A beautiful black coral hilted example, made in the King's workshops.
Sheathed 26.5 cm
Knife 25.5 cm
Base 7 mm
Ahead of groove 7.5 mm
5 cm from tip 6.5 mm
Base 26 mm
Iron, steel, copper, silver, wood, black coral.
(Antipathes orichalcea, non-CITES listed)
Kingdom of Kandy, Sri Lanka
United States antique art market
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A fine Kandyan knife, or ul-pihiya, probably mid 18th century. The type of knife is known among collectors as piha-kaetta but strictly speaking that term only applies to the larger, chopper-like examples.
The better examples were made in the king's own Four Workshops (pattal-hatara) where artisang made them exclusively for the king, who in turn bestowed them to his nobles and officials. Adigâr, a class of appointed feudal lords that also acted as ministers in the king's court were presented with a silver mounted kasthāné, a cane, a halberd, and a knife as a sign of rank and office.
Robert Knox wrote in 1681:
"When he first promotes them [the Adigar] (…) he (...) gives them a sword, the hilt all carved and inlaid with silver and brass very handsomely, the scabbard also covered with silver - a knife, and halberd; and lastly, a town or towns for their maintenance. " 1
Silver is predominant on these knives and swords because in the Kingdom of Kandy, only the King himself was allowed to wear arms with hilt and scabbard constructed out of gold.
A Kandyan chief with his knife tucked in his sash.
Photo by W. L. H. Skeen, circa 1860–1890.
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, accession number 200.75.4
Notes to introduction
1. Robert Knox; An historical relation of the island Ceylon, in the East Indies. Printed by R. Chiswell. 1681. Page 53.
A fine example of a knife exhitibing the workmanship one expects from those coming from the king's Four Workshops.
It has a thick, slightly recurved blade typical for this style. In just the right light it shows hints of a subtle forge folded construction. The blade has a large and deep groove near the spine, which is carved in relief and then entirely overlaid in silver with designs of plant motifs in relief. The base of the blade is also covered with silver, with florar scrollwork in relief.
The heavily stylized bolster has a spray of scrolls on the edge side of the knife. Such scrollwork is called liya-pata and is a stable of Sinhalese ornamental work and perhaps one of its most recognizable motifs.
The hilt is made of a piece of carved black coral. It is riveted to the hilt with three rivets, all with ornamental washers. The pommel is peened over a bud shaped ornament, and the silver pommel plate is finely worked in repousse with designs of floral scrollwork.
The spine of the blade is also covered entirelty in silver, worked in relief showing a repetitive honeysuckle motiff.
The wooden scabbard is carved with fluted sides and is entirely covered with silver sheet. The tip end is decorated with typical Sinhalese scrollwork in shallow relief. At the scabbard mouth are decorative bands in very fine filigree.
The most obvious damage is a piece of silver sheet missing on the left side of the scabbard. There is also damage and deformation at the tip of the scabbard. The filigree work is largely intact. The knife itself is complete and in near perfect condition with only very minor denting in the spine and a very small, hardly noticeable chip off the coral grip. See photos.
A fine Sinhalese silver knife of a type that was made in the king's own workshops. As a type they are not incredibly rare, but condition is often an issue. This is a rare piece that is largely complete, with no losses to the silver on the knife and complete with its original scabbard.
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Of the chopper variety, with a finely carved ivory hilt.
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