Weaving a Future for Tibetan Refugees: Tibetan Rug Weaving Project

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The recent history of Tibet has been one of sorrow. Despite the relative impenetrability of its mountains, it was invaded and occupied by armies of the Communist Peoples Republic of China in 1950. After an unsuccessful popular revolt in 1959, thousands of Tibetan refugees fled across the Himalayan Mountains to India and Nepal, and a government in exile was established under the Dalai Lama, the traditional leader of Tibet. Since that time, the refugee communities have grown larger every year, as more Tibetans flee severe political and cultural repression in their Native land. Today, despite one of the most successful resettlement programs in modern history, the needs of over 500,000 refugees exceed available resources. In response to these events Cultural Survival established the Tibetan Rug Weaving Project. The project intends to maintain in one collection rugs that represent the various sources of inspiration found in fine antique Tibetan carpets, while at the same time drawing on sources of inspiration from throughout the traditional and modern world.

All rugs woven in the project have colors derived entirely from traditional vegetal dyes. Other than indigo (blue), which is obtained in India, these dyes are indigenous to Nepal. Dye sources include madder root (various shades of red), walnut husks (dark brown), several different local flowers and roots (yellows), and an overlay of indigo on yarn previously dyed yellow (green). Of course, the wool is as important as the dyes. Only pure handcarded and handspun Tibetan wool is used in project rugs. Carpets woven with it are not only extremely long-wearing, but also have a luster that increases with use.

The Cultural Survival Tibetan Rug Weaving Project was founded in 1990. Its original goals were to explore the rich heritage of the Tibetan weaving tradition and to generate funds to benefit the Tibetan community in exile. As this project enters its second decade we look back on an achievement we could not have imagined.

The project has worked with the Srongsten School, a Tibetan exile government school in Nepal, for 10 years, and sponsors the education, rooming, and board of more than 70 Tibetan refugee students there.  It has built two schools in India for the exile government Department of Education, one in Puruwalla, a small settlement in Himachal Pradesh, and a second in Pokrebeong, a hill settlement in eastern India near Darjeeling. The project also sponsors food supplement programs in five exile government schools, four in eastern India, and one at Sarnath near Varanasi.  It has also sponsored the shipment of two containers of textbooks from the United States to the Tibetan exile government schools in Nepal and India, and has funded the construction of a computer classroom in Nepal.

In 1998 the Tibetan Weaving Project took its first step toward working inside Tibet with the initiation of a reforestation project in the Potamo region of Kham in eastern Tibet, which has been denuded of trees by clear-cutting.  The project has transplanted more than 400,000 seedlings to the hillsides in that region.  It has also established extensive fruit orchards throughout the region and has begun a pilot program to train local youth to identify, process, and use traditional Tibetan medicinal plants.

In July 2002 the project completed its largest undertaking to date with the inauguration of a school in the Litang district of Kham in eastern Tibet, funded by rug sales.  The school was the first in the remote Chungba Valley.  It has classrooms for 210 students, boarding facilities for students and teachers, and a large kitchen and dining hall.  The school was built entirely of wood in a traditional Tibetan style and will be a Tibetan medium school with a Tibetan principal and all Tibetan teachers, except one who will teach Chinese language.

The project’s first rugs concentrated primarily on Tibetan designs, but the project’s participants realized that the market was much too diverse to restrict themselves in this way. The weavers now continue to weave traditional designs, but the inventory of over 250 designs contains those inspired from traditions in every part of the world as well as modern designs of weavers’ own creation. The weavers also have a sub-project called Gaon Naksha for which they create their own designs as they weave. These carpets are free-form, spontaneous expressions of the weavers’ life experiences, usually portraying their origins in villages of Nepal.

The Tibetan carpets are available in four qualities--60 knot, 100 knot, 100 knot wool and silk and 150 knot. All Tibetan carpets, with the exception of the Gaon Naksha series, are made to order.

Chris Walters is coordinator of Cultural Survival’s Tibetan Rug Weaving Project. For more information e-mail yayla@yayla.com.

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