Rugs in the Year of the Rabbit

As it is the beginning of the Lunar New Year, the Chinese year of the Rabbit I thought a bit about Khotan rugs would be a perfect topic. The textiles come from the ancient city of Khotan (Hotan) in southern (Chinese Turkistan). Khotan rugs were once called Samarkand rugs after the Central Asian trading center. I have seen a few here and there, but their designs live on in modern pieces.

  • Khotan was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Yutan, beginning in the 3rd century BCE.
  • It is located at the western end of the Tarim basin in what is today Xinjiang Province of China.
  • One of a handful of states who controlled trade and traffic on the Silk Road between India, China, and Europe.
  • Its main exports were camels and green jade.

Khotan was a double colony, settled first in the third century BCE by an Indian prince, one of several sons of the famous King Asoka, who were expelled from India after Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism. A second settlement was by an exiled Chinese king. After a battle, the two colonies merged.

The best way to describe these fine rugs is to note that they display Chinese details with Central Asian design schemes combined with Western vivid coloring. In later pieces, there were recent fugitive dyes that have reduced their effect to washed-out pastels. The technique of all-silk Khotan rugs, some of which have areas of metal thread, has been influenced to some degree by the earlier carpets of Persia, but the decoration generally consists of lattice designs bearing clusters of rosettes. Similar designs have been used for woolen carpets, together with triple-medallion schemes in blue on red, pomegranate vines that grow from little vases, or perhaps coffered patterns showing chrysanthemum heads locked into squares. The borders may have Chinese wave and fret patterns or flowering vines. Ṣaffs, which are multiple prayer rugs for the use of a group, have been woven in wool and in silk. This design with more rows of prayer-niche designs has also been made in earlier times at Uşak, in Mughal India, and even among the Ersari Turkmen. Khotan rugs with woolen piles have cotton warp and mixed-color wool or cotton weft and are usually made with an asymmetrical knot. Field colors may be blue, yellow, or white, as well as the usual red. Hues now very much faded were regarded as shocking when new, especially one aniline red violet.

Khotan’s best-known legend is that it was ancient Serindia, where the West is said to have first learned of the art of silk making. There is no doubt that by the 6th century CE, Khotan had become the center in Tarim of the production of silk, but how silk moved out of eastern China into Khotan is a tale of intrigue. The story is that a king of Khotan (perhaps Vijaya Jaya, who reigned about 320 CE) convinced his Chinese bride to smuggle seeds of the mulberry tree and silkworm pupa cases hidden in her hat on her way to Khotan. A fully sizeable silkworm culture (called sericulture) was established in Khotan by the 5th–6th centuries, and it is likely to have taken at least one or two generations to get it started. I feel I have always had a connection to rugs from the fact that my grandmother had a painted Sarouk and my grandfather who was an avid gardener grew Mulberry trees and actually gifted one to my family that was the center for many stories!

According to Nazimyal Antique Rugs, “These exceptional rugs make the legends of Marco Polo and the Silk Road come alive. Khotan is an oasis and an age-old center for international design. From the ornate borders and grand medallions to the stunning repeating patterns, each carpet from Khotan captures a cosmopolitan style that is different than all the other rugs produced in East Turkestan. The city has an ancient crafting culture that includes both silk and carpet weaving. Rugs from Khotan depict an abundance of cultural and stylistic influences.” They have a great collection of antique pieces.

Khotan (also spelled Hotian, or Hetian) is the name of a major oasis and city on the ancient trade network named the Silk Road that connected Europe, India, and China across the vast desert regions of central Asia beginning more than 2,000 years ago. Khotan was on the main southern route of the Silk Road, which began at the city of Loulan, close to the entry of the Tarim River into Lop Nor. Loulan was one of the capital cities of Shanshan, a people who occupied the desert region west of Dunhuang and north of Altun Shan. From Loulan, the southern route led 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) to Khotan, then 370 mi (600 km) further to Tajikistan the foot of the Pamir mountains. Reports say it took 45 days to walk from Khotan to Dunhuang; 18 days if you had a horse.

One piece of evidence that the commercial activities of Khotan must have extended at least from China to Kabul along the Silk Road, is that indicated by the presence of Khotan horse coins, and copper/bronze coins found all along the southern route and in its client states. would love to see any Khotans you may have in your collections!