Animal Trappings of Tibet by Thomas Cole

Category: General

The mere mention of ‘nomadic’ weaving in Tibet used to raise the ire of many a Tibetophile in past years. Still there is a sub-conscious (if not, at times, overt) refusal to embrace a nomadic origin for some Tibetan weavings. The very fact that the so-called “warp faced back” weaving technique is commonly referred to as ‘Wangden’ (a village in south Tibet) rugs belies an inexplicable adherence to conventional ‘wisdom’ and, ultimately, to conventional thinking. Just as every Tekke weaving was once as a “Bokhara” rug, just as every “Beshir” prayer rug is usually identified a Turkmen (Ersari) product from the middle Amu Darya region (when actually they are more often than not woven by Uzbeks in Bokhara or some other urban center), these warp faced back rugs from Tibet hail from a number of different areas. How would I know? The very idea that rugs with different palettes, different structural characteristics and different wool would be coming from only one village is rather fanciful and ultimately unbelievable.

Photo 1 – Tibetan animal trapping

But with that said, there are some weavings that are undoubtedly of nomadic origin, made with undyed, natural fibers (yak hair, wool) depicting a variety of different elements, including traditional designs appropriated by Buddhism long ago as well as abstract patterns. Note the first example (PHOTO 1), a relatively fine weave when compared to the following examples. A variety of patterning is apparent, including a rare rendition of the “endless knot” (a pattern seen in early stone seals from Central Asia, approx 1500 BCE), and the omnipresent ‘swastika’, which also far pre-dates the advent of Buddhism in the world, not just Tibet where it was introduced in the 7th century. It, too, is seen in early Central Asian seals as well as even earlier in Anatolia.

Photo 1a – detail Tibetan animal trapping
Photo 1b – detail Tibetan animal trapping

The trident is also an image that is associated with other cultures, i.e. Hinduism that also pre-dates Buddhism. It is believed to represent the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. It is also said to represent the threefold qualities of nature: creation, preservation and destruction.The stylized flames at one end are curious, reminiscent of Buddhist symbols (i.e. flaming jewel). But it is just a flame, in this case, and may bear a relationship with shamanism from Central Asia and fire worshipers and the Vedic (pre-Hinduism) god of fire, Agni. From the dawn of time, the peoples of Central Asia have used fire in their rituals. From the shamanic origins through the Vedic tradition to Buddhist tantra, the use of fire has played an essential role in sacrifices to please the gods, to invoke unseen and powerful forces and to identify and unite with the gods. Clearly, the representation of flames in this weaving (and the next) can hardly be confined to only a Buddhist interpretation.

Photo 2 – Tibetan animal band

The second animal band (PHOTO 2), too, displays similar imagery but with the addition of simple ‘S’ forms, thought to have traditionally represented dragons in weavings throughout Asia, a mythical depicted from China to Anatolia. Coarsely woven and heavily ‘smoked’, this is clearly a rustic, tribal weaving that undoubtedly emerged from a nomadic milieu.

Photo 2a – detail Tibetan animal band
Photo 2b – detail Tibetan animal band

The third trapping (PHOTO 3 below) is devoid of all literal imagery, exhibiting an abstract design that evolves along the length. With the freedom to weave whatever they wanted, the patterning at one end appears to slip off into space literally. Given the complete nature of the weaving (end finish and loose ‘warps’ at either end), the whimsy yet purposeful intent of the weaver may be assumed. Such simple animal trappings are not governed by any codification of design nor the strictures of a demanding market or sponsors.

Photo 3 – Tibetan trapping
Photo 3a – detail Tibetan trapping
Photo 3b – detail Tibetan trapping

Clearly tribal and/or nomadic weaving does exist on the high plateau. The traditions from which these tribal peoples originally come are diverse but share many distinctive characteristics with a pan Asian belief system and similar mythologies. John Bellezza’s explorations of the high plateau regions (the Changthang area of northern Tibet) and his documentation of the petroglyphs, including both painting and carving, belie a commonality with other regions of Central Asia that have been previously explored, photographed and documented for posterity. Bellezza’s work has achieved little notoriety but should one day be accorded the appropriate respect it deserves.

Links: Ancient Rock Art of Tibet, Changtang Circuit Expedition – a trip to Northern Tibet

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