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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Fakes and Forgeries: in conversation with Karen Watts

Saturday 7 February, the Royal Armouries will host a highly anticipated seminar day on ‘Fakes & Forgeries’. (#RAFakes)

Karen Watts, Senior Curator of Armour and Art at the Royal Armouries, is conducting a lecture at the event, so I asked her to talk a little about what the day will contain and some background information on why we should study these objects.

Why were there so many forgeries in the nineteenth century?

“The nineteenth century gothic revival created a rediscovering of the Middle Ages with the work of Walter Scott novels, such as Ivanhoe”.

“Suddenly it was the trend and pinnacle of fashion to have medieval objects up on the walls in the home of your castle, mansion or hall, but there weren’t enough originals left to go around. The huge demand for these items led to the creation of many fakes, some which were convincing and some far from it. Greed had a big part to play here, as those with big pockets dug deep for the most ‘exclusive’ items. Most popular seem to be helms due to the desire to create a real human connection to those medieval people on the battlefield or in the tourney”.

“The demand for these items meant that opportunists such as Thomas Grimshaw, a very famous faker who I’ll be discussing in my lecture this Saturday, could take advantage of the fashion and make their fortune!”

Possible drawing of Thomas Grimshaw by Wash, (I.143) © Royal Armouries.

Possible drawing of Thomas Grimshaw by Wash, (I.143) © Royal Armouries.

How many fakes do we have at the Royal Armouries?

“We have approximately 30 fakes within our collection and I will be highlighting a selection of them at the lecture this weekend – including a few which have been hidden in stores away from the public, so it’s a great opportunity to handle some of our objects that you may never have seen before.”

“My personal favourite of our fakes is Mr Smiley, a helm with breathing holes shaped in a large pair of smiling lips! (See image below). Original medieval helms had breathing holes or slots on the lower right hand side of the face and neck to allow the left side remain smooth – to deflect an opponent’s  lance.”

Image A14.53 © Royal Armouries.

Our poster boy, ‘Mr Smiley’. Image A14.53 © Royal Armouries.

What factors indicate something is a fake?

“Weight, decoration and construction are the commonest indicators that an object is not original.”

Have you ever been fooled by a fake?

“Not that I know of!”

Why is it important to study fakes in their own right?

“The history of fakes in the nineteenth century is not only military but a social history. By understanding why fakes were made we can better understand the social climate and romantic fashions of nineteenth century Britain, whilst using knowledge gained to detect new originals. These fakes are now products of their own history with their own stories to tell, and are collectors’ items in their own right!”

To hear more about gothic revival fakes from both Karen Watts and Ian Bottomley – Curator Emeritus (formerly Senior Curator of Oriental Collections, Royal Armouries), come along to the Royal Armouries Fakes & Forgeries seminar day, Saturday 7 February. To book your place, please visit the link below.

http://www.royalarmouries.org/www.royalarmouries.org/events/events-at-leeds/calendar/2015-02-07/seminar-fakes-and-forgeries

 

King James, Japanese armour and the perils of collecting shunga…

Dr Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour at Royal Armouries, tells us about his upcoming lecture on Japanese Gift Armour and why 2013 is an important year…

2013 is the 400th anniversary of diplomatic contact between England and Japan. Not, you might think, one of the most exciting facts of the year, but it’s an important anniversary for Royal Armouries because we hold the only material remains of the first diplomatic meeting back in 1613, the two armours given by the Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Hidetada, to King James I of England. One is here in Leeds, the other at the Tower of London. In honour of this fact we themed our 2013 Tower conference East Meets West on the diplomatic giving of arms and armour between Asia and Europe, as part of J400 (see http://japan400.com/ if you would like to learn more). On Wednesday 27 November at 6.30pm I will be giving a lecture at the museum in Leeds about the gift armours.

Japanese armour presented by Tokugawa Hidetada to King James I in 1613, on display at the Tower by 1660. © Royal Armouries

Japanese armour presented by Tokugawa Hidetada to King James I in 1613, on display at the Tower of London by 1660. © Royal Armouries

Within 10 years of the gift of our armour, it had all ended: Japan became a closed country, isolated from the rest of the world for the next 225 years. In England, we forgot where the armours came from, and called the armour that was displayed in the Tower of London from 1660 the ‘armour of the Great Moghul’. The Royal Armouries’ armours weren’t the only ones, either. There is a whole herd of them in European collections, all traceable to gifts from the Japanese government to foreign powers within a 40-year period. You can make quite a nice holiday by visiting them all (in Madrid, Paris, Copenhagen, Innsbruck as well as Leeds and London) or you could just come to the lecture and find out more about them, and why collecting shunga can be perilous!

Blogger: Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour at Royal Armouries

Lecture: Japanese Gift Armour, Wednesday 27 November, 6.30pm. For more information or to book tickets visit the website.