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    

19th Indo Persian Katar Dagger (knife Sword Sabre) - Mughal IndiaC1900 Antique Indian Solid Silver Hand Chased 3 Piece Tea Set, Cobra HandlesAn Antique Bronze Figure Of Standing Parvati, South IndiaIndian Sterling Silver Tea Set Manner P. Orr Price Charles Visit 1876A Large Quality Antique Vintage Pierced Indian Silver Bowl With Gilt InteriorVery Fine Beautiful 19c Antique Islamic Indian Cutch Solid Silver Tray C1900 Antique Indian Burmese Solid Silver Repousse Hand Chased Lotus Stem VaseVery Fine 19th Century Indian Repousse Decorated Silver Table Bowl.Fine Antique Solid Silver Indian Burmese Three Piece Tea Set C1900Antique Photo Photograph Album India / Africa Big Game Hunting, 85 PhotosAntique Solid Silver India Rajasthan Belt 19th CenturyAntique Nepalese Kukri Gurkha Nepal Knife Indo-persian Short-sword Dagger Indian Persian Silver Tea Set Tray 6 Cups Spoons Liners Signed 56 OzFinest 19c Antique Islamic South Indian Tanjore Silver Copper & Brass TrayAntique Anglo Indian Kashmir Handpainted Papier Mache Domed Letter Box C. 1880Rare Large Antique 19c Islamic Indo Persian Qajar Papier Mache Pictorial TrayAntique Indian Mughal Kashmiri Patinated Copper Pierced Vase - Unusual!Thailand Ramayana Ramakien Bronze Archer Figure Statue Rama Hindu Epic Hero YqzIndian Silver Goblet P Orr Sons Silversmiths To Prince Of Wales 1876Breathtaking Antique Indian Or Sri Lankan Silver Plated / White Metal Tea SetSuperb Quality Mid 19th Century Indo Persian Shield Dhal (no Sword)Fine Indian Solid Bronze Figure / Deity Playing The Flute 18th / 19th CenturyJava Bali Hindu Gods Demons Visnu Carved Cattle Bone Femur Indonesia 1900's YqzBeautiful Rare Solid Silver Indian Parchment Document Holder Kutch Region - 130gIndian Silver Teapot Ewer Demon Peacock C1890 Indian BoxVintage Indian Hindu Bronze BuddhaAnglo Indian Sadeli Card Case.circa 1850Tibet Nepal Buddhism Hindu Carved Black Stone Mahakala Tantric Buddha StatueFine Old Indian Mughal Empire Emperor Maharaja Portrait Miniature PaintingBangkok Thai Ramakien Hindu Epic Mandalay Style Marionette Puppet Articulatd YqzCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Tibet Silver India Elephant Wealth God StatueFine Old Indian Mughal Empire Gopis Lady & Maiden Portrait Miniature PaintingLovely Rare Matching Pair Of Solid Silver Small Vases Indian Kutch Region - 113g18th 19th Mughal Or Rajput (indo Persian) Short Sword Shamshir (dagger Sabre)Old Antique Indo-persian Sword Tulwar Silver Washed Hilt No Islamic ShamshirFine Antique Persian Indian Royal Erotic Miniature Painting Jaipur School 1820 Solid Silver High Relief 19thc Buckle - Indian , Qajar , Mughal - 55 GramsAntique Indian Repousse Chased Solid Silver Lidded Box Hindu Deities C1900 107g1919-23 Photo Album British Military India, Camp Kasur, Kashmir, Agra, CalcuttaVintage Indian Carved Wood Puzzle Opening Chest Box With Two Hidden DrawersAntique Photo Album India Military Photos Kula 1922 Hoshiarpur Rawalpindi ParadeFine Antique Solid Silver Indian Colonial Bowl - Kutch C1900Vintage Indian Hindu Bronze FigurineFinest Engraved Gilt Pair Solid Silver Kashmiri Indian Silver Bowls - 346 GrVintage Old India 1800's Bone And Tortoise Shell Box With Key Carved AntiqueAntique Photo Album India Rawalpindi 1937 Lelant Cornwall Rangoon Boat Club 1925Chinese Vintage Old Handmade Casting Brass Indian Elephants Buddha StatueSolid Silver~indian Silver~parasol Handel~large 6"~74g~c1880~ Framed Indian Hand Painted Painting With SignatureExport Silver White Metal Indian Islamic Chinese Tray Betel Nut / Snuff Pots BoxAnglo Indian 19thc Pressed Faux Tortoiseshell Box - Elephant Sun + Temple DesignIndian Sterling Cup C1835 Athru Poittar Lattey Co., Listed 7 Years Indian Carved Marble Figure Of Ganesha With Krishna's Flute, 20th C. H.17.2cmAntique Nepalese Bhutan India Knife Nepal Asian Sword Dagger Indian MacheteChristie`s Art Of The Islamic & Indian Worlds OttomanIndian Hand Painted PaintingAnglo Indian Profusely Carved Box Circa 1890.Thai Pottery Barrel Jar Vase Hindu Epic Hanuman Ramayana Ramakien Mermaid Nr YqzThai Amulets Hindu God Lord Ganesha Multi Hands Pendant Magic Lucky Success N04