This extraordinary carpet represents the dorsal view of a flayed man (g.yang gzhi), the back draped in a tiger skin. The silhouette of the tiger skin, with its characteristic gold and brown stripes, is clearly evident below the right arm. Scattered around the stretched skin are severed portions of the human body, including feet, hands, bones, head, ribs, hips and lower spine, and a variety of internal organs. The border design also refers to this macabre scene, with an elegant tendril bearing fruit in the form of human skulls, severed heads and vital organs. Tibet has a long-standing tradition of making fine carpets, but at least from the eighteenth century, exceptional carpets were woven in the Ningxia region of China for Tibetan patrons. Highly prized for their luxurious wool, rich pile, and superb weaving technique, they were woven according to any iconographic specification.
The carpet would have been commissioned for particular use. It is reported to have come from Samye, Tibet's oldest monastery (c. 779 C.E.). While it is not possible to specify the historical circumstances that led to its commission, the carpet's unusual iconography offers important clues about its intended purpose. Human skins, tiger skins, and scenes of human dismemberment are often associated with worship of the protector deities. The Fifth Dalai Lama's secret manuscript (late 17th century) illustrates similar scenes, in which animal or human skins are the sacrificial ground for ritual paraphernalia associated with wrathful offerings, e.g., skulls filled with blood, tripods and platters supporting dough (gtor ma) offerings, and the like. A c. seventeenth century painting in the Zimmerman Family collection likewise presents a flayed human as the ground for ritual offerings to a wrathful deity. A nineteenth century painting in the Rubin Museum of Art presents offerings to Yama, Lord of Death, on top of a flayed human lying on a tiger skin.
The carpet also calls to mind aspects of the Tse Gutor ceremony in Lhasa attended by Spencer Chapman in 1937. A carpet effigy of a human corpse, with a tiger carpet placed on it, was chained in the course of the ceremony in order to "bind" demons that were ritually destroyed at the culmination of the dance drama. In Tibet, demons were sometimes visualized in the form of bound human beings, known as linga (ling ga). Samten Karmay notes that "a linga can be made of barley dough or drawn on cotton or paper for the ritual purpose in which it is often symbolically destroyed through a ritual dance." The wear on this carpet may be evidence of such dance rituals. A special quarter of the Potala was known as gsang sngags dga' tshal, assigned to the Namgyal College (rtse rnam rgyal grva tshang), whose duty was to perform rituals for the Dalai Lama. This carpet may thus have been commissioned for a specific temple or chapel where it was used to create the appropriate setting for rites associated with worship of the protector deities, at Samye or elsewhere in Tibet.