Often tucked into a sash or horseman’s boot, daggers in Mughal India displayed the wealth and power of their owners. An intricately patterned ram’s head pommel adorns the hilt of this dagger, made in the kundan technique in which gems are set into malleable pure gold foil, allowing them to be arranged in any pattern or density over curved surfaces. In this dagger, pieces of quartz adorning the cross guard are surrounded by raised borders of gold which form the curved lines of a flower. The ram’s head is decorated with a floral scroll and is separated from the hilt grip by a quartz collar, also in the kundan method.
The sartorial code observed by the nobility of India included highly ornamented daggers that signified the bearer’s social standing and prestige. In the mid-seventeenth century, dagger hilts began to be decorated with animal heads, carved from materials such as jade, ivory, and bone, that took on increasingly eccentric and colorful expressions; the trend gained currency throughout northern India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The hilt of this dagger, which is an example of the latter period, is fashioned in the image of a ram’s head. Various techniques have been used in its manufacture. Champlevé enameling and stone-incrustation in the kundan technique were employed to decorate the guard and pommel, while the grip is studded with flat-cut stones aligned over red resin to form a lozenge pattern.
The art of enameling became established during the earlier Mughal period, most likely through contact with European traders and jewelers, and it quickly spread over the subcontinent in the following centuries. The enameled floral motifs found on this dagger exhibit a coloring and pattern that closely recall examples attributed to nineteenth-century Jaipur, one of the most reputed centers of enameling. Therefore, the most probable provenance and dating that can be suggested for the hilt are northern India, eighteenth to nineteenth century. The blade, which is made of steel, appears to be a later replacement for the original. An almost identical dagger, certainly coming from the same workshop, was in the collection of James and Marilynn Alsdorf and now belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Marta Becherini in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Romance of the Taj Mahal. Exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and other venues. Catalogue by Pratapaditya Pal and others. Los Angeles and London, 1989, p. 155.
2. For other examples of ram-headed daggers from the same period, see Pant, G[ayatri] N[ath]. Indian Arms and Armour. New Delhi, 1978–83, vol. 2, pls. 97, 117, 174.
3. Bala Krishnan, Usha R., and Meera Sushil Kumar. Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India. Mumbai, 1999, fig. 159; Een streling voor het oog: Indische Mogoljuwelen van de 18de en 19de eeuw/Kaleidoscope of Colours: Indian Mughal Jewels from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Exhibition, Provinciaal Diamantmuseum, Antwerp. Antwerp, 1997, no. 87.
4. A Collecting Odyssey: Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian Art from the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection. Exhibition, The Art Institute of Chicago. Catalogue by Pratapaditya Pal, with Stephen Little. Chicago, 1997, no. 331.
Peter Marks, New York (until 1970; sold to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Indian Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 18, 1973–April 1, 1973, no catalogue.
Swietochowski, Marie, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Notable Acquisitions 1965–1975 (1975). p. 139, ill. (b/w).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 288, pp. 403–404, ill. p. 403 (color).