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Oriental Rugs - A buyer’s Guide

  • Boteh
    The boteh design derives its name from the Persian word for a “cluster of leaves”, which it only partially resembles, and is familiar in the West as the primary motif of the Paisley design. Its origins are extremely obscure and there is still considerable debate as to whether it was first used in Persia or India.  Equally contentious is its inspirational source, and experts have suggested that it represents a stylized version of such diverse objects as a pine cone, a cypress tree, a leaf, a foetus, a male sperm and Zoroastrian flame.  It is composed of a single almond shaped form curling at its narrowest point into a loop or tail and is employed as a repeating motif in either all over or medallion and corner formats.  The size and shape of the individual motifs vary considerably, but as a general rule, they tend to be larger and bolder in village and nomadic rugs, and smaller and more delicate in workshop rugs.  The most frequently encountered variation of the boteh is known as the Mir or Mir-i-boteh design, so named because the village of Mal-e-Mir, in the Seraband district of west central Persia, was renowned for fine quality rugs in this design.  It consists of numerous off-set rows of tiny botehs arranged to create the illusion of symmetrically fallen leaves.
    Rugs employing the boteh design were made until recently by several workshop, village and nomadic groups in Persia, but with the exception of small number of examples from Seraband, Ghoum, and Kerman, the vast majority are now made in India and usually marketed as Indo-Mirs.
  • Herati
    The herati design derives its name from the town of of Herat, part of Persia until the last century, but now in Afghanistan, where it is said to have originated. It is composed of a single floral head within a diamond framework flanked by four outwardly curling leaves.  It is sometimes referred to as the “mahi” or “fish in the pond” design (mahi is the Persian word for fish), because many traditional sources have sited this as its symbolic origin.  In Persian mythology the world was supported by for swimming fish.  It is also known as the Farahan design, as it so dominated the compositions of this Persian town. Although there are numerous interpretations of the basic herati form, it is usually employed in either an all over or medallion and corner format.  In this latter scheme, the field is always herati, but the  medallion may be either floral or skeletal, which allows the herati patterning to extend through the medallion to create the impression of an allover scheme on a varriegated ground.
    Herati design rugs are made by numerous workshop, village and nomadic groups throughout Persia, but are most closely associated with those form Khorassan, Kurdistan, Farahan, Hamadan, and Tabriz. This design is rarely found outside Persia, although India to a lesser extend China and Pakistan produce rugs in traditional Persian Herati schemes.

Other common designs

  • Mina khani
    Similar to the herati, but composed of a single flower within a slightly curvilinear diamond lattice, terminating at its four points in flower heads of equal size, which is repeated across the field.  It was traditionally associated with the Veramin and Tehran weavers of north central Persia and can still be found in some Persian village and workshop rugs. India also makes some rugs in this design.
  • Josheghan
    Derives its name from the central Persian village where it evolved over 200 years ago, and is a more delicate and sensuous variation of the mina khani composition.  Its classic interpretation is largely confined to Persian workshop and more sophisticated village rugs, but Indian weavers have also brought their own version onto the market.

Turkoman design rugs

Some motifs and compositions used in Turkoman rugs have already been described previously, There are, however, two schemes which must be considered separately, as purely Turkoman designs.

