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Learn More About Indian Antique Mughal Carpets Circa 1500-1800
Antique Mughal Rugs – Carpet weaving was one of the most outstanding aspects of textile production in India under the Mughal dynasty from the late sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries. Many of these carpets, the so-called Indo-Isfahan types shared in the common repertory of later Islamic design that was used in contemporary Safavid Persian rug production. But others, especially those produced in Agra or farther south in the Deccan, have a distinctive Indian style, with highly naturalistic, almost tropical plants and flowers and a rich palette of deep reds, greens, and yellows. Antique Mughal carpets were court art and as such they have a regal, palatial aura redolent of a bygone era of luxury and imperial grandeur.
Emperor Shah Jahan is the father of Mughal rugs. He conquered vast areas, built the Taj Mahal and established the tradition of Mughal carpet weaving. The Pakistani city of Lahore, which was formerly part of the powerful Mughal Empire, was the dynasty’s first carpet-producing center. In Lahore, the Mughal’s distinctive Indo-Isfahan rugs were born. Although these carpets borrowed motifs from their Safavid neighbors, the Mughals depicted them in a distinctive manner that would never be mistaken for their Persian counterparts. Even Mughal prayer rugs depict novel botanical motifs that flourish under stately mihrabs. Mughal hunting rugs are similarly vivacious and full of vigor. They depict ferocious animals, horsemen and tropical beasts that are Indian natives. Like botanical Mughal rugs, these spectacular carpets illustrate the savage nature of the real world.
The distinctive and beautifully drawn botanical motifs are not the only elements behind the stylistic richness of Mughal carpets. The empire’s expert dyers contributed to the vibrant, colorful style of these early rugs. Local dyers had access to a variety of essential dyestuffs, including red lac resin, which helped produce the iconic scarlet hues found in regional rugs. Without these early Mughal rugs, carpet production in Agra, Amritsar and India’s major carpet-producing areas would never have risen to the level it did. Centuries after they were created, these spectacular works of art still exude the palatial elegance of an empire that thrived in a bygone era.
History and Evolution of Antique Mughal Rugs
Between the 1500’s and late 1800’s the Islamic Mughal empire controlled subcontinental India from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the west to the Bengal region in the east. The Mughals were such legendary conquerors and emperors the word mogul defines wealth and success.
Under Mughal rule, Indian carpet weavers adapted a combination of Persian Islamic and Chinese designs with elements that are uniquely Indian for more than 300 years. The wealthy Mughal emperors funded a variety of artist and aesthetic endeavors from carpet and tapestry production to the construction of the taj Mahal and dramatic gardens with reflecting pools and large scale structures.
The Mughal Empire was established in the early 1500’s by Zahir Ud Din Muhammad Babur a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. the Mughals’ homeland was located on the Asian steppe in an area historically known as Moghulistan. seeking to conquer the legendary natural riches of Hindustan Barbour conquered the city of Kabul where he launched raids further into the Indian subcontinent.
By 1556 the Mughal empire was thriving as it entered the classic era under the leadership of Akbar the great who was the first emperor to establish imperial carpet weaving studios in the new territory. before imperial ateliers were constructed to teach native craftsmen the techniques needed to manufacture thick pile oriental rugs the Mughals imported the familiar wool carpets of their cooler homelands across the Asian steppe.
The legendary emperor Shah Jahan who ruled between 1627 and 1658 was instrumental in the development of Mughal art and architecture. Under the rule of Shah Jahan the Taj Mahal was completed along with many artistic and architectural projects.
By 1707 the last Mughal emperor relinquished control over the thrown and the empire began its slow decline until British colonization in 1857.
The Mughal empire was important for establishing new trade routes and alliances linking Arabian countries in Persia with Turkic lands of the Caucasus the introduction of Islamic and mongol traditions in the predominately Hindu state of India led native weavers to adopt a combination of Persian Chinese and Islamic elements.
The Muslim influence of the Mughals is particularly evident in their ornate prayer rugs that include complex geometric stars and traditional Islamic arches.
Through diplomatic relations with British and Dutch traders the Mughal court received an enormous number of European tapestries and paintings that influenced their carpet and textile designs. Many carpets produced by the Mughals have pictorial elements reminiscent of medieval tapestries like the famous land and the unicorn series.
Common Millefleur carpets and prayer rugs produced by the Mughals bear striking similarity to classic tapestries produced in medieval Europe and Italy Mughal carpets are famous for incorporating realistic and stylized animals both common and exotic.
However, living beings are most frequently depicted in a stylized two dimensional form. Floral patterns arabesques and vine filled Millefleur designs dominate carpet designs produced by the influential Mughals. Cypress trees, tall flowering plants and continuous floral sprays emanating from central vases are common design themes in symmetric and asymmetric Mughal rugs.
