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Material Culture Timeline (UK Edition)

Harappan Seals

3000-2000 BC

Indus Valley

British Museum

Charlie Philbin

The object I have chosen to study comes from a time in such distant antiquity that historians and linguists alike cannot decipher what is inscribed on them. Only the very first civilizations in India could have produced such mysterious objects. These seals were discovered in the 1920-30’s by British archaeologists who found the vast ruins of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro to be fascinating. They saw brickwork and raised mounds that could only signify an early form of Indian Civilization. Some of the most intriguing objects discovered in and around these ruins were not very large at all, with some measuring just an inch on each side.

The most famous of these seals is Seal 420 (or the Pashupati Seal). What is particularly interesting about this particular seal is that it is considered to be a Proto-Shiva. The fact that Shiva is being depicted even in these ancient times around 2500 BC shows the existence of advanced religions in India far before they were thought to exist. An early analysis of this seal and why it may or not be Shiva was published in 1928 by John Marshall, who had served as the director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India as well as leading many of the Indus Valley expeditions. He gave 4 reasons as to why this may have in fact been a proto-Shiva. 1. Shiva has three faces. 2. Shiva’s head is crowned with the horns of a bull and trisula. 3. Shiva is doing a yoga pose and is widely regarded as Prince of the Yogis. 4. He is surrounded by animals. Shiva was often seen as the lord of the animals and all of these descriptions lead archaeologists such as John Marshall to believe that this is in fact an early prototype of Shiva that will be developed into the more traditional Hindu Shiva.

Many of these seals were discovered around the region of Harappa which lends the name Harappan Seals. The Pashupati seal may be the most famous of these seals but there were many other seals that provided great opportunity for discoveries about Indus Valley Civilizations. One of the seals that Western Scholars find very unique is the seal with a unicorn on it. Unicorns often live in the same realm as angels when it comes to western mythologies, but in Indus Valley Civilization, they were often as common as cattle to the common people. They were depicted on these seals that were used to mark property and cattle so that each person could tell whose stuff was whose. This was a particularly advanced idea for a 2500 BC civilization to be having and led many European Scholars to actually want to learn about India rather than just have their textiles and wealth shipped over to them. These seals brought the spark to Europe to actually discover the heritage of India that is much older than their own and not simply funnel riches and slaves to build fantastical castles that could fit in mythology alongside the unicorns.

 

TERRACOTTA FIGURES

300 – 100 BCE

GANGES VALLEY

The British Museum

Natalie Miller

Terracotta figurines, and other similar artifacts, are one of the historians’ best avenues for understanding ancient Indian civilization. Such figurines were typical of the Indus Valley Civilization, but these are dated much later. Around this time, the Ganges Valley was one of, if not the most, populated areas on earth, for between 25 to 50 million people lived there. At this point in Indian history, the majority of the subcontinent was under the Mauryan Empire, including the Ganges Valley. The terracotta figures of the Indus Valley Civilization taught historians much of what they know about it, since the Indus Valley did not leave any written texts. These later Ganges Valley figurines also reveal and illustrate much about the contemporary society. Around 300 BCE, molding technology was only beginning, and it found its origins in the production of the faces of the terracotta figures. Despite the new technology, the bodies continued to typically be crafted by hand and consist of men, women, and creatures, which are on display in the collection at the British Museum in London. The figures of women appear broad-hipped and voluptuous, a trend that continues in later periods of Indian art and highlights the beauty standards of that time. This was the ideal form of beauty and stressed the importance of fertility in women, one of the main things for which they were prized. They also have large discs on their heads, a unique feature for this art piece. One of the male figurines is depicted with round knots of hair, which is similarly typical of Indian statues and other art. Furthermore, the figures also depict animals. The figures of Indus Valley and the Harrapan seals of the Vedic period illuminated to historians which animals were important in their respective civilizations. In this instance, the figures include an elephant, which are native to India. Unlike horses, elephants would not have needed to have been brought or imported, which makes them more readily available and easier to maintain. One of the figures, number twenty-four, depicts the hood of a snake on a female body, which the plaque at the British Museum suggested was most likely a serpent deity. These animal depictions likely indicate the some of the origins for Hinduism, which became the most dominant religion within the Mauryan Empire. India historically has done well in accepting religions and adding elements of past beliefs to new ones. Other religions, like Jainism, were also prevalent in the Mauryan Empire. Some deities worshipped in this time period are still worshipped by Hindus today, like Indra, Visnu, and Agni. In this later period, goddesses and female avatars become more frequently worshipped. Hinduism itself is very complicated, for it has no one authoritative text, like the Bible for Christianity, or the Qu’ran for Islam. Although the terracotta figures are not directly connected to either Hinduism or Jainism, in reflecting upon the region and time period, it appears likely that these figures were influenced by one of these major religions, or at least its potential ideas. These small terracotta figurines hold disproportionate amounts of information about the time they were created.

 

Fragment of an Ashokan Pillar
268-232 BC
Meerut, later moved to Delhi
British Museum
Ian Kearns

The image you see above is a fragment of one of Emperor Ashoka’s edicts. It was once a piece of a large monolithic sandstone pillar that was erected in Meerut. These edicts were also commonly carved into rock. Ashoka’s edicts were constructed near trade routes, religious centers, and administrative centers across his empire in South Asia, which spanned the majority of the Indian subcontinent and reached as far as modern-day Afghanistan. These edicts were written in various North Indian languages across the empire, and included Greek and Aramaic, so that all who read them would be able to receive Ashoka’s dharma. They began to appear after the battle of Kalinga, after which Ashoka converted to Buddhism as an act of remorse due to the mass suffering he caused in war, specifically that of noncombatants. Ashoka ceased the statecraft which had brought his empire to its greatest extent and instead preached non-injury, ahimsa, as the guiding principle of his governance. From then on, he stated that the primary role of his reign would be to spread his dharma, ensuring welfare for all his subjects. This dharma, a meta-religion designed to manage the religious diversity of his kingdom, was then inscribed onto these sandstone pillars and rocks, which became his edicts. Tolerance of the multitude of religions was encouraged through the edicts. Common inscriptions on Ashoka’s edicts, which were included in his policy of dharma, were the sanctity of animal life, vegetarianism, non-injury, the digging of wells, and the planting of shade trees. These edicts and their messages were principle in creating the just and humane society that Ashoka passionately pursued. Interestingly enough, these edicts were written in a style that suggests a personal tone, indicating the messages originated from Ashoka in his own words. This allows one a glimpse into the mind of the just and wise Emperor who created them. Ashoka not only desired his dharma spread amongst his subjects but wished for its goodwill to be spread across all civilizations. The emperor dispersed emissaries across the Hellenistic kingdoms of the time to accomplish this goal. Although the evidence that these missionaries reached these kingdoms is somewhat lacking, the same ideas that Ashoka preached can be seen in the discourse of intellectuals in Greece. Additionally, there is speculation from some historians that there existed a connection between Ashoka and Greece because his father is known to have invited a Greek philosopher to his court. So, it remains plausible that these emissaries did, in fact, reach the Hellenistic kingdoms. Ashoka’s ideas on society and governance were revolutionary at the time, especially for an empire of its size, and remain the only example of a previously militaristic emperor changing their governance structure to ahimsa as its central tenant.

 

Stone sculpture of the bodhisattva Maitreya

AD 100-350

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan

British Museum

Kayla Keck

Mahayana, one of the two major religious groups of Buddhism, is centered around the spiritual practice embodied by bodhisattvas. Bodhisattva is the term used to describe the earlier lives of Buddha Shakyamuni, which are told in stories known as Jatakas. In tradition, bodhisattvas are not gods but spiritually advanced people with a different motivation for living than the ordinary person. They live by vow to always come back to samsara and devote themselves to those who are lost or suffering. Bodhisattvas are insightful individuals who delay their own salvation in order to help others find the path of enlightenment.

It is important to understand the difference between a bodhisattva and a buddha. A bodhisattva is an individual on the course of reaching enlightenment while a buddha has achieved Nirvana or has become fully enlightened. Bodhisattvas must develop qualities such as morality, self-sacrifice, and wisdom in order to become a buddha. Although all bodhisattvas have a common end goal, there are many different types of bodhisattvas who portray different messages and have different stories. The bodhisattva Maitreya is the Future Buddha and is depicted in the image above.

Legend has it that Maitreya is waiting in the Tushita heaven until all the practice of dharma is lost and mankind is at war with itself. When this happens, Maitreya will be born on Earth in human form to grow into adulthood and achieve Nirvana. He will sit and meditate until he is fully awakened and has reached Nirvana. Nirvana is the final goal of Buddhism and is a state without suffering, desire, and no sense of self. Once Nirvana is achieved, one is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of reincarnation. Therefore, in a time of future disaster Maitreya will redirect future generations of mankind to the path of enlightenment and true happiness.

