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Story and photos by Rupert Smith

March 31, 2000

(click on small images for full size images with captions)

Gabu Village
Wangden Valley
Wangden is the name of a remote valley in the Tsang province, running north to south in southern Tibet. The valley begins roughly 25km south of Penam Xian on the main road between Shigatse and Gyantse. In the valley are 22 villages, some comprising only a few households, and three monasteries.

Once famous throughout Tibet, Wangden was unique for its style of carpet weaving practiced nowhere else in Tibet, and was 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 the use of monks participating in the Great Monlam Prayer Festival in Lhasa, the first and largest religious gathering of the Tibetan Buddhist year.

Late 17th C and Late 18th C
Wangden monastic runners
Known as “Wangden Drumtse”, these carpets are technically and aesthetically distinct from the more common “Drumtse” or “Gamdrum” carpets produced in the rest of Tibet. According to local oral traditions, as well as the opinion of some Western scholars and enthusiasts, they were the first type of knotted pile rug ever woven in Tibet.

Detail of late 18th C
runner fragment
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 and colour schemes in honour of the former Wangden Lama Jian Teppe Genshe, with whom the designs (and the weaving tradition itself) are associated.

Before Tibet was opened to Westerners in 1984, nothing was published on Wangden carpets, nor were they available in the Kathmandu market. Soon after, some pieces came out from Lhasa to Kathmandu, and their unusual construction was noted by Western carpet enthusiasts. In the late 1980s, Western dealers expressed an interest in these pieces. Therefore, Lhasa carpet dealers started to seek out this type until in 1991 a large group of 40 or 50 pieces came onto the market in Lhasa with prospective buyers searching Lhasa dealers’ houses. Due to this group’s sudden emergence, most likely from a single source, in this case we can presume a monastery. Due to the unusually heavy weight it seemed to be very unlikely that these carpets were carried by nomads.

Late 17th C and Late 18th C
Wangden monastic runners
Lhasa dealers refer to this type of carpet as Wangden drumtse – “drumtse” meaning carpet in Tibetan, and Wangden is the valley between Xigaze and Gyantse in Central Tibet from where they came.This valley has been mentioned throughout Tibetan history. In the 11th century annals of the Nyang valley, Wangden is mentioned as a rug weaving centre. Additionally, the traveler Chandra Das made a trek from Xigaze to Gyantze in the early 1890s and visited Wangden on the way. Furthermore, Wangden is included on the map of Central Tibet in Diane K. Myers’ "Temple Household and Horseback", published in 1984.

Warp-faced-back rugs newly made in
the Wangden valley
Victor Chan marked Wangden’s precise location in his Pilgrims Guide to Tibet and made it possible for us to rent a jeep, whose driver, like us, had never visited there. Turning south at Penam on the road between Gyantse and Xigaze, we came upon two villages. The first was a village with a monastery, while the second was merely a collection of narrow alleys on the hillside where the valley forks and comes to an end. It is called Gabu, a name which I kept secret for more than 10 years, as we have been producing carpets there since 1996. See

When we arrived in Gabu there were still examples of recently made bed-size (khaden) carpets which had bright chemical greens and three medallion (mandala) designs. Their designs and making techniques are similar to the later 19th century Wangdens with grey wool warps and light weight weft, making them somewhat like standard cut loop bar system Tibetan rugs. There is a considerably rarer and older group of carpets with predominantly red and yellow palette, though also sometimes indigo blues and greens with natural cream warps which are interspersed with brown warps and have a very low knot count. These pieces have been found in western Tibet more than 1000 km from the Wangden valley and it has been suggested they were made there by weavers who were perhaps trained in the tradition in the Wangden valley.

Further research has revealed a still rarer group with hard yak warps and higher knot count with a multitude of well saturated dyes including beautiful light purple (to some eyes strawberry), dark indigo greens and rich madder reds. These are predominantly found around Lhoga, the ancient seat of Tibetan kings in the Yarlung valley. As it is not far from Wangden we could surmise that these pieces are the original form of Wangden drumtse, made during the Chinese Ming Dynasty era (1366-1644). Recently, one carpet was carbon tested to be within this period. Since Tibet is such an old monastic culture, it is likely this kind of rug has been made there as early as during the rule of the kings of Yarlung in the Tang era (before 907 AD).

Late 19th C Wangden Valley khaden sleeping rug
Ancient cultures living in what is now north western China, on and around the old silk route, also made rugs; and some grave finds during Aurel Stein’s expeditions of the early 20th century were fragments of rugs with similar knotting and warp-faced back technique. Therefore, it is possible that prisoners taken during the expansion of Tibet in the 7th-9th centuries were brought to Tibet and started the tradition of carpet weaving for monasteries. It is believed that some of the grave finds in Tibet are earlier than those found from the Han period of the Chinese dynasties, but there is little or no written evidence of this, other than Chinese bone oracle inscriptions from around the time of the Tocharian (5th-8th centuries) invasion of northeastern Tibet.

These mention flat woven wool strips called “nambu” being given as tribute by Tibetan nomads to Chinese officials, proof that weaving was already the specialty of Tibetans at that time.

About the author:
Rupert Smith is from Derbyshire, England, and bought his first rug in the bazaar in Istanbul over thirty years ago. Following his first visit to Tibet in 1986 he has dedicated himself to the study of Tibetan culture, with particular attention to the unique craft of Tibetan weft and weave. As well as having an eye for the rugs characteristic of daily life on the remote Tibetan plateau, he sponsors a project in Tibet dedicated to making Wangden meditation rugs. With energy and tenacity Rupert has promoted the revival of ancient skills by supplying the weavers with natural dyes from Nepal and India and has brought them to the attention of the outside world. His knowledge of the rarest and most exquisite antique Tibetan rugs is second to none and can be found in his book Secrets of Tibetan Weaving. From November Wangden meditation rugs will be available from the Serindia Gallery ANNEX 4th Floor, Central Embassy (Ploenchit and Chidlom BTS), 1031 Ploenchit Road BANGKOK 10330, Tel: +66 2160 5977 [email protected] ;

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