Gallery of Antique Rugs
Wangden Meditation Weaving
March 31, 2000
on small images for full size images with captions)
Wangden was once famous throughout Tibet for its unique style of carpet weaving, practiced nowhere else in Tibet, and in great demand by monasteries from Lhasa to Amdo to Ladakh. Wangden carpets were used as meditation mats by the Fifth Dalai Lama, and every year a new set of Wangden runners was woven for use by monks participating in the Great Monlam Prayer Festival in Lhasa, the first and largest religious gathering of the Tibetan Buddhist year.
Known as "Wangden Drumse," these carpets are technically and aesthetically distinct from the more common "Drumse" or "Gamdrum" carpets produced in the rest of Tibet. According to local oral traditions as well as the opinion of some Western rug scholars and enthusiasts - they were the first type of knotted pile rug ever woven in Tibet.
Wangden carpets differ from other knotted Tibetan carpets in both structure and design: structurally, the knotting method is distinct and the rug backing is "warp-faced." Aesthetically, as a group they represent what is according to legend an ancient, strictly-preserved canon of designs, adhering to rigid knot-counting, arid, color schemes in honor of a former Wangden Lama Jian Teppe Genshe with whom the designs (and the weaving tradition itself) are associated.
During the Cultural Revolution, carpet weaving in the valley
stopped almost entirely. Up until recently Wangden carpets were
only woven by a few villagers for household use, and occasionally
also by onsite commission for nearby monasteries being rebuilt.
Lacking in abundant agricultural, water and other natural resources,
Wangden has become an extremely impoverished valley in one of
the poorest regions of contemporary Tibet (Tsang). Carpet weaving
was consequently reduced to an occasional occupation that takes
place only after the spring harvest (April-May), when or if
there is extra wool to spare for making rugs. Most households
in the valley can't afford to weave or use carpets; instead
dried yak skins are commonly substituted.
Before Tibet was opened to westerners in 1984 nothing was published on Wangden carpets nor were they available in the Kathmandu market. Soon after this some pieces came out from Lhasa to Kathmandu and the unusual construction was noted by western carpet enthusiasts. In the late 80's western dealers expressed an interest in these pieces.
Therefore Lhasa carpet dealers started to find this type until in 1991 a large group came onto the market in Lhasa and we were able to see 40 or 50 such pieces in combing Lhasa dealers' houses. Due to this group's sudden emergence, I guessed that it had come from a single source, which in this case presupposes a monastery. Due to the unusual weight it seemed to be very unlikely that they were carried by nomads. Lhasa carpet dealers refer to this type as Wangden drumse. Drumse means carpet in Tibetan, Wangden is a village between Xigaze and Gyantse in Central Tibet which is mentioned several times throughout history.
the 11th century annals of the Nyang valley Wangden is mentioned as
a rug weaving center. Chandra Das made a trek from Xigaze to Gyantze
in the early 1890's, and visited Wangden on the way.
The father or sons of the family still go to spend six months a year tending their sheep and other animals on the high pastures with the nomads while the rest of the family permanently stay in their houses in Wangden. When asked if nomads made carpets in the same way as Wangden, villagers said they did not but that they still did indigo dying and showed us an indigo dyed piece of flat woven wool known as nambu. Nomads also make tsu truk blankets which have long looped pile but no knots and are made in strips on a back strap loom. When we asked if tsu truk was the origin of the Wangden technique, villagers said it was not.
Talking with Tibetan traders (Khampas) in Lhasa, we discovered warp
face back rugs were being found to the South East of Lhasa in Lhuntse
Xian. So we obtained a permit to go there.
We left the monastery and led by a local man, were taken into
a house with large upright looms leaning against the wall where we
were shown new carpets with large knots and the same large swastika
designs found on warp face back rugs made in the area. A seventy five
year old man told us the warp face back rugs usually were made using
yak hair. More importantly, he said before his time Wangden villagers
had come to Nyime Shang and taught the locals how to weave with the
warp face back WANGDEN technique.
When we first saw new warp-face back rugs in Wangden they had 3 medallion designs and bright chemical green dyes. In order to find out if they could still remember how to indigo dye we returned with indigo from India.
Now we have made many journeys to Wangden repeatedly taking indigo and other locally grown vegetable dyes back to the villagers. They have produced a range of totally vegetable dyed rugs recreating ancient designs without the use of graph paper templates. So not only could these villagers remember the meaning of designs but also remember their vegetable dying and weaving techniques after having not produced rugs of this type for many years.
all text & images © Rupert Smith