Maitreya can be depicted in a number of ways. For example, in China Maitreya is sometimes referred to as the “laughing Buddha” and is oftentimes portrayed as jolly and fat. This image of Maitreya is highly problematic in Indian religion and culture because bodhisattvas are not supposed to be selfish and self-indulgent. In what some refer to as “classical” portrayals, Maitreya is seated on a throne waiting to be called down to earth. However, as shown in the image above, Maitreya can also be portrayed standing.

As a bodhisattva, Maitreya wears royal clothing in contrast to the Buddha’s simple robes. The transition in clothing from riches to rags shows how an individual’s mentality changes in the transformation from bodhisattva to the buddha, as one becomes enlightened and non-materialistic. It isn’t shown in the image (due to the statues missing hands) but typically Maitreya’s right hand is in the mudra, or shows a message, of reassurance while his left hand holds a water pot. The water pot is a symbol of Maitreya’s future role in bringing back the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni when they have been forgotten on Earth. Furthermore, the water pot signifies the transfer of power and exchange of acknowledgment from Buddha to Maitreya.

 

Gold Coins Associating Kushan Kings with Deities

AD 127-155

Kushan Territory

Ashmolean Museum

Ian Kearns

The gold coins you see above depict Kanishka, a Kushan king, making an offering at an altar. On the reverse side of the coin, you see a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva. The script visible on the front side of the coin is a modified Greek script, which Kanishka used on all of his coinage. His depiction remains consistent throughout time as a bearded man adorned with a large coat, pants, flames emanating from his upper body, and commonly making a sacrifice or offering. The depictions on the reverse side of the coinage changed throughout the Hellenistic and subsequently Indic periods, illustrating Greek deities, Iranian deities, Indic deities, Hindu deities, and the Buddha. The depiction of Shiva on this coin is intriguing as scholars believe Oesho, a Kushan deity, was a conflation with Shiva due to their linkage with the concept of Ishvara, which can mean supreme soul or lord. The use of Shiva also exemplifies Kanishka’s tolerance to all religions in his territory, as he himself was a Buddhist. Another intriguing feature is the metal used in the coin itself: gold. Gold coinage was introduced to India by Kanishka. The introduction of gold coinage can be explained by Kanishka’s involvement in the silk trade, which connected the areas from China, the Persian Gulf, and Greece during Kanishka’s reign. The silk trade is additionally the reason why the coins were written in Greek script and why a standard weight was adopted for them. Kanishka’s involvement in the Silk Road, as well as sea trade, and the great wealth that came with them helped the Kushan dynasty reach its height during Kanishka’s reign. During the height of the dynasty, Kanishka’s territory stretched throughout central Asia from the Arial Sea all the way to Sanchi in central India and Benares in the north-east of India. Although the dynasty spanned across great swaths of land, it began as a nomad state. Their military successes and the land they accrued drastically changed their nomadic way of life. Instead of personal, chiefly leadership, they developed hereditary monarchy, including tax systems, and eventually bureaucratic administration. Kanishka himself, referred to as Kanishka I or Kanishka the Great, is the third Kushan king and is noted as being the greatest of the Kushan kings despite their dynasty ending only 100 years later. Kanishka was a patron of Buddhism, and although he tolerated many religions under his empire, his devotion to Buddhism and calling of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir is said to be one of the reasons why Buddhism spread throughout the Silk Road and into China. The Fourth Buddhist Council also marked the inception of Mahayana Buddhism.

 

Stone Sculpture of the preaching Buddha

200 – 300 AD

Jamalgarhi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan

British Museum 

Niki Beck

 

In this sculpture, the Buddha is depicted holding his hands in the dharmachakra mudra, which is the hand pose (mudra) of setting in motion the ‘Wheel of Dharma’ (dharmachakra). The dharmachakra is an important symbol used in multiple religions found on the Indian subcontinent beyond merely Buddhism: it is relevant in Hinduism and Jainism, as well. Within the context of Buddhism, the Wheel of Dharma represents the wheel of natural law. Natural law is what upholds the universe’s natural order. Spinning the Wheel sets in perpetual motion the natural order of the universe.

The Buddha is known to have turned the Wheel of Dharma more than once, and different turns are more relevant within different sects of Buddhism. For example, Theravada Buddhism is based on Buddha’s First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. During this First Turning, the truth of egolessness or emptiness of self is central to the practice. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, known as the ‘Great Vehicle’, is based on the Second Turning of the Wheel. During this Turning, all realities are seen as emptiness (sunyata) and lacking in inherent reality. This means that both the ego and all apparent reality are an illusion. 

Regardless of sect, this mudra is symbolic of the First Sermon of the Buddha. In this sermon, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, which are central to all sects of Buddhism. These truths are as follows:the existence of suffering, the cause of suffering, that the cause of suffering may end, and the path to the end of suffering. The Buddha also used his First Sermon to warn monks about the danger or indulging much in either pleasures or self-mortification. He called pleasure “low, common, unworthy and unprofitable”, and thought self-mortification to be “painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.” Instead of indulging in either extreme, the Buddha believed that the Middle Path was the way to find enlightenment. The Middle Path is also known as the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. By following this Path, the Buddha claims that Nirvana can be found, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. 

By depicting the Buddha in the dharmachakra mudra, all of the above are well-represented, such that the sculpture is a direct reminder of the Buddha’s most important teachings. Though it now lacks luster, the sculpture may have originally been painted and gilded before being installed in a shrine near the Jamalgarhi stupa. Now, its location in the British museum allows countless people to witness a seemingly simple sculpture that ultimately encompasses much of an important religion on the Indian subcontinent.

 

Terracotta brick inscribed with the Sutra on Dependent Organization

About 500 AD

Gopalpur, Gorakhpur District, Uttar Pradesh (modern north India)

Ashmolean

Giana Ortiz

This terracotta brick was one of several discovered in 1896. The inscription is in Sanskrit. William Jones was born in 1746 and was widely regarded as a linguistic prodigy. He learned Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, and the basics of Chinese at an early age. He went on to be educated at University College and then became a Fellow. By the end of his life, Jones knew thirteen languages thoroughly and another fifteen reasonably well. Jones is most well-known for his observation that Sanskrit, classical Greek, and Latin had a common root. He similarities between the three languages are “so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists (Jones 1788).” The Sanskrit on this brick, in particular, is in the Gupta script. The Gupta script, also known as the late Brahmi script, was used during the Gupta Empire of north India. The Gupta Empire began under Chandra Gupta I and lasted from 320 until 550 (Trautmann 75-79). Faxian, a Buddhist monk, travels in the empire and reports on the happy and prosperous people, the caste of Untouchables, and the spread of vegetarianism.

The text examines the Buddhist Sutra about suffering. It explains the twelve links in the chain of causation, from which all suffering arises. When the causes are removed, suffering will end. One of Buddhism’s core ideas are the Four Noble Truths. They relay a similar message to the Sutra in the terracotta brick. The First Truth identifies suffering, physically or mentally. The Second Truth seeks to determine the cause of suffering. It finds that desire, craving pleasure or material goods, and ignorance, not seeing the world as it is, are the root of suffering. This particular Truth is probably the closest to what is actually written on the brick in Sanskrit, because I could not find a direct translation. The Third Truth explains the end of suffering in this life or in one’s spiritual life, via Nirvana. The Fourth Truth explains that the Eightfold Path is the method to reach the end of suffering. The Buddha’s First Sermon also highlights the goal of Buddhism: to teach suffering and how to end it. In his first sermon, the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which are the core of Buddhism. All other teachings, including this Sutra, are based on the Buddha’s original sermon.

 

Bronze Parvati sculpture

AD 950

Tamilnadu

Ashmolean Museum

Kayla Keck

The image above is a bronze sculpture of Parvati, the Mother goddess of the Hindu religion. This sculpture was created during the Chola dynasty in southern India, specifically Tamilnadu, through a famous bronze casting technique known as the “lost wax process”. This process was essential to Hindu practice in the Chola empire because it allowed for detailed, mobile Hindu deity statues to be made for worship. Parvati statues were oftentimes placed above the doors in Hindu temples next to Shiva. Worshippers used statues to develop a closer relationship with their gods, but the gods would only inhibit perfectly made sculptures. The “lost wax process” was integral in creating the best possible statues of the time. The first step to the process was to sculpt a detailed wax model, which in this case was a full-body sculpture of Parvati. Next, a clay mold was placed on the outside of the wax model and heated to melt or “lose” the wax. Then, molten bronze was poured into the clay mold and was left to cool for about a day. Finally, once the metal was finished cooling the mold was broken to reveal a pristine bronze Parvati sculpture.

Parvati is a central goddess in Hinduism and is well known for her strength and loving, nurturing nature. While Parvati symbolizes many Hindu virtues, such as domesticity, fertility, and devotion to a spouse and the divine, she is perhaps best known for her association with Shiva. Parvati is the wife of Shiva, who is the destroyer (of evil) god and one of the three main gods of Hinduism. She is oftentimes depicted as the source of Shiva’s power and acts as a balancing force to her husband’s unconstrained asceticism. Statues of Parvati and Shiva are typically placed together to symbolize their reliance on each other and stress the importance of both male and female in creating life. Parvati attracted the ascetic Shiva through her domesticity and sexuality, and together they obtain a complementary relationship. Their contrasting qualities of beauty and destruction combine to optimize each other’s powers; together, Parvati and Shiva are a perfect balance for one another.

