By: Tom Cole
Baluch rugs are intriguing; their designs provide a window onto the past, an exceptionally graphic reflection of old traditions. The common thread throughout the literature of Baluch rug weaving is one of ethnographic information, with analysis mainly confined to technique and craft. Baluch enthusiasts and ‘experts’ typically debate which tribe or subtribe made which type, where and when, with artistic composition and aesthetic impact assuming a secondary role.
The Khorasan (northeast Persian) style is the most familiar of the three, and in a sense may be considered ‘classical’. In a provocative interview in HALI 76, Jerry Anderson proposed that Khorasan Baluch rugs are closely related to those of their Turkmen neighbours, although some also employ historic Persianate motifs and design conventions. A restricted red and blue palette, with white highlights, predominates, and many motifs echo archetypal Turkic themes which are also seen in the ‘classical’ weavings of the Turkmen tribes. Indeed, it can be argued that the oldest Khorasan Baluch rugs retain many of the design characteristics of old Turkmen (and Turkic) weavings.
The Khorasan weaving area is geographically contiguous to Turkmenistan, where the town of Sarakhs is no great distance from Mashad. The design within the rectangular panels of a camel-ground Baluch balisht from this area (1) bears comparison to that found on rare Tekke Turkmen ‘white-panel’ kaps.
A very pretty Khorasan khorjin face (2) demonstrates the kinship between traditional Turkic design and ‘Baluch’ tribal weavings of Khorasan. The motifs on its deep red ground are reminiscent of Mughal floral ornamentation, as well as of later Turkic weavings from the Caucasus. A Khorasan rug (3) employs a similar field aesthetic, but with a border more often associated with rare Turkmen weavings made by the so-called Eagle-göl groups of the wider Yomut Turkmen family.
Another northeast Persian khorjin face (4), features a zoomorphic design within the familiar octagonal gül found on Salor, Saryk, Tekke and Ersari chuvals. This small bag is one of the most extraordinary examples of its type; the weave is very fine and the drawing precise with wonderful composition of the elements.
Other recurrent themes within the Khorasan repertoire that bring to mind aspects of ‘animal-style’ iconography on Turkic weavings from the steppes include the decoration of the ubiquitous ‘bird-bag’ design type (5). There is little doubt that the bird forms are derived from a Turkic prototype, perhaps the best known example of which is a Seljuk period rug from the Mevlana Museum, Konya (inv.no. 841; Ölçer et al., Turkish Carpets of the 13th to 18th Centuries, 1996, pl.13).
A particularly pleasing Khorasan rug (6) confirms the connection of Baluch design and aesthetic to weavings from Central Asia. The rather random arrangement of dark blue-black crab-like palmette forms ‘crawling’ up the blood-red ground is very close to (though more interesting than) that seen on certain Kirghiz rugs from Central Asia. The similarity of its primary field elements to those found on one of the well-known Seljuk carpets now in the Türk ve Islam Eserleri Museum, Istanbul, is striking (inv.no. 688; Ölçer et al., pl.4), and exemplifies a commonplace, if as yet unpublished, discussion concerning the design relationship between Baluch rugs and the carpets of the Seljuks from Konya and Beysehir.
I have not seen another Baluch weaving remotely similar to this one, a fact which suggests to me that it may be of an earlier period. The border design, palette, and slight warp depression may indicate an origin in the region of Torbat-e Heydari, about a hundred miles southwest of the city of Mashad.
Prayer rugs made by the various Baluch tribes have always commanded significant collector interest, but rarely seem to me to be anything other than commercial production, judging by the fact that few old examples show a pattern of wear consistent with use. One of the most common design types is the tree-of-life, usually on a camel-ground. The incorporation of Turkic elements in the hand panels and field may assist in identifying the genealogy of the people who wove them, but does not diminish the commercial nature of the weaving. One might expect an older example of the type to look like (8). Note the spacious treatment of the tree, the boldly articulated Turkic design elements and the remnants of a heavy four-cord selvedge. The handle of this piece is more substantial than that of most Baluch rugs, rather like an Ersari Turkmen piece. It is likely that this prayer rug was made by Baluch tribes in southern Turkmenistan, possibly no later than the mid 19th century.
