Identification and Classification of Animal Motifs

The following is an excerpt from the article “Identification and Classification of the Existing Animal Motifs in Indian Timurid Carpets “ by Rezvan Ahmadi Payam and Mohsen Marasy.
Before the Timurid rule, carpet weaving in India did not have a coherent organization. However, after India’s Timurid sultans rose to power, their support for this art lead to the production of exquisite and precious works. The main features of these works are the animal motifs contained in them, which are very diverse in terms of type and number of species. For instance, in some examples, flowers and vegetal elements are replaced by animal heads, and in others, various animal species are depicted while capering or in combat. With these interpretations, the motifs in the aforementioned carpets can be classified into three general categories:

1. Carpets with imaginary animal motifs:

While being the oldest in terms of antiquity and the most sophisticated in terms of design and composition, these carpets contain the most ambiguous variety of Indian carpet motifs. In these carpets, a collection of Indian animals and birds with monstrous masks, vases and flowering plants are combined in a complex image. On a wine red background, animals and birds with horrible masks are depicted while emerging from the mouth or the forehead of each other. Some researchers regard these figures as symbols of fertility and fecundity. The oldest of these carpets date back to the period of Akbar’s reign.

The primary pattern for the intricate animal complexes in the carpets with imaginary animal motifs could be a combination of the Makara and Kirtimukha figures. Makara is a mythical sea creature that was originally portrayed as a crocodile. This creature was depicted as a biped or sometimes a quadruped dog-like animal. In the artistic works of the Gupta period, the Makara was portrayed with a decorative tail. The Kirtimukha monster face is a combination of a lion and a strange sea creature with no lower jaw and is similar to a hanging skull. However, the powerful and lively lines on its face breathe life into this imaginary figure. As Kirtimukha breathes heavily through its nostrils, flower strings outpour from its muzzle.

One of the prominent characteristics of the Makara and Kirtimukha figures is that they are usually combined together and portray the acts of clawing and biting.

Another pattern used in the carpets with imaginary animal motifs is the one that became prevalent during the reign of Jahangir, the eldest son of Akbar. This pattern is vastly different from the older examples and includes motifs portraying the heads of different animals (lions, deer, foxes, elephants, and some birds) in a swirling structure distinct from the ones that depict plants. Moreover, the combination of animal faces, which is common in carpets woven during the reign of Akbar, is not seen in this pattern. However, unusual animal faces still exist in the form of “Vagh” motifs. Vagh is a tree whose fruits are in the form of the humans and different animal species. Vagh motif is evident in carpets woven during the reign of Jahangir. A similar structure is also apparent in Kashan carpets dating back to the 10th century AH.

What is considered as the distinctive feature of Indian carpets, other than the portrayal of unusable figures, is the creation of naturalistic depths or forms. In spite of the poor design, the artists created their desired naturalistic effect by using several color shades and drawing one or two lines among the animals’ main body color.

(Picture 1 – A carpet with animal-imaginary pattern.)

(Picture 2 – A carpet with animal-imaginary pattern.)

2. Carpets with pictorial animal motifs

The second group of carpets depicting animals are the ones with pictorial motifs. These motifs are scenes that divide the carpet backgrounds into separate picture surfaces with different themes and are not symmetric, neither crosswise nor lengthwise. Like other carpets woven during Akbar shah’s rule, these carpets are heavily reliant on both realistic and imaginary aspects. An example of carpets with pictorial motifs is kept at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This example contains three separate scenes. The part at the top depicts a scene from the court. The part in the middle illustrates the everyday life (a scene of cheetahs being hunt). Lastly, the part at the bottom portrays a mythological scene (a hybrid creature being attacked by a bird). The space between these scenes is filled with capering animals and scenes of the combat between a lion and a bull.

3. Carpets with vegetal and animal motifs

A great number of Indian carpets woven during the reigns of Akbar and Jahangir have motifs based on swirling vegetal elements. Vegetal carpet motifs are pictures inspired by Nature. The richness of these carpet patterns is augmented by the addition of the animal motifs to their network of swirling branches. The carpets with the aforementioned motifs primarily date back to the first quarter of the 17th century AD and the period of Jahangir’s reign. These carpets were woven based on the Sanguszko Persian carpets of the Safavid era. Unlike the Persian carpets, the Indian example, which belongs to a private collection, is symmetrical crosswise and contains particular patterns each repeated for three times. Animals, depicted either individually or in combat can also be observed among the twisted branches of Khataee flowers.