Hand-Knotted Rugs: The 2,400-Year-Old Journey that Needs to Continue

Hand-knotted rugs have been around for thousands of years with the oldest rug on record being the Pazyryk Persian Rug, dating back to the 4th century B.C. In the 2,400 years since that rug’s creation, hand-knotting has seen its popularity rise and fall on multiple occasions (Carpet Encyclopedia). So let’s take a look at the vast history of hand-knotted rugs and how it led to the founding of Jaipur Rugs as an organization dedicated to reviving the age-old craft of hand-weaving by supporting artisans to earn a dignified livelihood.

Rugs originated as both floor coverings and a source of warmth for nomadic people across East Asia and the Middle East. Rugs from the Persian Empire were always the benchmark of rug-making, documented first by Greek Author, Xenophon, who stated that a gift of a “carpet worth 10 mines” was given to a diplomat. Persian rugs even now have stood the test of time as a symbol of prestige, craftsmanship, and luxury. With the Persian Empire spreading from East Africa all the way to modern-day North India and spanning over a thousand years, it’s no surprise that its influence touched many other civilizations, including India.

Pazyryk Carpet – Oldest Record Rug in Existence

When the Mughal Empire set foot in India, Babur, the first ruler of the iconic dynasty and a descendant of Persian Royalty, had an overwhelming feeling of homesickness towards the luxuries unavailable in his new kingdom. This was the beginning of Persian influence that spread all the way down to present-day Telangana, under Akbar the great. With an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and an open-mindedness to share it, Akbar merged a multitude of cultures and spread Indo-Persian tastes far and wide, leading to the emergence of hand-knotted rugs in India. The original epicenters of carpet production were based around the Mughal royal residences in the cities of Agra, Delhi, and Lahore. (Nasir 2014)

The first designs were remakes of traditional Persian motifs often depicting life in the royal courts, animals, and floral patterns. As time went one, Indian-fused designs became prevalent with a particular focus on more natural depictions of nature. With this new direction and every progression of a ruler, designs became more ornate and material use began to see a shift from traditional wool to silk, cotton, and other materials. With Shah Jahan’s rule, silk became a primary ingredient in the warps, wefts, and knotting process leading to finer rugs with some having as many as 2,000 knots per square inch. The dyeing also became more elaborate with designs using multiple shades of the same color to create depth and further detailing. It’s no surprise then that the person who oversaw the building of the Taj Mahal is the same person responsible for India’s first golden era of rug making. (Nasir 2014)

After the Mughal Empire faded away, hand-knotted rugs in India went by the wayside as wealth and power shifted between multiple groups and new more efficient methods of manufacturing came to light. It’s not until the last few years of British rule that hand-knotting became a viable industry in India again. Traditional Persian Rugs from Iran were at a premium price making India the obvious choice for more affordable rugs of similar quality. This growth led to the many rug-making belts across the country like Bhadohi, Agra, Mirzapur, and Jaipur. The weavers of these rugs were generally from impoverished communities and lower castes looking for whatever work they could find in a society built against them – a far cry from the prestige and regard of Mughal artisans of centuries past. These laborers were paid meager sums, taken advantage of by the middlemen between them and the buyers, and had little dignity to look forward to in society. (Nasir 2014)

It’s with this rise in industry and these issues that Nand Kishore Chaudhary (NKC) began the story of Jaipur Rugs in 1978. With a small loan from his father, 9 male artisans, and 2 looms, NKC set out to not only provide livelihood for economically troubled and socially ignored communities in Rajasthan but give them a sense of dignity they desperately yearned for. The initial journey was difficult with few people buying into the idea that this “untouchable” work can be turned around into a global organization. These first few years, he saw firsthand the middleman’s effect on the artisans’ livelihoods and vowed to remove them from the equation. In 1986, that vow became a reality and Jaipur Rugs stood as the only step between artisans and the global consumer base.

Three years later, with demand growing at an incredible pace, NKC sought to find more artisans and looked to the tribal belts in Gujarat to find talent. This was the toughest step for the company as it was a real grassroots effort to build the trust of multiple communities, all with different languages, and at the same time, effectively train them to craft world-class rugs. With the successful implementation of a new artisan base, Jaipur Rugs stayed on the growth path. It’s at this point that NKC also realized that a massive talent group was being left out. Women in rural villages who were socially obliged to stay at home, tend to family, and work in agriculture were more than willing to work in a role where their responsibilities at home wouldn’t take a backseat. The idea of doorstep entrepreneurship took off and on the break of the new millennium, Jaipur Rugs has cultivated artisan groups in 10 states across India, bringing the total number of craftspeople to 10,000.

Over the past decade, Jaipur Rugs has gone off to include 40,000 artisans into its value chain, lead the industry with an award-winning design team, and create a foundation with a sole purpose of elevating rural communities through hand-knotting. Things are turning around for the rug industry overall but not nearly as much for the handmade sector. In order to sustain these artisans, we need to shift our attention away from easier, cheaper, machine-made rugs and get people to appreciate the hard work and craftsmanship that goes into handmade, hand-knotted rugs. As of now, artisans being trained and brought in has slowed with an ever-shrinking population of skilled weavers but with a consumer shift and more emphasis on providing more upskilling opportunities across the value chain, this 2,000+ year art can thrive for the next millennium.

 

[1] Carpet Encyclopedia “History” Carpetencyclopedia.com. Accessed at: https://www.carpetencyclopedia.com/history
[2] Nasir, Ali. “History and Collection of Carpets in India” Abhijna-emuseum.com, 09 January 2014. Accessed at: http://www.abhijna-emuseum.com/articles/history-and-collection-of-carpet-in-india/

 

 

Vipin was born in India but hasn't spent time there since his move to the U.S. at age 6. He understands the magnitude of change the country has gone through in the last 21 years but is now thrilled to experience it first-hand. He hopes to use his skills in digital marketing and technology to help bridge the gap between untapped artisans, skills building, and leadership training at Jaipur Rugs Foundation. Before becoming an AIF Clinton Fellow, he's had the unique experience of working directly with AIF as a volunteer with the New York Young Professionals Chapter for the past four years to raise funds and awareness about AIF's programs among young South Asian professionals. One of his goals is to see if what he's learned as a physically distant volunteer, effectively translates to the work required on the ground. Another goal? He wants to try as many regional varieties of biryani as his ten months will allow him to stomach and see if his current favorite, the hometown Hyderabadi variant, can be topped.

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