Agra Carpets & Rugs

Agra is best known as the Mughal capital under Akbar the Great (r.1556-1606) and the home of the Taj Mahal which was built by his Grandson, Shah Jehan (r.1628-1658). The city has had a long tradition of carpet weaving and is amongst the key centres of weaving on the Indian subcontinent. The earliest works of Mughal art and architecture stem from this once blossoming capital. Mughal art was highly influenced by the Persian Court. One could go as far to say that Mughal Art was in fact a variant of Persian Safavid art. For this reason the Rug that you possess and indeed many Rugs from the Indian subcontinent are of Persian design. The introduction of rug weaving, design and manufacturing was brought to India by the Mughals. 

The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 by the Uzbek Turk Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur (r.1526-1530) who conquered Delhi from the Afghan Lodhi dynasty. Babur was a fifth generation descendant of the great Turko-Mongol ruler Timur who himself was a descendant of the infamous Genghis Khan.[1]  Ten years after Babur’s death, his son and successor Humayan was forced into exile by an Afghan revolt led by the Pashtun nobleman Sher Shah Suri.[2]  Humayan would spend his exile in the court of the second Safavid King, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-1576), and with his aid Humayan would reclaim his kingdom. It was this period from about 1540 to 1555 in which Persian Courtly traditions had a massive influence upon the Mughal and the Indian mindset. Humayan had brought with him arguably the two of the greatest Persian artists of their time and the founders of Mughal artistic style, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad.[3] The designs of Indian Carpets both modern and old, very much follow in the footsteps of Persian/Mughal art. Parallel to events in Persia, this would be a period where the Indian subcontinent would experience its own ‘Golden age of Rug Weaving’.  During the reign of Akbar, his prime minister and confidant, Abu’l Fazl wrote the Ain-i-Akbari (Institutes of Akbar). In it Abu’l Fazl relates how the Emperor was responsible for the foundation of numerous carpet workshops in every major town, especially in the imperial cities of Agra, Fathpur, and Sikri and Lahore.[4].

The fall of the Mughal Empire in the late 18th and early 19th centuries led to the decline of the Indian textiles industry. With the exceptions of Warangal in Hyderabad state, Kashmir and various private workshops in the north eastern provinces, all important carpet weaving had ceased by the middle of the 19th century.[5]  The revival of the industry would be contingent on increasing European consumption in the late 19th century. In the great exhibition of London, 1851, a variety of carpets from Agra and Amritsar were displayed, their popularity prompted a dramatic attempt to revive the industry.[6] It is from this revivalist impetus in which this rug was made, as factories were established in Srinagar, Amritsar, Mirzapur and Agra .

Agra carpets combine the grace of Persian Court designs with new motifs. Designs of spiralling vinery combined with small animal, birds, elephants or people. One famous Agra design developed for the Mughal Emperors consisting of rows of flowers in vases. Agra weavers were masters of vegetable dyeing and developed a unique palette of color. Soft mid tone blues and a profusion of Gold are found in Agra carpets. They also use a range of soft rust reds to pinks and a unique and appealing lavender tone.

Contextualising the importance of these weavings

It is without doubt that due to the rich cultural and artistic traditions inherent within India at the time, this rug encapsulates all of the splendour of Mughal artistic style with 19th century revivalism. This rug has a gold warp and weft which demonstrates a high degree of craftsmanship and the procurement of the finest materials. However the design is altogether of the classic ‘Persian’ Kashan variant.  Contemporary weavings from Kashan have an identical use of design and colour displayed in this exquisite rug. The supple nature of the rug and its soft texture is suggestive of its Indian origin and the use of the classic ‘bloodred’ Agra colour clearly validates its heritage.

[1] It is from this genealogy do we get the term ‘Mughal’ which is an aberration of the term ‘Mongol’.

[2] Sher Shah Suri was also known by the well deserved epiphet of ‘Sher Khan’ (Lion King)

[3] Mir Sayyid Ali would be the artist who would be best remembered for the illustration to accompany the huge twelve volumes Persian Romance, the Dastan-i-Amir Hamza (Romance of the Amir Hamza).  Mughal Painting under Akbar the Great , see also Maurice S. Dimand, ‘Mughal Painting under Akbar the Great’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1953), pp. 46-51

[4]  H Blochmann (tr.), The Ain I Akbari of Abul Fazl 'Allami: Text and Translation , (Calcutta, 1873)

[5] [5] Arthur Cecil Edwards, The Persian Carpet: A Survey of the Carpet Weaving Industry of Persia, (London, 1953),Pg 194

[6] Yvonne, Ffrench, The Great Exhibition; 1851. London: Harvill Press, 1950