Parvati can be portrayed in several ways. Oftentimes she is seen embracing her husband, representing the inseparable bond between the two. Other times she can be shown abstractly through a yoni, or as female sexual organs. In the depiction above, Parvati is standing with two hands, sometimes she is pictured with four, with her right hand in the katakahasta gesture. The kataka mudra is common and allows for a flower to be held. This pose of Parvati is held by most female deities who are placed next to Shiva or Vishnu. In addition to the hand gesture, Parvati is draped in fine jewelry, has exaggerated feminine features such large breasts and a slim waist, and is standing on a lotus pedestal. The lotus pedestal is typical of most gods and goddesses in Hinduism, as it signifies the purity and divinity of the deity.

Hedges Vishnu

AD 750-1200

Sagar Island

Ashmolean Museum

Charlie Philbin

The object I have chosen to study is the Hedges Vishnu. This artifact is currently displayed at the Ashmolean Museum. The reason I state that it is at the Ashmolean Museum is that it was one of the first artifacts given to the Ashmolean and it helped the Museum to start. This figure of Vishnu is listed in The Book of Benefactors at the Museum as a gift from Sir William Hedges in 1690.

The statue is what is called a stone stele which means that it is an ancient world monument that is taller than it is wide. Vishnu is depicted in this particular image holding 3 objects.

 

  • He is holding a discus, likely the Sudarshana Chakra(disk of auspicious vision), which is a spinning disk-like weapon that has 108 serrated edges. In the Rig Veda, the Sudarshana Chakra was Vishnu’s symbol as the wheel of time, however as time wore on, Vishnu became more aggressive and the discus became a weapon used to vanquish his enemies. This item was held in his right rear hand.
  • In his right front hand, he is holding a conch shell, or Shankha. In Hindu mythology, the Shankha was the symbol of Vishnu and was often used as a trumpet. In ancient times, it was even used as a war trumpet. We still see references to this symbol in the popular American TV show, Spongebob Squarepants. In one of the most famous episodes, Spongebob and Patrick are lost in the jungle and are praying to the magic conch. This could be a modernized, American version of the Shankha.
  • The third object that Vishnu is holding is a gada, or mace. This is the main weapon of the Hindu god Hanuman, who as we know from the Ramayana, is the monkey god and is instrumental in the plotline of the story as a whole.

Vishnu’s 4thand final hand is making a gesture instead of just simply holding a weapon of some kind. He is doing the varada which means beneficence. Also, there are various incarnations of Vishnu depicted above his head in this particular carving. The fact that this stele is made out of black stone leads historians to believe that it was carved in the Pala region of India seeing as it’s made from polished black schist.

Shiva dakshinamurti

About AD 960

Central Tamil Nadu

British Museum

Dylan Weeks

Shiva is a Hindu god that is commonly known as ‘The Destroyer’ which means that he is one of the three primary Hindu deities that removes all evil from the world. Shiva’s origins are considered to be started amongst the Indus Valley civilizations on their Pasupati seal. On this seal, there is a central figure in a yoga-like position surrounded by animals. Although this does not fit the typical description of the Shiva that is commonly known today, in the Indus Valley civilizations, he was seen as the lord of animals. From the Indus Valley civilizations, the deity Shiva would take on many forms as of identifications such as the Vedic god of Rudra. As depicted in the Rig Veda, the oldest surviving text of Vedic religions, Rudra was originally seen as the god of storms that has two states, one that is wild and ruthless (Rudra), another that is kind and peaceful (Shiva). Even after the times of the Vedic civilizations, Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata, undeniably link Rudra and Shiva as being the same proving the origins and links between the two gods. This linkage of the two gods from the Mahabharata shows how the origins of the now commonly popular Hindu sect, Shaivism, was created. Shaivism centers solely around Shiva, but contains many sub-traditions whose specific religious beliefs, rituals, and foundations vary significantly. These sub-traditions range from a dualistic devotional theism to a path of discovery of Shiva within oneself through the popular Hindu act of meditation. The sect of Shaivism mainly had the most success in southern India only being rivaled by the religions of Buddhism and Jainism in the religious period of renunciation in India. In this particular statue above, it had come from Central Tamil Nadu which is a region in south India proving its prominent role as the main religion in southern India. Although the statue has significant damage, there is still much to be appreciated about the meanings behind the Shiva figure. First of all, Shiva is seated in the classic ‘facing south’ position. The seating position is originated in the Himalayan mountains which are legended to be Shiva’s domain, more specifically the mountain of Mount Kailash, where he is depicted as turning to his devotees in the south towards India and teaching to them. Also, in this statue, many messages are being portrayed by the symbols and figures on Shiva. Shiva being the god that reconciles through his divine power all opposites within himself, therefore creating unity out of divergent forces. This motif of Shiva and his divine power through divergent forces is seen as the deity is depicted with a sweet facial expression compared to the wildness of his piled up, matted hair in which is set not only on the crescent moon (on his left), but also a skull (on top of his head). Although this is a relatively small statue of Shiva when compared to others, this key artifact shows the significance of the deity in the Hindu religions, especially the sect of Shaivism in the time of AD 960.

 

Bronze Image of Shiva as Nataraja

AD 850

Bronze Sculpture of Kalyanasundaramurti (the marriage of Shiva and Parvati)

Early AD 1000s

Central Tamil Nadu

The British Museum

Cassie Rockwell

These mid 9th century sculptures depict the Hindu god Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, and Kalyanasundaramurti, the marriage of Shiva and Pavarti. They originate from the Chola dynasty in Tamil of south India. The sculptures were made with an ancient bronze casting technique using beeswax to create the fine details such as the necklaces and headdresses that Shiva and Parvati wear. The technique begins by using leaves to make measurements of the bodies. A mold is then made in beeswax, a prayer is said, and the mold is heated. The bronze is then heated and poured into the mold and left to cool. Once cooled the bronze sculpture can be removed from the mold and is completed. This technique was extremely popular in south India during the 9th century and is still used in some parts of south India today.

In the first sculpture shown above, Nataraja is depicted performing a pose from the Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian Sanskrit text on the performing arts. He stands on his right leg, typical of these sculptures, and has his left leg raised in front of him. Nataraja’s four arms represent the four cardinal directions.  He carries, in one of his left hands, fire, and in one of his right hands, a drum. The fire represents Agni, the Hindu god of fire, and symbolizes the opposition of creation and destruction. The drum shows that Nataraja creates his own beat and symbolizes the heartbeat of the universe. In Nataraja’s headdress is a skull that represents his conquest over death.

It is suggested that this may be the earliest surviving Chola bronze sculpture in this form as it has distinct differences from later sculptures. In many later sculptures Shiva has long locks of hair containing symbols that represent the belief that Shiva is ever-present. However, there are also many continuities among these sculptures. Nataraja almost always dances in a circle of flames, as he does in this sculpture, to represent time and the Hindu belief that time in continuous with no end. It is also very common to see Nataraja dancing on top of a dwarf, as he is in this sculpture. The dwarf that he is standing on represents ignorance and shows that Nataraja is above that.

This second sculpture depicts the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. The story of their relationship and marriage is very famous and is connected with the temple at Madurai in southern India. Parvati is said to have performed severe penances to win the love of Shiva. After he fell in love with her it was said that they retired to Mount Kailash and lived a very happy life together. Shiva appears to be much more manly in this sculpture and wears a much less elaborate necklace and headdress. He appears much bigger than his wife and holds her on his left side. The left side is known as the less auspicious, womanly side. Shiva holds up the Abhaya Mudra which is a gesture of peace and assurance, showing his confidence in the beginning of their life together.

 

 

Indian Cotton Textiles Traded to Egypt
Dates of Objects:

5: 950-1000 AD

6: 1450-1600 AD

7: 1040-1100 AD

8: 1350-1450 AD

9: 1350-1450 AD
Egypt, originally from India
Ashmolean Museum (Oxford)Radha Polley

These pieces of cloth are textiles that made their way to Egypt from India during a time period ranging from 950-1450 A.D. They are made of cotton and were imported due to the quality of fabric products streaming from India at this time. The craftsmanship of Indian weavers was famous, and cotton, silk, and muslin were in high demand. This is obvious when looking at these five slips of fabric; the intricate designs indicate the talent of the artists and the color which still lasts speaks to the quality of the dye used on the cotton. The colors and fabric are part of why these types of goods were so popular, because the cotton had a way of holding on to the color of the dye unlike wool and other fabrics used in Europe. Part of why India was later viewed as a place of wealth and riches was because trade of items like these cloths, this luxury trade, had been present since before the 1800s. To Europeans, India had a “reputation for wealth…a function of the trade of ancient times” because only the luxurious items would be worth trading due to huge transportation costs (Trautmann 170).