  • Gul
    Lozenge shaped motifs, guls, arranged in vertical rows, usually with off set rows of minor guls, in a repeating all over format are typical in Turkoman rugs.  The word means flower in Persian, but is perhaps more likely to have been derived from the ancient Turkish word for family or clan.  Certainly, the Turkoman nomads have used the gul motif as a tribal emblem, or standard, for centuries. Each tribe had its own distinctive variation, which, if they were defeated in battle or amalgamated into a more powerful tribe, would often be replaced , or absorbed into their conquerors’ repertoire. It is also possible that guls possessed some mystical or tottemistic significance, but although symbols aimed at warding off the “evil eye” are still found in some tribal weaving, any deeper meaning attributed to them now be little more conjecture.
    The influence of the gul design is enormous. The Turkoman nomads were no respecters of national frontiers, and their territory and influence spanned much of Central Asia.  They are, however, most closely associated with the Russian town of Bokhara, which was traditionally used as a marketing center for their wares, and today any rug employing a gul design is generally referred to as a Bokhara rug. The number of these tribesmen has decreased considerably in recent years, due largely to the constant encroachment of urbanized civilization and their forced amalgamation into larger tribal groupings, resulting in a decline in both the number and variety of genuine Turkoman rugs coming onto the market.  However, there are still a number of authentic tribal rugs being produced, and workshop versions are now made in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
    Rugs employing gul designs can be divided into three broad groups. The first and most important are authentic nomadic rugs which employ their own tribal guls.  These are mainly confined to Afghanistan and north east Persia, although some genuine Russian tribal rugs may also be found, and are predominantly the work of the Tekke, Yamut, Ersari, Chodor, Saryk and Salor tribes.
    The second groups are those which are made in workshops but employ authentic, or authentic looking, tribal guls. These rugs are made in Afghanistan, Russia, and Pakistan, and although they closely resemble nomadic rugs, often employ a range of guls (Pendi, Penjdeh, etc.) which do not belong to any tribal group.
    Finally, there are those rugs featuring highly decorative gul like forms, bearing only a passing resemblance to authentic tribal motifs, which are almost exclusively confined to the Pakistani Mori Bokhara range.  Mori Bokhara may also be referred to by a number of alternative names, including Jaldar, Kafkazi and Serapi, and it is not unknown for them to be marketed under the name of the gul most prominent in their design.  Persian and Russian rugs are normally referred to as Bokharas, but may equally be marketed under the name of their gul weaving tribe. Afghan rugs employing the typical Afghan “Elephant’s foot” or “Gulli” gul are rarely referred to as Bokharas, and are usually marketed under the name of the weaving village, district or tribe, or simply Afghan rugs.
  • Hatchli or Hadklu
    A design often found on enssi rugs, which were traditionally used as door hanging in the nomad’s Yurt, tent; it is quite common for any rug woven in this design to be referred to as an enssi, or a Bokhara with an enssi design. There are a number of interpretations of this scheme, but all share certain characteristics. The most fundamental of these is for the field to be divided into quadrants by a central cross, and for each of these segments to be decorated with the same design. Infill decorations may very, but often feature rows of tiny Y-shaped motifs, resembling double armed candle sticks; stylized leaf, frond or other vegetal motifs are also common.
    The symbolism of the hatchli design is a source of considerable debate among carpet scholars. Some authorities argue that it is a variation of the more traditional prayer rug symbolism, and hatchli rugs are sometimes referred to as “husband and wife” prayer rugs.  Others believe that it reflects the shape of the yurt itself and symbolizes security and the home.  Perhaps the most interesting theory states that the physical door hanging represents the spiritual door way to the Islamic heaven, which has four gardens at its innermost core.
    Hatchli designs are found on Afghan village and workshop rugs, as well as on those woven by nomadic tribes. Russian workshop Bokharas are sometimes produced in this design, and Pakistan has added the scheme to its Mori Bokhara range. It is much less common on Persian Turkoman.

Chinese design rugs

Unlike most other rug making countries, China drqws its design repertoire from other artistic disciplines (painting, etc.), as well as from ancient Buddhist and Taoist symbolism, and other religious and cultural sources. Chinese design is also unusual in that its motifs often have very specific meanings which can be literally translated into philosophical sayings, desirable personal qualities of magic charms aimed at promoting health, wealth, happiness or long life.  Meaning may be expressed by specific Chinese characters (Shou, for example, indicates long life of good luck), or by the particular animal, bird or plant most closely associated with quality or fate.  Sometimes the associated qualities clearly relate to attributes which the animals undoubtedly possess, an elephant is an obvious symbol of strength and power in any culture, but it is by no means obvious why a bat should be associated with happiness or a deer with affluence.
The explanation lies in the fact that the Chinese see a definite social  and religious connection between qualities and things. Deer, which were hunted by the rich therefore came to be associated with affluence; and the peony, which was cultivated in the gardens of the nobility, was thus seen to symbolize the rank, wealth and well being that accompanied this station in life.
Even more peculiarly Chinese are the phonetic associations between qualities and things.  Western languages may use puns or play on similar sounding words, but there are few, if any, direct equivalent to the Chinese tendency to give the same symbolic meaning to an object and a quality whose names sound the same.  For example, the Chinese character for happiness (Fu) is pronounced exactly like the character for bat; the characters for “stag” and “emolument” (or profit from employment), although totally different in their written form, sound the same when spoken aloud. Whether this unity of symbolic meaning is derived from an accidental similarity in the way the words are pronounced, or whether the common pronunciation came about because of an existing symbolic link, is open to debate.  But there is no doubt that this phonetic association is a fundamental and fascinating aspect of Chinese symbolism.
It is impossible here, on this site, to include every Chinese symbol with its accredited meaning, but the most frequently encountered are listed below.

  • Shou and Fu Characters
    Usually symbolize long life and good lock. Other characters may also be found, but it is common practice to refer to all symbolic characters as Shou or Fu Symbols, regardless of their exact form or meaning.
  • Swastika pattern
    One of the most universal of all designs; it is found in the artistic and religious expression of cultures as far apart as America, Europe and India, as well as China, and has been ascribed many meanings; the most popular of these are happiness, the heart of the Buggha and the number 10,000.
  • Chinese fret
    Based on interlocking swastikas. It is sometimes referred to as the wan design (wan being the Chinese character for 10,000) and represents 10,000 happinesses.

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