One of the most extraordinary design types in the Khorasan repertoire may be of Taimuri origin (7). Siawosch Azadi published one example (Carpets in the Baluch Tradition, pl.1), assigning it to Sistan and dating it to the 18th-19th century. As it appears to incorporate elements of 18th century northwest Persian ‘tree’ carpet design, the earlier date is not impossible. The present fragment has lost most of its borders, but traces remain at top and bottom. These borders too suggest greater age; the ‘lightning’ motifs are well drawn and relatively rare on Baluch rugs (seen mainly on Taimuri pieces). The trace of a cartouche element in the third border is unfamiliar to me, and may also indicate an early date, as does the dense profusion of Turkic ornamentation, including the jewellery-like elements, the representation of water and the shamanistic anthropomorphic winged figure in the trunk of the tree.
Other excellent examples of the type have recently appeared at auction (Rippon Boswell, Wiesbaden, 22 November 1997, lot 116), and in a dealer’s exhibition in New Hampshire.
The Sistan (southeast Persian) aesthetic is a different animal altogether, employing hardly any of the ‘classical’ themes of Khorasan and rarely echoing the Afghan renditions. Few if any Turkmen relationships are apparent; individual repeat patterns (perceived as continuing beyond the borders to infinity) are seldom used. On the other hand, the use of colour and space in abstract form may be the single most obvious characteristic of typical Sistan weavings. These pieces are often similar to the flatweaves of the same area in both palette and design.
The serrated medallions of the so-called ‘Mushwani’ types (9, 10) probably represent the essential Sistan motif. These medallions serve as a visual focal point, radiating from within, as do mandalas. Such simple motifs may be dated mainly through a critical assessment of colour and space; older pieces tend to have a diverse palette comprising a profusion of green and teal blue-green coupled with the sparing use of white (usually confined to highlights). Later examples tend to have a darker, more limited palette which is at times harshly contrasted with substantial amounts of bleached white wool.
The loosely drawn serrated medallions are ultimately more pleasing in my view than regular, stiffer renditions. Similarly, those pieces with more upright, ‘taller’ medallions (9), possibly representing older drawing, seem to me more attractive than those with a more elliptical orientation (10). The absence of specific imagery, replaced by abstract motifs, recalls the refreshingly accessible ‘contemporary art’ aesthetic of Persian gabbehs.
The boteh motif is perennially popular in Baluch rugs. The Khorasan version often appears to derive from the Persian model and, perhaps ultimately, the Kashmir shawl, representing a ‘classical’ inspiration. The Sistan boteh is very different. It may have initially entered the Sistan design pool through the migration of the Sharakhi and Sarabani Mushwani tribes from the Caucasus region. While it is easy and convenient to label this a provincial rendition, I believe it may represent an animal or bird form. Sistan botehs may appear less interesting to an eye more accustomed to the familiar classical form, but when well executed, are colourful and suggest zoomorphic elements, often composed of simply drawn figures (11) or squares (12).
The third group, Baluch pile weavings from western Afghan tribes, has a style related to that of the neighbouring Khorasan tribes, but with a less austere, warmer palette. The saturated blood-red of Khorasan is seldom found as a primary ground colour. The designs are related to those of Khorasan weavings, but are usually executed in a less formal manner.
While prayer rugs may be an essentially commercial production, examples do exist which appear to be ‘real’ pieces, in the sense that commercial influences are reduced to a minimum, if not completely absent. In (13), the field design is reminiscent of Central Asian felt and appliqué work, while the hour-glass motifs in the hand panels recall tertiary elements in Uzbek weavings. The bold drawing of the border system suggests an older aesthetic, with a pleasing scale, which, combined with skilful use of colour, imparts a sense of movement. However, the rug cannot be dated to earlier than about 1870, as it contains early synthetic dyes, including the yellow (faded from red) guard stripes in the barber’s-pole minor border, as well as the light orange of the reciprocal trefoil motif. Some of the warps were once bright purple, but have since faded. We assume the use of such newly imported dyestuffs was considered attractive by the weaver at the time of manufacture. I have never seen another prayer rug with anything approaching this layout and believe it to be an ‘authentic’ weaving, reflecting a local design tradition rather than commercial market demands. One of a pair of khorjin that I place in the west Afghan group shows particularly artful drawing of the ubiquitous Memling gül motif (14).
