An Introduction to Carpets

Carpet connoisseur, Dhruv Chandra shares his insights on old and antique carpets

New Delhi: Old and antique carpets are more than just floor coverings, and like all other works of art, have represented the aspirations, lifestyles, attitudes and limitations of their times. What makes these carpets valuable and works of art are their rarity, originality of design, quality of raw materials used, natural dyeing techniques and the skill and mastery of the weavers.

The key word I would ascribe to old and antique carpets is ‘quality’. Weavers used the best raw material they could afford. You will find that most antique carpets have been made with the finest clothing grade wool and sometimes even Pashmina or Cashmere, that would be used in clothing today (which is not what is used in contemporary carpets).

The dyes used in the olden days were generally all natural or vegetable dyes. Natural dyes are extracted from plants, rocks, minerals and sometimes even insects such as Cochineal or Laque emanating a resplendent Magenta pinkish-red hue. The other advantage with natural dyes is that they do not generally fade and can last a lifetime. The problem with new carpets is that they are generally manufactured using chemical dyes and have a tendency to fade with exposure to sunlight.

Tribal Afshar- South West Iran
Circa 1930s
Vegetable/natural dye
Approx. 7ft x 4ft 10in ( 213.4 x 147.3 cms)
Image Courtesy: Saffronart 24-Hour Auction: Carpets & Rugs, March 14-15, 2012
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The primary thing to understand with old carpets is that they were completely made by hand and created as a ‘labor of love’, not manufactured with the intention to resell them. So they used the best skilled weavers who took a lot of pride in their work to create bespoke carpets.

If one were to buy a carpet let’s say a 100 years ago, one would not have gone to a carpet shop. One would have called a renowned carpet weaver and had the luxury to select a design from his hand drawn maps or khartouns which are also  called ‘nakshas’. Then one would have selected the colors and purchased the raw materials such as wool, Pashmina, or silk, and dyes etc. for the weaver. It would be like commissioning a painting today.

Kashgar Carpet- Central Asia
Circa 1920s
Madder – Indigo Blue natural / vegetable dye
Approx. 8ft 4in x 4ft 6in (254 x 137.2 cms)
Image Courtesy: Saffronart 24-Hour Auction: Carpets & Rugs, March 14-15, 2012
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For modern interiors that embody cleaner lines, minimalistic accents and the efficaciousness of geometric patterns, carpets like Afshar, Shiraz, Quashgai, Samarkand, Kashgaar Khotans, Tibetan prayer rugs, Kazaks and Hamadaans are an ideal option.

Khotan Carpet, Pomegranate Design- East Turkestan
Circa 1930s
Approx. 7ft x 4ft 7in (213.4 x 139.7 cms)
Image Courtesy: Saffronart 24-Hour Auction: Carpets & Rugs, March 14-15, 2012
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The Samarkand Khotan carpets from Uzbekistan embody influences from the Northwest Frontier Province, Turkmenistan, Persia and China, reflecting the multi-cultural iconographies of ancient Samarkand. One such iconographic motif prominently displayed is the pomegranate fruit. Traditionally, the pomegranate symbolizes abundance, fertility, lusciousness, generosity and union. Used in many cultures as a symbol of marriage, fertility and love, the pomegranate with its leathery outer skin and its pink juicy, sweet interior is a symbol of encompassing bliss, reminiscent of passion and luxury. According to the Quran, pomegranates grew in the ‘gardens of paradise’. The Prophet is said to have encouraged his followers to eat pomegranates to ward off envy and hatred. In Christianity, the pomegranate is a symbol of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life. Primarily it was also used as a symbol of aspiration, for us to tap into the luxurious side of life – recognizing the richness, abundance and wonder that surround us at every turn. They also used the seeds to make red dye and skins of the fruit to make yellow dye.

In keeping with this inspiration, these carpets have a rich vibrancy in their color palette: spectacular pink, orange and lavender hues combined with a unique aesthetic sensibility. Invariably, the designs of a Samarkand-Khotan are multicultural, one of a kind, displaying a rich array of medallions, Grecian pillars, stylized vases, Lotus blossoms, cloud-bands and sometimes even fantastical dragons. The lines are neither too ornate nor geometrical, just perfectly balanced. All these factors make Samarkands hugely versatile acquisitions, that fit into traditional as well as modern interiors.

Like any work of art, choosing a carpet is a very personal thing. It’s not just about making a judicious investment but buying something that you will live with for decades to come. The carpet has to please you, not your decorator, or your relative or friend who accompanies you in the purchase. The carpet you choose should be the one you love, it should ‘sing to your senses’ and ‘talk to you’. I would recommend really doing your research before you make your purchase. Carpet catalogues, seminars, museums and auctions are a great way to train your eye and hone your taste.

Carpet collecting is still at a very nascent stage in India. There are a growing number of Indian collectors who have been bitten by the ‘Carpet Bug’ and  are beginning to understand the fine nuances  of buying a good Oriental Carpet and about carpets as an asset for investment.

Shiraz Kilim- South West Iran
Circa 1930s
Approx 8ft 5in x 5ft 1in (256.5 x 154.9 cms)
Image Courtesy: Saffronart 24-Hour Auction: Carpets & Rugs, March 14-15, 2012
For more details:

With our economy doing substantially better than the world markets, and enormous wealth being created here, there is  a huge  demand for a trusted source of fine and rare carpets, Kilims and textiles. The pie of old carpets is limited, and people who possess such pieces do not wish to part with them that easily. If they do, then they want a premium price for their ‘treasures’. In my view, it is because of this shortfall in supply that it is obvious that the price of collectable antique rugs will go in one direction only.

Dhruv Chandra is a second generation Collector and Curator of old and antique carpets, Kilims and textiles and owns The Carpet Cellar which also houses India’s largest private collection of antique rugs. As part of his drive to revive the declining trade in carpets, he offers talks and seminars at The Carpet Cellar in New Delhi. He is working on opening a first of its kind Carpet Museum in India.