Decorative antiques from India are as varied as the people who’ve called the subcontinent home. That’s because Indian objects include Hindu, Islamic, and Colonial sensibilities, to name but a very few. Pre-Mughal-era miniature paintings from Malwa have little in common with gold-threaded Zardozi embroidery or the chased ewers and playing card cases made by Madras silversmiths for British earls and dukes, yet all are distinctly Indian.

Some of the most sought Indian antiques were produced during the centuries when maharajas ruled, from roughly the early 18th century, when the collapse of the Mughal empire allowed smaller kingdoms and the English East India Company to remake the political landscape, to the mid-20th century, when the British were forced to finally quit India.

Most Indian antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries are museum pieces. Foremost among these is the howdah, which was designed to carry the maharaja, his rani, and their immediate entourage atop his preferred means of transportation, an elephant. Howdahs usually had wooden frames, but you can barely see them for all the embossed silver and brocade-trimmed velvet that typified these portable thrones. The howdah itself rested on a jhool, which was usually made of velvet and richly embroidered with thread spun from gold.

The jewelry worn by maharajas and members of their courts were heavy with enormous, uncut gemstones. Diamonds, sapphires, and rubies were the rule in rings, bracelets, necklaces, and turban ornaments. Gemstones also studded the surfaces of untold numbers of functional objects, from hukkas (water pipes), writing implements, and game pieces to the scabbards and hilts of swords. Shorter blades such as kukris and gurkhas, some made of Damascus steel, were often engraved with images of flora and fauna. In the past, most of these weapons were made for ceremonial purposes. Today, contemporary artisans produce them as works of art.

The most elaborate jewels were those worn by the women of the court, especially the rani. Necklaces strained under the weight of emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, while gold hair ornaments shimmered in the Indian sun. In addition to earrings, women wore ear-size ornaments as well as wide, enameled, gold anklets and armbands, which, of course, were covered with jewels.

Wood has remained a favorite traditional material of Indian craftsmen. Boxes made of sandalwood and shisham, or Indian rosewood, give artisans a chance to show off a type of marquetry called sadeli, which mimics the appearance of inlay—bone, silver, and even gems are common accents. Inside these boxes, tight-fitting drawers and compartments create almost sacred spaces for game pieces, pens, and sewing tools such as thimbles.

In the late 19th century, mica paintings depicting street scenes and deities were produced for tourists. In the 20th century, as lithography became more widespread in Indian, lur...

Some of the most striking Indian graphics were the advertising images created for matchboxes and fireworks packaging. Subjects for matchboxes ranged from fetching females known as sudari to ganesh, whose human body boasts an extra pair of arms and the head of an elephant. Other animals found on matchboxes include pouncing tigers, flying horses, and snapping crocodiles. More serene are images of lotus flowers, swans, and peacocks, and palaces, including the Mughal monument, the Taj Mahal.

In recent years, advertising calendars and Bollywood movie posters have also risen in popularity. In both cases, the imagery tends to position Indian consumers and actors alike as modern and sophisticated, but with an exotic, almost mythical past.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

“Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj” was the title of a 2008 exhibition at Columbia University’s Mi… [read review or visit site]

Asian Art Museum

Asian Art Museum

You can get happily lost searching through the 10,000 or so objects on the Asian Art Museum's website. For example,… [read review or visit site]

