A Katar Dagger with pierced decoration

Deccan, India
17th century
Length: 44 cm Width: 8.5 cm

Cast in steel, this katar is a fine example of the Deccani daggers of the 17th century. The upright arms of the hilt are parallel to each other and extend backwards from the blade. They are elegantly decorated with pierced work and floral motifs. The arms are connected by two baluster shaped cross bars set near the centre, forming the grip. The blade is straight and double-edged and is attached to a curved and dished bar. The forte is also embellished with pierced work and with vegetal and floral motifs.

A variety of daggers are found in India, where individual designs were constantly being reinvented and were evolving. While some were designed as combat weapons, there were others that served as objects of adornment. The katar is a most effective kind of dagger, unique to India. It is a traditional thrusting or stabbing weapon with a short blade and is generally used by soldiers as an auxiliary weapon, in close combat. Unlike the common daggers which are held at a right angle to the arm, a katar is held by the cross-grip, as the extended arms of the hilt protect the hand and wrist, and the blade is in line with the forearm rather than perpendicular to it. Due to its unique form, when thrust forward, the katar carries the force not just of the forearm, but the weight of the entire body, thereby making it a formidable weapon.

While this katar has features characteristic of arms that came from the Tanjore Armoury which was appropriated by the East India Company in 1855, after the death of the Raja of Tanjore, the exact place of production is unknown. It is highly likely that arms of this kind were based on models from the Vijayanagara period which the later states tried to emulate. Rather than originally being from Tanjore, for which there is no concrete evidence, the katar may well be from Madurai which was the strongest military state in the later Nayaka period.

A unique and highly significant feature of Indian, particularly Hindu arms, was the emphasis laid on the power held within the object, rather than its physical form. Indians worshipped their weapons as gods as they believed that these too, could be imbued with divine spirit. It was held that with appropriate rituals, an inert and lifeless object could be made to be inhabited by gods. The divine spirit however could only be infused in an object if it was aesthetically and spiritually appealing. It is for this reason that such a great emphasis was laid on the embellishment of the arms, particularly with motifs that were thought to be auspicious.

Iron and steel from the Indian subcontinent were known for their superior quality since antiquity. Of these iron and steel objects, daggers and weapons are significant because they assist in establishing what metallurgical technology prevailed in the pre-industrial period to which they belong. Rulers and the elite must have made use of the highest level of technology and decoration to create and decorate their arms. In addition, it was their weapons which determined the survival and success of a state. It is not unusual for the ruling elite to express the social, cultural and military roots from which they descend or with which they would like to be associated, through the decoration and form of their arms.

Private collection, USA.

Haidar, Navina Najat and Sardar, Marika. Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.

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