Antique Mughal Carpets: A Beautiful Indian Tradition
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 knots per every square inch. Most Mughal carpets available today have a foundation 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 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.