Nayak Dagger Blade
Place of Origin: Madurai, India
Date: 17th Century
Overall Length: 250mm
This important dagger blade was probably made for Thirumalai Nayak who, from 1623 to 1659 ruled the ancient city of Madurai on the Vaigai River in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Two other daggers made for the Nayak ruler are known. One was sold by Spink of London and published in their 1986 catalogue Octagon (later to be sold by Simon Ray—see his book Indian and Islamic Works of Art, 2011, p.40); while the other was published in the important 2004 work by Robert Elgood, Hindu Arms and Ritual (p.174, nos.16 and 23) and sold by Sotheby’s of New York, 24th September 1997. Elgood commented that at the time of writing his example was the only one known to him.
The connection to the Nayak ruler was established by the re-discovery of the Spink dagger (and its provenance) by Ray. Both examples mentioned are almost identical, and have intricately carved ivory handles. The handle of our blade has been lost but this too would probably have been made from ivory, although the shape and mounting must have been different due to the ricasso’s form. It is possible that the hilt was broken but the blade preserved because of its fine workmanship and importance.
The central motif on the blade is a form of yali or vyala—a fabulous lion-faced beast or leogryph, and a symbol of bravery associated with great warriors and kings. The beast crouches at the blade’s base, facing the tip, its mouth gaping beneath a long, curling nose. The winged body beckons the eye along the undulating tail that meanders beautifully towards the tip in a way the birds on the other Nayak daggers do not. All three of these blades share enough commonalities to suggest they were made by the same hand or workshop: the cross-hatched wings, the scaled bodies, the positions of the birds—they are all the same.
It is likely that this blade was made to be worn during less formal events, and could have been presented to a close family member of the king. Thirumalai Nayak was a patron of fine arts and architecture, and a painted portrait statue, with his queens, is illustrated in Vidya Dehejia’s Indian Art (1997, p.241, fig.161).
Provenance: Private London collection