Saturday, November 1, 2014

New Treasures From Tibet. By Bruce McLaren

Every now and then you find fortune in the humble wool of a sheep's back. Such is the case here, when, at a recent purchase of a large group of rugs we came across some fairly rare Tibetan rugs.

Now modern Tibetan rugs are not at all rare these days, and they pretty much corner the market when it comes to high-quality contemporary designs. But here is the thing. First of all the modern "Tibetan" rug market is actually a Nepalese rug market. Rugs designated as "Tibetan" today are in fact made by Tibetans who had to flee from Tibet to Nepal due to Chinese expansionism. Tibetan wool is of a high grade. The knot is the classic Tibetan knot, that seems to be tattooed on the neck or shoulder of every second young woman these days. So the long and the short of it is that although there are many modern "Tibetan" rugs, there are not many real antique Tibetan rugs out there.

A few blogs ago I focussed on Tibetan tiger rugs. In the course of that blog I outlined how exceedingly rare these Tibetan rugs are. There are reports that there are only a few hundred "old" Tiger rugs out there - meaning from the early 1800s. I also mentioned how it was only in relatively recent times that the very first Tibetan rug was smuggled/purchased and brought out of Tibet, to find a new home in the Smithsonian. So was the first incursion made by Western curiosity into the material culture of Tibet, a name that conjures up a rosy tint in the imagination of most westerners. Here is a photo of this much spoken of particular rug...Observe the motifs, particularly the roses and T border - these come into the discussion later.

Top saddle rug. The famous first Tibetan rug to appear in the west, now in the Smithsonian.
Part of the reason why we know so little about antique Tibetan rugs is the inaccessibility of the region. Perhaps the most concetrated area of Tibetan rug production is in the Nyang River Valley, which flows north from the Himalayas and into the Brahmaputra, which flows west to east before empying out into the Bay of Bengal. This area represents the small "bite" taken by China between Nepal and Bhutan. This region is effectively south central Tibet. It is a stone's throw away from Thimbu up in Bhutan.

The same geography that has kept this region so remote also has contributed to so much Tibetan rug production being undertaken in this region. Much of Tibet is arid. But the waters flowing off the mountains into major and secondary river valleys are bountiful and the land is good for pastoral activities. The wool is soft and high quality. So this area was an epi-center of Tibetan rug production.

And on a final geographic note, it is important to realise that this part of the Himalayas was the entrypoint for expensive indigo from India.

Before we look at our pieces, it should quickly be said that Tibetan rug-making has generally fallen outside of the more detailed histories of Persian and Turkish schools. The knot is different and generally low-knot counts were used, even as low as 15 knots per, inch, which is about as low as you can go. Some Persian Isfahan carpets, by comparison, were made using closer to 800 knots per square inch.

The Tibetans also made textiles more in keeping with their own cultural requirments, lots of fittings and trappings for transport, ornamental throne seats, and most importantly in this particular case, the khaden, or sleeping mat, of which we have four show here, along with one saddlebag. These sleeping mats are exceedingly rare. But in this lot we discovered four - lets take a look at them.

The Group. Four Khaden rugs and one saddlebag.

So, what do you think? Colorful, aren't they? Very pretty stuff. And if they are old and rare, very pretty and expensive stuff. Now here are the four pieces in detail, placed in what I think is the chronological order. I will explain my reasons below.

Khaden #1


Khaden #2

Khaden #3

Khaden #4

Yes indeed, very pretty! But what age? What value? One would think that there had been 100 books written on Tibetan rugs but that is not the case. There is very little literature on the subject. The problem is that even in this day and age when we can go to the moon we still don't know much about these old Tibetan pieces from the Nyang River Valley.

It is well worth recalling that the predatory powers of Britain and Russia didn't really manage to mount any real expedition into Tibet until close to 1900 - not to say that this was not familiar terrain for the spies of "The Great Game".

Here is a rare photo from the 1890s showing a Tibetan priest seated on a Tiger Rug. As was discussed in my blog on tiger rugs the tiger motif was meant to possess protective powers. I show this picture because the tiger rug is of the abstract tiger stripe school, divided into two halves, with a pearl border and the stupa-rose. Now go to the first image at the top of this blog. You are already familiar with the tiger rugs. But compare this particular rug to the one at the top of this blog, the one housed in the Smithsonian. Compare the stupa-roses, which are identical, as well as the pearl border. What this tells us is that we are dealing with the same carpet tradition here. Not only tiger rugs but also these more elaborate Tibetan pieces probably, at least stylistically, came from the same source.