These textile blocks are known as “Fustat fabrics” because of al-Fustat, or Old Cairo, where they were originally found although they are now known to be from different parts of the world. The range of date for the production of these specific pieces is large; from 940-1450 A.D., just before the era of Mughal rule and just before the widespread use of the spinning wheel which would have made it easier to spin out the cotton into yarn before production (2). Therefore, these blocks were likely hand-spun in villages and then taken elsewhere to be woven and printed. These fabrics would have been luxuries in their time, before mass production of fine fabric in factories.

Indian cotton textiles were long traded between India and Britain; however, European countries were not the only areas that consumed Indian cotton. India had been participating in a global network of mercantilism. Trade routes extended by land and by sea to places in the world from the western Indian Ocean area, for example, from India to Saudi Arabia, West Africa, Persia, and Egypt Printed cotton textiles were a luxury item and were unique to Indian markets therefore India remained in a good position to trade luxury items further west. This did not change until the Industrial Revolution in Britain gave the British the ability to mass-produce textiles on par with the quality previously bought from India (Trautmann 144). The Gujurat region of the Indian subcontinent was particularly well known for its textiles, including the printed blocks like those on display in the Ashmolean Museum. Specifically, Gujurati merchants were “largely mediated by the demand for Indian cloth in Africa.” These displayed cloths happen to be from this area, perfectly exemplifying the popularity of Gujurati goods.

The trade that these specific pieces of textiles went through was pre-colonial rule and pre-East India Trading Company, in other words, before the British began controlling trade routes from their colony. These pieces of Indian textiles show how trade did not merely exist between Europe and India, but rather that Indian cotton goods were demanded across both the western world and the eastern world. It indicates that the later ideas of India as a backward world reliant on the British to civilize society were very wrong, because they had been part of a huge, sophisticated trade network ages prior to colonization, supplying the world with opulent items. Egypt was affected by this trade and was influenced by the designs in the fabric traded there. Later, Egypt began to produce its own cotton products, and the style of some of those products emulated the Indian prints that were traded there before its own cotton market took off. This shows that they were trying to reproduce a quality, striving to compete in the market which demanded Indian cloth and designs. Overall, though these cotton blocks are beautiful and pleasing to the eye, they represent much more. They are a testament to the sheer size of the market for Indian cloth and the distance over which trade networks expanded. In a way they show how orientalism came into play from a western point of view, because there is a general sense that though India was a country of wealth, it was not a global player before Britain was. However, this glosses over an entire chapter of Indian and South Asian history, neglecting to mention the time period in which trade routes sprouted from India profusely to meet the world demand for goods such as these cotton textiles.

 

Shiva Nataraja

About 1100 AD

Probably cast in Thanjavur, south India

British Museum

Giana Ortiz

The statue of dancing Shiva was made through the “lost wax” bronze casting. In this method, a model is first made from beeswax because of its ability to retain detail carved into it. The model is then used to make a cast that will later hold the bronze. It takes around two hours for the beeswax to melt and drip out of the mold, hence the lost wax technique. After the wax is melted, the bronze is poured in for the metal casting. The bronze cools for a day and the mold is broken to reveal the statue of Shiva. This bronze metalwork technique was an innovation of the Cholan Empire in south India.

In this statue the Hindu god, Shiva, signifies the cyclical nature of life. The ring of flames around Shiva represent his dance, which ends the one cycle of the universe and starts the next. This shows his duality as the lord of creation and god of destruction. In the Hindu belief, destruction is not merely harmful, but rather it can be constructive, like how a fire clears a forest for new growth.  Here, he is depicted at the Lord of Dance, Nataraja. The rhythm of dancing is a Hindi metaphor for the balance Shiva holds as the master of creation and destruction. This dance, which signals the destruction of the world, is immensely powerful. This is visually shown by Shiva’s hair that is blown back away from his powerful dance. In one hand, Shiva holds a drum that beats out the rhythm of creation and the passage of time. In another hand, Shiva makes a gesture that is meant to allay fear. In the hand opposite to the one holding the drum, Shiva holds the fire that will destroy the universe. Finally, Shiva is dancing on top of the dwarf that represents ignorance.

The dancing Shiva is approximately two feet across and portable. From the 1100’s, its was common for devotees to carry statues of the gods in processional parades. The statue represented the god it depicted, and it could bestow blessings on the people who gathered with it. Oftentimes, the statues would be adorned with flowers, red or green clothes, or gold jewelry to show the statue represents the gods in human form. Statues are viewed by Hindus as the literal embodiments of the divine. Hence, when worshippers come to the statue to pray, faith activates the divine energy within the statues and, for the moment, Shiva is present.

 

Section of an Arch from a Jain Temple

1000-1200 AD

Mount Abu, Southern Rajasthan

Ashmolean Museum

Dylan Weeks

The image that can be located above is actually a fragment of an arch from a Jain Temple. The fragment of the arch was taken from Mount Abu, which is located in southern Rajasthan, in the year 1000-1200. Decorations such as this chunk of the arch are constructed very carefully into marble rock by using the tools of spike and hammers. This chiseling form of art allows great detail to be depicted into these arches of the Jain temples. As seen in this section of the arch above, it depicts multiple seated Jains. Although it is not clear who these Jain individuals are, it is assumed they are either tirthankara or other prominent Jain figures. These Jain individuals are represented in a seated meditative posture four times throughout this section of the arch. Along with these Jain figures are also other types of characters such as devotees and celestial beings. The devotees and celestial beings in the part of the arch are not represented performing a superb act or form of worship, but instead, they are depicted either worshiping or playing the flute. The last and final figures depicted on this arch are forms of Yaksas who in Jain tradition are typically represented as attendant nature-spirits, usually benevolent, whose purpose is to guard the tirthankara. Specifically, in this part of the arch, these Yaksas are actually identified as hamsas (geese) and makaras (water monsters) who surround the seated Jains in a protective like posture.

During the years from 1100 to 1200 AD, this was part of the stretch of the Jain history where the traditional Jain lifestyle was forced into a more limited and oppressed environment. This oppression was forced upon by the Muslim invaders of India. These invaders on their way into India continuously would destroy Jain temples as they conquered and claimed the lands. As they came and conquered the lands, the Muslims would vandalize idols and destroy temples while converting them into mosques. This piece of the arch from this temple although was not damaged or vandalized during the Muslim invasion, it is a test to the time in which it was built under the oppression of the Muslim invasion. Even though the Muslims oppressed the Jain religion during the 12th century, this piece also shows a representation of how the religion not only survived but thrived in the northern parts of India. Although Jainism has never reached the ranks of the most popular religion in the subcontinent of India, it is still one of the only religions that continues to thrive today throughout India.

 

Ganesha 

1000-1200 AD

Southern India (Tamil Nadu)

Victoria and Albert Museum 

Ellie Beeck 

Ganesha, one of the most important gods in the Hindu religion, is known to be associated with wisdom, work, travel, and prosperity. He is the son of the god Shiva, who makes up one third of the holy trinity of Hindu gods, and Parvati, Shivas wife and an important Hindu goddess. This particular idol of the god Ganesha is from Southern India in Tamil Nadu, and is made of copper alloy from the Chola period. Copper alloy idols are still popular in Tamil Nadu, where there are multiple copper reserves which have been mined for over 2000 years.In Tamil Nadu and throughout the Cholan empire, many temples were built for both Shiva and Ganesha, with Ganesha always receiving his own temple, separate from any other deity.

This idol is rare because of Ganesha’s standing position, which usually signifies rigidity and is often used in office spaces. Typically, idols of Ganesha feature him either sitting, laying or dancing, which represent calmness, comfort and blessings respectively. This idol also features Ganesha’s trunk facing the left, symbolizing a happy and blissful mood, which contrasts his rigid standing position. 

Ganesha is most easily identified by his half-human, half-elephant look. His human body represents the physical realm, while his elephant head represents the soul. He is also known to have a very round belly, said to be a reflection of his love for sweets and meat. Beyond these basic identifiers of Ganesha, idols of him tend to vary quite a bit. As stated above, his standing position, trunk direction, and even his arms and what he is holding in which hand all mean different things and provide worshipers with different blessings and protections.

The legend surrounding Ganesha’s elephant head is one of the most important stories in Hindu mythology. The goddess Parvati, his mother, created him while his father Shiva was away. When Shiva returned home, his son was already fully grown, and he mistook him for an illicit lover his wife had. As such, Shiva beheaded Ganesha in a rage, only to realize that he wasn’t a rival, but in fact his own son. Once he realized that it was his son he had beheaded, he promised to replace Ganesha’s head with that of the first animal that came along, which turned out to be an elephant. 

Idols of Ganesha are often found in homes, because Ganesha is known to be the ‘remover of obstacles’ who helps people accomplish their goals by removing anything that may be holding them back. Ganesha’s vehicle, or vahana, is actually a rat, because rats can scurry around anything and are headstrong, getting what they want almost all of the time. Interestingly, Ganesha also places obstacles in front of those who have too big of an ego, or who need a ‘reality-check.’ He is known as the the Lord of Good Fortune, bringing people who merit it success and prosperity.

