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The Artistry and History Behind The Grandiose Mughal Carpets

The Evolution and History of Mughal Carpets

Outside of India, Mughal carpets are not as well known as, say, Mughal Miniature painting. This is due to a large number of reasons: firstly, the fact that not many of these exquisite handwoven pieces survive. Secondly, a museum may possess only one such carpet, as opposed to the hundreds of Miniature paintings available. Thirdly, most Mughal carpets remain in the hands of private collectors or in India.

Carpets suffer additional damage from vermin and from being walked over for years. This makes it even more awe-inspiring that the exquisite handiwork of the previous generation has managed to survive for hundreds of years. This blog takes a look at some of the most interesting carpets of yesteryear: the Mughal carpets that once lay in royal courts, garden parties, from the imperial palaces to the Diwan-i-Khas, and privy to the conversations of some of the most elite and influential personalities of Indian history.

Carpet Terminology 101

Mughal Carpets
A Mughal silk rug from the 17th century. Image credit:

Farsh, Qali, and Alcatif were all terms used to refer to Mughal carpets. Before we get into the history part of this blog, let’s first look at some basic carpet terminology that will be referenced throughout.

Pile: A carpet’s pile is the top-most, visible layer of the carpet that people walk on. The weaver sews the pile into a ‘backing’, by using cut or uncut loops or yarn.

Backing: The fabric of the carpet that lays directly on top of the floor’s surface. The backing is also called the ‘foundation’ and it provides strength to the carpet.

Warp: During the weaving process, threads are bound together in horizontal and vertical positions to create a finished textile. The vertical threads are called warp. These are held stationary on a loom.

Weft: The horizontal threads are called weft threads. These are drawn over and under the vertical warp threads.

The History of Carpet-Making in India

Carpet-making in India is several centuries old. In 5 A.D., Gujarat was one of the main centres of carpet production. Mahmud Begaraha of Gujarat presented an exquisite carpet to Zainul Abideen of Kashmir, or so the records state. The Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa stated that Indian carpets were sent to Diu and subsequently shipped to countries around the Arabian Sea. In the 14th century, the people of Delhi, Daulatabad, and Multan used carpets frequently.

Mughal Carpets
The Princes of the House of Timur. Mughal Miniature by Mír Sayyid Ali, circa 1550-1555. Image credit: The British Museum

In the above painting, we see Emperor Humayun hosting a splendid party at the Mystic House in Agra. The central platform features a gorgeous carpet. This carpet, like Humayun, is a guest to a foreign land. It was made in Persia and sports a Persian design. Humayun’s reign was marked by turbulence; he fled from India to Kabul and Persia: exiled, looted, and betrayed. When he finally made it back, he had been in Delhi for less than six months when he tumbled to his death from the steps of his library.

In contrast, Humayun’s son Akbar was no foreigner: he was born in India, where he remained all his life. Though his roots were inherently Persian, he embraced India as his home: it is under his reign that we observe the greatest synthesis of Indian and Persian styles. As the years passed, the art of carpet-weaving gradually developed a distinct Indian identity. 

The Material Behind the Masterpiece

Spiral tendrils carpet, Mughal India (Lahore), 1610, Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The finest carpets in the world were usually made of pure silk. In contrast, the most exquisite Mughal carpets were made of a wool fabric called ‘pashmina’. A single pashmina fibre is 1/6th the width of a human hair. Pashmina carpets would always have a foundation made entirely of silk. While lower-quality carpets would have less than 50 knots per square inch, high quality Pashmina carpets could have as many as 2100 knots per square inch. 

Pashmina wool is produced from the fur of the undercoats of Himalayan mountain goats. It was not found locally and would have to be imported from other regions. This means that since it was not easily available locally, using Pashmina was a deliberate choice.

Most carpets were made on a simple loom called ‘ghori’. These could be found in the homes of Indians of all social classes. The weavers used bulkier looms to make finer carpets. These looms were permanently set up in various production centres.

Classic Indian carpets were typically made of cotton or silk, and 480 knots per square inch was the average knot count. The different kinds of carpets included Jajam and Baluchies (cotton carpets), Sharinjis (striped cotton carpets), Gilim (wool carpet) and silk carpets.

Mughal Carpets: Persian Influences and Akbar’s Farrash-Khanas

Akbar provided a lot of patronage to carpet weaving centres, and set up the Persian style carpet workshops called farrash-khanas to keep up with the growing demand. The above carpet features clear Persian motifs like ibexes and borders featuring cartouches and cloud bands with star-like medallions. The Qilin, a Chinese mythological creature, also makes an appearance. On closer inspection, the clear Indian influences like palm trees, naturalistic floral drawings, and the rich red background became even more apparent.

Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, Jaunpur, Allahabad, Nerwal, and Agra became centres of carpet production. Mughal carpets during Akbar’s reign feature a strong Persian influence. In the 16th century, during his reign, many Persian carpet-makers immigrated to India. They taught Persian carpet-making techniques to the Indian audience, who then began infusing these techniques with Indian cultural elements.

Persian patterns dominated the Mughal carpets made during this period. Vines, floral motifs, and plants became major themes in carpet-weaving. They were sometimes symmetrical, and sometimes interspersed with animals or a central motif. In fact, animal themes also saw a rise in popularity: carpets adorned with graphic and grotesque creatures were likely produced at Fatehpur Sikri in the 1580s, and in Lahore at about 1585, when it became the new capital.

However, the average weaver would not earn enough to sustain themselves. They lived in abject poverty, while workers who worked in the workshops of nobles were paid a small sum. Those who worked in the royal workshops were paid slightly better wages.

Mughal Carpets: Jahangir’s Love For Naturalistic Motifs

Jahangir and His Vizier, I’timad al-Daula. Mughal Miniature by Manohar, from the Shah-nama. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

By the late 16th and 17th centuries, carpets produced for royal households featured complicated patterns and borders. Weavers would use different colours of yarn to create an image in the same way that an artist uses a paintbrush. The more complicated weaving techniques were recorded in a cartoon-like illustration called a Ta’lim. These would feature knot-by-knot instructions including the sequence, number, and colours of the warps.

The Persian influence continued, but it developed a noticeably Indian identity. Floral patterns rose in popularity during Jahangir’s reign. Botanical themes like grape vines and naturalistic flowers began creeping up in many Mughal carpets, arranged in rows or sometimes set against a plain background. Floral designs would end up becoming popular in architecture as well, but only under the rule of Jahangir’s son, Shahjahan.

Jahangir was also fond of Indian-exclusive themes like the gara-simha. Imagery of animals like lions, elephants, and tigers became popular motifs in Mughal carpets. He was extremely fond of the botanical illustrations of the west, which would inspire the Mughal love for floral motifs.

During Jahangir’s reign, carpets were the only product that was made locally in Agra. It was a commercial centre where carpets from Lahore and Jaunpur were sold. The carpets of Lahore were extremely famous at that point and were in high demand in Europe. Due to Jahangir’s efforts, Kashmir also became a prominent centre of production of Mughal carpets.

Fun fact: Pashmina wool was also used to make scarves in Kashmir. As these scarves grew popular with Europeans, they coined the term ‘cashmere’, which became the English word for Pashmina wool. 

Mughal Carpets: Shahjahan’s Floral Pashmina Carpets

Shahjahan would continue to support the carpet-making workshops set up by Akbar. Under Shahjahan’s reign, production shifted from Fatehpur Sikri and Agra, and Lahore and Kashmir became the centres of the carpet-making industry. Woollen carpets became extremely popular: they were placed in all the royal buildings. Shahjahan had such hand-woven carpets layered at the entrances of the Taj Mahal.

A rare Mughal Pashmina Carpet, Northern India, circa 1650. Image credit: Christie’s

The above carpet is one of the few Pashmina carpets that have survived to date. It features about 500 knots per square inch and has a pure silk foundation. Its beautiful lattice and floral design feature flowers like sunflowers, cockscomb and lilies against a rich red background. The red pigment was most likely derived from the lac insect. 

Floral patterns in Mughal carpets were clearly inspired from Mughal style of illustrating flowers, which was extremely naturalistic yet featured a softened and lyrical style. They were, in turn, inspired by western botanical watercolour illustrations. Shah Jahan preferred flowers to be the focal point of a carpet rather than just a decorative element. During his reign, trellis patterns and floral sprays gained popularity.

Mughal Carpets Today

The below pair of carpets is remarkable in many ways. Its unusual shape makes it particularly noteworthy. These are rumoured to have once furnished the tomb of Shahjahan himself. They were most likely designed this way so that an important person could be seated on a throne in the centre, while the carpets appeared like a field of flowers surrounding their presence.

Mughal Carpets
Image credit: Shangri La Museum via X

Fine Pashmina carpets have silk piles, which is an incredibly fragile fabric. Only eight high-quality Pashmina Mughal carpets exist today: scattered in museums around the world. Besides these, there are 13 ‘fragmented’ carpets that are still in good condition.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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