Leopard & Tiger Skin Carpets

by: Parviz Tanavoli

From: Tavoos published in Iran



Carpets known as leopard skin or tiger skin carpets are among the most important Iranian carpet designs.  Though these carpets are mostly used by the dervishes, their use is not limited to them and as we will see, many other groups of people, including nomads, show much interest in such designs.  In past times, stripped and patterned animal fur (like that of tigers and leopards) was preferred to plain fur (like that of lions and deer).  Perhaps when man learned to weave, the design of tiger and leopard skin held a special attraction for him.  There is no proof left of this fact, but one can note the special passion nomads and dervishes have for nature and animals and earth.  Most of what little these people have, has been given to them by nature.  The dishes they use for water and food are no other than a type of sea coconut called "coco de mer."  Their cane and means of defense is a thorny stick called "mantasha."  Metal dishes or steel axes are modern tools inspired by the mentioned coconut and mantasha.  As for clothing, carpets, or blankets, it should be noted that dervishes were happy with the minimum and would use a piece of animal skin, or if not available, a torn piece of cloth to cover themselves and to use as a carpet to sit or sleep on.  Even so, and despite such poverty, dervishes think of themselves as no less than kings.  If kings rule with power and fortune, dervishes rule the land of the poor.  They use the word "taj-e-shahi" (king's crown) to refer to their dervish hats, while using the term "takht-e shahi" (king's throne) to describe the animal skin they sit or sleep on.  They often use the title of Shah (king) on their names with Shah Ne'matollah, Noor-Ali Shah, and Moshtauq Ali Shah being a few examples.

The connection between tools of the kings and the dervishes is an elaborate matter, one I hope to discuss someday in this same magazine.  For this article, I will limit the discussion to one such tool (i.e., leopard and tiger skin).

The study of the link between "leopard and tiger skin" and kings and warriors in Iranian mythology is a lengthy one.  Ferdowsi designates "tiger" clothing  for Rostam [a mythical hero] .  Paintings from the fourteenth century show such clothes on some kings and warriors. One of the oldest of such paintings, believed to be from the late thirteenth century, is kept in the Freer Art Gallery of Washington and shows Kiumars, the first mythical king of Iran, clothed in leopard skin and standing on a tiger skin carpet.  Another notable painting of Kiumars is believed to be the work of Sultan Mohammad.  This painting, undoubtedly a masterpiece of the early Safavid period, shows Kiumars and members of his court in leopard garments while one of them is portrayed in a tiger garment as well.

Kings and dervishes have many things in common, the main reason for this being the mutual tools and appearances of the two.  Both have everything they want, one having gained all wealth and the other being a master in poverty.  Both are rulers of their lands, yet the king's lands are limited by gates and fences, while there are no limits or barriers to the dervish's land.  As for the leopard, tiger and also lion, it must be noted that the kings portray their victory over these animals, animals who are themselves kings of forests and jungles, on rocks and mountains and in books.  They use such images to boast, and to imply: Your king is superior to all powers."  Dervishes know the earth to be their absolute territory and thus show their dependence to earth and dominance over its inhabitants by wearing animal skins or sitting on them.  The lifestyle of nomads is not much different than that of dervishes and kings.  The gates to plains, mountains, and valleys are open to the nomads.  They settle their tents wherever they wish and rule for a period of time.  They know their environment to be their own and have the same close connection with the land, nature and animals that dervishes have.  They own sheep and have the tools and skills to weave, so it's perfectly natural that their women should weave carpets with designs from leopard and tiger skin.

Leopard and tiger carpets (as well as lion ones) are also symbols of courage and bravery for the nomads.  by weaving and having  such carpets on their floors, the nomad women tell their children legends of how their ancestors hunted down these animals.  In the process, they imply that their husband and children should follow their ancestors in this demonstration of courage.

The leopard and tiger skins that nomad women weave are not exact copies of real leopard and tiger skins.  Possessing both the expertise to weave various designs and the creativity to make ne3w designs, they go beyond leopard and tiger designs.  Sometimes, they cover the whole surface of the carpet with the leopard and tiger skin design, while at other times with the addition of ne3w colors they change these designs from bicolor to multicolor.  They sometimes carry it so far that it confuses the common spectator with no knowledge of the source of such design, and reminds of modern and contemporary carpet designs.

Though leopard designs can be considered exclusively Iranian and originating from Iran, tighter carpet have a much wider homeland.  this land stretches from China at one end, to India on the other.  Tibet has the highest share in weaving tiger carpets.  In Western Asia, it is Iran and Turkey that hold the highest shares.  Turkey has mostly been active in Woven textiles, while Iran has had a large share in both textiles and carpets with tiger designs.