that they were made over several generations, and in some cases could be said to be 18th C or earlier. There are pieces in the Ladakhi Royal palace, so it could be assumed these were made there; but there are Wangden runners in Alchi Gompa in Ladakh, and an old tradition of trade between Central Tibet and this region makes it more than likely that both types were taken there.


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Horse forehead decoration (tekheb) front and back, 1940s.


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Fine Gyantse saddle rug (mahshok), 1930s.


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Flared saddle rug—this shape attributed to the British, 1920s.


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Fine Gyantse yak saddle rug. Lin Willis collection.


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Saddle top with wool warp and weft, 19thC. Merrill Randol collection


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Unique mandala shape and Kangxi Dynasty Ningxia style border, saddle top, 18thC

Kangxi Dynasty Ningxia sitting square, pre-1722


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Shigatse saddle rug, L.19thC


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Saddle with hooked and cut technique (Sahdrum), 19thC.


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Wangden Monastic Carpets ‘W

angden’ is the name of a remote river valley in the Tsang province of Southern Tibet. In the valley there are twenty two villages, some comprising of only a few households, and three monasteries. The valley runs north to south, beginning roughly twenty five kilometres south of Penam Xian on the main road between Xigatse and Gyantse. Wangden was once famous throughout Tibet for its unique style of carpet weaving, practised nowhere else in Tibet. Wangden carpets were used as meditation mats by the Fifth Dalai Lama, and every year a new set of Wangden runners was woven for use by monks participating in the Great Monlam Prayer Festival in Lhasa, the first and largest religious gathering of the Tibetan Buddhist year. Wangden meditation rugs were in great demand by monasteries from Lhasa to Amdo to Ladhak Known as ‘Wangden Drumse,’ these carpets are technically and aesthetically distinct from the more common ‘Drumse’ or ‘Gamdrum’ carpets produced in the rest of Tibet. According to local oral traditions, as well as the opinion of some Western rug scholars and enthusiasts, they were the first type of knotted pile rug ever woven in Tibet. Wangden carpets differ from other knotted Tibetan carpets in both structure and design. Structurally, the knotting method is distinct and the rug backing is ‘warpfaced.’ Aesthetically, as a group they represent what, according to legend, is an ancient, strictly-preserved canon of designs, adhering to rigid knot-counting and colour schemes in honour of a former Wangden Lama named Jian Teppe Genshe, with whom the designs (and the weaving tradition itself) are associated. During the Cultural Revolution, carpet weaving in the valley stopped almost entirely. Up until recently Wangden

Gabu village, Wangden valley.

carpets were only woven by a few villagers for household use, and occasionally also by on-site commission for nearby monasteries being rebuilt. Lacking in abundant agricultural, water and other natural resources, Wangden has become an extremely impoverished valley in one of the poorest regions (Tsang) of contemporary Tibet. Carpet weaving has consequently been reduced to an occasional occupation that takes place only after the spring harvest (April-May), when or if there is extra wool to spare for making rugs. Most households in the valley can’t afford to weave or use carpets; instead dried yak skins are commonly substituted. Before Tibet was opened to Westerners in 1984, nothing was published on Wangden carpets, nor were they available in the Kathmandu market. The four-swastika sitting-square from the 19th C in the ‘Origins’ chapter was found in Kathmandu by Bob Van Grevenbroek in 1970, and Wangden runners were being used and photographed in Alchi, Ladakh, in the seventies - but so few they weren’t noted. Soon after 1984 some pieces came out from Lhasa to Kathmandu, and western carpet enthusiasts observed their unusual construction. In the late eighties, western dealers expressed an interest in these pieces. It wasn’t until 1991 that a large group came onto the market in Lhasa and it was possible to see many such pieces in Lhasa dealers’ houses. Their sudden emergence made it seem likely that it had come from a single source, which in this case presupposed a monastery. Due to the unusual weight it seemed to be very unlikely that they were carried by nomads. Lhasa carpet dealers refer to this type as ‘Wangden drumse’. ‘Drumse’ means ‘carpet’ in Tibetan, and the Wangden valley is mentioned several times throughout history. In the 11th C annals of the Nyang valley, Wangden is


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Bon shrine behind ruined monastery, below Gabu village

Niches for Buddhist deities in ruined monastery, Gabu village.


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mentioned as a rug-weaving centre. Chandra Das made a trek from Xigaze to Gyantze in the early 1890s, and visited Wangden on the way. Wangden is included on the map of Central Tibet in Diana K. Myers’ book ‘Temple Household and Horseback’, published in 1984. Victor Chan marked Wangden exactly in his ‘Pilgrims Guide to Tibet’. Turning South at Penam, on the road between Gyantse and Xigaze, is the Wangden valley - the source of production of Wangden Drumtse. The first village with a monastery, Wangden Xian, has no rugs; while much further is only a collection of houses and narrow alleys on the hillside where the valley forks and comes to an end. This is Gabu village. The father or sons of the family still go to spend six months a year tending their sheep and other animals on the high pastures with the nomads, while the rest of the family permanently stay in their houses in Gabu. When asked if nomads made carpets in the same way as the people of the Wangden valley, the villagers said they did not, but that they still did indigo dyeing, and showed us an indigo dyed piece of flat woven wool (Tib: nambu). Nomads also make blankets (Tib: tsukdruk) which have long-looped pile but no knots and are made in strips on a horizontal loom. When we asked if tsukdruk was the origin of the Wangden technique, villagers said it was not. Originally Gabu was a village practising the pre Buddhist religion of Bon, a ruined monastery just down the valley from the village has Bon shrines behind its newer Buddhist temple. Since the land was owned by the monastery upon which the Gabu villagers lived they had to pay a tax which was taken in carpet production. A monastery in a very small village up the valley from Wangden is known as Demchog ‘Lord of Death’ gompa and has 15thC wall murals and the statue of the Lama attributed to giving the designs for Wangden carpets and perhaps the one who originally enforced the tax. Talking with traders from eastern Tibet (Khampas) in Lhasa, we discovered warp-face back rugs were being found to the South East of Lhasa in Lhuntse Xian. On the high lands between the two passes to the South of Tsedang, one is

