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]

Gotheborg.com

Gotheborg.com

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    

Exceptional Antique Islamic Kilij Sword Indo-persian Silver Wootz Tulwar Talwar Stunning Antique Anglo Indian Mysore Carved Box / Card Case Panels Excellent Superb Antique Anglo Indian Vizagapatam Sandalwood / Inlaid / Carved Box Exquisite Indian Maharajah Noble Cow Bone Carved Chess Set Antique VintageLarge Carved Hindu Indian Deity Wall Plaque Vishnu, Surya Or Parvati?Pair Antique 18th Century Indo Persian Swords Shamshir Sabers Talwar MughalRare & Unusual 19thc Anglo Indian Ribbed Coromandel Sewing Box With InteriorAntique Huge Indo Persian Qajar Axe Tabarzine N Sword/shamshir/daggerIndian Silver Bowl Village Scene Elephant Feet Calcutta Fine Antique Indian / Islamic / Mughal Painted Hide Flask Fine Antique Indian Hindu Solid Silver Jug / Pitcher; Swami Silver; Madras C1880Unusual Heavy Bronze Mythical Indian God Stood On Headless Body - Chamunda Kali 1900's Antique Nepalese Kora Sword Gurkha Khora From Nepal India Kukri TulwaraxeAntique Military India Pakistan Quetta Quake Photo Picture Album Full ButaniAfghan Khyber Knife Dagger Choora. T-section Damask BladeRare 19th Century Indian Bronze Statue Of Shiva With Extensive Gilding Fine 18th C Indian Nepalese Tibetan Bronze Buddha Figure With Incense BurnerFine 18th Century Indian Bronze Hindu Buddha DeityIndian Silver Dish Shells Dragon Chinese Market (2)Vintage Indian Silver Bowl - Repousse Animals In JungleIndian Silver Mustard Pot Cobra Kashmir 1880 Shawl Unusual Antique 19th C Indian Carved Bone Figure Of A Seated BuddhaAntique Hand Carved Wood Shiva Marriage Panel India Rare Old Indian Maharashtra Silver Hinged Ankle Bracelt, Fine PatinaGorgeous Ancient Large Sulaimani Dzi Indo- Tibetan Banded Agate With Eye BeadAntique Anglo Indian/burmese Solid Silver Button Hook, Embossed Deity's C.1880Small Heavy Old Vintage Indian Cast Brass Multi Headed Ganesha Ganesh Statue VgcExquisite Antique Indian Ceylonese Solid Silver Box; Ceylon, British India C1890Indian Silver Mug George Gordon, Madras C1830 Antique Se Asian Bronze Hindu God Figure Well Marked Master Craftsmanship Old!! Ganesha Indian Hindu Deity Elephant God Resin Amber Type Composition Sculpture Fine Antique Indian Hindu Bronze Deity Gods Figure Shiva & Parvati 19th CenturyChinese Hanging Scroll "india Ink Bamboo" @k191Antique Gold Inlaid Damascene Steel Persian Indian Beggars Bowl Kashkul 9"Antique 18th/19thc. Indian Ganesh Cast Bronze Statue FigureBeautiful Antique Indo Persian Islamic Solid Silver Pepperette; Lucknow C1890Vintage Antique Indian Persian Miniature Painting Watercolor Framed Nice LookCollectible Decorated Old Tibet Silver India Elephant God Wealth Recline StatueOld Antique India Folk Art Carved Figure W Great Patina Look Antique Solid Silver Colonial Indian Tea Set Warner Brothers Delhi Circa 1920India Antique Hindu God Sri Lakshmi Hayagriva Swamy Copper 17th C Very Rare11 Inch Diameter Antique Brass Persian / Indian Enamel Inlaid Dhal Shield Antique Indo Persian Marquetry Inlaid Lacquer Islamic Pen-box Qalamdan 18th CAntique Gujarat India Wool Embroidered Shawl W/ Mirrors And Carved Wood MusicianAntique India Indian Box - 5 Different Woods, Lock And KeyGood Antique Indian Bronze Figure Of A Sadhu On Bed Of NailsBeautiful Antique India Brass Buddha Head Statues 1850's Antique Indo Mughal Antique Collectible Iron Axe Hatchet With CarvingBonhams Indian, Islamic Works Of Art, Textiles CarpetsIndian Silver Scroll Holder Palace & Govt Building 20 OzPerfect Pendant Buddha Ganesha God Hindu Amulet !!!Antique Islamic/indian 17-18th Cent Ganga Jumna Mughal Period LotaOrnate Antique Anglo Indian Turtle Bettle Box Good Size NrAntique 19th Century Anglo Indian Cow Bone Page TurnerRahu Om Moon Hindu Wealth Craft Pendant Thai AmuletGanesha&vishnu Hindu Plated Color Pendant Thai Gold Locket & Gold Necklace H350Gold Pendant Lord Ganesh Ganesha Hindu Success Thai Amulet In Gold Locket G19-91Good Antique 18th C Indian Polished Brass Figure Of Garuda - No ReserveIndian Islamic 750 Yrs.old Muhammad Khilji Billon 2-gani Ancient Antique Coin Rare Late 19th Early 20th Century Anglo Indian Sandalwood Mysore Temple Carving