Tiger rug beneath priest table. Alongside matching Khamdrum rug.1880s.

Stylised Tibetan tiger rug, showing border elements typical of the Nyang River.
So let's look at some genuine old Khaden rugs from the early 1800s. They can easily be sorted into groups based on design. The first group, shown below, has three medallions, stupa-roses, pearl inner borders and interlocking T outer borders.
Khaden, sitting and sleeping rugs, with interlocking T border. Early 19th century AD.
Here is a second group of old pieces. Again, three madallions is the norm, but this time with a pearl inner border and a running swastika outer border.
More khaden rugs with interlocking swastika motif.
Discussion. So what can we make out of our own rugs?

First, we know that the four khaden we possess are far more colorful than anything classified as a genuine antique. The orange in the fourth khaden looks suspiciously artificial, although natural sources of orange were relatively available. However, the blue in the first khaden looks like real indigo.

Design-wise there are also very noticeable differences. There are no pearl borders, no T borders, no swastika borders. The three medallion pattern is still adhered too but the first khaden, the indigo khaden, has an all-over pattern that is not seen in the really old antiques.

Of course, as rug collectors, this is not necessarily the news you want to hear. You want to be told that you have rugs that should be in the Smithsonian, sell them and retire. But that is not about to happen and here is why...

Khaden of the early 1900s.

Look at this sample of khaden from the early 1900s. Stylistically, our Khaden #1 has much more in common with the left-most piece, which also lacks any border. And the orange in the our Khaden #4 has a lot in common with the third piece depicted here. Perhaps most important is the adoption of Chinese elements in the design, seen most prominently in the "rainbow border", the multi-colored stripes, of the fourth rug, but also in two of our own pieces.

The "China-fication" of khaden at this time should come as no mystery. Throughout the 1800s the Turks of Central Asia and the Chinese had been fighting it out for control of what was traditionally known as Eastern Turkestan. This is the region to the east of the Pamirs, which drops down into the Tarim Basin, and, further south, the Tibetan Plateau. Up until around 1900 the Turks maintained the upper hand in this region, and the Tibetan rug styles could be argued to find their origins in this Turkish influence.

But then the Chinese got the upper hand, and, after Mao, really cemented the Chinese position, incorporating this area into Xinjiang Province ("The New Province"). If you have been following the news you will have seen in the past year many clashes between the indigenous Turkish Uyghurs and the Chinese who have been migrating west to this new province, in the process stamping out any Turkic exoticism in favour of a Sovietski concrete blocks. It is a disgusting and unforgiveable shame. Silk Road wonders such as Kashgar, Yarkhand and Khotan are being stripped of all that was once mysterous and wonderful, in favour of the cold and clinical decisions made by bureaucrats in Beijing. The taking of Tibet is a land-grab of enormous proportions, that, if it had happened in Europe, would have led to certain war. Alas, for the poor Tibetans.

Of course, all of this is closely tied up with dating the rugs. With Mao there was a general exodus of Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, from Tibet into Nepal and India. I think we can safely assume that these khaden were baggage in this exodus, before ultimately ending up in the western market.

But if there are Chinese motifs in increasing numbers after 1900 then one must presume that the Tibetan rug makers were catering to Chinese needs. This must also predate the Tibetan exodus, for no Tibetan worth his salt would make a Chinese style Tibetan rug.

So my guess is this. These khaden were probably made sometime between 1890 and 1940. They are a combination of vegetable and artificial dyes. Khaden of this vintage are selling, rarely, at auction in the vicinity of $3000 each.

But I think these are grossly underestimately values. The reason being that we are dealing with a very limited pool of pieces made in a small area over a short period. These types of rugs are still largely unknown. Once there is a more widespread appeciation for the rarity of these Tibetan khaden, their value is sure to sky-rocket.

Friday, October 3, 2014

India Buying Trip September 2014. The Taj Mahal! By Bruce McLaren

India is a kaleidoscsopic treasure-trove of images and wonders. To think that our rug buying expeditions were all business and no play would be a little bit of a stretch. Take Agra, for example, a typical jumble of a place, a mere town by Indian standards, being home to a meagre million souls. just a few hundred miles south of Delhi. We go to Agra for work, some of the manufacturers we work with are there. But there is something else in Agra - the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is an instantly recognizable structure, and is probably the image that first springs to mind when anyone thinks of India. Many of those images will include the melancholic picture of a heart-crossed Princess Diana, sitting in reflective solitude, observing the Taj from a distance.

But beyond that, what do we know of the Taj Mahal?

