An interesting South Indian style katar with an imported European blade.
39 cm / 15.3 inch
19.5 cm / 7.7 inch
forte 5 mm
middle 6 mm
at thickened tip 11.5 mm
forte 58 mm
middle 44 mm
at thickened tip 38 mm
Rajasthan, India. Probably Bundi.
Wootz steel, gold. Scabbard: Wood, silk velvet, silver.
Early 19th century
Ex Leo Figiel collection
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A north-Indian katar of a style strongly associated with Bundi. It has a substantial blade with sunken panel, with in the middle a "tree of life" motif. The sunken panel shows dark, fairly high-contrast wootz steel while the edges retain their original burnished finish. It's sits atop a base resembling an open book.
The handle consists of two swollen handle bars, with two stylized floral elements in-between the bars. The entire handle is engraved with floral and geometric elements and is lavishly damascened with thick gold, most of it remains intact. There is what seems to be a tiny inscription on one side of the side-bars. I haven't been able to translate it, or even figure out what sort of script it is.
It comes with an old scabbard, covered in reddish-purple and blue velvet with silver lining. It also has a silver finial with floral decoration.
Attribution and relative cost
Katars of this shape are often attributed to Bundi. This type was encountered in the Ulwar armory by Thomas Holbein Hendley in Ulwar and its art treasures of 1888.1 Hendley writes:
"Plate XL - Five daggers. Katar>.
(1) Blade with three ribs; sheath, wood covered with leather and velvet. Made at Delhi, 1805.
Total cost, Rs. 50;
cost of dagger, Rs. 20;
gold Rs. 30.
Length 15 1/4 inches.
(2) Blade with a central and side ribs. Black embossed leather sheath. Made at Burhanpur in 1853.
Total cost, Rs. 40;
steel, Rs 5;
gold, Rs. 25;
labour, Rs 10.
Length 16 inches.
(3) Blade, steel with three ridges, of which the centre is like a cypress tree. Sheath, wood covered with scarlet velvet and a gold band. Made at Boondi in 1803 by Thakursidas, an Ulwar servant.
Total cost, Rs. 200;
steel, Rs 50;
gold, Rs 100;
labour, Rs 50.
Length 18 1/8 inches.
(4) Blade, steel with central ridge, at the top of which is a gilded ornament. The bars and side guards of this, as well as the other daggers, are damascened in gold. sheath, wood covered with scarlet velvet and gold lace. Made at Boondi in 1807.
Total cost, Rs. 50;
Steel, Rs. 5;
gold, Rs. 30;
labour, Rs 15.
Length 16 1/2 inches.
(5) Blade Ispahan steel with one central rib and serrated edges. Bars and side guards damascened with a bold floral pattern. Sheath, wood covered with scarlet velvet, with a purple piece at the top. Made at Delhi in 1807.
Total cost, Rs. 200;
steel, Rs. 40;
gold, Rs. 100;
labour, Rs 60.
Length 15 1/5 inches."
Hendley mentions two more katar in the same work:
"8.) Dagger. Katár. the double cross-bars and side guards are inlaid with gold in a bold pattern. There are figures of animals raised from the surface of the centre of the blade. The sheath is of leather, with a steel damascened tip mount. On both sides there is engraved a verse in Persian. Length 14 1/2 inches. Made at Burhanpur, Central Provinces. Damascener, Sheikh Rahim-ullah, of Ulwar. Date about 1846.
Total cost, Rs 200;
gold, Rs. 60;
bright steel, Rs 100;
labour, Rs 40.
9.) Dagger. Katár. The double cross-bars and side-guards are enriched with well raised arabesque patterns in gold. There are three ribs on the blade united by cross-ribs. Sheath of embossed leather. Length, 18 inches. Made in Sirohi of Ispahan steel. Bought in 1836.
Total cost, Rs. 60;
gold, Rs. 20;
steel, Rs. 25;
labour, Rs 15.
Close-up of Hendley's "Boondi katar".
Close-up of our katar from the Leo Figiel collection.
Katar number 3 is remarkably similar to the katar we present here. It was supposedly made by Thakursidas, an Ulwar servant. It is interesting to notice the prices of these pieces. 50, 40, 200, 50, 200 Rs. respectively. Ispahan steel is mentioned for katar number 5 and 9. Ispahan is a city in modern-day Iran, previously Persia. Persian wootz was renowned around the world, and used as blade steel for many Indian and Ottoman weapons.
To put the prices in perspective, a paper on wages in India indicates that a carpenter in North India would make about 0.13 Rs in a day in the early 19th century. The cheapest katar mentioned by Hendley would be 307 days of labor for this man. For the most expensive one, he'd have to work over 4 years. Wages were a bit better in central India, a carpenter or blacksmith made about 0,31 Rs. a day there, which would still amount to one year and 9 month's work.2
It is interesting to see that the Bundi katar of typical form is among the most expensive katars listed by Hendley. Considering the price, I wonder whether the Bundi katar mentioned here is perhaps also made of Ispahan or otherwise special steel, because as the steel cost even more than that of katar number 5.
Also notice the lavish use of gold, 100 Rs. worth of it which is half the price of the piece. This seems to reflect the incredibly thick layer of gold we find on our example.
It comes from the famous Leo S. Figiel collection. Mr. Figiel was a collector and of Indian art and Indian and Islamic arms and armor, who acquired many of his pieces during his trips to India in the mid 20th century. He sold his arms collection in August 1998 through Butterfield & Butterfield Auction House, San Francisco.
Leo Figiel is mostly known for his book "On Damascus Steel", but because of the extent and importance of his collection, even the Butterfield & Butterfield auction catalog in itself is now highly sought after by collectors of antique arms and armor.
This katar presented to you in this article was part of that sale, and features in the catalog on page 90, catalog number 2135. Here's a scan of the relevant page:
The catalog states:
"2135 Indian Katar
Probably 18th Century
The 8 1/4 inch Damascus blade with armor piercing tip. The Damscus pattern fuller with median ridge chiseled in the form of a Tree Of Life extending from a gilt lotus bud and blossom. Hilt chiseled with floral panels and leafy borders and covered with heavy gold koftgari overlay with later red velvet covered scabbard.
Condition: Blade showing few light scratches and one tiny nick to edge. Hilt with minor losses to gilt finish.
Note: The kundalini flame is here represented as the Tree of Life.
The scabbard is of a form typical for scabbards found on this type of katar, and exhibits the wear and tear I would expect from an old piece. They probably classified it as "later" because it's color: These colors were only made possible by aniline dyes invented in Britain in 1860, so the scabbard is probably late 19th century where the piece most likely originates from the early 19th century.
An impressive Bundi style katar, richly gilt, with substantial wootz blade. It has sound provenance and comes from the collection of the notable collector and researcher, Dr. Leo S. Figiel.
1. Thomas Holbein Hendley; Ulwar and its art treasures, London: W. Griggs, 1888.
2. Bas van Leeuwen; Craftsmen and labourers’ wages and price indices in India in 1913 constant rupee, 1800-2000 as part of Human Capital and Economic Growth in India, Indonesia, and Japan: A
quantitative analysis, 1890-2000. PhD thesis, Utrecht University 2007. Kindly pointed out to me by Peter Willems of helgot.com.
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