Another familiar Baluch theme, derived from the Seljuk repertoire, features diagonally placed cartouches arranged to form octagonal medallions in a way that recalls some Azerbaijan embroideries (Orient Stars, pls. 48, 50) and later Alpan Kuba rugs, but executed in a rather looser manner than one normally encounters (15). Zoomorphic imagery is common to the art of many Central Asian tribes, but the way in which the Baluch express it here, with one design grid laid over another, is typical of their aesthetic sensibilities. The Khorasan version, far more mathematical in concept, is visually dazzling, but lacks the idiosyncrasies associated with ‘tribal’ (or rural) weavings.
The study of Turkmen rugs has produced a strict codification of the various weaving groups, contributing to a relative chronology which is generally agreed upon, if not actual hard dates. Nothing similar has occurred for the weavings of the Baluch. No single aesthetic quality truly defines Baluch rugs from disparate regions, and there are always exceptions to general rules – for instance, Arab rugs from the Qain region are very different in palette to other pieces woven in Khorasan.
While the Baluch design pool has often been considered derivative of other Central Asian weaving cultures, few authors show any real understanding of the antecedents of the variety of nomadic peoples whose rugs are loosely labelled ‘Baluch’. For example, the ‘Mushwani’ (according to a Pushtu text translated into English by a young lawyer in Quetta, Baluchistan) may trace their earliest origins to Syria, then to the Transcaucasus region, primarily in an area of present day Armenia, before their dispersal throughout the Sistan region. Other segments of the tribe went to Afghanistan, adopted the Pushtu language and are not thought of as weavers of pile rugs. One may equally ask who are the Taimuri tribes and from where do they come?
Who are the people who wove the camel-ground prayer rugs with bold Turkic motifs? The clues lie within the rugs themselves.
The traditions of design and palette are integral components of the puzzle and, in their purest forms, a tangible view of a distant past. Commercial rug patterns are like a written language, stored on paper, unwavering and static. The unwritten language of tribal (nomadic) rugs is retained in the minds of the weavers and subject to the diverse influences a clan or tribe may experience over generations. Many interesting Baluch rugs survive, but the truly significant and beautiful ones offer clear reflections of an old and developed art tradition. Great rugs endure as a physical manifestation of myth and meaning in the pan-tribal consciousness of the weaver’s mind.
The poster session at the Philadelphia ICOC and this particular article grew out of, was a natural extension from the HALI 76 article, From the Horse’s Mouth. Given the confusion wreaked by Jerry’s confident as well as controversial attributions and the rebuttal it inspired not only by Andrew Hale but many others, it became apparent that there really is a Baluch style that appears to be, more or less, predicated by provenance rather than by specific tribal attributions. Given the attempts to assign a tribal name to a 19th century weaving, and the odds for error, such a method seemed to be much easier to understand. As time has passed, the Sistan identification has grown in popularity, entering the everyday lexicon of the committed Baluchophile. Afghan Baluch pieces seemed to have gained some notoriety based upon actually having been identified while Khorasan Baluch weavings have always enjoyed a certain amount of respect within the genre.
The relationship of some Baluch weavings to an earlier Anatolian and/or Turkic aesthetic, while not unknown at the time of publication, still demands further research and exploration, something that I attempted to do at the recent seminar on Central Asian rugs sponsored by Itinerant Eden featuring Elena Tsareva with myself in a subsidiary role. Given time, this concept, too, will become an essential element in the mind of the average Baluch rug enthusiast.