HINDU ARMS AND RITUAL: ARMS AND ARMOUR FROM INDIA 1400-1865
By Robert Elgood
Eburon; Price: $125 Pages: 312
Trust a white man to write a book titled Hindu Arms and Ritual. The subject, firstly, ceases to exist in an India that has been systematically denativised since 1857; and, secondly, it is such a politically incorrect title to use in a country that has made a ritual of denying anything Hindu as intellectually worthy. An India which has been on a long march to erase native military prowess and history could not have produced such a book. Especially since historiography in pre- and post-Independence India is essentially that of British India. Historians, of any hue or direction, have systematically continued the production of history from a perspective that seeks to deny a sense of nativity. And nativity is precisely what this book seeks to highlight-in craftsmanship, ritual and with ample doses of philosophy.
| PICTURE SPEAK |
|CUTTING EDGE: A 17th century Deccani katar; (top) Hindu helmet of mail and plate; (below) Tipu's cloth helmet |
In the period after 1857, the British imperial authorities disarmed India. But for Coorg, every district saw the destruction of its traditional weapon- manufacturing industry and expertise. Coorg was exempted because of the atrocities committed on it by Tipu Sultan. As skills died, memories too faded. And what had been a norm sanctioned by divinity was now debarred by a centralised, imperial authority. This centralised erasing policy was continued by state-sponsored historiography that sought to deny the native the traditional craftsmanship of Indian arms manufacturing. So it is indeed a surprise to read that there was a traditional, southern Indian steel called Wootz rather than the ubiquitous Damascene. Sword and dagger blades were always regarded better when made of Damascene steel. But that is oral history in native India. Here, in Hindu Arms and Ritual, Robert Elgood spends much effort on Wootz steel.
The result of Elgood's efforts is a book of startling quality, in terms of prose and photography. Delving deep into philosophical tracts, the author highlights the tradition of Indian arms bearing. His previous works on Arab and other Islamic arms have come in great use in uncovering this invaluable subject. And it is a remarkable achievement. Chapters are devoted to different types of arms, be they swords, daggers, spears, katars, bows, axes or maces. There is a chapter on arms manufacturing as well.
Although the book is largely confined to the Vijayanagar and Tanjore kingdoms, sporadic mention is made of other Hindu kingdoms as well-the armouries of Jodhpur and Bikaner, for example. The fact that the katar is a Hindu weapon is a surprise-and that it took Arab writers to first explain its characteristics. So is the nugget that birudungi is an Indian boomerang that was quite common in southern India. It also had a steel cousin called singa. The book is replete with such examples of painstaking research.
Elgood elaborately analyses temple architecture and extracts such details about arms in temples which are not thought possible. The section that captures the essence of the book is the translation of a chapter of the Bijapur manuscript Nujum al-Ulum: "May God help the experts of this art who have laid down this rule for appreciating and understanding the auspiciousness inherent in a sword in relation to the horoscope of its owner." This one sentence amply explains the gist of that invaluable document. But, alas, it is in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.
As the reader looks closer, the exquisite illustrations are scarred by one little fact in brackets. Most of the arms that are photographed-or for that matter, documents reproduced -are now in museums and private collections outside India. A large number would have been looted. But, undoubtedly, some must have been sold by native owners staring at penury. And as with the imperial rulers, so is it with the Indians. But then that is precisely the purpose of the denativisation process initiated by imperial Britain and continued by Independent India.