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Sandalwood casket

Place of Origin: Mysore (India)

Date: The last quarter of the 19th century

Length x Width x Height: 387mm x 290mm x 340mm

Reference: 512

Status: Available

Full Description:

Inspired by the dense evergreen forests of Southern India, this casket carved in sandalwood, encapsulates popular South Indian legends. The lid of the box is a dynamic tableau of three deities. At the centre, is the climax of the popular chronicle, the Devi Mahatmyam where Goddess Durga slays the Buffalo demon Mahisha earning her the title Mahishasuramardhini.1 To her left is the five-headed Shiva atop his mount Nandi. This form of Shiva, called Sadha Shiva, depicts him as a supreme singular god who manifests in five forms instead of the popular triad. This was a concept to establish his supremacy amongst the Hindu holy trinity. On Durga’s right is Hanuman,2 taunting the ten-headed Ravana. While Ravana is depicted in the Hindu epic Ramayana, as a demon and antihero, in this panel he is presented in the capacity of being a great devotee of Lord Shiva. He is seen as a very learned man, with ten heads representing his various fields of expertise. Demigods, saints, and members of the goddess’s army fill the scene. The demon head Kirthi Mukha is carved on the borders, at the feet of the goddess. The presence of this head is widely believed to ward off evil.

This is a rather unusual composition of deities, probably depicting a local tale or maybe the tutelary deities of the region, such as the Sadashiva of the shrine in the town Murdeshwar and Durga as Mookambika,3 as she is referred to by local devotees. Ravana is depicted here as a great devotee dancing in bliss, who is unperturbed by Hanuman's taunts.

Surrounding the central frieze are scalloped arches with deities and saints depicted against foliated backdrops. A male figure with a spear in his hand can be attributed to the warrior god Karthikeya who is the son of Lord Shiva. The Shaivite Saint Daksha can be identified with the curved Ram horns fashioned as a headdress and Horse, and the headed figure as the celestial musician Tumburu, with a harp stung on his shoulder. The corners of the lid each have a pair of parrots, framed by borders of flowerheads. The sides of the casket are divided into two registers and are separated by a thin border of four-petal flowers. Lions, tigers, antelopes, and elephants gallop about lush foliage in the lower tier. The top tier features pillared recesses framed by scalloped arches set against intrinsically carved backdrops.4 Within each recess are figures of deities, such as Vishnu riding his mount, the eagle Garuda, Krishna dancing on the serpent Kali, and Krishna riding on a chariot. Also seen are Hanuman, female dancers, and Saints seated under parasols with their heads veiled.

The interior of the box has a removable tray with eleven compartments that divide the box into two levels. The centre compartment has a lid with a flower at the heart. The box sits on four stylised legs that are shaped like Garudas kneeling in reverence, who are identifiable by their beaks and wings.

Characterised by extremely intricate work, usually in contrasting degrees of relief, carved sandalwood objects were expertly made in present-day Karnataka, South India, for Western consumption. One such artefact that came from this atelier, was an album cover Presented to King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, during his tour of India in 1875-76 at Mysore.5 The principal decorative motifs are Hindu deities portrayed in an architectural framework, each deity positioned in an arch or niche.6 Created by a community of craftsmen called the ‘Guligars’ who lived in  Mysore and Canara, the objects were of Western forms like caskets and writing boxes. Their design and decoration were inspired by local art and architecture. A few examples were crafted for the Great Exhibition of 1851, for the Victorian public, who were viewing art from the Indian sub-continent for the first time. From then on, sandalwood objects were featured regularly in the exhibitions that followed where they were considered the finest examples of carvings from India. Being aesthetically magnificent and functionally beneficial made these objects very popular amongst collectors. They were created in different sizes with larger pieces, such as this casket made only on commission, and what makes this a special piece.



UK art market


1Mahishasuramardhini : Mahisha- asura- mardhini translates to She who destroyed the demon Mahisha.

2Hanuman : A minor god, son of the Wind god who is depicted as a monkey. He is an ardent devotee of Lord Rama, a form of Vishnu who is the nemesis of Ravana.

3Mookambika : Goddess Ambika, a form of Durga who vanquished the Demon, Mookasura.

4For similar workmanship: Cat 17,Furniture from British India and Ceylon, V&A Publications, 2001, p.155.

5Album case c.1870-75, Sandalwood and silver ,61.0 x 56.3 x 10.5 cm (whole object) , RCIN 90629

6Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon, V&A Publications, 2001, p.149.


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