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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Bite the Bullet

In 1857 native soldiers of the Indian Army rose up against the British Empire in what became known as the Indian Mutiny. It’s often said that the cause of this unrest was the paper cartridge issued for use with the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. These were greased at one end to lubricate the bullet, which had to be pushed down the barrel from the muzzle end for loading. In order to open the cartridge, soldiers were instructed to tear it with their teeth, resulting in the ingestion of some of the grease. Rumours spread that this grease was derived from pig fat, forbidden to Muslims, or from cows, which would be a serious issue for Hindus. Moreover, the rumours suggested that this was a deliberate practice intended to degrade and even to force conversion to Christianity.

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P'53 rifle, containing a lead 'Minié syle bullet

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P’53 rifle, containing a lead ‘Minié syle bullet

In fact, the causes and background to the mutiny were rather more complicated than this, but historians agree the cartridge rumours were one of the main triggers or tipping points for the mutiny. Some have disputed the claim of pig and/or cow fat, but although it is clear that their use was not intentional, both types of grease were indeed used on the cartridges. Although many officers in India recognised this serious oversight and attempted to address it, the offence and concern had already been caused. The result was widespread violence, bloodily put down by the Imperial authorities, with ringleaders being ‘blown from guns’, or tied to the muzzle of cannon which were then fired.

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic 'V' notch

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic ‘V’ notch

One less obvious result of the mutiny was the introduction of a new pattern of arm. Though it outwardly resembled the Enfield rifle, the rifling lands and grooves themselves were machined away, and a much more basic rear sight fitted. These new Pattern 1858 and 1859 smoothbore muskets effectively put ‘Brown Bess’ back in the hands of Indian troops. This was a deliberate attempt to limit the effectiveness of any future uprising, as they would be much less effective at range, and make the targeting of officers far more difficult.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms