Katar with ten avatars of Vishnu | Peter Dekker's Mandarin Mansion: Antique Arms & Armor

Katar with ten avatars of Vishnu

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

Overall length: 43 cm / 16.9 inch
Blade length: 26.5 cm / 10.4 inch
Blade thickness: at langet 6mm, middle 5 mm, thickening at tip 11.5 mm
Blade width: forte 43 mm, middle 28 mm, thickening at tip 11.5 mm
Weight without scabbard: 490 grams

Origin: South India
Materials: Iron, steel, gold, silver. Scabbard: Wood, gold, cotton.
Dating: 17th century

Provenance: UK antiques market


Description

A magnificent Indian katar with elaborately chiseled handle consisting of two side bars and two handlebars with melon-shaped mid sections. The shape of these handles gives a clue to its age, probably the mid to late 17th century. Literally every square millimeter of the handle is chiseled in one way or another. All edges have beaded rims, a feature strongly associated with arms from the Tanjore armory.1

The handlebars are elaborately chiseled in openwork depicting ten figures, each one of the avatars of Vishnu, a prominent Hindu god that was considered the supreme Hindu god by the Vaishnava branche of Hinduism. The whole handle was once covered in thick gold and silver sheet, now mostly gone. The figures are not only articulated from the front, also their backs are chiseled in detail. It wasn't just for show, the depiction of these avatars was thought to infuse the weapon with divine power.


The ten avatars of Vishnu

Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation, took many mortal shapes, or "avatar", in order to restore cosmic order. While he is considered to have had many more avatars, the list is often confined to 10, often with regional differences on particularly the 8th and 9th avatar. Many contain Buddha as one of the avatars, which united Hindus and Buddhists by accepting Buddhism as a legitimate branch of Hinduïsm. Some branches of Hinduïsm in turn rejected this idea.

For the deciphering of the avatars on the present katar, I looked at which lists were applied in Tamil Nadu in the 17th century: The time and place from which this katar most likely originates. The following list was in common use among Vishishtadvaita doctrine which was highly popular in Tamil Nadu and surrounding areas Karnataka,
Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh.

The avatars of Vishnu on an antique katar from the Tanjore armory.

The avatars of Vishnu on an antique katar from the Tanjore armory.

1. Matsya (the fish)
When a flood was to come that threatened to wipe out all life, Vishnu turned himself into the fish Matsya. He was caught by Manu, the ancestor of mankind. Matsya ordered Manu to build an ark in preparation of a flood that was to contain a pair of every living creature, and so it happened.

2. Kūrma (the tortoise)
When in ancient times the demons got so strong they were able to overpower the Gods, Vishnu ordered them to churn the ocean of milk in order to make the nectar of immortality to appear on its surface. The churning was done on a mountain, that was almost sinking in the sea. Vishnu turned himself into a giant turtle to support the mountain.

3. Varāha (the boar)
During the great flood, a demon had abducted the goddess of the earth, Prithivi and took her to the bottom of the ocean. Vishnu took the form of Varaāha, the boar-man, to dive to the bottom, defeat the demon and rescue Prithivi. He helped her make the world suitable for life again.

4. Narasimha (the lion)
As Narasimha, Vishnu defeated the powerful demon Hiranyakasipu that could not be injured by any weapon, not by man or animal, day or night, inside or outside. He defeated him by attacking at dusk (nor day or night), at the gate of his house (inside nor outside), being half-man half animal, using his claws.

5. Vāmana (the dwarf)
When Hiranyakasipu's grandfather Bali overpowered the world and banished the Gods from heaven, Vishnu took the form of Vāmana, the dwarf. He asked Bali if he could get a place to meditate, which he could encircle with three paces. Bali agreed, but Vāmana turned into a giant and his first pace encircled heaven, the second earth, and with the third he stomped Bali into the underworld where Bali became king.

6. Parashurāma (Rama with an axe)
Vishnu's avatar Parashurāma is the first warrior-saint. His father, a priest, had a wish granting cow that was stolen by the king. In revenge, Parashurāma killed the king. The king's son then killed Parashurāma's father. It resulted in a large scale war between the brahman caste to which Parashurāma belonged and the warrior caste of the king's son. After 21 fierce battles, Parashurāma finally won.

7. Rāma
Vishnu's avatar Rāma is the hero of the epic story Rāmāyaṇa that tells of the abduction of Rāma's wife Sita, the search for her, and the epic battle with the evil demon Lanka. Rama is the incorruptible model male.