Though he is worshiped primarily as a Hindu diety, he is generally respected all across the Indian sub-content, especially with Jains and Buddhists. He is also revered by people of all social positions and castes due to his ability to both help and hold back people when they deserve it. Due to the scale of his following, he goes by many different names, including most commonly Ganesh or Ganesha, as well as Vinayaka, Pillaiyar and Ganapati.

 

Two Stone Pilasters

1350-1400 AD

Pandua, Bengal

Ashmolean Museum

Cassie Rockwell

These stone pilasters are thought to have come from the Adina Mosque at Pandua in West Bengal, a famous place for Muslims to worship during the 14th and 15th centuries. The Adina Mosque was the largest mosque in the Indian subcontinent during its time. The Adina mosque was built in 1373 by Sikandar Shah, a Bengal Sultan, and was designed in a rectangular shape with an open courtyard in the center. The sides of the mosque consisted of three sides of cloisters, or covered walkways, and a prayer chamber facing in the direction of the qibla. Qibla is the direction of the sacred shrine of the Ka’bah in Mecca, and Muslims perform a prayer of salat each day, in mosques like the Adina Mosque, turning five times toward qibla. This type of prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam that are to be performed each day. This design was typical of Islamic mosques and can still be seen today.

The pilasters are made of dark stone and are decorated with elaborate designs. The designs show the Muslim connection to nature and the important role that food plays in their culture. The fine detail in the vines at the base of both pilasters symbolize that Muslims are rooted in their faith and beliefs and that faith is strengthened when Muslims join together with fellow believers, as the vines are all intertwined. Those who are strong in the Muslim faith are thought to be aware of the beauty in their surroundings. It is therefore very fitting that pilasters in a mosque like this one would be adorned with images of nature. At the top of each of the pilasters there are images of bunches of grapes. This is representative of the fact that food sustains life. Shapes such as triangles and swirls appear in both of the pilasters and show the interconnectedness of fellow believers. Although the pilasters are almost identical there are a few slight differences between the two. The second pilaster has slightly larger flowers in the bottom section and the center bands that wraps around both of them have slightly different patterns. This demonstrates how each handmade pilaster tells a slightly different story, but they all represent aspects of Islamic culture.

The idea is presented that the pilasters might have been used in a Hindu temple before being brought to the Adina Mosque. This would show that the architectural styles of Mosques and Temples of this time had similar elements and that the religions have similar values such as appreciation of nature. This would also show the fluidity that the two religions had and that they were generally accepting of each other. It was common during this era for items to be reused from one place of worship to another, even of different religions. This also aligns with the timing of the rise of each of these religions in the area of west Bengal. The first Hindu kingdom in Bengal was started by Shashanka who ruled from about 600-625 AD, however Islam did not fully enter into Bengal until the Turkish conquest towards the beginning of the 13th century. Therefore, it is quite possible that these pilasters were made for a Hindu temple and then moved to an Islamic mosque during the rise of Islam in Bengal. Although the Adina mosque is now in ruins, there are still remains like these pilasters in museums around the world today.

 

The Murder of Qubad

1562-1577 AD

Kashmir

Victorian Albert Museum

Dylan Weeks

The image depicted above is of an illustration to the Hamzanama, or the Book of Hamza, from the Mughal Empire around the years of 1562-1577. This particular folio was discovered in the year 1881 in a Kashmiri curiosity shop, where it was being used to block up windows to keep out the cold. The exact volume to which this illustration belonged to contained roughly around 1400 other illustrations where only around 200 of them survived. On the back of each of the illustrations, there is a text in Persian that provides the context in each of these stories. Specifically, in this scene, the illustration depicts a servant tragically misunderstanding given orders to kill and enemy and instead murders Hamza’s sleeping son. This illustration is a great example to all of the Mughal art during the time of the reign of Akbar. Art during this time was easily classified by heavy, rich, decorated borders typically depicting a scene of subjects involved in a variety of scenes such as court life, hunting, and depictions of battles. Also, these Mughal art illustrations were typically modified to a view of an elevated viewpoint of a specific scene. These defining characteristics are exactly what you will find while viewing this piece of art from the rule of Akbar of the Mughal Empire.

While viewing this piece of art, there is one noticeable feature that is obviously a later addition to the illustration. This addition is on the faces of every single person and even the animals. Every single one of these people have scratched out faces that obviously came from a later time period than the Akbar rule. This destruction of the faces of the people of the illustration can be attributed to aniconism in the religion of Islam. During the time of Aurangzeb rule in India much of the art that represented Muslim culture would be put under this scrutiny, meaning that any form of art featuring a person or animal would have the faces scratched out because typically in Islam they support avoidance of images of non-godly beings. This belief stems from the thought that supports prohibition of idolatry because creation of living beings can only be done by the work of god. This doesn’t just show up in art like this illustration, but it is consistent with all forms of Muslim art and architecture as in most mosques there is an absence of depictions of sentient beings. This illustration is not only a beautiful piece of art but also a good test to the time and rule under which it was made.

 

Horoscope/Astrological Sign Coins
1610-1615 AD
Ara, Jahangir, Indian Subcontinent
Ashmolean Museum
Niki Beck

Janangir, one of the great Mughal kings, was known for minting important astrologically-based coins, which was merely one (yet important) aspect of his rule throughout the Indian subcontinent. Each of the above coins references one of the zodiacs (astrological sun) signs, which all have respective individual meanings. The coins demonstrate signs ranging from Capricorn to Sagittarius. While most people in the modern-day twenty-first century, at least within the context of the Western world, think of their “zodiac” or “horoscope” as merely their sun sign, a number of astrological symbols may present themselves in different planets or different houses, thus,demonstrating not only their nuance but also their significance in the fact that astrology is more complex than often thought by a significant portion of Western audiences.
Regarding Jahangir’s zodiac series in particular, this collection is known from his the leader’s own entry in his memoir, often known as “Tuzk-e-Jahangiri.” In this memoir, Jahangir wrote the following: “previously to this, the rule of the coinage was that on the face of the metal they stamped my name, and on the reverse the name of the place and the year of the reign. At this time it entered my mind that in place of the month they should substitute the figure of the constellation which belonged to that month…in each month that was struck, the figure of the constellation was to be on one face, as if the sun was emerging from it.”
To further elaborate upon this coin collection in particular, prior to this zodiac/astrological collection, “the rule of the coinage was that on the face of the metal they stamped [Jahangir’s] name, and on the reverse the name of the place and the year of the reign. At this time it entered [Jahangir’s] mind that in place of the month they should substitute the figure of the constellation which belonged to that month…in each month that was struck, the figure of the constellation was to be on one face, as if the sun was emerging from it.” This essentially indicates that Jahangir preferred that coins be minted in such a way that was astrologically demonstrative rather than in the sense of specific birth-month.
In order to provide further information regarding the zodiac within the context of the Indian subcontinent, it is important to mention that “the term ‘zodiac’ may also refer to the region of the celestial sphere encompassing the paths of the planets corresponding to the band of about eight arc degrees above and below the ecliptic.” Furthermore, the specific sign of an individual may be determined by their proximity to an equinox (vernal or otherwise). Ultimately, while these coins possessed value of their own, they also demonstrated virtue in the yumbols they communicated.

 

 

Mughal Carpet

1650-1700 CE

North India

Ashmolean Museum (Oxford)

Natalie Miller

Though this gorgeous carpet is from the Mughal Empire, it is indicative of the future vitality of Indian textiles within global trade. As time goes on, the cotton goods made in the Indian Ocean World developed into one of the most forefront exports to Europe, specifically Great Britain. The Calico Craze, beginning in the sixteenth century, was the demand in mainly English and Dutch countries for calico textiles, making it one of the catalysts for the growth of the British East India Company in India. However, within the Indian Ocean World itself, textiles and fabric goods still held an important place in this area’s society and economy. Carpet-weaving, of which this is a stunning sample, originally developed within the nomadic groups of Central Asia and Iran. By the time of Akbar, the great Mughal emperor known for both his war mongering and religious toleration, the art of carpet-weaving had reached India. Akbar hired craftsmen from areas such as Herat in Afghanistan to create these incredibly intricate works of art. So intricate, in fact, that this carpet contains 780 knots per square inch, allowing for the minute detail work that makes them so impressive. Akbar, while not the most technically book smart, was an important patron of the arts, and he also ushered in the Mughal style of architecture, another fascinating artistic development of the age. His change from a passion for war and bloodshed to cultural advancement and artistic patronage led to a stunning growth in the arts. This particular carpet is also a wonderful example of the millefleur, or “thousand-flower,” style of weaving from the late seventeenth century. Differing from its earlier European counterpart, the Indian millefleur style typically depicts large numbers of small flowers in repeating units, sometimes arranged geometrically in clusters or branching from long, twisting stems. European tapestries, on the other hand, placed the bunches of flowers more naturally, arranged irregularly through the work. This trend is symbolic of the meshing of European and Indian artistic tradition. The combination of the European influence of florals and the geometric element from India make this carpet decidedly its own form of art. While the main field is more so European influenced, the border of the carpet, with its scrolling pattern of lotus buds, illuminates the indigenous inspiration. The national flower of India, the lotus has a sacred status within Indian culture. It is meant to symbolize integral values of Indian psyche, like spirituality, fruitfulness, illumination, wealth, and knowledge, but also purity of heart and mind. The lotus flower is also typically used as a metaphor for spiritual detachment, as the murky water it grows in does not impact or dull its beauty. While symbolic, the decorations on the carpet are also simply beautiful, demonstrating an appreciation for art rather than just practicality. The culmination and development of Indian art during the Mughal Empire disproves the colonialist belief that India had no history before European influence and had remained stagnant since the Vedic age; in actuality, Indian artistic tradition merged with European ideas to form objects such as this carpet.

