Sri Lanka, circa 1800
Silver, gold, and rubies
68.5 x 10.5 x 3.5 cm
This spectacular 19th century ceremonial sword, or kasthane, from Sri Lanka is a tour-de-force of the swordsmithing arts with its elaborate hilt and scabbard testament to the tradition of embellishing noble swords with mythical Buddhist iconography and was associated with the Kingdom of Kandy, where the rulers were patrons of workshops that specialised in making kasthanes.
As is typical of Kandyan sword design, the bejewelled pommel, or gediya, is chiselled as a typical lion head, or simha, with a prominent crest made up of an entwined liya-pata motif, where a series of fine scrolls are themselves covered in more tiny scrolls, and so on. The silver pommel is ornamented with sections of gold in the eyes, jaws, and mane of the lion while at the eyes we see rubies inset to represent the ocular features. Further rubies are inset into the throat of the beast, which functions as the grip and tang of the sword. The ferocious gaping mouth is set with multiple fine rows of pointed teeth and the nostrils on the snout are formed by a characteristic ‘S’ scroll.
The tear-drop form of the eyes is framed by refined eyebrows that terminate in tight curling forms and these are echoed in the nostrils as well as the whirls of the lion’s mane. The jaws, which are formed of gold ornamentation join at an elegant escutcheon form on the cheeks.
The sword continues its mesmeric form as the bevelled sides of the grip and tang are crafted in openwork form of climbing vine leaves set with small rubies while the ventral surface has decorated finger grooves; this section terminates in a richly ornamented and bevelled octagonal section of gold.
The narrow cross-guard of ‘S’ shape displays has two mythical elements at its opposite quillon extremities. The upper front quillon emanates from the mouth of a makara, a dragon-like creature, and curves upward to its role as knuckle-guard, or ath väsma, to end in the head of a mythical bird, the sérapéṅdiya. A smaller of these birds is found at the rear quillon extremity of the cross-guard. Below this section, two further quillons can be seen curving downwards as the heads of two more sérapéṅdiya birds; from here proceed the side-plates before the sword enters the elaborately incised scabbard.
The remarkably ornamented scabbard is a marvel of embossed decoration. It is chased and chiselled in low relief with curling floral forms – a central band flanked by two smaller ones – and midway down its curving body we observe a floral feature set in rubies and attached to the scabbard with a gold band. At the chape section of the scabbard, it curves into a stylized foot shape.
It was recorded that the sword was an indicator of official rank so that the more senior persons in what could be described as a native headmen would wear a more lavishly adorned weapon and that this was also the intent though perhaps to a lesser degree in the Portuguese and Dutch periods. It is likely that this is a homegrown weapon though perhaps inspired by European swords brought by the Portuguese period in Ceylon or in fact imported by Muslim sea traders. The basic form being lavishly adorned so much so that it is almost impossible to designate a base pattern, though, North Italian or Venetian seems plausible.
These swords appear in depictions of chiefs and noblemen of the Kandyan court, as recorded in late 18th century Dutch paintings of VOC audiences at court and the receptions of Kandyan officials at the VOC headquarters in Colombo. They likely also served as diplomatic gifts from the court to European visitors and found their way back to Europe where they were widely admired. On occasions they appeared in aristocratic portraiture, as seen being worn by Sir Alexander Popham (d. 1669) in an equestrian portrait dated c. 1650.
The sword type, with a long curved blade and animal finial hilt and guard, is of European origin, and may be linked to the presence of succession of European trading companies in Sri Lanka, especially from the 17th century onward. It has its antecedents in the European short hunting sword (hanger or cuttoe) that became popular among gentlemen officers from the mid-17th and throughout the 18th century. The immediate source is likely Dutch, as the Dutch East India Company (VOC) routinely gifted swords and assorted mechanical novelties to the Kandyan court as part of a broader strategy of securing trading concessions. Some examples of these swords, with their Sinhalese decoration, have VOC blades, and it appears that most of the blades used in kasthane are of European origin.
A comparable kasthane sword is in the Royal Collection Trust, presented to King Edward VII by Mudaliyar of Siyane Korale East of Ceylon in 1875-76, Inv. No. RCIN 11310. Another comparable sword is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Acc. No. 2016.426a–c.
Private Collection, UK, early 1980s.
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