Indian Arms and Armour: Physical, Spiritual and Mythological

Written by Natasha Bennett , Acting Curator (Oriental Collections).

Throughout the course of human history, arms and armour have featured strongly as a part of Indian cultural tradition and interaction. If one considers the great Hindu narratives of The Mahabhrata and The Ramayana, for example, the heroes, villains, gods and demons portrayed therein employ or inhabit a huge array of weapons which often carry symbolic associations or embody celestial powers. These texts are thought to have been composed between the 6th century BCE and the 1st century CE, to record events which are regarded as historical by believing Hindus, but which took place before history was ever written down. Despite their ancient context, the arms and armour of India and the nuanced meanings attached to them remained relevant as time progressed, and their complex role can still be recognised today in multiple cultural contexts.

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29-00062 / XXVID.62, Dagger (katar). Indian, Indore, 18th century. Copyright: The Board of Trustees of the Armouries, Royal Armouries Museum.

Over time, the Indian subcontinent has been subjected to continued invasion, disruption, and the rise and fall of different power centres, rulers and cultural elites. The conduct of warfare evolved, the structure of armies changed and the weapons and tactics that were used in combat developed over the centuries. The Delhi Sultans, the Vijayanagara Empire, the Rajputs, the Mughals, the Mahrattas, Tipu Sultan and the kingdom of Mysore, and the Sikhs of the Panjab; all these are examples of groups who excelled militarily and successfully implemented independent rule across swathes of territory as a result of martial prowess.

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Bronze 24-pounder gun, late 18th century. XIX.99 (on display at Fort Nelson) [DI 2014-1269]; Matchlock musket (toradar), late 18th century. Copyright: Royal Armouries.

By the time that the East India Company started to annex territory in India in the 18th century, European-style training methods and equipment were being adopted on many fronts, especially where firearms were concerned. By the time of the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s, many of the pieces in the artillery park built up in previous years by Maharaja Ranjit Singh rivalled the guns that the East India Company army had at their disposal.

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Image: Bronze gun with carriage and limber, made in Lahore, about 1840, used in the First Anglo-Sikh war of 1845-6. XIX.329 (on display at Fort Nelson). Copyright: Royal Armouries.

Despite the inevitable changes that took place in pursuit of modernisation and efficiency, ruthless practicality was only one aspect of the role of Indian arms and armour, and not necessarily the most important one in the eyes of many individuals. Many pieces were created to perform a ceremonial, votive or even sacrificial role; the ritual importance of some weapons far outweighed their suitability for mortal combat. Weapons could be vehicles or vessels for divine power, and as such their iconography and symbolism had the capacity to be far more influential for the purposes of protection or lethal intention than any design features that improved practical use. Arms and armour were identified as synonymous with the role and activity of rulers, symbolising their authority and right to govern, and the duties that they were expected to fulfil on behalf of their subjects. These objects circulated throughout society from the highest echelons down; forging and severing links between people through status recognition, identity, gift-giving, diplomacy, trade, appropriation and conflict. For this reason, many forms of weapons and armour which would be considered rather archaic from a utilitarian perspective continued to be produced on a large scale until the 19th century; indeed, many such pieces are still relevant and current in the present day.

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Quoit turban (dastar bungga), late 18th – early 19th century. XXVIA.60. Copyright: Royal Armouries.

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Sword (khanda), late 18th century. XXVIS.34 . Copyright: Royal Armouries.

The Tower of London took delivery of the vast majority of its Indian collection during the mid-19th century, as a result of three main triggers: the collection of representative sets of arms and armour from across India by the East India Company from 1849 onwards; the purchase of multiple display items from the Great Exhibition of 1851; and the general disarmament of 1859 following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which prompted the Indian government to bestow a large amount of equipment on the Tower Armouries in 1861. When assessed as a group, the presence and apparent continued use of various traditional forms of weaponry and equipment is fairly noticeable. Of course, this material was collected and assembled to be displayed in a museum environment and intended to project certain impressions or messages. This means that it would be limiting to unquestioningly regard this collection as a transparent ‘snapshot in time’ of exactly how arms and armour was being used in India in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the more traditional weapons and equipment clearly still had a role to play; they were still embedded as a fundamental part of cultural and religious understanding and activity, and quality craftsmanship, high levels of martial skill and many different beliefs were dedicated to their production, use and preservation.

