The unseen carpet masters of Bhadohi

Making process intrigues me more than the final product always. When I meet the maker, I get that sense of satisfaction after they narrate the reason, ritual and techniques behind it. While travelling in Iran, of course, everyone gets allured by the Persian carpets. So I was. But Ashrith was interested in aromatic Iran rice more than anything else. At Isfahan, when we tried to trace back the rice-growing region of Iran, we learnt a shocking truth – Iran is one of the highest importers of rice from India. We saw my home state farmers in Koppal/ Bagalkot district worried about their over-stocked rice meant to be exported to Iran by ships during the lockdown. So basically, we went to Iran and loved the rice grown in my homeland. 

With this fascinating fact, my interest grew stronger after the rice episode. Channapatna toys of Karnataka, Kalamkari of Kaalahasthi and the carpets of Bhadohi came to my notice after endless reading about Indo-Persian links. The renovation of the Vishwanath temple and previous pleasant experiences at Varanasi ghats added more fuel to the Bhadohi Carpet village dream.

Do you really want to go to Bhadohi?

Winters in Varanasi

On that cold winter morning, it was hard to walk on the streets.

When we booked the taxi at our hotel in Kashi, the manager asked us and wondered why we wanted to go there. “Carpets are made in Varanasi also. Not to the scale of Badhoi, still don’t you think you are wasting time and money. There is no market or a museum there for you to see” I was sure to witness the magical making. But Ashrith was highly influenced by the series Mirzapur if Bhadohi people are nice and open to visitors like us there. None of the Varanasi travel blogs and people we have met has been to Bhadohi from Varanasi. Relying on the contacts I fetched from Government websites, I called and checked if we could come on a Sunday to see the making. So we began our journey from Varanasi at 10 in the morning, making our way through the jam-packed road with our driver Imraan.

The narrow road became wider. High rise apartments replaced the Havelis with Jharokhas. Slowly we were on the outskirts, away from Ganga and closer to thrash fields. Luckily, in the countryside, the scenery changed.

Mustard fields in India with blooming yellow fkowers

Foggy weather made the driver slow down due to poor visibility. Still, the mustard fields that looked like yellow carpets on a green base kept us awake and enchanted. These fields often had a tiny house at their centre and a buffalo shed. When the sun came out to say hello for a few minutes, we stopped for a tea break, followed by a wandering photo session in those fields.

Clueless at Bhadohi

Countryside of Uttar Pradesh in India

We entered the main town after travelling 45km from Banaras with no exact location. The driver knew the Chauri road, and we had to guide him further. After lots of difficulties and communication with the Carpet man over the phone, we reached a narrow street where goats were roaming around more than humans. As brown tourists, we hardly get any attention. The world wants whites, so we are hardly asked if we are lost and need help. But in this goat town, we positively became the centre of attraction. The local shopkeepers helped us get to the exact address the Carpet man asked us to come to.

Goat wearing  yellow sweater in Bhadohi

At godown still, not the factory.

When we walked together with the Bhadohi villager, our heart was pounding faster. I was expecting a grand board that says “Welcome to Carpet Village- GI TaggedInstead, I saw more goats and broken clay teapots. The villager was nice and chatty, and we talked for the next 10 minutes until we reached the destination – A godown.

Conversing with manager Siddiqi and his colelagues at his godown in Bhadohi

I was disheartened! There is not even one handloom machine in that dingy hall. Piles of carpets were tied and kept as if they were meant to be thrown away. I realised we were at the wrong place until our man introduced himself in his gentle tone. His name is Siddiqi, an almost 65+year old man wearing formal pants, a blue sweater with a scarf – He reminded me of Rishi Kapoor! A mini portable fire pit was burning slowly beside him on that freezing morning, and I noticed a beautiful colourful carpet beneath his legs – A sigh of relief.

After the whereabouts, he offered us tea and snacks! Honestly, we had our guards high up with UP men’s images similar to what they showed us in the web series. Worriedly we sat back wondering where we had landed until Mr Siddiqi broke the ice, asking, “Madam Ji tell me, how may I help you. Are you here to do a thesis on Bhadohi carpet”

The word thesis hit me hard!

Have we come to where only researchers come? We are ordinary travellers interested in seeing the making of every product we love, we explained. Siddiqi was a government supervisor then and has travelled in India to inspect carpet schools and factories, he said. Another exhale in relief after I realised we were with a person who knew about carpets.