Nandi

1550-1650

Southern India (Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, Deccan)

Victoria and Albert Museum

Kayla Keck

The sacred bull calf Nandi, pictured above, is an important figure in India because he is the most dedicated worshiper to one of the three main gods of Hinduism, Shiva. In almost every Shiva temple, a seated Nandi statue, usually of stone, is positioned directly facing the image of Shiva. Nandi is displayed as a gatekeeper and is arranged in a way to emphasize his loyalty to the deity. In ancient India, Nandi statues were primarily found in the south because that was where Shiva’s presence was most prominent. Many kings and queens of the Chola dynasty in particular, whose empire lasted from the 9th to the 13th century, oversaw the construction of temples that revolved around Shiva and his counterparts.

There is a story from the Hindu tradition that describes the development of Nandi and his relationship with Shiva. According to the legend, Nandi was not always a bull nor a faithful worshipper to Shiva. The story says that when Nandi was a boy, his father Shilada was approached by the Lords who told him that Nandi would die at the age of eight. Nandi was heartbroken by his father’s devastation, which led him to begin to pray to Shiva. Shiva recognized Nandi’s great devotion and rewarded him a necklace with a bell that changed him into an immortal being that was half bull, half human. From then on, Nandi became Shiva’s most devout worshipper, which led Shiva to entrust him to fulfill other key roles. Nandi became Shiva’s vehicle for transportation, the leader of Shiva’s followers, and the music provider for the tandava, or the dance of creation.

Other stories show how Nandi was impacted by his continued devotion to Shiva. For instance, a famous story tells the tale of Nandi’s sacrifice for his great deity. It was during the time of the Sagar Manthan, or the churning of the ocean, that the snake king was needed to be used as rope. All of a sudden, the snake king began expelling poison which threatened all of life on Earth. Shiva responded by trying to consume all of the poison, but he struggled to swallow the poison and spilled some out of his throat. To save Shiva and all of life, Nandi drank the excess poison. It came as a surprise that the poison did not kill Nandi, but rather that his undeniable and endless devotion to Shiva saved his life.

In all, Nandi’s greatest importance in the Hindu tradition comes from his allegiance and extensive symbolism of Shiva. Some claim that “Nandi conveys Shiva in every sense for not only is he the conveyance of the god, but he conveys the presence of Shiva and stands for Shiva himself”. He exemplifies dharma, as well as other characteristics of Shiva and sets an example for other worshippers.

 

Tiger Claws

17thCentury

Maratha

Victoria and Albert Museum

Charlie Philbin

 

The object I have chosen to study this time is the Tiger Claws. These were made of a blued steel using advanced steel-forging techniques that India adapted from Japan. The bagh nakhis a claw like weapon designed to fit over the knuckles and concealed within the palm of the hand. This weapon was inspired by the big cats of India that lived in Hindu mythology as great beasts of the hunt. Naturally, the Hindu people fell in love with this idea, so by the time the Mughal empire came around, it was time for the Hindu mythology to be a weapon for the modern age. This weapon was first used by the Rajput clans in a poisoned form for assassinations and other secretive killings and later by the Sikhsas a secondary method of attack. A sword would often be in their left hand and then once they had been disarmed in battle they would have a secondary method of defense. However often the opponent wouldn’t know this and would often go in for a hug to resolve the conflict.  Then when one person goes in to hug the other, the tiger claw digs into their back and then proceeds to dig deeper and deeper until eventually killing the person who they are hugging. This weapon was used throughout the Maratha region, but none so famous as when Shivaji used it.

In 1659 the great Maratha ruler Shivaji survived an assassination attempt by disemboweling the emissary sent from Bijapur under the pretext of making peace. While this particular artifact is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, we don’t know for sure that this is the genuine weapon used in the famous story.

While this weapon was most often used by thieves and assassins, a form of wrestling develops called naki na kustior claw wrestling and this became very popular throughout the region as this was a new usage of a now famous weapon. As this weapon grew in popularity, variants of it began to emerge with things such as spiked end pieces known as scorpion blades and crossbars across the front of the knuckles as well to provide a brass-knuckle like punch.

Sword of Aurangzeb

Late 17th century, circa 1680

No specific location found

Victoria and Albert Museum

Giana Ortiz

The hilt is made of steel, overlaid with gold. The curved blade the watered steel inlaid with gold. The Sword of Aurangzeb was given to the museum  in 1964, from the private collection of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. The engravings include the number 24, indicating the sword was made in the 24th year of Aurangzeb’s reign, 1680. The Arabic calligraphy and dark watering of the steel indicate it was made for royalty. The sword type is a talwar, a curved sword originating in the subcontinent. The talwar, as well as other curved swords, developed in Persia and Afghanistan, were derived from the curved sword of Turkish central Asia. The talwar was used by infantry and cavalry because of the shape of the pommel and hilt. The pommel and hilt, where you would put your hand, gave the wielder a rigid grip, which gave more power to stabbing and thrusting motions, but less power to cutting motions that one would use with a traditional sabre.

This was not Aurangzeb’s only sword. In fact, Aurangzeb had as many as 27 swords , some with names like Blood Thirsty, Infidel Slayer, or Hemet Cleaver. Aurangzeb was the last leader of the Greater Moghul Empire. During his reign, Aurangzeb expanded the empire rapidly to the south. Since he was almost always on a military campaign, he would need various sword for various battles or be gifted sword from members of his court or foreign visitors. Aurangzeb received his first sword after defeating and executing his brothers for the throne. His first sword, foreshadowing his expansion, was called World Seizer. Aurangzeb was a devout, orthodox Muslim and wanted to limit the excesses of the court and return to a more fundamental version of Islam. He reinstituted a tax on non-Muslims. During his reign, Aurangzeb expanded his empire into the Deccan in the south. While Aurangzeb surpassed various forms of artistic expression, like music, dance, and poetry, he continued to expand his person armory because it symbolized his status as a conqueror and they were austere with only inscriptions to decorate them.

In 2011, the Sword of Aurangzeb was found in a closet in Aligarh Muslim University’s manuscript section. Aligarh Muslim University is an Indian public university founded in 1875 in Uttar Pradesh, India. A cupboard in the manuscript section remained unopened for fifty years until it was checked for maintenance. The sword could have been donated to the university from part of a nawab’s or nobleman’s private collection. The employee who found the sword took it to the head librarian to decipher the golden engravings. The engravings showed that the word was another one belonging to Aurangzeb’s armory.

 

Court official wearing a white jama

1740

possibly Kishangarh, Rajasthan 

Ashmolean Museum (Oxford)

Ellie Beeck

This painting from Rajasthan features a court official from the time of Aurangzeb’s reign in the Mughal Empire, probably from the late 17th century. The paining is done on a plain white paper, and the paint used is gouache, a very opaque version of watercolor. The painting itself is very austere, which is telling of the time period it is depicting, under Aurangzeb’s rule. Both the subject and the painting itself are relatively plain, with no details or fine elements: the jama worn by the court official is plain white, the official is is clean shaven and isn’t shown to have a facial expression, and there aren’t any patterns to his outfit. The background is also very plain and simple, with the artist using only a few colors blended together. Though the gouache is opaque, the colors chosen are neither bright nor eye-catching. The frame is also relatively plain, featuring a mostly white photo mat, with just a small red outline.

The simplicity of the painting is very fitting for the time period it is depicting. Aurangzeb, the Mughal ruler from 1658 to 1707, is best known for being a pious man, and for aggressively promoting a very austere form of Islam. The Mughals ruled most of India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th centuries, and are credited with promoting the spread of Islam across the sub-continent, despite their empire being populated largely by Hindus. Mughals are also known for bringing centralized government to India, and for their promotion of the arts, fashion, architecture and culture. 

The first Mughal ruler was Babur, who brought his form of Islam into India, and built an empire off of the legacies of the Sultanates, while also promoting art and culture in his empire. Abu Akbar, Babur’s grandson, was the most notable Mughal ruler, bringing religious prosperity and tolerance to India, and allowing his subjects much autonomy. Akbar consolidated the Mughal empire militarily, and was focused on decreasing any perceived differences among his subjects.

