Blowing across the waters of the Indian Ocean to the warm shores of Africa and Arabia, the North East monsoon carried on its winds Arab trading dhows on an ancient sea route. India’s maritime history was already an ancient one – kingdoms had been trading with West Asia and the Mediterranean since time immemorial. The port of Broach has a history stretching back 5000 years, to trade with Sumer and Babylon. Over the millennia, vessels laden with sandalwood, spices, muslin, indigo, diamonds, sapphires and all manner of luxury goods to delight and amuse the Roman Empire sailed along the slow coastal route to the Persian Gulf.
Adventurous seafarers, Arab sea captains were the first to master the use of the monsoon winds, and sail across the Indian Ocean, vastly reducing the length of their voyages. Setting up trading settlements along the East Coast of Africa, in the Persian Gulf, and along the West Coast of India, in Gujarat and Kerala, the Arabs were soon a well-established trading community. In Surat, and Cochin, Dar es Salaam, Mombassa, Lamu and Muscat, powerful and wealthy Arab merchants soon controlled trade across the Indian Ocean. The cargos that the Arab dhows carried were not very different form those of more ancient times – spices like pepper and cloves, coveted Indian cottons, gemstones, and timber for the wood starved Arabian Peninsula. The rich kingdoms of the “Empires of the Monsoon”, as Richard Hall called them, flourished.
Stashed away in holds of the exotic dhows were large numbers of elaborately decorated wooden boxes which went by the evocative names of the places where they were crafted or bought – Shirazi, Basra, Surat, Bombay, Malabar….
Once produced in India and subsequently the Gulf, they were used as traveling trunks by workmen returning from the Gulf, sailors trunks, jewellers strongboxes, dowry chests, and were sold and traded in Zanzibar and Mombassa.
These boxes, found all over bustling port cities where the Arabs traded and settled, were originally crafted by Indian carpenters, and exported in large numbers from Bombay, Surat, and Malabar – hence the names. They were in great demand in the Arab world, as prized pieces of furniture, occupying pride of place in homes. Over hundreds of years of migrations, the origins of the chests became blurred, as they began to be reproduced in the Arabian Gulf, and the coastal cities of East Africa. They were usually classified by their distinctive hasps, hinges, handles, wood and style of decoration.
The prized Shirazi’s, Basra Chests, or Bombay Boxes as they were known – since they travelled from India to Shiraz, and then to Zanzibar, to be traded – were usually made of teakwood, and elaborately decorated with glowing brass sheets and studs in intricate patterns. The lids were decorated with corner mounts, knobs and hand made brass studs. The hasps, backplates and corners were of elegantly worked brass. The hinges were also highly decorative, ending in distinctive, decorative finials. The ornate mounts often had jali work, so that the wood of the chest showed through, and the brass, in the finer pieces, was incised with delicate patterns. They generally had stands, and narrow tills inside.
From the deep south, from the coast of Malabar, came the eponymous boxes made of dark, rich rosewood, or silky, tortoiseshell jackwood, carved with geometric patterns on the sides, or a typical motif of breadfruit, spreading gracefully from a central vase. The Malabar’s were quite distinctive, as they were the only ones, in the dhow trade, which were carved. Their lids often had lozenge shaped, pierced brass work. These chests did not have hasps, but were secured with just lock and key.
Another type, elaborately decorated with just handmade brass studs was quite unique in that the patterns appeared to vary according to the whims of the craftsman, patron or owner. Some of them had drawers at the base, which were also decorated. These chests, made of rosewood or shisham, were quite dramatically beautiful. Known as Najums, these days old pieces often come from Hyderabad – given the circular route many of these chests travelled, it is likely that they were brought back by travelling workmen or well to do merchants.
From the Gulf, the chests made their way on dhows to the exotic, clove growing, slave trading island of Zanzibar. Sailors sometimes worked on the chests on the voyage, to enhance their value, adding on brass studs The East Coast of Africa was known as the Land of Zanj, from the Persian word meaning ‘black” which lent it’s name to the island of Zanzibar. It was here, amongst the incredible mix of races, that these chests found their most eager buyers. Some of the famous chests located in museums belonged to the Sultans of Zanzibar, and others are to be seen in museums in the Gulf.
The chests were greatly sought after, both by moneyed merchants and ordinary seamen. It is likely that rich merchants commissioned designs, and the ones of the best quality were made to order. Chests were something of a status symbol, and the simpler, brass studded ones were owned by sailors, and contract workers returning from Basra to Gujarat, coming full circle to their place of origin.
