The Circuitous History of India’s Hand-Made Carpets


These katwaris (hand-spinners) in Bikaner turn hand-carded wool into hanks. In the course of a day, each woman spins two kilograms of wool—about two-thirds of the fleece of an average-sized sheep. photo courtesy of Jaipur Rugs Co.

The city of Jaipur—which sits near the center of India’s northern half, in the middle of the country’s chest, so to speak—is known for its pink and white buildings. In 1876, when the Prince of Wales was scheduled to visit, Maharaja Ram Singh ordered the buildings to be painted in these shades, which were symbolic of hospitality. In the evening, you can’t miss the brilliantly lit Albert Hall, the national museum of Rajasthan. Built in a striking lndo-Saracenic-style, it’s a hybrid form combining Indian and European elements, resulting in a grand, multi-layered building, with domes, parapets, and balustrades.

Completed a year after the Prince of Wales’ visit, Albert Hall contains some of the most important examples of Mughal “garden” carpets, emblazoned with flowers, birds and plant life. Most sources say that in the 16th century, the Mughal Emperor Akbar, originally from Persia, missed his luxuries so sorely that he brought talented carpet weavers from his home territory and set them to work in his palace at Agra, making tapestries that depicted Persian court life.

Over the decade that followed, these weavers taught prisoners who were in jails in Agra, Jaipur, Amritsar, Gwalior, Bikaner, and Lahore to weave vast carpets of the finest velvets, silks, and pashmina (the hair that grows only under a mountain goat’s chin in Kashmir). The yarns were dyed with natural vegetable colors, including the deep red from the madder plant, which provided a range of pinks and reds. Blue came from the leaves of the indigo plant, while greens and browns were extracted from grass and leaves. Yellow came from the saffron crocus, or from turmeric. These carpets, destined for the floors of royal palaces, took 10 to 15 years to complete.


Each prison developed its own weaving specialties and over time, as former prisoners sought work outside, the craft took root in Indian communities.

Later, in the 17th century, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, encouraged the weaving of carpets with subtle gradations and shadings, often in patterns that had scrolling vines, flowering plants, and animals, usually woven in silk with as many as 2,000 knots per square inch.

Indian carpets from that period are considered masterpieces. In 2013, a late 17th century Mughal carpet, in a “star-lattice” pattern, sold at Christie’s in London for $7.7 million.

When Prince Albert inaugurated the museum in 1863, during Crown rule, its purpose was to help preserve traditional Indian arts, crafts, and architectural forms, and to inspire artisans to improve their skills. But the opportunity to view beautiful and complex handiwork from all over the continent had the opposite effect: British manufacturers pounced on the opportunity to mass produce Western-style goods for export as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Many established art forms edged toward extinction; carpets, in particular, suffered.

By the time the British departed in 1947, Indian carpets had become known for their low quality, with much better rugs coming out of China and the Middle East. By the mid-1970s, the number of artisans making hand-knotted carpets, once in the tens of thousands, had dwindled to fewer than 3,500.

© 2020 Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: July 18, 2018