Source: Classical literature / in current use
Talwar (तलवार) is Hindi for "sword". It refers specifically to the characteristic curved swords that were in use by all peoples of India. The sword probably reached its mature form in the 16th century, was used ever since, and is still worn at festivities like Indian weddings.
"The tulwar is a fearful weapon in skilful hands. It is very much curved from the centre up, broad, well-tempered, and keen as a razor. The scabbard is always wood or leather, as a metal one would dull the edge. Its shape not being adapted for thrusting, the point is never used, but a drawing cut invariably given, to assist which the grip is small and handle narrow, lest it might turn in the hand.
The natives are generally much more skilful in its use than our own men, and sometimes wield it with an effect too terrible to be believed except by those who have witnessed it. I have several times seen a hand lopped away clean from the wrist, or a head cut off by a single blow." 1
A typical example of a Rajasthani talwar with scabbard and belt.
Sold by Mandarin Mansion in 2017.
The talwar usually has a blade of moderate to deep curvature, sometimes with a raised and/or sharp backedge. They often have a ricasso, where a secondary bevel that forms the edge starts a little further up the blade. Most blades have plain surfaces but many types of different fullering are seen.
Many basic fighting talwar have simple iron or steel hilts and forge folded blades. Better ones have fine pattern welded or wootz steel blades, and hilts with gold or silver inlay or overlay. The most sumptuous examples can have gem-studded, enameled or jade hilts and blades of the finest Persian wootz.
The typical talwar hilt consists of a crossguard, two langets that help secure the hilt in the scabbard, and a disc pommel. The hilts tend to be tight and confine the wrist, so as to maintain an angle that is ideal for the draw-cut. The disc pommel prevents the sword from being extended for a forward thrust.
Sometimes the hilts have a knuckle guard.
The literature, as well as inscriptions on actual swords, make mention of several types of talwar hilts. Hendley, for example, mentions hakim khāni, hakim shahi and karan shahi styles.2 No definition of the styles is given, but he illustrates a few:
Two talwar hilts in the hakim khāni style.
Two talwar hilts in the hakim shani style.
A talwar hilt in the karan shahi style.
The reader may be forgiven for finding it quite hard to see the difference between the hakim khāni and hakim shahi styles. The main thing that seems to stand out is that the hakim shahi hilts have a pronounced V shape where the grip merges into the crossbar.
The karan shahi style is quite distinct and of a type associated primarily with the Marwar region in general and Jodhpur in particular.
Some confusion in period sources
Hermen Goetz writing in 1950 also touches upon the subject but do not expect it to get any clearer. He writes:
"The costly damascened swords in pure Mughal taste (figs. 67, 68), were first introduced by Karan Singhjī and, therefore, were termed "Karan Shāhī". There is quite a number of them in the Bīkānēr collection, all of the light hunting type with a cross (Hakim Shāhī) hilt or a cross hilt strengthened by a thin handguard (Hakim Khānī) often ending in a dragon head; in other cases the pommel is replaced or capped by a crutch." 3
-Herman Goetz, 1950
Goetz seems to see karan shāhī as the main type, of which the hakim shahi and hakim khani are sub-types differentiated by having a handguard.
The swords Goetz is referring to in the above passage.
He does add in the footnotes that:
"The terminology of Indian arms is still chaotic and needs a critical examination. Many terms are of purely local character and become intelligible only in the light of local history."
We must also keep in mind that the strict categorization that collectors in the Western world are seeking may not have even existed at all in India in the period we are studying.
On today's antiques market the most commonly encountered decoration consists of overlay in gold or silver. This kind of work ranges greatly in quality, from fine, nice work to shoddy work meant to gussy up an item for the lively 19th-century tourist trade.
The better and earlier pieces will make use of true inlay in gold or silver, on a blackened or blued steel background. Earlier work tends to be creative, bold and confident, while later work is often confined to a small number of textbook patterns.
"The visitor to the Indian Section of the South Kensington Museum will find good specimens of both forms of thework. He will see how very superior the old examples are to the modern ones. In the former the best results are attained with the simplest designs, which are displayed on an ample ground of blue steel. In the latter, even at the best, the work is spoiled by an excess of meaningless and elaborate scroll, floral, or arabesque ornament done in fine instead of bold lines."
-Thomas Holbein Hendley, 1883
"The older pieces (17th century) are decorated with large flowers or birds in silver damascene work. The later ones (second half of the 18th to the 19th centuries) show very rich and delicate decoration in gold koftgārī work, flower bouquets, vases, inscription bands, borders, whole garden landscapes with hills and rivers, poplars, willows, mango, plane and palm trees and garden pavilions."
-Herman Goetz, 1950
Many Rajput swordsmen, particularly the Rahtores, or Marwaris, prefer a hilt without a knuckle-guard.
-Thomas Holbein Hendley, 1892
1. D. A. Kinsley; Swordsmen of the British Empire. Self Published. 2009. Page 49.
2. Thomas Holbein Hendley; Damascening on steel or iron as practiced in India. W. Griggs & Sons, Ltd. London 1892.
3. Hermann Goetz; The Art and Architecture of Bikaner State. Bruno Cassirer, Oxford. 1950. Page 124 - 125