Some researchers have commented that these boxes are not to be seen in India, the country of their origin. It is true that at some stage, most Indian homes got rid of chests and boxes as unwieldy and cumbersome, as trends and lifestyles changed, and our regional museums appear to have given chests a miss. However, one of the finest collections exists with Mahendra Doshi, the Mumbai antique dealer, renowned around the world for his fine restoration work – the boxes are actually taken apart, brass and metal work included, and then put back together again. Doshi’s superlative collection includes Shirazis, Malabars, Shishams, Gujarati dowry chests and a plethora of cash boxes, writing cases, embroidery and vanity boxes. A very fine collection of Shirazis and Malabar chests were to be seen in the corridors of the Heritage Wing and foyer of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, and also at the Taj Malabar, Lake Palace Hotel and Taj Coromandel, which were all, coincidentally, sourced
The origins and adaptations of these boxes, and the regional, cultural and religious influences on their designs is so astonishingly wide, that it appears as if the entire history of the sub-continent can be read in them.
The trade with China over the centuries brought chests of fragrant camphor wood, much sought after as storage for textiles, as the wood was insect repellent. Some camphor chests and smaller boxes were carved with dragons, or ships in sail. Velvet lined embroidery boxes, inlaid with mother- of pearl and ivory, or ebony inlaid with ivory, in the most exquisite designs also made their way across from China.
The smaller boxes are even more interesting. They are frequently decorated with detailed inlay work in woods of contrasting colours such as white cedar and teak, and elaborate brass inlay in geometric and floral patterns. They open, sometimes in tiers, to reveal complex arrangements of compartments, sliding shelves and secret drawers that operate with spring mechanisms. The Indian craftsman lavished his imagination on the interiors of the boxes, each one more intriguing than the other. The writing cases have slots for pens and inkpots, and the cosmetic boxes, for perfumes. Ivory was another favourite decorative element, works of exquisite artistry emerging from the hands of the craftsman.
The Mughals inspired an entire lexicon of design in brass inlay work on wooden boxes, resulting in some of the most elegant, refined pieces. The star and moon motifs, minarets and the tree of life all identify these boxes.
The dowry chests of Gujarat are unique to the region, with their floral and geometric carving. Saurashtra, Kutch and Ahemedabad, each had their distinctive designs. These Majusas, dowry chests, were crafted from babul, or acacia wood in Kutch, easily identified by the decorative mirror work of the region. Saurashtra used teak, and parrots were a typical decorative motif. These chests were used to store utensils.
The top opening, slightly convex lidded, brass bound, ironclad Pataras, which had wheels, were used to store mattresses. The well to do chose rosewood, while others made do with just rosewood fronts.
The finest ivory inlay boxes came from Mysore and Vizakapatanam, and in the far north, Kashmir used locally grown walnut wood to make small, superbly carved boxes.
The Dutch and the Portuguese in their turn left a legacy of distinctive chests and cabinets .The Dutch preferred the play of contrasting woods to excessive ornamentation: mahogany and ebony or satinwood, jack wood and ebony for instance. The chests had a silky finish, with plain borders, and arabesques of simple floral patterns on the fretwork of their stands. The stands were fairly tall, no doubt to withstand the active insect life in tropical climates. These tend to be rare in India, but a good collection can be seen in the Dutch museum in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
For the Portuguese, the suryamukhi, or sunburst, was a passion, translated onto all their furniture, chests included. Some inspired pieces survive. Also from Portuguese Goa came another entirely unique piece – the vestry box, from churches and cathedrals, in all its classic simplicity. They were used to store robes, ceremonial clothing and records.
Just raising the lid of one of these superbly crafted pieces releases a whiff of bygone voyages, and forgotten stories of the lives of sailors, traders, merchants and scribes, wealthy upper classes and ordinary people. Boxes have traditionally been the repositories of all manner of treasures – concealed chambers, secret drawers, and complex, puzzle -like compartments have all added to the romance. Every home once boasted chests and boxes of different descriptions. Even the plain, solid teak chests were invaluable for protecting textiles from the punishing Indian climate. Who can forget the excitement of allowing grandmother’s exquisite silks slip though their fingers into the satiny depths of a camphor chest? Or being allowed to rummage through the treasures of a jewel case? Boxes hold memories, secrets and riches for everyone.
All my knowledge of boxes, I owe to Mahendra Doshi, acquired over sixteen years of friendship, and un -clocked hours spent in his workshop and godowns. The credit for the title of this article goes to him.
Image Courtesy Taj Magazine