Place of Origin: LUCKNOW, UTTAR PRADESH (NORTH-EASTERN INDIA)
Date: 19th Century
Overall: 1040mm (41 inches)
Though the blade of this shamshir is itself of exceptional quality, the hilt – with its polychrome enamel still excellently preserved – is certainly the most eye-catching feature of this striking work. The silver hilt is closely engraved, and multi-coloured enamels have been generously applied throughout, the stylised langets decorated in red and green and the quillons carefully formed to depict the faces of snarling Makara with sharp silvered teeth and eyes, ears, nostrils and heads set with foil-backed crystals in a broad variety of colours. Makara are mythological sea-creatures which appear frequently in Hindu and Buddhist temple iconography as vehicles for the river goddess Ganga, Narmada, and the sea god Varuna. They are considered to be the protectors of thresholds and gateways, responsible for guarding throne rooms and temple entrances. The original owner of this sword would surely have been glad to have had them – quite literally – “by his side”.
The centre of the cross-guard depicts a stylised poppy flower with petals in blue surrounded by emerald-green foliage and exotic birds on one face. On the reverse, a bright-yellow leopard subdues an overturned gazelle – the scene enclosed from below by smiling fish in a yellow-green river, and above by a crane in repose. The main themes of flora and fauna continue over their respective sides of the grip: above the poppy, lotuses and further flowers intermingle with foliage in green and birds in blue; the reverse features a multi-tiered arrangement of fish, birds, and a resting gazelle (perhaps the same animal that will meet an unfortunate fate later along the hilt). A magnificent pommel, mirroring both the form and colour scheme of the quillons, depicts a formidable Makara that uncurls its tongue as its snout recurves back towards the face, revealing the waves of silver that line the inside of its mouth.
The blade is forged of fine wootz steel, prized for both its aesthetic appeal and for the additional strength that its carefully folded construction provided to the blade. Three engraved fullers extend along the greater part of the blade’s length close to the spine, stepped in an unusual arrangement at four equidistant points – a sure sign of the maker’s skill. A broad and shallower fuller runs under the others, making the blade lighter and thus easier to wield. An etched gilt cartouche sits at the base of the fullers, comprising a trio of concentric circles with an inscription in Arabic at their centre which reads ‘tawakalltu ‘ala allah’ (“I put my trust in God.”). The blade is complete with a replaced custom-made black leather scabbard that includes two silver fittings with stylised loops for suspension and a chape.
Enamelling was introduced to the Indian subcontinent in the late sixteenth century, as Mughal court craftsmen were taught by European enamellers based in Portuguese Goa. In this process, “coloured glass is fused to metal at very high temperatures, to create a decorative and hardwearing outer layer.” Lucknow was a centre for the production of pieces such as this sword, the most remarkable feature of the work being the “brilliant blue and green champlevé and basse-taille enamelling” that adorned the silver. The particular prevalence of these blues and greens on our example further cements its origin in Lucknow.
A near-identical sword is preserved in the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait (LNS 1124 M ab) and we may also compare our example with a huqqa base (Acc. No. 2015.500.4.15) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on which is depicted a small yellow tiger similar to that visible on the hilt of our sword. Another huqqa base with similar decoration is now in the David Collection in Copenhagen (Inv. No. 20/2018) and is described by Zebrowski as “The greatest piece [among a group of huqqa bases]”.
 Stephen Markel with Tushara Bindu Gude, India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow (published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art & DelMonico Books, Los Angeles, 2010), p. 205.
 S. Kaoukji, Precious Indian Weapons and other Princely Accoutrements, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2017, Cat. No. 114, p. 326.
 Mark Zebrowski, Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India, Laurence King Publishers, 1997, No. 71, p. 86.