First of all, there are different ways to see the Taj. This is how you think the Taj will look before you go to India. This is also how the Taj looks when you're off-chops on bhang or have a really expensive filter for your really expensive camera:

Second of all, there is the real Taj Mahal that you will actually see, crawling with thousands of tourists against a background of metallic silvery sky. To claim that India is all one great picture-postcard is dishonest. Air pollution around the big centers is a reality and it is no joke, believe you me. When you walk one block and your eyes start watering and your throat stings then you know something ain't right! Still, even in gray, there is no denying the allure of this architectural jewel:

Thirdly, you may just happen to be fortunate enough to arrive on one of the few clear mornings of the year when the sky is actually blue. Thus was the case for Cynthia when she visited last month. Nice photo Miss Cynthia!

Many marvel in a dazzled trance as they behold this product of the genius of man. But what exactly is the Taj Mahal? In this brief discoursus I shall explain...

In the world of architecture the Taj Mahal is considered the pinnacle of Mogul, or "Mughal" building, much as the Parthenon is considered the acme of Greek Temple building.

So, who were the Moguls, right? The Moguls derived their name from the term “Mongol” from where they inherit their ancestry. They claimed descent from both Chinngis Khan and Tamerlane, having been pushed south across the mountains from Central Asia, before heading east to India. As anyone who has been to Samarkand can attest, Central Asia had been decidedly Persianized, so when the Moguls came south they brought the same sensibilities with regards to the arts and architecture, and from this basis they developed their own refined style, perhaps best exhibited in the building of the Taj Mahal.

In the year 1526 AD the first Mogul Emperor, Babur, was victorious over the Hindus. From that year, until the British wrested control from them in 1857 AD these Muslim Turks ruled over the famous Mogul empire, spreading clean across the Indian sub-continent. Along with the contemporaneous Safavid Empire in Persia, and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, the Mogul Empire comprised one of the “big three” Asiatic Empires of that age.

The Taj Mahal was not built for one of the Moguls, but, rather for a favorite Mogul wife. Yes, it was built for Mumtaz Mahal (“the most excellent in the palace”) as a mausoleum by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan during the 1600s. In an intriguing twist Shah Jahan was placed under house arrest by his own son, Aurengzeb, and spent his days watching the completion of the Taj from the confines of the Red Fort, located just a mile upstream. On his death he was buried inside the Taj next to Mumtaz.

View of the Taj Mahal from Agra Red Fort as Shah Jehan would have seen it
To sit in the Red Fort prison in Agra, really a palace, with a clear view down the river and to imagine the Shah doing the same thing really is one of those more profound experiences and it does fire the imagination. Poignant to say the least. To top it all off there is the story that Shah Jehan had also planned a matching in black marble for himself. It would have been built across the river and linked to the White Taj Mahal by a bridge in white and black marble. Imagine if that had happened!

The relationship between the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and the Yamuna River, is is all best appreciated from the air.

The Taj with the Red Fort and Agra city upstream of the Yamuna River
Now one thing that is immediately apparent from the above aerial photo is that the gleaming white Taj Mahal does not in fact stand all alone. It is most immediately flanked by two mosques, each made out of a combination of marble and the red stone cut out of the river bank. And these three structures themselves are the focal point of a much larger compound of gardens and other buildings. Most people don't know this and think that the Taj stands alone. Not so. Here is a plan of the entire compound:

Complete Taj Compound

So let's start at the beginning....

Shah Jehan was a remarkable and passionate man who felt things deeply. The intense love he must have had for Mumtaz is clearly evident in his lifelong quest to build her a fitting memorial. And within the memorial itself is evidence of absolute obsession with symmetry.

The compound is a walled area, the only open flank being the side facing the river. Along the crennelated walls are small watch-houses known as chattris. The main building in the wall circuit is the ornamental gate, seen pictured here below, a splendid building with rows of onion-domes lining the roof.

Cynthia and Doug (Doug in Indian tourist disguise)

Here at the gate we encounter many of the architectural motifs commonly seen inside the compound. First of all, the shapes of the arches mirror those of the Taj itself, once more, the question of symmetry becomes apparent. Here too, as we can see in this closeup, there is an extravagant use of marble. The gate is mostly marble, but a multifarious amount of precious and semi-precious stones were also used in construction. In the spandrels above the arch is inlaid Jali mosaic depicting curvilinear vines, flowers and fruit, with carnelian, different colored agates, lapis, bloodstone and chalcedony. This signature design is seen throughout Mogul architecture and has a clean, open feel to it. 