8. Balarāma
"Rama the Strong", elder brother of the next avatar, Krishna. Considered the God of fertility and agriculture.

9. Krishna
Considered the most important avatars of Vishnu, Krishna is worshipped as a God in his own right. Krishna literally means "the black" and he is always depicted with black or blue skin. He came down to earth to end the tyranny of king Kamsa.

10. Kalkin (the horse or mounted warrior)
Kalki, "White Horse", will be the last incarnation of Vishnu. He will end our present epoch, Kali Yuga, by destroying all evils with his blazing sword and make way for a new era of righteousness. Sometimes depicted as a mounted warrior, other times as a creature with a horse's head like on this katar.




More iconography...

Hanuman on an antique katar of a style associated with the Tanjore armory.

Hanuman
A popular Hindu deity that is considered the protector of towns and villages, and known for his knowledge and loyalty. Hanuman is most known for his exploits in the Rāmāyaṇa, where he aids one of Vishnu's avatars Rāma in defeating Ravana, the evil king of Lanka who kidnapped Rāma's wife. He also features in the Mahābhārata, the other major Hindu epoch.



Garuda on an antique katar of a style associated with the Tanjore armory.

Garuda
The mount of Vishnu, Garuda is half-man, half bird. King of the birds, symbol of wind and sun. He can move between world with the speed of wind or light.



Double-noose knot on an antique katar of a style associated with the Tanjore armory.

Pāśa (noose)
A supernatural weapon with the capacity to capture evil and ignorance. Used by several Hindu deities: Ganesha uses it to bind and free obstacles. Yama, the god of death, uses it to extract the soul from a being's body when it dies. It is also considered a representation of worldly bonds, or an attachment to earthly matters. Its exact meaning on this katar is not entirely clear to me, Elgood suggests it might be to "tie in" good luck.

There is another south Indian katar with this feature in the Metropolitan Museum in New York under accession number 36.25.1024. It has the Oldman / Stone provenance and is believed to date from the 17th century, and being from the Tanjore armory.3


Blade

The strongly tapering blade has two deep grooves and a peaked center ridge separating them. It terminates into a reinforced point that is as thick as it is wide. The blade is of forge folded construction, made visible through a light etch. Unlike many southern Indian weapons, where the blades often don't fit too well on the handles, the blade on this one is a perfect fit.


Comparable examples

Per my current knowledge, only one katar compares to this one, which is held in the Metropolitan Museum in New York under accession number 36.25.949 and published in Donald Larocca's The Gods of War.2 It also shows ten avatars of Vishnu, plus Hanuman and Garuda on the langets holding the blade, just like on our example. The blade is a European import, as many were. It retains most of the gold and silver, but is geometrically somewhat less complex than our example, lacking, for example, the beaded rims.


Double-noose knot on an antique katar of a style associated with the Tanjore armory.
The avatars of vishnu katar in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.


Conclusion

A wonderful example of a Hindu katar that is full of iconography, including ten avatars of Vishnu, Hanuman, Garuda, and the Hindu noose. Executed in pierced and chiseled iron, typical for the arms associated with the Tanjore armory. Such katar are very rare, to my current knowledge the only piece that compares to it is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Despite the loss of gold, it is in a nice state or preservation, still retaining most of its original details.

SOLD



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Notes to description
1. Tanjore is the old British name for Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. The contents of the armory were confiscated and sold by the British in the 1860's, after which a considerable amount made it to England where our example also surfaced. For an article on the decline and fall of the Tanjore armory, see Elgood, Hindu arms and Ritual, Eburon Publishers, Delft. Pages 29-41.
2. Donald Larocca's The Gods of War.
3. This katar is described in detail in Elgood, Hindu arms and Ritual, Eburon Publishers, Delft. Page 158.
For the identification and description of the iconography I was aided by, among others:
Rao, T.A. Gopinatha: Elements of Hindu iconography. Vol 1, Part 1., Law Printing House, Madras, 1914.
Annal Dallapiccola: Dictionary of hindu Lore and Legend, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002.
Eva Rudy Jansen: The Book of Hindu Imagery; The Gods and their Symbols, Binkey Kok Publications B.V., Havelte, Holland, 2001.



A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

A south Indian katar, Tanjore style, with ten avatars of Vishnu chiseled out of the handle.

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