Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Made for maharajas: ceremonial weapons

Shiels (Dhal), Lucknow, first half 19th century. Silver gilt, brass, enamel and diamonds. Photo The Royal Collection Trust 

There are hardly any portraits of Indian maharajahs that do not show them carrying their ceremonial swords. For them arms were more than mere weapons, they symbolized honour, justice, courage, manhood, pride, and freedom. Arms were believed to possess sacred power. They were worshiped on special festivals such as Dussera. And they were beautiful works of art, decorated with gold, enamel and precious stones. Some weapons were ornamented with the images or symbols of divinities, are then they were more than just a symbol of power and social standing, but also a symbol of personal devotion to a deity. The image of the deity would of course also serve as a blessing on the weapon and he who wore it, invoking the power of the deity to protect and justify the actions of the owner of the weapon.Some superbly jeweled Indian arms are on display in museums around the world. Displayed at the Baroda Palace Armoury is a sword whose hilt is studded with two hundred and seventy-five diamonds and an emerald. One of the most beautiful jewelled daggers is in the Wallace Collection, London. Its hilt has been thickly overlaid with plates of gold, enamelled a striking crimson and encrusted with rose diamonds, cabochon rubies and emeralds. Such pieces were handed down from father to son. At the time of coronation the ruler was ceremoniously handed the sword and shield of his father by the family priest.
On the photo above there is a shield presented to Albert Edward Prince of Wales by the Maharajah of Kashmir, Ranbir Singh Sahab Bhadur during his visit to India 1875-76. The front of the shield is made of silver gilt, decorated overall with champlevé enamels, mounted with four bosses and inset with seven tear-shaped ornaments and a crescent motif, all of them set with diamonds. The colours employed for the enamelling - numerous animals and birds, some of which are attacking one another - are characteristic of Lucknow work of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Shield India. 17th or 18th century. Rhinoceros hide, decorated with gold lacquer painting; steel protective knobs, enamelled and engraved. Diameter 43 cm. Museum of Oriental Arts, Moscow

This shield made of rhinoceros hide is a great rarity. The method used by the craftsmen to attain the semi-transparent quality and the amber-like sheen of the material remains a secret. Such shields were both elastic and hard enough to ensure a solid protection from arrows and sabres. It is ornamented with a delicate golden pattern evocative of the marginal decoration of Indian and Iranian manuscripts.

Shield, West India (Gujarat?) c. 1575. Wicker, leather, velvet, steel with intarsia in gold and mother-of-pearl on black bituminous paste. Photo source

Scabbard (peshkabz). Steel, gold, emerald, rubies, pearls and cotton covered wood. The Royal Collection Trust

Maharaja's shield set with precious stones and decorated with enamel
Shield, 18th century. Silver sheet, enamel, rubies, diamonds, emeralds, chalcedony, agate, rock crystal. The al-Sabah Collection

Indian katar set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds
Katar with gold hilt and scabbard, set with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. India; end of 18th century. The David Collection

This katar comes from Hyderabad, which was allied with the British against Tipu Sultan from Mysore. The dagger is said to have belonged to Tipu Sultan himself. The “Tiger from Mysore” was a formidable opponent of the British until he was killed in the defense of his capital of Seringapatam in 1799. 


Indian dagger set with rubies and emeralds
Dagger, 1625. Steel, ruby, gold, emerald. The British Museum

Dagger with incised gold sheath and chape set with rubies and emeralds, red velvet sides, notched gold hilt decorated with flowers, cheetah, harpy, and deer in rubies and emeralds on one side and three flowers, lion and deer on the other; quillon in form of two dragons' heads. Gold is worked between jewels in technique typical of court production in 1620's

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