The Art of Weaving in
Lahaul’s Upper Valleys
In the higher Himalayan region, weaving is an ancient craft and forms an integral part of people’s lives. In Lahaul, weaving signifies a retreat into slower, simpler times amid icy cold weather when the farming works are at its lowest. There’s a saying in local folklore attributing weaving as visual art that reflects stories about people, their communities, and their place in the universe. It symbolizes the value of creation, interconnectedness, and rejuvenation. Weaving requires profound discipline and dexterity to untie complexities; it involves crossing two threads the warp and the weft, one vertical, and one horizontal, one stretched tight, the other intertwining the first. To produce a textile, the two threads need to be bound together otherwise, the weaving work will remain fragile. Hence in ancient Buddhist belief, a weaver is akin to a problem solver, someone who is adept at bridging silos and bringing greater connectedness.
"Phang" - Traditional spindle | Photo by Rigzin Dorjee
Weaving is a traditional skill that’s passed down through generations and is practiced with great vigor in our village. Of the many products that are woven, Tsug-den (Tibetan rug) weaving remains the most popular with its elegant design and high pile, plush feel. In our village, the handwoven woollen carpets are called Tsug-thu or Tuk-tuk in villages around the Darcha side in Lahaul. Tsug-dens are unique handwoven carpets, that are woven on a backstrap loom called “Khaddi”. It is an extremely slow, time-consuming process, that involves a lot of hard work as each bit of the work is done manually - from livestock herding to wool shearing to cleaning, carding, spinning, and yarn making and finally weaving, the process can stretch up to a year.
Most families still keep livestock and the wool is shorn around March or April month. Wool from a single sheep is sufficient to make one pair of Tsug-den. It is then sorted and cleaned to remove any impurities, and further processing of wool is done in Shamshi in Kullu valley in Himachal. We take wool gunny bags in bulk and get them carded and de-haired before we bring them back for spinning and yarn making.
Spinning is done mostly during winter and much like agriculture, it is collaborative work involving a group of women. Wood-made traditional spindles called “Phang'' are used for spinning and great care is taken to get consistent, smooth yarn. The base of the weaving is done with cotton threads on a metallic or wooden loom Khaddi. The handspun woollen yarns are weaved in a knotting system where one thread is interwoven with the other on a loom. Once a row of knots is complete, a rod is hammered against it to tighten the row below. A weaver uses the blueprint of a woven carpet to weave complex designs and to ensure accurate shape, size, and alignment of the carpet. Black, white and beige sheep wool is used for tsug-den while the rare white yak hair is used for Challi (woolen quilt).
Photo by Sherab Lobzang
Motif of Snow Lion and Khorlo - a traditional design on a Tsugden
The elaborate designs and motifs on the carpet are inspired by lives in the higher mountains of Tibet and often nostalgically evoke themes of nature and the environment. Motifs of birds, flowers, and mythical animals are quite common- dandelions, native birds, Druk (sky dragon), tiger, ibex, leopards, snow lions, and yaks can be seen beautifully woven on the carpets along with motifs that have special religious, cultural significance like the mandala, four elements of nature (earth, fire, water, space), the Buddha’s vajra, Swastika and depiction of the precious stones Dzi and Gau (amulet). The motifs on the carpet are not mere designs but have larger symbolic meanings to it for eg: the depiction of the crane motif on Tsug-den symbolizes good luck, Yak motifs are reminiscent of nomadic life, dandelions, birds, and clouds depict one’s closeness to nature, the vajra is symbolic of Buddha’s enlightenment, tiger stripes symbolizes one’s prestige and wealth, while snow lion and sky dragons represent mythical creature from traditional folklore and phoenix is a sign of auspiciousness.
"There’s a saying in local folklore attributing weaving as visual art that reflects stories about people, their communities, and their place in the universe. It symbolizes the value of creation, interconnectedness, and rejuvenation."
Most families in Lahaul and other higher Himalayan regions own simple domestically produced Tsug-dens and it remains one of the most functional pieces of the item which comes in really handy during harsh winters. The usage of natural fiber and natural vegetable dyes also enhances the overall aesthetics of Tsug-den and it is one of the practical pieces of a garment whose luster, and sheen increases over the years with usage. One of the most appealing characteristics of the Tsug-den-making process is that it is the result of resource utilization in the most natural way. The entire carpet is handspun, hand-carded, naturally dyed, and handwoven where nothing goes waste and the final product lasts for decades, some even passed down to generations. One of the greatest wealth a woman can inherit from her parents is the traditional handwoven carpets, rugs, and quilts along with handwoven shawls. Weaving is not just a craft, it holds ample of material, and cultural value and the artwork on woven Tsug-den is symbolic of values, beliefs, and mysticism beyond our comprehension.
About the Storyteller
Rinchen Angmo and Chhering Gaaji
Rinchen Angmo and Chhering Gaaji are natives of Gumrang village in Lahaul (H.P). Agriculture and livestock rearing is their primary vocation and they have been farming for over thirty years. Apart from the vast agricultural fields, they also sow wide varieties of fresh vegetables in their kitchen garden. Rinchen Angmo started working in the fields when she was very young and continued it till now. She likes knitting and is a skilled weaver. Chhering Gaaji also learned to weave and makes handcrafted woolen quilts and carpets during winter.