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The seminar Indian Arms and Armour: Physical, Spiritual and Mythological will seek to examine these evocative themes in greater detail. Delegates will have the chance to look at and handle numerous pieces of armour and weaponry, ranging in nature from austere and practical to symbolic and ritualistic, with a few completely unique and curious pieces thrown in! Some of the objects that will be available are extremely rare, so this will be a unique opportunity to examine them at close quarters outside of display cases. After considering Indian arms and armour in general, the seminar will focus specifically on the Indian material at the Royal Armouries, to discover how this part of the collection has been established over time, and the important role it has played in the museum and in wider scholarship. Delegates will hear from representatives from our Conservation department as they discuss how the museum currently cares for the Indian collection, and describe some of the specific issues and solutions encountered with preserving material of this type, both here in the UK and in India.

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Eastern Warriors: Japan – Medieval and Modern!

Japan-Web-BannerThis February half term, why not take the opportunity to come to Leeds and experience a glimpse of the world of the Japanese warrior? The Royal Armouries holds a wonderfully rich collection of Japanese objects, and many of these are on show in the Oriental Gallery.

Through these pieces, we can see how the distinctive arms and armour of the famous samurai evolved over the centuries, in conjunction with new developments in battlefield tactics and wider political, social and economic change.

DI 2007-1482, Sword (katana). Japanese, 16th century. Made by Kanemoto. XXVIS.366

DI 2007-1482, Sword (katana). Japanese, 16th century. Made by Kanemoto. XXVIS.366

A quick summary cannot do the world of Japanese arms and armour justice, but for a whistle-stop tour of some of the essential points please read on! We start with the Japanese horse archer with his elite warrior status, wearing his flamboyant lamellar o-yoroi or ‘great armour’ with the colourful silk lacing and large shoulder defences, his kabuto (helmet) with the spreading neckguard, and carrying the unique Japanese longbow (yumi) fashioned for use on horseback.

Image: close–up image of head and shoulders of armour (tosei gusoku) for a member of the Sakakibara family. Japanese, 16th century. XXVIA.274. On display in Leeds.

Image: close–up image of head and shoulders of armour (tosei gusoku) for a member of the Sakakibara family. Japanese, 16th century. XXVIA.274. On display in Leeds.

Image: Helmet (kabuto) and mask (mempo) of an armour given as a diplomatic gift from Tokugawa Hidetada to James I and VI in 1613. XXVIA. On display at the Tower of London.

Image: Helmet (kabuto) and mask (mempo) of an armour given as a diplomatic gift from Tokugawa Hidetada to James I and VI in 1613. XXVIA. On display at the Tower of London.

Image: DI 2005-0753 Helmet (kabuto), part of an armour copied from an o-yoroi (‘great armour’) made c.1300. XXVIA.209.

Image: Helmet (kabuto), part of an armour copied from an o-yoroi (‘great armour’) made c.1300. XXVIA.209.

Image: DI 2005-0563 An illustration from Yoroi Chakuyo shidai, or ‘The Order of Putting on an Armour’ showing an Japanese warrior. Japanese, early 19th century.

Image: An illustration from Yoroi Chakuyo shidai, or ‘The Order of Putting on an Armour’ showing a Japanese warrior. Japanese, early 19th century.

These horse archers prevailed on the Japanese battlefield until around the 14th century, by which point the emphasis on large bodies of infantry was increasing, and fighting on foot with staff weapons such as the naginata (glaive) and the yari (spear) became more common. As combat techniques evolved, the warrior lords and their retainers began to wear smaller, less elaborate styles of armour such as the do maru and the haramaki, which permitted greater freedom of movement – we have examples of both these styles of armour on show in the gallery in Leeds.

Image: TR.195 Armour (mogami haramaki gusoku). Japanese, mid-16th century. XXVIA.2

Image: Armour (mogami haramaki gusoku). Japanese, mid-16th century. XXVIA.2

In the mid-16th century the Portuguese arrived in Japan and brought matchlock firearms with them. The Japanese daimyo (nobles), who by this point were embroiled in the protracted civil wars known generally as sengoku jidai or ‘age of the country at war’, adopted this new technology with enthusiasm, and the Japanese matchlock (teppo) became a crucial weapon on the battlefield. This was famously proven at the battle of Nagashino in 1575, when the arquebusiers of the combined forces of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu annihilated the cavalry charge of Takeda Katsuyori. The new prevalence of firearms and the prolonged siege warfare that characterised the civil wars prompted further developments in armour. Laced rows of individual lamellar scales were reduced in favour of constructions incorporating solid plates, which provided better protection against bullets, and much experimentation was conducted to find a way of producing bullet-proof armour. Armour was simplified and the lacing was reduced in order to make it more practical during extended periods of warfare, as well as quicker and cheaper to produce for large numbers of troops.

Image: A13.369 - Illustration showing infantrymen armed with matchlock muskets. From a block book entitled Geijutsu Hideu Zue [Accomplishments in the secret arts] by Ohmori Sakou, with illustrations by Kuniyoshi (Tokyo, 1855).

