Antique Mughal Rugs

History and Evolution of Antique Mughal Rugs

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.

Mughal Rugs by Nazmiyal
Mughal Rug, North India, 18th century, Christies New York, (from Eiland and Eiland Oriental Carpets, fig. 9)

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.

Antique Mughal Rugs by Nazmiyal
Indo-Persian Mughal Rug, North India, 17th century, Sothebys London, (from Eiland and Eiland, Oriental Carpets, fig. 8)

The early history of carpets in India is obscure. If the early Aryan rulers there in ancient times had carpets 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.