With the high Himalayan Mountains acting as a natural fortress Tibetan culture remained isolated from the outside world for millennia. It was only in the 7th century A.D., that Buddhism reached Tibet and gradually began to dominate almost every aspect of life. The advent of Buddhism in Tibet led to regular exchange of religious and spiritual nature with neighbouring India, which proved to be the first major outside influence on Tibetan culture. Prior to this, Tibetan was an unwritten language and it was not until the introduction of Buddhist scripts from India and the need for their translation, that the Tibetan alphabet was invented and the era of written Tibetan began. The first written chronicles of Tibetan history focused primarily on Buddhist affairs. In addition hardly any travelers’ accounts exist prior to the 20th century. It is therefore that information on the daily life and ancient customs of Tibetan people and their culture is nearly impossible to obtain. Only due to its importance to religious customs, the carpet weaving tradition was documented in a few historic chronicles. According to these sources it is generally assumed that carpet weaving in Tibet likely evolved more than a thousand years ago. Historians believe that the art of carpet weaving had already flourished throughout the 7th and 9th century. Earliest evidence of its existence was found at the Silk Road outpost of Miran, where Tibetan wool pile rug fragments were excavated dating back to the 7th century.
The rare historic sources indicate that weaving of all kinds emerged and flourished in the Central Tibetan valley of Gyangtse and surrounding villages like Drongtse, Ghampa Dzong and Wangden. The weaving of carpets itself originated in the Wangden valley.
It was also here that the handicraft was further developed and refined during the 13 - 14th century, when the Great 5th Dalai Lama (1642-1682) ruled in Tibet. Centuries later, during the reign of the Great 13th Dalai Lama (1878-1933), the centre of carpet weaving shifted from Wangden to Gyangtse. It is said that at some point all inhabitants of the valley were engaged in the weaving handicraft, half of whom were carpet weavers.
Among the first Western eye witnesses of Tibetan carpet weaving were the accompanying members of the British military mission led by Francis Younghusband who entered Tibet in 1903-04. One of them was Perceval Landon, a British writer, who in his book: ‘The Opening of Tibet’ (1905) described a courtyard near Gyangtse which was "entirely filled with the weaving looms of both men and women workers" making carpets, which were described as "beautiful things". After the defeat of the Tibetan army and the signing of the ‘Treaty of Lhasa’ in 1904, the British established their first trade mission in Gyangtse and permanently posted a trade agent there. This post was occupied until 1944.
Another eye witness was Sir Charles A. Bell (1870-1945). He was appointed as the Political Officer of the Indian Civil Service for Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet from 1900 until 1918, during which he became close friends with the Great 13th Dalai Lama. He dedicated the better part of his life to studying Tibetan language, culture, religion and history and substantially contributed to their records. He has taken the photo below passing through Gyangtse on his way to Lhasa.
Traditionally, carpets were not produced for commerce, instead commissioned by the numerous Monastic Universities, the Tibetan government and rich aristocratic officials from Lhasa. The most common types of carpets manufactured at that time clearly indicate their predominantly religious and prestigious purpose.
TSOGDEN: runners for seating monks at religious congregations in monasteries.
KAADEN: decorative pillar wrap-around carpets for monastic use.
GOMDEN: meditation or ritual use carpets.
SABDEN: large floor carpets for the Lama’s chambers or estate homes of the aristocrats.
TRHIDEN: carpets for the seat and back-rest of high Lamas’ thrones.
BOGCHA: door hangers for the Lama’s private chamber to hurdle negative energy.
Some carpets were also used for non-religious purposes
KHADEN: single-bed-size carpet most commonly used by all segments of the society.
GYABNGAY: cushion cover carpets commonly used by all.
TAPCHAY: horse or mule saddle carpet sets.
