Nepal and Tibet are so close to each other geographically that most people think they belong to one country. In reality, Tibet is a territory of China while Nepal is recognized as a sovereign nation in South Asia. But the difference stops there as both places share a long and deep cultural history especially when it comes to rug weaving.
Tibetan-Nepal Rug History
Tibet has an ancient rug making tradition dating back to more than a thousand years but because it was so close to China, people often mistook their rugs for Chinese-made ones. It was only in early 1900s during the British invasion that Tibetan rug weaving was introduced to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the thriving carpet industry began to decline in the middle of the 20th century as tensions with China grew that eventually caused a civil uprising. As a result, many rug weavers fled to neighboring Nepal and India.
In the 1970s, Tibetan rugs rose back to prominence again but this time the carpets were produced in Nepal by some of Tibet’s best weavers who escaped the fighting with the Chinese. The demand for such carpets increased exponentially that Tibetan rug makers had to teach Nepalese locals their craft in order to keep up. Soon, the number of Nepal’s weavers grew bigger and eventually overtook the Tibetans. They veered away from making traditional Tibetan rug sizes and made bigger ones – area rugs that would fit in large living rooms found in Western homes. This marked the beginning of Nepal’s own rug weaving industry that would become one of the country’s economic pillars.
Tibetan Rug Origin
Tibetan rugs were first made using ‘changpel’ wool or fleece from Tibetan Highland sheep. But due to limited supply and strict regulations on importation, Tibetan weavers in Nepal used wool from New Zealand instead. It’s the primary reason why original Tibet-made rugs cost so much more than those produced in India or Nepal despite similarities in motif and designs.
Unlike their Persian rug counterparts, Tibetan rug color choices were sparse owing to a small number of natural dye sources weavers had access to. Most of the rugs used red, blue, yellow, and brown dyes. This changed dramatically once production moved to Nepal where rug makers had easier access to supplies.
The first carpets made by Tibetan weavers followed simple geometric patterns since most of them were made for utilitarian purposes rather than decorative. Many rugs were also produced in Tibetan homes but those with intricate designs were created in workshops run by wealthy families. Aside from affluent homes, the main market for these carpets were monasteries. Monks loved using them and those with more money were able to buy and change them more often which gave the local weaving economy a boost.
Today, it’s a widely accepted practice to interchangeably call Tibetan carpets as Nepal rugs since both essentially have the same origins. But in terms of value, it’s important to distinguish between rugs made in Tibet and those with Tibetan style made in Nepal and India.
Author: Carlo Vincent Mollenido