Ewer or Aftaba

Deccan, India
Late 16th- early 17th century
Height: 26.5 cm Diameter: 16.5 cm

The aftaba or ewer is one of the objects that is most characteristic of everyday life in the Islamic world. This “kettle” ewer with a centrally-placed arched handle, has a bulbous belly that rises and culminates in an onion-shaped dome. The handle has an opening in the middle through which the ewer can be filled. It has a long, curved spout which ends in a stylised dragon head, to pour out the liquid. The ewer stands on a high, circular foot with almost vertical sides. This Deccani ewer reflects the Indian preference for horizontality as opposed to the ewers from the Islamic world that have a distinctly vertical flavour. The roundness of the Indian ewers in fact, reveal the influence of the “mellonate shape of the Indian water pot/ lota.” These kinds of ewers with arched handles in the centre are easy to carry as they hang from the hand just as a basket would. It has been suggested that ewers emulate the domes and arches of Islamic architecture on a miniaturised scale.

It is generally held that this shape developed first in Iran, and then gradually spread to India. However, in light of survival of very few Iranian examples, and the existence of more Indian examples it is likely that this particular shape might have first developed in India and then spread westward to Iran during the 15th-16th centuries. This theory is bolstered by the existence of a rustic Indian ewer that was made for a Hindu temple and carries a date – 1472 VS i.e. 1415 AD. The earliest Indian ewers however, can be dated back to the Sultanate period of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

A comparable ewer of strikingly similar shape comes from Isfahan and is dated to 1602-03. However, the spout on it has a greater emphasis on verticality while this Deccani ewer has a more fluid, gently curving spout that originates from the centre of the bulbous body, like other examples known from South India. In addition, the ewer from Isfahan has a circular handle, while the Deccani ewer is comparable with other known examples of Indian ewers whose handles are U-shaped. The bulbous shape and the serpentine spout are reminiscent of the architecture of the Hindu temple, and point to a South Indian origin. The olive or honey coloured patina that covers this ewer is also a trait characteristic of brass pieces from the Deccan.

Both in India, and in the Islamic lands of the Middle East, the hot and harsh climate make a water-bearing vessel very important. It was used for ritually cleansing one’s hands before prayer, and for washing hands before and after meals. The ewer thus, was an important part of every aristocratic as well as middle-class household. It would have originally been part of a set and would have had a matching sailabchi (basin). In Islamic thought and in poetry, particularly in Persia, water has always had a great significance. Paradise or jannat in the Qura’n is described as a garden, and gardens depend on water. In Persian mystical poetry, a five spouted ewer (symbolic of the five senses), containing the water of divine grace is an allegory for the human body.

Ewers held a cultural significance as well. Ewers and other water containers were very popular motifs in art and architecture. From the earliest period, right until the nineteenth century they also formed the subject of many Iranian ceramics. Ewers are commonly seen in Persian and Mughal paintings amongst the utensils and items depicted in royal court scenes, as well as in the niches of palaces, as items of decoration.

Provenance: Private collection, UK.

Haidar, Navina Najat and Sardar, Marika. Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.
Zebrowski, Mark. Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India. London: Alexandria Press, in association with Laurence King, 1997.

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