A Saddle Rug from the Roof of the World

Originally appeared in HALI 119, © 2001

While resident in Nepal during the late 1980s, the author acquired a battered but beautiful knotted pile saddle rug, whose colouring and design link it to the wider weaving traditions of the Steppe nomads of Central Asia.

This Tibetan saddle rug, of uncertain age, but apparent antiquity, appears at first glance rather too ragged to be of much interest. But the intense dye saturation of the aubergine field in conjunction with the illusion of the medallions floating above the surface of the rug, is extremely pleasing.

I discovered it one sunny February morning in Kathmandu before the joyous festival of Losar, Tibetan New Year, when all Tibetans of modest means seek out supplementary funds to finance the week-long celebrations.
Having flipped through more than fifty rugs of no interest, this little jewel appeared. The owner recognized its singularity , but proved amenable, in the end to selling, perhaps in anticipation of the impending holiday. Back home, it became apparent it was exceptional. The clear saturated ground colour is magnificent, a dark purple hue reminiscent of the older weavings from the Chodor Turkmen, with the medallions outlined in deep madder red offstet by ivory and secondary design elements high lighted in a light celadon/tealblue-green.

The archaic drawing of th perfectly proportioned medallions is unusually beautiful. One cannot regard the medallions as typical of the Tibetan design pool, but it seems to me possible that they share a common history with the ancient Central Asian ertmen gol.

With the history of ht steppes marked by tribal migrations, successive generations of Turko-Mongolian warriors left their mark in the arid wasteland we know today as Tibet. Oddly enough, both the palette and design of this rug bear striking similarities to those of the Chodor Turkmen. The extension of tribal power as well as mere survival were contingent on the most important weapon in the arsenal of the mounted steppe warriors, the bow. Literal representation of the basic tools of the hunt is an old tradition and I believe the primary bow-shaped design element of this rugs is a memory (if not direct expression) of steppe warrior consciousness.
In spite of its fragmented condition, with at least a ten inch loss from the middle, an impression of almost infinite space is conveyed. It is one of the few saddle rugs I have encountered which may significantly pre-date most others of this genre. Given the number of very early Chinese textiles as well as pile pieces to have reached the West over the past two decades from the desolate, arid Tibetan plateau, why not an early saddle rug??

Whether it was woven by nomad is a matter of conjecture., nor in the absence of hard documentation can we be sure when or where it was made. However examination of the structure show similarities with other plateau weavings. The knots are evenly tied, perhaps a bit more tightly woven than is the case in other recognized old rugs, but the foundation, made entirely of finely spun wool, appears to have been loosely strung on the loom; the wefts are loosely packed while the warps are evenly spaced. This gives a substantial density to the surface in addition to a supple handle.

The rounded oval forms is consistent with that normally associated with older saddle rugs from the plateau. Evidence from ancient Central Asian murals and the saddlery of the classic T’ang dynasty ceramic horses from China reinforces this perception. All too often one sees old saddle rugs with incongruously crowded design elements, but this one stands alone in my experience for the exquisite depiction of the ancient motifs.

Tibetan nomad on the high plateau.

The allure of antique rugs and textiles is compelling, but ultimately humbling. For we are merely renting these treasures, temporary custodians of magic from a past era as they pass from one person to the another after we, as individuals, leave this life for the next.

Original photos and text appeared in HALI 119, © 2001
No parts of this text or any photo may be re-produced, transmitted or copied by electronic means or otherwise without permission from the author.
© 2003 Thomas Cole
I also wish to thank the publishers of HALI for permission to reproduce this article on the site.

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