The weaving of carpets was so vital in the Tibetan social, political and economic life that a third rung liaison officer, called ‘Leytsampa’ in Tibetan, was stationed permanently in Gyangtse to oversee all the productions commissioned by the government in Lhasa. Likewise, the monasteries as well as the Tibetan military’s cavalry unit posted their own overseers in Gyangtse. For rich aristocrats however, it was custom to invite the Grand Master, ‘Chenmola’ in Tibetan, to their home and have him stay as a guest of honour for the entire length of the time required to weave their carpets. The Grand Master was a highly respected member of the citizenry and officially conferred with the position of a higher ranking member of the Tibetan government. For the journey from his home to the destination of his work a retinue of servants and horses to ride were arranged by the inviting party. During his stay, he oversaw the entire weaving process. His fees would be handsomely paid in kind e. g. with meat, butter, wool or even precious stones like coral, turquoise and amber or selected domestic animals like horses, yaks or cows.
Carpets have always been of significant importance in the lives of the Tibetan people, not only as a possession of great value for weathering the harsh climatic conditions of the land but also as a symbol of power, status and refined taste.
From the 19th to the mid 20th century Tibetan carpet weaving reached an unprecedented zenith. Especially the revolutionary designs introduced by the talented local aristocrat Kabshoepa proved immensely popular. Soon the trade for carpets also crossed borders into Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling, Ladakh and even trickled into the homes of the British India’s English officers.
The most dramatic change in the tradition of Tibetan carpet weaving occurred with China’s occupation of Tibet in 1950. The subsequent imposition of communism forbade all private enterprise and ownership. The weavers, Grand Masters, patrons and promoters of the art who were the driving force behind the weaving tradition had to abandon their way of life overnight. They were forced to subordinate themselves to the new, unfavourable conditions. With increasing repressions against the Tibetan people, resistance rose culminating into the uprising of 1959. However the uprising was put down in only a few days. The Great 14th Dalai Lama managed to escape into exile; tens of thousands Tibetans followed him to India and Nepal. Within a short time, the ancient art of Tibetan carpet weaving virtually died in the land of its birth.
To the astonishment of all carpet lovers, the art experienced a revival in the 1960s, exiled to Tibetan refugee settlements in Nepal and India. With the establishment of the Tibetan Refugee Handicraft Center in Kathmandu in 1961, the first Tibetan carpet woven in exile saw the light of day. In the following years, Western travelers to Kathmandu significantly facilitated, by way of giving business, the establishment of family based workshops that wove Tibetan carpets for retail sale. Thus, the tradition not only survived but recovered to a modest extent.
The coming of the European wholesale carpet dealers, particularly the Germans, in the 1980s took off the cottage industry based humble business to the horizons of international commerce. This triggered a significant upturn of the Tibetan carpet manufacturing industry in Nepal in a very short time, largely contributing to the country’s export revenues. The European wholesalers meanwhile were mainly interested in making a profit. They purchased low commercial quality with 60 knots per square inch, simple designs and soft colour schemes. Following decreasing demand, in the early I990s wholesaler’s drive for profit led to even less pay for the products. This development left most of the Tibetan refugee families with little to sustain their lives. The profit from the sale of one square meter ranged from 50 cents to a few US dollars. Often suppliers were in need of cash for circulation and had to sell their collections. Consequently, in order to survive many manufacturers began to use sub-standard and recycled materials, which in turn damaged the reputation of Nepalese Tibetan carpets in the German market and the demand plunged to its lowest ever in the late 1990s. Hundreds of small and medium businesses went bankrupt and only those not producing for wholesalers survived. They chose the more challenging path by safeguarding the tradition of Tibetan carpet weaving, continuously refining the art and transforming the colour shades and designs to the Zeitgeist. Their carpets, each one of them a piece of art, did and always will find connoisseurs who appreciate the value of an authentic high quality Tibetan carpet.
As is evident, a Tibetan carpet is not meant to be a bulk good. It is a piece of art which requires time, quality material, and most importantly the dedication and skills of its artisans to come into existence and gradually unfold its beauty.
Our carpets are authentic Tibetan pieces of art. Each of them embodies the values of a tradition which reaches back more than a thousand years.
We achieve this by combining skillful artistry and undivided dedication of the artisans, the beauty of fine colour shades and designs with the coziness of a woolen carpet and the highest achievable standard of quality.
That is how we contribute to the preservation of this unique heritage of Tibetan culture.