Jan-Erik Nilsson's extensive reference on antique Chinese porcelain. Jam-packed with information (e.g. on porcelain… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Sinhalese Silver Dagger Pia Kaetta Knife Indo-persian Sword Kris Axe DhaFantastic Coco De Mer Anglo Indian? Victorian? Tea Caddy -spice BoxRare Antique Ottoman Dagger Jambiya N Sword Yataghan/shamshir N Indo PersianAntique Afghan Arab Islamic Dagger Knife Indo-persian Pesh Tulwar Sword KatarOld Indo-persian Islamic Mughal Axe Head Hand Cut-chiseled Iron Armour SwordFine Quality Antique / Vintage Indo Persian Indian Solid Silver Book Shaped BoxAntique Indian Persian Islamic Chased Kashkul Serpent Handled Silver Kutch BowlAntique South India Dagger Pia Kaetta Knife Koftgari Indo-persian Spear Kris AxeOld Nepalese Northern India Kukri Gurkha Knife Indo-persian Dagger Axe Sword19thc Fine Museum Quality Antique Indian Lucknow Solid Silver Embossed Tray 589gChinese Export Silver Oxen Butter Dish Indian Market C1880 LuenwoOld Or Vintage Islamic Helmet Indian Persian Armour Turkish Ottoman Khud SwordRare Antique Globe Indo Persian Arabic Brass Globe Celestial Islamic 19th CBeautiful, Naive Antique Indian Solid Silver Bowl; Calcutta C1890Extremely Fine Quality Antique Islamic Indian Kutch Solid Silver Teacup + SaucerExtremely Fine Quality Antique Islamic Indian Kutch Solid Silver Teacup + SaucerSuperb Quality Antique Indian Hindu Solid Silver Salt Cellar Madras C1890Indian Coin Siver Teapot Cobra Handle Manner Of Oomersi Mawji C1880Old Antique Balochistan Shield Islamic Sikh Dhal Indo-persian Armour Sword AxeIndian Coin Silver Scroll Holder Case Calcutta Village Scenes C1890Large Antique Indian Or Burmese Silver Parasol Handle Umbrella Stick Antique Indian Islamic Repousse Walking Stick Parasol/ Cane Handle Indian Coin Silver Tea Tray Bombay,1890 Hunt Scenes 50 Oz Was $4800Indian Coin Silver Mug & Cover Cobra Manner Of Oomersi Mawji C1880Superb Antique India Shield Sword, Museume QualityIndian Coin Silver Card Tray Salver Manner Of Oomersi Mawji C1880Superb Quality Antique Indian Hindu Solid Silver Salt Cellar Madras C1890Antique Indian Silver Dish Raj Kutch Kashmir Mughal C19th 135 Grams Not Scrap Important India Artist Kattingeri Krishna Hebbar "workers" Tempura Painting 1957Antique Box Anglo Indian Porcupine Quill Box Ebony Inlaid Decoration Circa 1890Stunning Antique Indian Silver Handle Parasol Good Quality Antique Indian Solid Silver Bowl; Calcutta C1890Indian Sterling Silver Cream Pitcher Zodiac Manner Of P. Orr & Sons Indian Coin Siver Mug Cobra Skin Handle Cutch C1880Nice Old Antique 19th Century Indian Tulwar SwordLarge Brass Vase Lamp Base Indian Kashmiri Mughal Persian Animals FiguresOld Nepalese Northern India Kukri Gurkha Knife Indo-persian Dagger Axe SwordFine Antique Indo Persian Islamic Solid Silver Naturalistic Spoon Kashmir C189019th Century Bone Oriental Indian Hindu Deity Temple With Wooden Stand & InlaysBig Heavy Antique Spear Head Indo-persian Islamic Iron Lance Pike. Arrow. SwordWootz Indo Persian Karud 19th C, No Pesh,choora, Kard Or Khanjaror Jambiya18th Century Antique India Bronze Rare Deepalakshmi PairFine Quality Antique Indian Hindu Solid Silver Spoon Madras C1890Indian Bidri Hooker Base With Silver InlaidIndian Coin Silver Cream Pitcher Manner Of Oomersi Mawji C1880Antique Anglo-indian Brass Silver & Moradabadi Enamel Inlaid Foliate Beaker CupAntique Indian Sterling Silver Pill Box Elephant C1920Vintage Brass Copper & Silver Plate With Raised Embossed Indian Goddess Figure15.9" Indian / India Carved Wood & Gold Painted Statue ~ Shiva, Parvati, GaneshaIndian Sterling Silver Zodiac Tray In The Manner Of P. Orr & Sons MadrasAntique Anglo-indian Colonial Bronze 6 Compartment Peacock Locking Spice BoxAntique Sterling Silver India Bindi Cosmetic Box - Trinket Box - 155 Grams ScrapSuperb Antique Indo Persian Papier Mache Box Ganemede Srinagar Kashmir No1903Fine Old Anglo - Indian Silver MugJapanese Hanging Scroll : Kanshu "india Ink Sansui Landscape" @b794Antique Indian Carved Wood Trinket, Jewel Or Cigar Box. Taj Mahal, AgraIndian Coin Silver Pitcher Manner Of Oomersi Mawji C1880Vintage Indo-persian Hand Forged Steel Katar Tiger Knife Dagger Good ConditionHindu Goddess Buddha Shrine Powerful Life Secure Immortal Rare Thai Amulet Old1800s Indian Antique Hand Forged Steel Spear Head Nice Shape