So what is Bhadohi Carpet 

Bhadohi carpet threads - Blue and beige

Floor covering mats have existed in India since Vedic times. There have been mentions of it in ancient scriptures. But Bhadohi carpets are second circle relatives of Persian rugs- Siddiqui explained. When Babur invaded India and established the Mughal empire, the Persian artists entered the Indian subcontinent. Akbar being the most successful Mughal ruler, invited artists from worldwide. Iran carpet masters fell sick (or robbed) en route to Agra near Bhadohi village. The villagers took care of the masters, and in return, the masters taught them the art of Persian carpet making in the 1600s. 

Many documents confirm the arrival of Iran carpet masters and Akbar encouraging carpet weaving in the 1600s.

Since then, India has become one of the leading carpet makers globally.In 2001, the Indian Institute of Carpet Technology was set up by the Indian government at Chauri road. In 2010, Bhadohi carpets earned the Geographical Indication tag by the government. 95% of India’s handmade carpets are manufactured and exported worldwide now.

The walk-on “non-existing path.”

Drainwater on the so called roads of Bhadohi

By now, we were convinced we were with the right person. With a fresh cup of chai with Aloo Bhujia and some heat from the fire, we left the godown to visit Karigar’s house with Siddiqi’s manager. The road existed for the next 50 metres. I was still hoping to see finely built rowhouses with each house numbered in the artists’ name. But destiny has played a different game here. There were lots of houses, most of them unplastered with broken bricks.

The plastic heap existed everywhere. I don’t think either the villagers or the local authority bother to take the trash out. After a blind turn, the asphalt road disappeared, and the mud road was filled with black stagnant drainage water! Ruthless opinion- This is one of the dirtiest places in India we have ever visited – A train of thoughts ran through our mind. We exchanged words in our mother tongue. How do they live in a place like this and produce masterpieces? Can they really live here?

Lazy Sundays disturbed.

The carpet workshop in Bhadohi with yellow thread rolls and Yellow taurpaulins.

After walking beside garbage and drain water, we came to an open field where kids were flying kites and men sat squat basking in the sun. We could see women on the terrace managing dyed threads under the sun at a distance. After a few minutes of waiting, the artists enjoying their Sunday chatting and wandering came back to the ground. I was still expecting one shed with a covered roof as a workshop.

“So-Called Enclosure”

It happened so that the broken building without a roof right next to me is where one of the best artists made the carpets. Anyone could climb that 3m high wall and get inside to steal anything everything. Still, there was a lock to the door.

The manager told me these young men are experts and are one of the best. The magic began after the three of them set the 20′ long moving bar and started to weave in a synchronised motion. The white threads were above, the filling carrier moved from left to right thrice, and the red threads appeared, putting the white below! Seeing the making is easy but trying to understand it was more difficult than calculating the square root of 7.

Carpet artists weaving the red and white threads

The epitome of Patience is a secret of Bhadohi artists

The artists explained to us patiently how each rod and bar are connected to each other and how they use broken bricks as thread hangers. The beauty is they weave the complete solid blank carpet first. Once they know the design, they remove threads carefully and insert the handwoven design later. You won’t even notice that they broke the threads to insert the design once finished!

The zoomed in version of white and thread just before they turn upside down

Woollen and cotton were semi-smooth, and the black silk one was ultra-smooth. From there, we visited many houses where artists brought out their semi-finished products and explained the different ways of making them with high enthusiasm. 

As laymen, we understood-

Turqiouse green handwoven Bhadohi floor mat
  • Dhurrie- Flat cotton rugs.
  • Mir – The wide geometrical border with smaller repetitive patterns in the centre. Combining the highest quality wool and cotton makes it the softest handknitted rug. These resemble Persian carpets a lot and are derived from Persian design. The artists said they added their own unique pattern to the border without disturbing the actual essence of Mir.
  • Indo Gabbe – Compared to Mir, these are plainer but multicoloured. The colours chosen are mostly pastel, while Mir carpets are bright. We found mostly asymmetrical non-repetitive tribal motifs on these.
  • Chain linked woven Jute rugs – The smaller in size, predominantly with wool and jute threads, have repetitive undulations and are the easiest to make, they said.
The Jute carpet of Bhadohi

After knowing 1% of Bhadohi Carpet making, what next?

The artist’s skill and their explaining enthusiasm had left us in amazement. By the time we finished 6 houses, they were curious to know which house rug we liked most. When I said I liked Jute ones most, the particular artist was brimming with pride, as if I was India’s president awarding him. 

20 feet long threads set to make a fine floor mat in a hut at Bhadohi

Once again, we were clueless about how to thank them and how much to pay them to show us around. When we asked the manager, he said, “We don’t take money from guests; you came all the way to see us; that is enough for us.” 

The Jute carpet maker was excited that we liked his work most, and he walked us to the godown. While crossing the drain filled road, I asked him in Hindi, 

ME -” Bhaiya, you are a great artist. Why and what do you feel about living here?” 