One of the hallmarks of Mughal carpet designs which has been adopted by other carpet weaving regions are secondary guard bands that separate the border from the central carpet field. In carpet patterns and everyday life, the Mughals revered the natural world and held plants and the mythical garden of paradise in the highest esteem.
Patterns developed by the Mughals have influenced carpet and textile design in the east and west. To this day the tradition of Mughal rugs remains synonymous with wealth luxury and quality.
The early history of carpets in India is obscure. If the early Aryan rulers there in ancient times had area carpets and area rugs like their nomadic Iranian and Persian relatives, they have left no trace in the archaeological or historical record. By the thirteenth century, Northern India had been conquered by Muslims who establish the Dehli Sultanates, which had strong cultural ties with Persia. It seems likely that these rulers had already introduced the medium of the knotted carpet to India, but again, none has survived, so far as we know.
Things changed in 1526 when the expatriate Timurid prince Babur invaded India and founded the Mughal Dynasty. Under this great patron of arts and letters, all creative media flourished, and they continued to do so under his successors Akbar, Jahangir, and Jahan, down through the seventeenth century.
From the reign of Akbar on, carpet weaving became a major medium of artistic expression in India. Initially this production was launched by imported master weavers from Safavid Persia, and the Mughal rugs of Akbar’s reign look very much like their Persian counterparts. Over time, in the seventeenth century Mughal rugs evolved with a distinctive design and palette with a more local Indian flavor.
Floral designs became more naturalistic, reflecting the impact of European painting, which the Mughal Emperors both knew and prized. Medallion designs gave way to allover lattice patterns or semi-pictorial compositions of lush vegetable motifs.
The palette became more pungent with rich tones of red and green contrasting against ivory or white. Mughal rugs were especially prized for their extremely soft and fine “Pashmina” wool. After the British conquest of India in the mid eighteenth century, however, carpet weaving declined steadily.
Antique Mughal Carpets: A Beautiful Indian Tradition
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North India! Ah, that fertile ground for ill-fated love stories! When the fourth Mughal emperor Shah Jehan built the Taj Mahal to house the tomb of his favorite empress Mumtaz Mahal, he probably didn’t imagine that it would still be standing five centuries after his death as the greatest monument ever built. Sadly, the emperor himself had an unhappy ending, but that’s another story.
While millions of people from all over the world flock to the city of Agra every year to marvel at the most beautiful mausoleum in the world, few realize that India is also famous for its Mughal carpets. Famed all over the world for their sublime beauty, Mughal carpets were primarily made for royalty during the Mughal era, which lasted from the early 16th to the mid-19th century.
The story of Mughal carpets began a century before Shah Jehan when his great-great-grandfather Babur, a descendant of the Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan, descended from the harsh mountains of Afghanistan to conquer the lush plains of India and establish the long-lasting Mughal dynasty. But it was during the reign of Babur’s grandson Akbar, considered to be the greatest of all Mughal emperors, that carpet weaving really took root in India.
A lover of Persian carpets, Akbar brought craftsmen from Persia to weave carpets for the royal courts and palaces. Soon, Indian craftsmen adopted carpet-making techniques and designs of the Persians and blended them with Indian arts to give them a distinctly Indian character. During the rule of Shah Jehan, carpet making in India began to focus more on the aesthetic aspects.
Before long, Mughal carpets, as they later came to be known, became so famous for their sublime beauty that demand for them came from far and wide. The carpets made during the reigns of the emperors Jehangir and Shah Jehan, Akbar’s son and grandson respectively, were of the finest quality.
Mughal carpets have distinctive designs and boast a high density of knots, derived from Persian carpets, but with distinctly Indian arts. They are well known for their attention to detail and presentation of realistic features. Besides Persian patterns, they may have patterns depicting scenes from the Mughal court, architecture, landscape, members of the royalty hunting wild animals and flowering plants.
The finest quality Mughal carpets have contrasting colors and such fine wool that they can easily be mistaken for silk. They have the tightest and the most delicate knotting among antique oriental carpets. The prayer rugs with a flowering plant motif in the center, for example, have approximately 2,000 rug knots per every square inch. Most Mughal carpets available today have a rug foundation made of cotton rather than wool.
During the Mughal era, Mughal carpets were primarily made in and around Agra, Lahore (now in Pakistan) and Fatehpur Sikri. These days, most Mughal carpets come from Kashmir, the north-western tip of India. These carpets and rugs can be recognized by their densely packed millefleur patterns.
The Islamic wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a fine collection of beautiful Mughal carpets. These include a fragment of an animal carpet from the late 16th century, a carpet with palm trees, ibexes and birds from the late 16th to early 17th century, and a carpet with scrolling vines and blossoms from the mid-17th century.