Friday, April 18, 2014

Why Are Tibetan Tiger Rugs All The Rage? By Bruce McLaren

Tibetans and Tigers. A long, shared history.
Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err
With her
On some other fur?

When this poem was penned some hundred years ago, nothing was thought more natural, or desireable, than to frolic about on a tiger skin with a bottle of champagne. The social mores of our own time, however, shun such behavior.

And rightly so, for the tiger is a noble beast, and to shoot one seems akin to commiting a sacred crime, made all the more so by the fact that there are only about 3000 tigers remaining, compared to 100 000 when this ditty was composed. The map below illustrates the sad reality of the depleted range of wild tigers.

Tibetan tiger rugs are an enigma. There are only a handful of antique Tibetan tiger rugs, less than 200 in all, and really very little is known about them. Yet it is increasingly apparant that in the modern rug world the tiger rug is becoming a fashion trend. Many producers of hand-woven Tibetan rugs, nearly all of them based in Nepal, are rapidly coming out with more tiger designs and higher production. The celestial wheel of fashion turns!

A new tiger rug made by Tibet Rug Company

But before more examples of the good new stuff we must ask ourselves what we know of the good old stuff. What traditions are being drawn upon here? Because it is the increasing awareness of these traditions that is behind the demand that is driving this trend.

Tiger rugs were always considered prized possessions, not mere objects to be parted with for damnable mammon. Remarkably, the first tiger rug reached the west only as recently as 1979, purchased by the Newark Museum.

I think it is fair to say that when most people think of Tibet they don't usually associate it with tigers. But as the above map shows, tigers once ranged far and wide across Asia, with a number of sub-species. Tiger rugs are found in Khotan, in the Taklamakan Basin to the north, and tigers still exist further north in Siberia, today. There was once a Caspian Sea tiger that has since become extinct. Yet tigers are certainly still to be found in the Himalayas.

Tiger rugs were known to have been made as gifts for lamas in their monasteries.Tiger rugs have an association with Tantric Meditation. Yogins meditating on tiger pelts is a common motif in Tibetan art. The tiger skin motif was thought to protect the person during meditation, by creating anger that kept away scorpions and snakes and other insects.

Yogis practising tantric meditation on tiger pelts
In religion, these motifs are related to the tiger skin loin cloths depicted in Tibetan thangkas, paintings of wrathful Tibetan Gods. Female gods wear snow leopard spotted loincloths, a design also noted in old Tibetan rugs. Tiger skin rugs were also used in dances at the Tibetan New Year.

Thangka showing stylised tiger loincloth
Tiger pelts were also a sign of power for Tibetan authorities. The tiger symbolised status, ferocity and bravery. Ritual thrones were adorned with tiger pelts and rugs. Warriors wore tiger skins and their graves were decorated with painted tigers. Gods were depicted as riding tigers.

Thangka showing a god seated on a tiger
One of the defining signs looked for on the Dalai lama are stripes on the legs, like those of a tiger. The predominant orange color of the rugs also has obvious connections with the Buddhist proclivity for that color. The tiger motif also served a protective function in other ways, for example being employed flanking the entrance to the White Palace in Lhasa.

Of the old Tibetan tiger rugs there are three basic groups. First are 'flayed' tiger rugs, pelts with arms, claws and head depicted. Second were more abstract representations of the tiger stripe design. Third are tigers walking in pairs, representing Yin and Yang, a Chinese influence. Among these categories some rug scholarly-types identify various sub-groups, such as realistic pelts with stylized stripes and skeleton stripes, pelts with heads at both ends, pelts without heads, stripes with rainbow ends, abstracted wavy line stripes, lip-shaped stripes, paired stripes and so on.

Let's take a look at the good old stuff...

Full pelt tiger rug. Compare to above new tiger rug by Tibet Rug Company

Full pelt tiger rug on green field. Some distinguishing features of this rug are the 'mountain and cloud' motif at each end, which is a Chinese motif. Also of note is the green field, a color associated with feminine qualities. Finally, many of the new tiger rug examples, see both above and below, depict the tiger catching a jewel

Twin tiger rug

Abstracted tiger rug
Abstracted tiger rug with stripes in rows

Abstracted tiger rug with 'rainbow' motif at each end
Before looking at some of the new examples of tiger rugs that are appearing on the market a quick word should be said regarding construction. The orange dyes that are prevalent in these rugs are variations that find their source in the madder root. The knot is particularly difficult to understand compared to the Turkish or Persian knots. The weaving process involves the use of a rod. The pile thread is wound around the two warp-threads above the rod, looped over the rod, before passing onto the next warp-threads. This makes for a continuous thread that only stops when there is a color-change.

The Tibetan knot
OK then! So now that we know a few facts about these mysterious rugs, let's take a look at some more of the reproductions appearing on the Nepalese market.

Yayla Rugs. Cut and loop pile in light field, with Tibetan knot pile for tiger

Catching the jewel

Yayla Rugs.

Reproduction of rainbow end motif

Tibet Rug Company. Fresh off the loom!
Believe me, there is plenty more on the way as well!

On a final note, as proof of my commitment to this blog and the eternal search for truth, here is a picture of yours truly, yogi in the making, engaged in tantric meditation on a tiger rug. 


  1. Very interesting post, Bruce. Why don't you do a program
    on tiger rugs for the TRS?

  2. seriously great and interesting blog on tiger rugs

  3. I want a Tibetan flying tiger rug. And I want it to fly me to someplace infinitely peaceful.