Framing the arch are lines of calligraphy, all from the Quran. Finally, within the arch is a splendid play of geometric angles and recesses. How it was all put together is way beyond me!

Jali is also a term used to describe the finely carved geometric marble screens - another hallmark of Mogul architecture.

Example of both Jali inlay and Jali carving
To get to the gate one must pass an oval garden and some outlying buildings. But once you get there and look through the entrance then this is the first thing you see! The Taj Mahal franed by the gate. When you see this in real life, you will carry that profound impression with you for all your days.

Once you get through the gate and are faced directly by the actual Taj Mahal, then you can get an idea of the emphasis placed on symmetry by Shah Jehan. First there is a reflective pool running in a dead-straight line from the gate to the Taj, emphatically drawing your attention to the wonder ahead.

But if you pause a moment and try not to act like the sheep that flock straight to the Taj as if in a race of life and death, and look around, you will notice many things. Let's take another look at the plan, this time from directly overhead.

From overhead it is clear that every attempt at balance has been made in the planning of the compound. Take the gardens, which are 300 meters on each side, divided into quarters, each with a series of four sunken gardens. The plan is entirely consistent and is known as charbagh, a concept of garden design that first developed in Persia but was taken to an apex by the Moguls. It is an interesting concept with religious overtones. One only need look in the Quran to read the descriptions of paradise as being akin to a garden with flowing sluices of water and honey. The four flowing rivers of paradise are represented here, and it is of no small interest either that the term "paradise" comes from the Persian "paridaeza" for "walled garden". And in another intriguing twist this is a favored motif in Persian Baktiari rugs...

Here is such an example. I'll sell it to you, yes?
If you venture into the gardens, away from the tourist thoroughfare, you can find yourself quite alone...a remarkable feat in itself in India.

View of the Taj from within the gardens

Back to the overall plan. The waterways are flanked by flowerbeds and tree-lined arcades. Half-way down are matching pavillions. And at the far end are two major structures flanking the Taj itself. These are often referred to as the mosques but in truth only one of them is a mosque. The giveaway is the mihrab in the southern building which was used for prayers to Mecca, along with black marble prayer positions inlaid into the floor. This mosque itself is very similar in design and concept to the grand Juma Mosque in Delhi, also built by Shah Jehan. The corresponding building on the north side of the Taj was purely meant for the purpose of balance, but was probably used as some sort of meeting house.

Make no mistake, these buildings are but a touch on the Taj itself, but perhaps that contrast was always in the mind of Shah Jehan? They are still masterpieces which, without the Taj, would provide a destination for anyone with an interest in Mogul architecture. Why, just take a look at the effort made in the stone-carving and painting. The use of arches can make the light dance.

The Taj from inside the northern flanking building
Onwards and upwards to sunlit uplands! We now approach that holy of holies, the Taj Mahal. There has been so much written and said on this building that I won't go on and on about it, apart from providing concise comments on details and letting the videos give you a sense of actually walking around.

Miss Cynthia on the Taj platform
The following video illustrates this stage of arriving at the Taj:

The white marble Taj on the red stone plinth

Looking back to the gatehouse from the Taj platform
The Taj exterior is a work of beauty that commands attention. Transcending all, seeming to float, airily, eggshell-thin, is the onion dome with lotus design on the very top.

Below, in the spandrels above the arch, and on all sides, is every manner of Jali inlay and inlaid calligraphy. Four minarets sit on each corner point of the Taj platform.

No expense had been spared. Reputedly 100 elephants were used to carry the precious stones used in the inlay. The project almost bankrupted the empire. Observe some off these random details on inlay and stone-cutting.

One ascends white marble steps to the white marble platform on which the white marble Taj was built. As you can tell there is a lot fo white marble. Brung sunglasses! The only reason it looks so uncrowded and kindly lit is I was there early in the morning before the rush and the heat. This is what it looks like once you are up on the platform.

Once you walk to the fathest edge of the platform you find youself overlooking the banks of the River. Upstream is the Red Fort of Agra where poor old Shah Jehan looked at the completion of his lover's tomb under house arrest by his own son. But this is no place to linger. There are monkeys about and monkeys in India are no joke. They are big and if you show them your teeth they come at you hard and fast and try to bite you and then God only knows what you'll die of...

So retreat to the center piece of the whole - the mausoleum - simplicity and beauty and symmetry all taken to a new height. The cenotaphs of Shah Jehan and "most excellent" Mahal....

Lovers Rest
Floor plan of the mausoleum