The story of a carpet
Romance continues to be attached to the Pazyryk carpet, which uses a highly advanced weaving technique

As, not too long ago, I sat in the home of two fine friends in Chandigarh sipping tea in the gracious inner courtyard of their home, my eye descended close to where our feet were. There lay on the floor a wonderful, fresh-looking carpet with an arresting design — not very large; squarish, say four-a-half feet on each side — which, they said, they had only recently acquired in Kashmir. I know precious little about carpets but whenever I see or think of them, three images come at once to mind: the remarkable, endlessly long old carpet that covers the entire floor of what was once an indoor swimming pool of the Sarabhai family and which now is part of the great Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad; then the superb exhibition of Mughal carpets which bore the name ‘Flowers Underfoot’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art some 15 years ago; and, finally, that moving film, Gabbeh, which the gifted Iranian film director, Mohsin Makhmalbaf, made against the background of a family of nomadic carpet-weavers in his own land.

Kashmiri copy of the Pazyryk carpet
Kashmiri copy of the Pazyryk carpet

All memories are vivid in my mind and I have associations with each of them: of the vision with which Gautam and Gira Sarabhai built the Calico Museum; of the patronage of the arts by the Mughals, especially Jahangir, "who had the cool eye of a scientist and the soul of a poet"; and of the manner in which a sensitive filmmaker can, while telling a story, turn the making of things into a metaphor of life itself. Each carpet, I realise, can tell a story.

I had no idea to begin with, however, that to this carpet at our friends’ home, too, was attached a story which, in turn, led to another story. They were in Srinagar sometime back, they told me, having returned to the Valley after upwards of two decades; moving about in the old city, they landed at a shop they knew from long back: Craft Asia. The man who ran it, Afzal Abdulla, was, surprisingly, still there and he showed them many things, including this carpet which they ended up buying: so taken up were they with it.

Detail from the Pazyryk carpet copy
Detail from the Pazyryk carpet copy

They were intrigued by the design of the carpet — different as it was from the usual tracery of fanciful floral designs that one associates with Persian and Kashmiri work: it had an elegant geometric pattern of crossed petals at its heart, surrounded by a series of borders, of griffins, and then a broad band of animal figures — elk-like deer seen as if foraging — and, at a distance, yet another, outer surround of riders on horseback and footmen. Afzal, conversing while showing his wares, told them where this uncommon design had come from. His father, he said, was travelling by IranAir and on the back of his boarding pass he saw printed the design of a carpet which was designated ‘the oldest surviving carpet of the world’.

Greatly intrigued, he not only wanted to know more about that carpet but also made up his mind to produce a copy of it. The object, he discovered, was widely referred to as the Pazyryk carpet — among the rarest of artefacts then known to the field, and preserved now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia — but, regardless and undaunted, he decided to pursue his plan to replicate it, varying the scale somewhat, in his own manufactory. And this was the object they were looking at now: a nearly perfect copy of the famed Pazyryk carpet.

Going back, considerably back, to the ‘original’, I found that much has been written on the Pazyryk carpet, some of it by the foremost experts in the field. But for all scientific studies that have been made of it, a decided measure of romance continues to attach to it. For it was found in the most unlikely of circumstances. This happened in 1949, and one owes it to a Russian professor, Sergei Rudenko, who led what has been called ‘a unique archaeological excavation’, among the ices of Pazyryk valley, in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. There this carpet was found: in a frozen state inside the grave of a Scythian prince. These graves, known as Kurgen, used to be raised over the remains of Scythian heroes, some of them rising like burial mounds to a height of 20 metres, and were filled with valuable artefacts of all description. This in the course of time naturally attracted plunderers. When the tomb that housed, the Pazyryk carpet — Kurgen no. 5 — was robbed, water appears to have kept seeping through the tons of rock atop the tomb and completely froze everything inside the massive grave. It is because of this completely frozen and dark environment, it is being guessed, that the carpet remained wonderfully preserved for over two and a half millennia. When the archaeologist professor had it carbon dated, it turned out to have been made somewhere close to the 5th century BC.

The antiquity of the object apart, it was the highly advanced weaving technique used in the making of the Pazyryk carpet that astonished everyone: hand-knotted with 278 Turkish knots per square inch; hand-carded and hand-spun wool; dyed with plant and insect dyes. Probing questions then began to be asked. Who made it and where was it made? Could it possibly have been the work of nomadic people like the Scythians, for all their brilliance in other fields? Or was the carpet produced in the Persian/Achaemenid region and some Persian princess took it to a conquering Scythian’s home as a part of her dower? Opinions on the subject vary and the theme is debated with much passion. National pride, apart from available evidence, is what the talk often turns to. But truly, no one knows for certain. And the question remains: is there a way, any way, of solving this conundrum? Meanwhile, the carpet beckons viewers from its refrigerated St Petersburg home.

To end, however, with an intriguing but sad piece of information. One hears that the craftsman — the gifted karigar, who worked on the splendid copy that was produced in Afzal Abdulla’s carpet workshop, is no more. Died on the loom, as it were.