He- “It is good here. My family has been into carpet weaving for 200 years. I will continue the legacy.”

 I expected him to be whining about how poor their infrastructure is; instead, he said it is good and continued smiling. 

I continued – “What help do you expect from the government?” 

He- Majoori, Aur Kya? ( I want my labour charge, nothing else) 

The fallen roll of red woolen threads in a shed at Bhadohi

The goodbye Chai ceremony

Siddiqui was waiting for us with some biscuits and tea yet again with a broad infectious smile on his face. He said, ” Tell me, my beloved guests, did you like my village? How were my people? I will be pleased to serve you lunch.”

 We had already snatched half of their Sunday and didn’t want to swallow it further. Convincing him to tea, our conversations continued. I told him what the Jute carpet maker said. Siddiqui replied

“I have been trying to make them realise what and how should they work. It happens so here that they aren’t aware of living in a better condition. Make a carpet, sell it and eat Biryani for today without worrying about tomorrow. At least even to go to Mecca, they should save money, right? I saved 2% of my monthly income for the Hajj. Whereas these guys live and think for a day – which is good in a way.

They don’t know the worth of their work. Often companies come and give us the Naksha (carpet design on a graph sheet). They quietly do it and take only labour + material cost. So the price you pay at the branded store is 6-10 times more than what we get here. People like you should come here and let the world know about the artists. India’s carpets are famous worldwide, but the makers aren’t.” 

With the carpet masters

A village head who spared his half Sunday with us deserves beyond our gratitude and respect. After receiving two carpets from him as a gift and buying 8’x10′ handknitted carpet for 600Rs, we touched his foot for blessings and left to the streets of goats.

Final thoughts on India’s carpet village

We learned 1% of the making of complexly beautiful GI tag art & realised the poor living condition of artists. A fancy branded carpet showroom sells an 8’x10′ handwoven carpet for 4000Rs minimum. The makers sell it for 600RS to the mediators! The enormous struggle and their attention to detail go unnoticed, and the brand name surfaced more. The carpets are exported most, and Indians hardly know about the makers of it.

The unhygienic trash-filled surrounding discomforted us initially, but the artists made it beautiful.

We even thought the villagers may not be kind and helpful because we were the only visitors away from the main road in an unknown land. We realised we both think of people who live in slums or a “not so clean” place as “trouble makers.” It turned out so that they were one of the nicest without expecting anything from us or anyone. They were more of giving than taking. When asked Siddiqui how much should we pay for the artists, because we took a lot of their time? He denied our payments, as he believes that nobody should take money from guests.

The carpets getting rolled for packaging

The Bachelor of Carpet and textile industry college in the town is unknown to most. Like many other artists, they need recognition and aid. They don’t even know the value of the masterpieces they create. They have been living beside thrash filled fields for so long that they don’t know how it feels to live in a hygienic place. Live for the day – “Ek Din Ka Sultaan” Siddiqui said. They receive and believe what mediators give them.

The Validation seeking

Sometimes, when I work a lot on my IGTV video or a post on this blog, I whine if I don’t receive good reactions. But look at these innocent people – All they expect is material and labour charges and worry of nothing. Is it innocence or ignorance? Siddiqi even explained how he saved 2% of his monthly income and made his Mecca tour. He suggests the same to carpet artists, but hardly they bother. It is as if the artists have attended Nirvana with whatever little they make. Because people like Siddiqui, they get connected to the world and know at least a bit.

Carpet village of India- Bhadohi.

A philanthropist, a good human and the carpet trader Siddiqi have created a huge impression on our minds to help artists selflessly. I hardly touch an elder’s feet except for my parents. But the aura and works done by this man-made me touch his feet, and we left Bhadohi with 8 carpets, out of which 3 were gifts from Siddiqui. The jute carpet maker smiled at us infectiously again; the manager who showed us around shook hands, and we left with Imraan wondering if there is a way to bring some good to these artist’s life beyond writing a post about it.

 Unless you stand up and ask for yourself firmly, nobody will help you. What do you feel about the artists – Is it ignorance or innocence? Let us know in the comment section below.

Varanasi travel guide

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

3 thoughts on “The unseen carpet masters of Bhadohi

  1. Sahana, you have written a neat description and brought out the true plight of our artisans. Yes we need to encourage and support more of these talented artisans.

  2. Very glad to read your blog. I would recommend you to kindly give one more visit and research visiting weavers, labours, contractors, and then finally exporters one by one. That would help you to evaluate the condition more accurately. Though, your this much work have done justice as well.

    Mohd Amir Ansari
    One of the Contractor.
    Bhadohi.

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