able to confirm the large numbers of yak, which leads to the use of yak hair in the warp-face back rugs made in this area. Wangden-type rugs were not made in Lhuntse Xian but in Nyime Shang, a three-hour walk away. The head Lama, who was seventy years old, confirmed warp-face back rugs were in the temple when he was fifteen. Now new carpets are made with large knots and the same large swastika designs found on the old warp-face back rugs made in the area. A seventy five year old man there confirms the warp-face back rugs were usually made using yak hair. More importantly, he said that before his time Wangden villagers had come to Nyime Shang and taught the locals how to weave with the warp-face back Wangden technique. With experience of the Wangden and Nyime Shang warpface back rugs, it is possible to differentiate between the making and designs of each place. There are probably no other places which have made warp-face back rugs. When new warp-face back rugs were first seen in Wangden, they had 3 medallion designs and bright chemical green dyes. In order to find out if they could still remember how to dye with indigo, we returned with indigo from India. Now we have made many journeys to Wangden, repeatedly taking indigo madder and rhubarb dyes back to the villagers. They have produced a range of naturally-dyed rugs, recreating ancient designs without the use of graph paper templates. So not only could these villagers remember the ancient designs but also, after having not produced rugs of this type for many years, they remembered their natural dyeing and weaving techniques. Om Krishna, a Nepali dyer in Boudha, Kathmandu, uses the techniques of the late dye-master Piero Morandi. Sometimes these exceptional quality colours are taken to Tibet to make Gamdrum in the Wangden valley (see shemi chenzhum khaden in the ‘Making Of ‘ chapter). We are dyeing wool to make copies of some of the rarest rugs in this book as we are finalising images and text, and as ever will have an exhibition at Indigo gallery in Kathmandu—­ thanks to our most untiring sponsors, James Giambrone and Rabindra Shakya.


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The Potala, Lhasa.

Wangden runner in Xigaze’s Tashilumpo monastery, E.19thC


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Wangden valley sitting sq., 18thC. Marc Pettibone collection


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Chimbel (head man of Gabu) with portable Wangden loom.

Statue of Lama Jamyang Teme Gyentsen in Demchog gompa above Gabu village.


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Wangden sitting sq. with shemi chenzhum (spring;source of teachings) design.

Norbu, master weaver and dyer of Gabu.


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Demchog in Demchog monastery above Gabu village.

Lhuntse Xian Wangden L.19thC with character to denote its being first on the row of monastic bench seating. Soft yak hair (Tib: kulu) pile


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Sitting sq. with coarse yak (dzeepa) warps.

Batch of Wangden with yak dzeepa warps reproducing 18thC technique and materials.


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Sonam in the ‘90s.


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Wangden woven from image of the carpet below, using no graph paper.

Gamdrum used to inspire new Wangden rug, 18thC.


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Wangden carpet (Sahden) shown and sold at Dennis Dodds’ New York trade show.


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Batch drying in 2012.

Gabu weavers and dyers.


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Inspiration for Tsurpu runners, 18thC.

Wangden runners in Tsurpu monastery.


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Master weaver Tseten with runner for Tsurpu.

Tsurpu monastery.


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Wangden mandala yet to be copied, 18thC

Wangden sitting sq. with yak dzeepa warps and high quality dyeing, 16thC or before. Thomas Wild collection.


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Khagangma (meditation square) with archaic double dorje Ming style design of unusually large proportions. R. Molacek collection.


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Recommended Reading Psycho-cosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa by Lama Anagarika Govinda (Dharma Publishing, 1976) The Life of Milarepa by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa (Wisdom Books, 1976) Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer (various publishers, originally published 1952) The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia by Christopher Beckwith (Princeton University Press, 1987) Tibetan Rugs by Hallvard Kare Kuloy (White Orchid Press, Bangkok, 1982) The Tiger Rugs of Tibet by Mimi Lipton (Thames and Hudson, London, 1988) To Lhasa and Beyond by Giuseppe Tucci (Snow Lion Publications, 1988) Chinese Rugs–The Tiffany Collection, (New York) Carpets from Eastern Turkestan by Hans Bidder (Tubingen, 1964) Temple, Household and Horseback by Diane K. Myers and Arthur Leeper (The Textile Museum, Washington DC, 1984) Auspicious Carpets by Daniel Miller (Manila, 2009) The Light of Kailash by Namkhai Norbu (Shang Shung, 2009) Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet by John Vincent Belezza (Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2009)



Secrets of Tibetan Weaving