Agra rugs emulate fine Persian weaving

NEW YORK – The city of Agra in northern India is known for being the home of the Taj Mahal, but the area’s rich tradition of carpet weaving makes Agra equally famous.

Agra was one of three major carpet centers in India. Today’s collectors seek out 19th century and early 20th century examples as a high point of the genre. Emerging in the 16th century, Agra was focal point for Indian culture, known not just for carpet weaving but also miniatures, textile design, inlaid stonework and architecture.

One of the finest styles of Mughal carpets, Agra rugs trace their origins to the Mughal emperors’ reign, which began in the 15th century. Having an affinity for Persian arts and culture, the emperors especially admired Persian carpets that proliferated in the “Golden Age of Persian Weaving.”

This Agra has a pattern of 10 large diamonds in the center field, only two of which are full diamonds on the center axis and not cut by the border. It achieved $26,237 + the buyer’s premium in November 2019 at Rippon Boswell & Co. International Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Rippon Boswell & Co., International Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

When Mughal Emperor Babur (1483-1530) vanquished India and took Delhi in 1526, he first imported fine rugs from Iran for use in his court. Soon after, however, Agra emerged as a carpet making center. Babur brought in master craftsmen from Persia to demonstrate the art of pile weaving to Indian artisans, who were more accustomed to lightweight textile weaving. The new style of Agra carpets served as a tribute to the finest Persian rugs while having their own style. Agra carpets became known for their durability and high quality.

An Agra palace carpet, late 19th century; 27ft x 18ft 10in, realized $16,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Grogan & Co. Photo courtesy of Grogan & Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Agra rugs can be challenging for the casual buyer to categorize and are sometimes confused with other styles. Amritsar rugs are one example of a rug type commonly confused with Agra. Agra rugs are best identified by their “allover” decoration or they can feature large expanses of open fields intersected by smaller design panels and medallions.

This Agra rug, India, late 19th century, 10ft 4in x 14ft 9in, brought $4,750 + the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Material Culture. Photo courtesy of Material Culture and LiveAuctioneers

The heaviest of all Indian rugs in their day, Agra rugs boasted a long pile and were usually constructed with an asymmetrical (or Persian) knot. They were also densely woven, having up to 2,000 knots per square inch. They clearly are inspired by their cultural heritage while their color palette and design styles distinguish them from their Persian ancestors.

Typically boasting a delicate palette using dyes made from vegetables, Agra rugs feature decoration motifs that are historically influenced or original. Common motifs include rows of flowers in vases, vines, local wildlife and animals native to India, hunting scenes and elegant borders of leafy vines and palmettes or rosettes. Instead of abstracted designs, natural depictions are common and among the most seen botanicals are the lotus flower, roses, vines and the cypress tree.

“Antique Agra rugs present elegant allover designs alongside medallion or centralized patterns … they have the rich pungent palette of classical Indian and Persian carpets as well as soft, cool earthy tones,” according to Nazmiyal Collection in New York City.

The antique rug gallery website notes that the color fields are often in earthy tones of greens, blues or muted yellows, saffron and beiges, but can come in a rusty red and other pale greens. Agra rugs are most commonly found woven with wool, though sometimes the rugs are made with cotton. Local crafters’ mastery of vegetable dyes allowed them to create desirable and unique colors, including lavender and gold.

A circa 1910 example, 11ft 10in x 15ft 6in, sold for $11,000 + the buyer’s premium in September 2019 at Nazmiyal Auctions. Photo courtesy of Nazmiyal Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

While the market for Persian rugs has waned a bit in recent years, the best examples in any genre of antiques will continue to do well. Nineteenth century Agra rugs in particular remain a solid investment as well as a beautiful addition to one’s home. Later Agra rugs tend to be produced to meet high demand, so earlier examples are usually better quality.

An Agra wool rug, early 20th century, 15ft 10in x 12ft 2in, fetched $6,000 + the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Hindman. Photo courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Made of organic materials, however, these rugs can be expected to show their age and experience wear and tear over the centuries. Older carpets dating to the Mughal era are hard to find, with many having been cut or deteriorated and restored over the years. Full-size versions in good condition are growing scarce and quite valuable.

Originally made for use in Mughal courts in India, antique Agra rugs are elegant and found in a wide variety of sizes although quite common are 9 feet by 12 feet examples. Arguably, they are perhaps the most sought after of Indian rugs and make a strong design statement in the home.