Image: Illustration showing infantrymen armed with matchlock muskets. From a block book entitled Geijutsu Hideu Zue [Accomplishments in the secret arts] by Ohmori Sakou, with illustrations by Kuniyoshi (Tokyo, 1855).

Image: DI 2005-0854 Matchlock musket (teppo). Japanese, Izumi Province, 18th century. Made by Enami Ihei of Sakai. XXVIF.53

Image: Matchlock musket (teppo). Japanese, Izumi Province, 18th century. Made by Enami Ihei of Sakai. XXVIF.53

Once the civil wars were brought to a final close in the early 1600s by the victories of Tokugawa Ieyasu, though, the period of closely monitored peace known as the Edo period descended on Japan and lasted until the mid-19th century. A close eye was kept on the buke (warrior class) in an effort to stamp out all opportunities for insurrection. External influence was reduced to a minimum as the Shogunate shut down the majority of foreign trade amid concerns about Western ambitions within the country. A feudal chain of obligation between vassals, lords and ultimately the Shogun was codified in the ideal of Bushido or the ‘Way of the Warrior’, which reinforced the necessity of absolute personal loyalty and obedience. The glory days of the past must have seemed a long way away to the samurai, and this nostalgia was shown in part through the continued importance of arms and armour, not so much as functional equipment any more, but more for the implications of rank, status and honour that the pieces conveyed on their owners.

For example, the right to wear two swords, the katana and the wakizashi, at the same time, was restricted to members of the military class; those who were ranked lower in the social order, such as merchants, were only permitted to wear a short sword. Old styles of armour and copies of famous ancient armours became fashionable again; several of the armours on show in the Oriental Gallery in Leeds were made during the Edo period, but have archaic stylistic features such as individual lamellar scales or the big shoulder guards and neckguards that were popular during the times when o-yoroi  were worn. Martial arts involving weapons including the sword and staff weapons such as the naginata developed into more regulated forms; instead of being fundamentally a practical way to prepare for battlefield combat, the emphasis shifted to honing the skills, principles and mindset that were meant to embody the ideal warrior who was loyal to his lord.

Image: CN.977 - Armour (tosei gusoku) laced in purple and green. Japanese, about 1800. XXVIA.113.

Image: Armour (tosei gusoku) laced in purple and green. Japanese, about 1800. XXVIA.113.

Japan emerged from its period of self-imposed isolation during the mid-19th century, and embarked on an ambitious programme of rapid modernisation. By the twentieth century, Japan was competing with the military technology of America and Europe. However, certain cultural practices ensured that traditional Japanese arms and armour remained current and relevant. In Japanese religion, there is a strong belief that the kami or ancestral spirits continue to live on in the possessions owned by the deceased before they died, and this is thought to be particularly true of a warrior’s sword and armour. As a result, medieval armour and weaponry is often perfectly preserved, as the pieces are treasured through the generations as family heirlooms or passed on to shrines as offerings, so that the kami continue to be honoured and ensure good fortune for their descendents. It was often for this reason that Japanese officers in WWII had their ancestral, centuries-old blades fitted out with modern military issue mounts; in outward appearance their swords would conform to the 20th-century standard of uniformity and modernity, but they could still carry their medieval ancestors into battle with them. The ‘soul of the samurai’ still had power, and indeed it lives on today in the reverence that is bestowed on historical objects and the warrior culture connected with them, and the hold that the Samurai still claim over the popular imagination.

Image: DI 2010-1230 Sword (katana). Japanese, 14th century, with 20th century military mounts. Made by Sadatsugu in Bitchu province. XXVIS.333.

Image: Sword (katana). Japanese, 14th century, with 20th century military mounts. Made by Sadatsugu in Bitchu province. XXVIS.333.

Image: DI 2007-1476 Sword (katana). dated 1933. Made by Gassan Sadakatsu to commemorate the birth of the Crown Prince who is now Emperor of Japan.

Image: Sword (katana). dated 1933. Made by Gassan Sadakatsu to commemorate the birth of the Crown Prince who is now Emperor of Japan.

 

A Day in the Life of…Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

Assistant Curator, Natasha Bennett talks climbing in cases, eccentric colleagues, being alone with the collection and why she loves her job, as we speak to her about her role as part of #MuseumWeek.

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator - Oriental Collections

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

My primary function as Assistant Curator is to help safeguard, present and develop specialist knowledge about the Royal Armouries’ Oriental Collection. My role is very varied! It involves researching, writing and delivering publications, exhibition content, seminars and talks; answering enquiries from the public and other organisations and institutions; supervising visitors who need access to the study collections or help with identifying objects; assisting with filming projects; helping with various collections management duties such as auditing or couriering loan objects, and participating in the acquisitions process which allows the Royal Armouries to bring new pieces into the collection.

