It is interesting to note that there is a wide variety of design elements and motifs that make up a complete Tibetan rug but many or all of the elements may have little or no symbolic meaning to the weaver. Sometimes the design elements are simply for decoration purposes.
Certain design elements will be found only in certain types of designs, while other certain design elements are usually combined. And there are others that are never seen together.
With the exception of Tibetan rugs made exclusively for religious purposes, Tibetan rugs are not consciously made symbolic representations of higher symbolic or mythological ideas or ideals. Tibetan rug making is a true folk art and each Tibetan rug reflects the weaver’s own cultural tradition.
The 8 Auspicious Emblems are the most significant of Buddhist symbols. These symbols are rarely used on Tibetan rugs since most Tibetans feel they are too sacred to sit or sleep on directly.
They may be found, however, on backrests, door curtain and pillar rugs, and rugs made for specific religious purposes. A bottom saddle rug may have these symbols, but only if it is made especially for a high lama.
The symbols are expected to bring luck, wealth, health, and harmony. The following are simplified explanations of their meanings:
The Victory Banner symbolizes the victory of Buddhism and the attainment of enlightenment.
The Golden Fish symbolizes freedom from restraint. In the fully emancipated Buddha state no obstacles to freedom is encountered.
The Vase contains spiritual jewels.
The Lotus Flower symbolizes purity and perfection.
The Conch Shell symbolizes the calling to prayer.
The Endless Knot symbolizes love and devotion.
The Parasol symbolizes protection from all evil.
The Eight-Spoked Wheel symbolizes the supremacy of the religious Law.
The Tibetan Buddhists also revere a number of other auspicious or luck-bringing symbols.
Books, in general, signify the value of learning. Two books together with a ribbon is meant as an omen of good luck.
The Rhino Horns
A pair of rhinoceros horns symbolizes happiness, since the rhinoceros horn is highly prized for its medical qualities and as an aphrodisiac.
The Gold Coin
The Gold Coin signifies wealth.
The Artemisia Leaf
The Artemisia Leaf is a symbol of dignity.
The Pearl entwined with a scarf is a symbol of good luck as well as an expression of feminine beauty and purity.
The Sonorous Stone
The Sonorous stone is usually made of jade or another stone or bronze and is a percussion instrument, used in the hymnal services in honor of Confucious.
The Mirror (Full Rhombus)
The Mirror can symbolize wealth in art since it is said to signify a painting and the mirror itself symbolizes conjugal happiness.
The Lozenge (Empty Rhombus)
The Lozenge is a symbol of victory.
The most popular of these and the ones frequently used in Tibetan Rug Designs include The Flute, the Fan, and the Bamboo Tube Drum.
The other examples of the Eight Symbols of the Taoist Immortal Spirits not shown here are The Sword, The Pair of Castanets, The Iron Staff, and the Pilgrim's Gourd, the Flower Basket, and the Lotus flower (stem and seed pod).
The Flute is the emblem of the patron saint of musicians. Since he attracted birds and beasts by the sweet sounds of his flute, it is a symbol of performing magic.
The Fan is the symbol of the chief of the Eight Immortals and with the fan he revived the souls of the dead.
The Bamboo Tube Drum
The Bamboo Tube Drum has one end covered with snake skin. It symbolizes the telling of fortunes and used to be tapped by blind fortune-tellers.
The Four Signs of the Scholar or of Gentlemanly Accomplishments are much used in Chinese art but only two are found frequently on Tibetan Rugs. These two are The Chess Board and the Scrolls. The other two are the Books and the Lute.
The Chess Board
The Chess Board symbolizes the need to be skillful in the game of chess.
The Scrolls signify the need for the cultured man to master the art of making scroll paintings.
The Six Companions of Long Life are typically used together in one weaving as shown below but occasionally the crane will appear as an individual symbol in Tibetan rugs.
The Six Companions are:
The Lotus - pema (padma)
Of all the flowers used as design elements in Tibetan rugs, the Lotus is one of the most revered and precious and is a symbol of purity and perfection.
The Peony - tsa pema (rtsa padma)
The Peony is more important to the Chinese than the Tibetans. It is considered by the Chinese to be the sign of spring, an omen of good fortune. When used in Tibetan rug design it is often only distinguishable from the lotus and the chrysanthemum by its leaves.