Aurangzeb was Akbars great-grandson, and as previously mentioned was very strict and religious, unlike his more autonomous relative. He actively dismantled much of his great-grandfathers and great-great-great-grandfathers work, specifically concerning the rights of Hindus in the Mughal Empire and shutting down the advancement of the arts. Aurangzeb promoted a very austere form of Islam that limited the arts severely and effectively cut off the growth of Mughal culture. This severity and strictness lead to the downfall of the Mughal empire.

In the painting, the man is shown wearing a white jama. Jamas were robes that were popularized by early Mughal rulers like Akbar, who was very interested in textiles and ornamental fashions. Historically, Jamas were very intricate and ornamental, and often times showed a mans rank or status in society. However, under Auranzebs reign, there was a clear shift  from colorful and ornate textiles to plain white fabrics like the one worn by the court official, which fit with his austere and rigid views on Islamic culture.

Aurangzeb’s dismantling of the arts in the Mughal empire forced many artists in that time to get new jobs within the empire, or to move outside in order to practice their art. Thus, many left the imperial rule of the Mughal empire and moved to more provincial places in the sub-continent, bringing with them their imperial styles of art and painting. 

Woman’s Cape

c. 1750

Victoria and Albert Museum

Cassie Rockwell

 

This 18th century Cape made for a Dutch family in the Netherlands was made of cotton textiles from India. The cape was pieced together from uneven pieces of an elaborate cloth that most likely came from scraps from the tailoring of another garment. The cape was made in the Coromandel Coast in south east India and exported to the Netherlands. This style of glazed printed calico fabric with dark backgrounds and bold designs was commonly sold to European countries such as the Netherlands and is known chintz, which is the Hindi word for “spotted.”  Elaborate fabric designs like these would not been seen worn in India, but rather would be worn by high class Europeans. Therefore, the original garment that the fabric was made for was most likely also made for European export. Furthermore, the style of cape of the garment was definitely worn by some one of high status and would never been seen in India during this time.

For a long time leading up to the calico craze Indians resorted to wool, silk and linen textiles for use in the production of clothing. However, wool was quite uncomfortable to wear, silk was expensive to produce, and linen did not hold dyes well. During the 17th century Indians turned to the production of cotton as it was comfortable, held dye well and was cheap to produce. During the 17th century the Dutch began to dominate the trade of cotton textiles in India, and the British soon followed behind them. The production of calicos that led to great economic success for Indian exporters of cotton is believed to have also been a driving force in growing the British East India Company in India.

The flowers in the fabric’s pattern seem to be mostly native to India, but the brightly colors of the design are typical of European clothing. Blue and red colors were often associated with divinity and love during this time and the intricate details of the flowers show the attention to detail that the cotton dyers in India had.  This one piece brings together important aspects of both Indian and Dutch cultures and shows that the world was much more connected during the 17th and 18th centuries than one might believe. The trade of Indian textiles brought together countries from all over the world and showed a world connectedness through countries’ economic dependence on one another.

In 1721 the British Parliament enacted The Calico Act, banning most styles of cotton cloths. This act was intended to protect the wool and silk industries but also caused a great economic downfall for so many Indians who’s lives depended on the cotton industry. Although other European countries still allowed for the importation of calicos from India, the British market was their largest, so many exporters of cotton were hit hard by these restrictions. The spinning of cotton eventually became symbolic of the nationalist movement during the British Empire as they were suggesting a reversion back to simpler, more successful times.

Muslin Gown

1795

Bengal, eastern India

Victoria and Albert Museum

Niki Beck

This gown in particular, made of muslin (a lightweight cotton cloth), is demonstrative of the neoclassical style of dress. This style was especially fashionable at the end of the eighteenth century through the beginning of the nineteenth century, which coincides well with the fact that the gown was made in 1795, right at the turn of the century. The gown is made of fabric that came from Bengal in eastern India, which was later exported to England where sewing was done. Though Britain had made notable strides in developing a domestic cotton manufacturing industry by the late eighteenth century, muslins were still imported from India at the time since they were so delicately embroidered. 

Diaphanous; meaning light, translucent, or delicate; materials were especially popular at this time, which is what made muslin garments so highly-demanded in Europe. Prior to colonialism, lower-and-middle class fashion in England and much of the rest of Europe largely consisted of less-comfortable materials which were less soft and breathable. For example, wool was popular, but could be too warm in some seasons and also quite drab in color. Going off of that, something that made cotton so popular among European markets was the fact that it could be easily dyed, such that the fashions of the common people wearing cotton did not look all that different from the silk garments worn by the upper classes. This made socioeconomic status less obvious in public spaces, and gave off the feeling or illusion of an improved equality within Europe. 

Regarding the specific gown in question, a subtle floral pattern is embroidered delicately, in such a way that can be difficult to see if not especially up-close. The muslin the gown is made of is woven to be especially thin, providing very little warmth, so it was common to wear a cashmere (or Kashmir) shawl on the arms and shoulders to protect against cooler temperatures. This gown is also noticeably less structured and more comfortable than previous eighteenth century fashions tended to be, which allowed for an additional feeling of freedom, as well as improved ability to actually move and complete tasks, which was previously more restricted by corsets, bustles, and other elements. Upon viewing this gown in person, it is not difficult to imagine the comfort it would provide, and it could even be argued that some design elements of the gown could be detected in modern-day fashion, as well.

 

GARUDA

1800s

Tibet

British Museum

Ellie Beeck

Garuda is a mythical being who is half-man, half-eagle, and is typically found within Hindu mythology. Garuda’s purpose and appearance varies from country to country, though his cultural importance remains the same. His basic features, including wings, a masculine torso, and snakes around his neck also appear in each countries version.

In Tibet, where this particular statue was made, Garuda is known to be a guardian of the people, protecting them from spirits, and specifically shielding them from serpent spirits called nagas. Garuda wears these serpents around his neck as a sign of his power, and has the torso of a male warrior, showing his strength. It is also shown that he has reached spiritual enlightenment, represented by the conjoined sun and moon on his headdress. 

In Cambodia, Garuda is known as ‘Kruth.’ He has extremely pointy claw shaped, and clutches the serpents in his hands rather than wearing them around his neck, in a beast-like fashion. In Nepal, he is depicted as having a very youthful face and an emerald color.

In India, Garuda is known to be the vehicle of the god Vishnu, one of the most important deities in the Hindu faith. Vishnu is the guardian of men, and he also protects the cosmic order (dharma) when necessary. Garuda is Vishnu’s vahana, or the carrier of his message. 

Garuda plays a part in several important items of Indian history. Most notably, he is featured in the lengthy Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is considered to be the longest epic in the world, featuring more than 74,000 verses. It has had a massive impact on cultural and philosophical ideas in Hindu culture, and is regarded as sacred history to them. According to the Mahabharata, Garuda is connected to Surya, the Sun god, as his brother works for her. Vinata, mother of birds, is said to be his mother. As the story tells, Garuda’s mother was tricked into becoming a slave of Kadru, mother of nagas (snakes), and in order to save her, Garuda is asked to procure soma for the nagas. Soma was a highly important, psychedelic drink which was used in Vedic sacrifices, making it both hard to find and worth a great deal. Garuda was able to get a hold of some soma for the nagas, thus releasing his mother from the rule of Kadru. As the two journeyed home, Garuda met Vishnu and agreed to become his vahana.  

Garuda’s relationship with Vishnu is documented on many art forms, including in statues and on columns throughout central and northern India. Garuda is also featured on Gupta period coins, sometimes with Vishnu and other times with Krishna, a major Hindu deity and a later incarnation of Vishnu. This means that Garuda served Krishna as a vahana as well. As Hinduism spread across the subcontinent, so too did the story of Garuda. There are monuments dedicated to him in Nepal, and in several Southeast Asian countries he is affiliated with royalty. This all proves his significance within the far-reaching Hindu faith, and cements him as one of the most important mythological creatures due to his close relationship and support of Krishna, the most influential incarnation of Vishnu. 

 

The Timid Radha

1820 A.D.

Kangra, Punjab Hills

Victoria and Albert Museum

Radha Polley

This painting depicts Radha, the consort of Krishna, discreetly coming to meet him in the night. She is escorted through a courtyard, and Krishna is visible in the window of a building in the background. This piece of art is depicting Radha in the role of an abhisarika nayika, a woman going to meet her lover in the night, braving all obstacles between them. There are eight types of nayika; each type is represented by a woman and her lover in a different stage or moment of relationship. They include a woman dressed for union, distressed by separation, having her husband in subjection, separated by a fight, angered with her lover, duped by her lover, traveling with her lover, or meeting her lover. Nayikas are common in Indian art as an expression of love, though this specific relationship (meeting a lover at night) is depicted quite frequently.

The painting itself is watercolor and gold on paper. It is Pahari, meaning it comes from the Punjab Hills, specifically Kangra. Kangra is one of many small Hindu kingdoms at the foot of the Himalayas, supposedly founded by Rajputs who migrated further north from the northern plains of India. It looks much like other watercolors in the museum which date around the 1700’s, which is significant because The Timid Radha was painted in 1820, much later, but reflects a very similar style that does not appear to be affected by Indo-Islamic artistic trends. Mughal influence began spreading at the start of the Mughal Empire in the 1500’s. The Rajput Courts held out against Mughal rule longer than other Hindu areas, until 1620. These smaller kingdoms were more isolated from the bulk of India geographically, therefore were less politically important to the Mughals in terms of territory and domination. Even then, they made “political and marital alliances” with Mughal rulers in order to ensure that their kingdoms would thrive even under the Mughal Empire.