When I left school, I did a history degree at the University of Durham, before taking jobs first as a librarian and then as an editorial/publishing assistant. I didn’t feel suited to either of those careers, so I ultimately took the plunge, returned to university and pursued an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at Leeds, with the aim of improving my qualifications for the field in which I really wanted to work. Three years ago my dream job of working for the Oriental section of the curatorial department here at the Royal Armouries appeared on the website. I never dreamed that I would be successful with my application, but here I am, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate because I can genuinely say that I love my job.

There is no normal day for me. The ability to work flexibly is a key part of this job, in more ways than one. I usually start the day at my desk by working through emails and enquiries that have come through, but by home time I can be anywhere; up a stepladder with the elephant armour in the Oriental Gallery or climbing into a case to replace objects that have been temporarily removed for filming or research. One of the weirdest places I ended up was near the lofty ceiling of the loading bay while I was being trained to drive a ‘mobile elevated work platform’ – thankfully that was an abnormal day…

The Royal Armouries houses the national collection of arms and armour, which means that the objects we get to work with every day are literally priceless, and the events, experiences, skills and artistry connected with each piece are legion. Every time I touch one, I feel a frisson of excitement thinking about where it has been over time. Being in stores by yourself can feel quite peculiar, because the heritage that the collection carries with it, is almost a palpable presence. I am also very lucky to work with some fantastic (if slightly eccentric) colleagues – but an interesting collection will always attract interesting people!

For me, the main challenge of my role is packing in enough research about an enormously wide-ranging subject area. Here at the Royal Armouries, the Oriental Collection incorporates all non-European arms and armour, which obviously covers quite a lot of the world! But at the same time that is also the most exciting thing about my work, because there is always something new to learn or discover, and it never gets stale.

One of the main projects I am working on at the moment is a set of conference proceedings. I am currently gathering together all the material from eight papers that were given at our conference East Meets West: Diplomatic Gifts of Arms and Armour between Europe and Asia at the Tower of London last September. We are hoping to publish these proceedings in the near future.

17th century Mughal dagger  © Royal Armouries

17th century Mughal dagger
© Royal Armouries

I have a great number of favourite items within the collection, and they tend to change or increase in number, depending on what I’m working on at the time. One of my all-time favourites is our 17th century Mughal dagger with a watered-steel blade and a stunning hilt beautifully carved in the shape of a horse’s head. It is the only example that we know of with a hilt that is probably made out of serpentine.

Blogger: Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.

Japanese Wakizashi Sword

As part of the Ingham case renovation in the Oriental Gallery, a large number of Japanese swords required cleaning and conservation at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

The swords had a variety of accessories and the highly ornate ones required more in-depth work. One of the most elaborate Japanese swords had approximately fourteen pieces to it – all of which required individual attention.

The object is a Japanese Wakizashi sword and dates back to the 17th century. The blade is signed ‘Hizen kuni ju Tadahiro’ and is accompanied by a wooden replica blade and two sets of scabbards and hilts; one simple and wooden, the other coated in lacquer and highly decorative with accessories.

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The decorative hilt was the main area of concern as the ray skin coating was fragile in a number of places and the gold dragon decorations showed evidence of copper corrosion. The metal blade collar, washers, utility knife and hair implement all showed signs of discolouration and copper corrosion. The decorative scabbard, while in good condition, had a small fragment of lacquer detached from the surface.

Before Conservators could start work on the sword, it had to be taken apart so that each item could be treated on individually. We took care to note the order and position of the accessories, so that it was not put back together incorrectly. Taking photographs helped with this process.

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The metal accessories were cleaned using cotton wool swabs with a solvent specific for metals. This removed the corrosion and discolouration, without causing further damage to the objects.

The hilt’s decorative dragons were cleaned by brushing on an appropriate solvent, in order to fully penetrate the uneven surface and remove corrosion.  The fragile ray skin coating was stabilised using a suitable adhesive that was applied using capillary action, to strengthen the bond to the base material.

The decorative scabbard was cleaned using an alternative solvent, which would not damage the original lacquer, to remove the surface dirt. The detached fragment was re-attached using a suitable adhesive to secure it back to the wooden base, without damaging the lacquer exterior. The wooden scabbard and hilt, along with the remaining metal accessories, were dry cleaned to remove the surface dust and dirt

To clean the blade, traditional Japanese methods were used, including the application of a dry powder to remove any previous oil. This was then wiped with Japanese tissue to remove it. Finally, the blade was coated with a specially tested traditional Japanese oil to protect it and prevent deterioration.

Blogger: Conservator, Vicky Garlick