The Chrysanthemum - kesang (skal-bzang)
The Chrysanthemum is a flower that is esteemed in Tibet as well as in China. It is regarded as the sign of autumn, and a symbol of joviality. In Tibetan rugs, it can be confused with peonies or the lotus unless the leaves are examined.
THE THREE FRUITS
The Three Fruits symbol is found commonly in Tibetan rugs. The three fruits are:
The Peach khambu (kham-bu)
The peach is an emblem of marriage and a symbol of immortality and longevity.
The Pomegranate sendu (bse-'bru)
The pomegranate symbolizes the hope for numerous male offspring.
The Citron (lumpang (slum-pang)
The Citron is a fragrant but inedible fruit. It's rind forms into projections resembling a grasping hand, known as Buddha's hand to the Chinese. It is considered as a symbol of happiness.
There are 4 symbols of the elements of nature used in Tibetan rug weaving design. They are The Clouds, The Mountain and Sea, The Fire, and the Coral designs.
The Clouds symbolize the Sky, the mountain Land or Earth, and the waves (Ocean or Water). Free floating cloud patterns are very common in Tibetan rugs. Multi-colored Rainbow Clouds are considered good luck by Tibetans.
The Mountain and The Sea
The Mountain and Sea design is found as frequently as The Cloud design in Tibetan rugs and each may be found separately in border designs.
The Fire design is usually depicted coming from the dragon's jewel since when the dragon licks the jewel, it produces thunder.
The Coral is highly prized by the Tibetans and is occasionally seen in Tibetan rug designs.
Round and rectangular Chinese shou or long life symbols are very common good wish symbols in China but rarely found on older Tibetan rugs. Recently, however, the shou symbols have become very popular in modern Tibetan rugs made in Nepal and India.
There are also Tibetan letter monograms but they are rarely woven into Tibetan rugs.
The Dragon Druk ('brug)
The Dragon is a benevolent, helpful, life-giving creature and is the symbol of the Emperor and the male principle. (yang).
The Phoenix gya-ja (rgya-gya)
The Phoenix or Chinese Bird is the King of all birds.
The Manchurian Crane (white) trung trung (khrung khrung)
The white Manchurian Crane with a red tuft on the top of its head is a favorite Chinese symbol of longevity and is occasionally used in Tibetan rug weaving.
The Snow Lion kang seng (gangs seng)
The Snow Lion has been the national animal of Tibet since the late Nineteenth Century but was not found often on older rugs. However, it has found new life as a motif in later Tibetan rugs.
The Bat tsitsi khambo (tse-tse-sgam-po)
The bat is used frequently as a motif on Tibetan rugs but does not have any particular significance as a symbol. It is the Chinese symbol for happiness.
The Bee yudrang (g'yu-sbrang)
The bee is not often found in Tibetan rugs.
The Butterfly jemalep (bye-ma-leb)
The Butterfly also is not often found in Tibetan rugs and has no particular significance as a symbol. In China it is an emblem of joy and a symbol of summer.
There are a few other Buddhist symbols that can be seen as motifs on Tibetan rugs. They are The Flaming Jewel, The Rhinoceros Horn, The Interlocked Rings, The Elephant Tusks, The Floating Scarf, The Thunderbolt, The Tibetan Book, and Knots (that are different from the traditional Endless Knot of the Eight Auspicious Emblems.)
Those that can be found on Tibetan rugs are shown below:
The Flaming Jewel norbu mebar (nor-bu me-'bar)
The Flaming Jewel is an old Buddhist symbol and is for the Chinese an emblem of richness and benefaction. It can be either a three or six-fold motif.
The Rhinoceros Horn serura (bse-ru rwa)
The Rhinoceros Horn is a symbol of unity.
The Interlocked Rings khorlo nacha ('khor-lo'i sna-cha)
The Interlocked Rings symbolize the queen's earrings.
The Elephant Tusks chewa (mche-ba)
The Elephant Tusks are only occasionally found in Tibetan rug weavings.
The Floating Scarf darchang (dar-dpyangs)
The Floating Scarf is very much used in Tibetan rugs. It is sometimes used freely but much more often in conjunction with other symbols.
The Thunderbolt dorje (rdo-rje)
The Thunderbolt is used extensively in Tibetan Buddhism but almost never as a Tibetan rug design. One symbol of the Thunderbolt is dominion over worldly existence. If a double Thunderbolt, the symbol is of equilibrium, immutability, and almighty power.
The Tibetan Book pecha (dpe-cha)
The Tibetan book is only occasionally used in Tibetan rug weaving.
There are knots that are different from the traditional endless knot which is one of the Eight Auspicious Emblems.
These can be found on rugs from craftsmen of the Bon religion (similar to Tibetan Buddhism) now living in India.
The Swastika or Flyfot Border
The Swastika is an ancient symbol found in Europe, South America, and Asia. Unfortunately, when the Nazis used it during World War II, it became associated with Nazism, Aryan supremacy, and anti-Semitism.
However, The Swastika is an old symbol of the sun. For the Buddhists it represents the seal of Buddha's heart.
For the Tibetans, the luck bringing Swastika yungdrung (g'yung-drung) or the joined Swastika yungdrung lagdel (g[yung-drung lag-sbrel) is a symbol of eternity, long life, Buddha's mind, and the state of absolute enlightenment.
There are many variants of this motif and specific rules of style assigned to them about which way they are turned, etc. In rug designs, however, the usage is not so strict and very often different styles can be found together in the same rug.
Below are some examples:
The Gold Writing Border serti (gser-bris)
These two border designs are not very common and usually occur together.
The Pearl Border dung threng (dung-phreng)
The Pearl Border symbolizes a garland of shell and is a very common border in Tibetan rugs. It is typically used to separate the field corner design from the outer borders in the medallion designs.
The Jewel Border norbu (nor-bu)
The Jewel design , when used in a series or as a garland is called nor-threng (nor-phreng) or string of jewels.
The Ocean Borders
The first border shows rough, choppy waves, the second rough waves only, and the the third calm, still water. Together with The Clouds and the Mountain, they represent the Universe.
The Flowered Diamond Borders
The Flowered Diamond Borders are known as the Chinese diaper pattern. It is often found on better Tibetan rugs and may be used either as a border or as a segment of another border.
Corner designs are used in rugs with or without a border. Here are some examples:
The center fields of Tibetan rugs are typically not filled with a design, though there may be scattered symbols or flowers. A center field design could have had its origin in Turkish or Caucasian rug traditions.
Tibetan Rug Joined Swastika Center Field Designs
Tibetan Rug Flower Diamond Center Field Designs
Tibetan Rug Footprint of the Frog Center Field Designs
These are two of the most frequently used Tibetan center field designs. Although they are similar, the 1st example always has 5 projections and the 2nd always have seven projections.
The medallion design element is one of the most popular designs used by Tibetan rug weavers.
In the examples below, you will find geometric designs combined with stylized flower, stylized flowers only, and flower medallion rugs. Also popular are those medallions depicting the Manchurian crane, the snow lion, dragons, the phoenix, the stag, and other animals.
Tibetan rugs are an exquisite art form and present a smorgasbord of delicious design elements. It is our hope that you will be delighted when you are able to identify many of these elements in any Tibetan rugs you may have the privilege of viewing.
It is our hope that this article will encourage you to delve deeper into the Tibetan culture and art of weaving to further your appreciation for these beautiful rugs.
Please also see our article Tibetan Rugs.
After the 1959 invasion, tens of thousands of Tibetans fled to Nepal and India. That is why rugs woven by Tibetan weavers may say they are made in Nepal or India rather than Tibet.
The Tibetan Weaving Project was established in 1990 to help support the weaving craft and generate revenue for building schools and to help the Tibetan communities in Nepal, India, and in eastern Tibet.
The rug shown below is from a division of the Project, Gaon Naksha. In the main Tibetan Weaving Project, many traditional Tibetan designs are being woven, but this division allows weavers to have creative freedom of their designs and many weave free-form images of village life in Nepal.
The wool is Himalayan and it is strong soft, and dense. The dyes are all natural using the plants and minerals located in the region.
Text and images found in this article from the book, Tibetan Rugs, by Hallvard Kare Kuloy were used with permission from the publisher, Orchid Press Publishing Ltd., Bangkok, Thailand.
Unfortunately, the author of the book is deceased and the book is currently out of print, although some copies may still be found on Amazon and eBay.
Orchid Press and a sister company, Orchid Books, offers an amazingly wide array of titles on Asian countries, cultures, arts, histories, religions, and other areas of interest, directly and via various bookshops and sales channels worldwide.
The fascinating history of Hallvard Kare Kuloy himself is documented on the website as well.
Please click below to learn more. You will not be disappointed!
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