Autonomy is reflected by the style of this painting, which differs from the Islamic miniatures that were produced in Muslim courts at this time. Pahari paintings or ‘hill paintings’ from these foothills emulated older Hindu paintings and often illustrated Krishna, in line with Hindu religion rather than Muslim figures. Though the Kangra style shows effects of Mughal art in details such as less intense color, it still appears to have retained features of pre-Mughal art and still shows Hindu scenes. There is a fusion occurring between art styles that shows how Islamic influences reached the Punjab yet the foothills were not completely forced to change all cultural norms such as the Vaishnava tendencies of Kangra region. The reason behind this lies in the political status of these smaller kingdoms. By escaping the focus of Mughal rulers, the kingdoms had more freedom to carry on unrestrained in terms of art and culture. Even as Mughal rule became more consuming, the Sikhs dominated the Punjabi foothills from 1809 to 1846, resisting both Mughal and British rule. The British did not divide up the kingdoms until 1849 when they created administrative districts. This long political history of half-control and special arrangements again contributes to the reminiscent style of the watercolor Pahari paintings.

 

The Goddess Kali

Late 1800’s C.E.

Bengal

British Museum

Radha Polley

Dark, intimidating, unnerving Kali stands on top of her consort Shiva. In one of her four hands she holds a severed head and she wears a garland of gold skulls. To some, she is a goddess of death and destruction, a figure of violence and sexuality. To others, she represents the cycle of time and the mother of the universe.

Kali translates to “she who is black” and comes from kala, which is Sanskrit and translated to mean time, or doomsday. Kali’s beginning comes about as the goddess Durga summons her during a battle against the demon Raktabija. Raktabija is so powerful that every drop of his blood that Durga spills turns into a clone of himself. Durga creates Kali, a destroyer, and Kali drinks all of Raktabija’s blood and devours his clones. This is one explanation of why Kali is usually depicted with her tongue out; her tongue was her weapon. Another popular story regarding Kali’s tongue says that after she defeated the demon Daruka, she drank his blood which incited bloodlust within her. She went on a wild killing rampage, only to be stopped by her husband Shiva. He lay in her path and she trampled over him. When she stepped on him, she realized her bloodlust was so great that she hadn’t recognized her own husband, and she bit her tongue out of “embarrassment.” Some depictions of Kali show her without her tongue. These depictions are more popular in households, and this version of Kali is seen as more feminine and graceful, whereas Kali with her tongue out is a “deliverer” of action in crisis, as Kali represented to Durga against the demon Raktabija.

The Dakshinakali form of Kali is a more nurturing form of Kali, a protective mother figure. This form is more popular in Bengal, where this sculpture was created. The Dakshinakali usually has her right foot on Shiva’s chest in conclusion of her bloodlust episode, although more vicious and deadly forms of Kali show her with her left foot forward. This sculpture follows the right foot forward tradition, showing that this was a more positive sculpture of Kali. She also holds none of her usual weapons and swords, just the severed head. In the Dakshinakali tradition, her right hands are open and symbolize blessing. Her tongue is out, which either comes from the original myths or the Bengali tradition of sticking out a tongue to represent modesty.

Kali became more widely celebrated in Bengal in the 16th century by a Tantric scholar named Krishnananda Agamavagisha. Kali came to him in a dream and he saw Kali in the position that she appears in this sculpture. This form of Kali is celebrated in Kali Pujas and Kali is also celebrated during Diwali in Bengal. Clay sculptures like these are often used at these Pujas. She is more beautiful than her original, black, skinny forms; she is more voluptuous and decorated. Though she is commonly depicted as blue in India and Bengal where she is worshipped, here she remains black. As British colonialism arrived in India, the people of Bengal found an identity in Kali and used her as a representation of resistance against Europeanization. Kali struck fear in colonial powers because she seemed savage, needing to be civilized, and resistance movements used this fear and the image of Kali to their advantage.

Though Kali is an outspoken figure and represents many qualities not traditionally associated with a woman, she is often seen as neither evil nor good. She is fittingly married to Shiva, the destroyer of worlds. When she is worshipped, Kali is the goddess can bestow moksha, and she is responsible for death so that there is room for new life.

 

Tippoo’s Tiger

1790s

Mysore

Victoria and Albert Museum

Natalie Miller

This singing automaton was based on the incredible and true story of Tippu Sultan, a prominent figure in the history of Indian resistance to the British forces. His father, Hyder Ali, made sure Tippu was trained in military tactics by the French officers under his employment. He had fought the Marathas in the second Mysore War, and he defeated Colonel John Brathwaite. In December of 1782, he succeeded his father in the running of the Mysore sultanate and therefore took over the peace discussions with the British. Two years later, in 1784, Tippu Sultan came to a peace agreement with the British forces. However, relations did not remain peaceful for long. He attacked the raja of Travancore, an ally of the British, and they were provoked into invasion. For more than two years, Tippu Sultan remained steadfast and was able to keep the British at bay, longer than many other leaders in the area. However, by March of 1792, the Treaty of Seringapatam forced him to give up half of his dominion, which weakened his reign and resistance. Restless and discontent with succumbing to the British, Tippu Sultan began negotiating with revolutionary France, and these secret dealings were eventually revealed to a very displeased Great Britain. In response, Lord Mornington began the fourth Mysore War, and upon the East India Company’s storming of Tippu’s capital, Seringapatam, on May 4, 1799, Tippu led his men into the battle and was killed. As the violence continued, British soldiers looted the city and parts of the palace. Anarchy did not end for two more days, and it was only concluded by the hanging and flogging of some of the looters. Once the dust was settled, the royal treasury was divided up amongst the British army. One of the last great Indian rulers standing in the way of British imperialism had fallen. Before his death, however, he is recorded as having said that “It is far better to live like a lion for a day than to live like a jackal for a hundred years.” In his eyes, dying gloriously in revolt of a tyrannical European power was far superior to living in shackles and obedience beneath it. Inside the Mysore palace’s music room, this wooden tiger with an organ inside was discovered and sent to London. “Tippoo’s Tiger” was sent to India House to be placed in the East India Company’s new museum, and it quickly became one of its most popular exhibits. This wooden sculpture is almost life-size, and it depicts a tiger mauling a man dressed in what appears to be European clothing. When visitors would turn the handle at the side, the man’s arm moves up and down, and the sound from the organ apparently imitates the sounds of the dying European wailing in agony. Eventually, when the Indian Museum’s collection was split up in 1879, Tippoo’s Tiger made its way to the South Kensington Museum, which was later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it remains there to this day.

 

Marriage Necklace
Late 19th Century or Early 20th Century
Tamil Nadu
Victoria and Albert Museum
Ian Kearns

This marriage necklace from Tamil Nadu is made of gold and crafted using the repoussé technique of hammering the design in from the reverse side of the piece. While it may simply seem like a beautiful and opulent piece of jewelry, this marriage necklace is part of an abhorrent tradition that encourages violence against women even today: the dowry system. It is unclear exactly when the dowry system began, however, some scholars believe it began during the Vedic Age and is a product of the entrenched caste system and patriarchal society in which a woman could not own land. Dowry, or women’s wealth, was movable wealth that a woman could take with her. This included, but is not limited to, objects like the jewelry you see above. Dowry is practiced in both arraigned marriages and love marriages and continues to be a burden for women and their families that permeates Indian culture. The practice of dowry has changed over time, and during the British colonial occupation of India, it became the only legal way to get married as it was required by the British. In 1961, the dowry system was outlawed in India, however, despite the legal limitations, dowry continues to be an aspect of many women’s lives as the laws against it are continually criticized as being ineffective. The practice of dowry can result in the husband or husband’s family harassing, assaulting, or murdering the wife if the dowry is insignificant in their eyes. Some newlyweds are driven to commit suicide over the harassment and assault from the dowry practice. Women are also commonly doused in kerosene and set on fire in an attempt to pass off the gruesome murder as a kitchen accident. This practice, sometimes known as a dowry burning, can be used to avoid conviction as well as allow a husband the opportunity to remarry. In 2015, 7,634 women were confirmed to have died due to dowry harassment, which equates to 20 women dying every day. The overburdened legal system and insufficient laws against the practice have led to underreporting cases of dowry harassment, which mean the actual number of dowry deaths each year could be much higher. Additionally, the majority of cases that are reported do not end in convictions despite a legal clause that forces law enforcement to investigate a murder as a dowry death if a woman dies within 7 years of marriage. Dowry has also led to increasing accounts of female feticide if families believe they are unable to save up for a dowry. Although there exists a number of legal provisions to thwart dowry murders, the inefficient judicial system and ineffective legal restrictions allow the occurrence of dowry murders to continue to increase into the modern-day.

 

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