The Indian sword is equally lethal yet decorative as it comes in many styles and forms with various types of decoration; silver, gold and rubies. Typically, most in the west will refer to the Indian Sword as simply a Tulwar (often spelt as Talwar or Tulvar). Tulwar in its simplistic form is used to describe a one-edged sword from the Indian subcontinent. This description originates from the Sanskrit word ‘Taravari’. The Tulwar could be utilised by either cavalry or infantry.
The hilt of the Tulwar has specific characteristics, which are shared amongst various types. The hilt of the Tulwar can be broken down as follows:
For the most part, Tulwars will share this basic form for the hilt. However, depending on the region, there may be very slight differences. For example, some may not have the knuckle guard or have differently shaped quillons and langets. This type of hilt also had a practical function other than protecting the hand. The pommel spike would allow the user to strike an opponent in close-quarters combat where the blade was not usable. Since these were often spiked or rounded off, they had the potential to cause damage. Hilts (as you can see above) were often decorated or inlaid with gold or silver. This was primarily done for decorative purposes but also to prevent rust build upon the hilt.
The hilt was a personal part of the Tulwar since they would often contain inscriptions inside the knuckle guard or under the pommel. These inscriptions were usually devotional or contained the name of the owner along with the date a sword was made. Inscriptions not only increase the value of the sword but also provide historical context and information, which would have otherwise never found light. From the example below, we see the following inscription:
Sri Baldevji Sahai – this is an invocation to Sri Baldevji, a deity who the owner would have invoked for protection on the battlefield. (Inscription 1)
RupSinghSangawat.Samvat1911–here we see the name of the owner along with the date the sword was made. Samvat 1911 equates to1855AD. In most cases, it was people of importance who had their names inscribed on the swords they owned. (Inscription 2)
This inscription clearly informs us of the owner and the date in which the sword was made. If we remove the inscription, this sword becomes simple and without historical value and context. The style of the hilt and the overlay design points this example towards Rajput/Rajasthan origins. The inscription ascertains this claim as the surname ‘Sangawat’ has Rajput origins. These connections are important for the purchaser but also the researcher as these details provide historical value as we can deduce whom it belonged to and their location.
Another detail to look at on the hilt is the overlay pattern and the form of the knuckle guard and quillons. For example, the Arms and Armour of Lahore are known for having a particular style of gold overlay; flowers and tendrils. There are further clear indications of a particular hilt is of Punjab manufacture: (1) the fat vase shape of the grip section, (2) the slightly forward angle of the quillons, (3) the knuckle guard that ends in a flower bud, (4) the floral style of gold koftgari and (5) an inscription in Punjabi (the Sikh Language). An example that contains all these is below. This particular example was sold at Czerny’s Auction in September 2019.
The Arts of the Sikh Kingdom by Susan Strong (1999) contains some excellent examples of koftgari (gold work) on Sikh Arms and Armour, particularly numbers 151, 159, 162 and 172. Tulwars from Rajasthan would usually have more squared langets, silver overlay, a flat grip section, an open knuckle guard and a Surajvanshi (sunburst) at the top of the pommel, along with a pommel spike.
Notice the long and flat langet, along with the open guard. This type of silver overlay design is found on various swords that are linked with Rajasthan and the 19th century.
Here we can see the Surajvanshi (sunburst) and the pommel spike. Compared to the Punjab example, which is rounded off, this one is more of a spike. This would also be used for striking and allow for further damage.
The pommel disk Surajvanshi (sun-burst) design is of Suryavansh origin. Suryavansh are of the Rajput dynasties and link their lineage to ‘Surya’ who is the Sun God. Suryavansha is mentioned in classical Indian texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The hilt and its design do vary based on locality. And the pursuit of linking design to a location is very difficult since there was a lot of importing, taking inspiration from other designs, and exporting. Though designs are often linked with regions and who owned them, we can narrow the hilt down to two types: One with a knuckle guard and one without. The other differences and detailing only really offers minute changes. The function itself stays the same. Whereas the knuckle guard is the only real changing factor as with it the hand is protected, whereas, without it, it is not. The other determining factor in how to identify a sword other than the handle is the style of the blade. The blade is what changes the ‘Tulwar’, to let’s say a Shamshir or Sirohi.
There are 10 types of Indian blades: the khanda, patissa, sosun pattah, katti, kirach, sirohi, tegha, Tulwar and golia or shamshir. Below we will discuss the three most popular/main types.
The word khanda has its origins in the Sanskrit khaḍga(खडग), from a root khaṇḍ meaning “to break, divide, cut, destroy”. The khanda is one of the oldest forms of the Indian swords, dating back as early as the 2nd century A.D. Traditionally, Khande are large, heavy, have double-edged blades – which widen towards the tip. The weight of the Khanda allows for heavy cuts. Often, the blades are reinforced on a single edge. It was during the 17th century when basket hilts were developed and added to the Khanda to allow for better manoeuvring and hand protection.
There is significant iconography of the Khanda within the religions of the world. In Dharmic religions, such as Hinduism, the Khanda is represented as wisdom cutting through the veil of ignorance. Hindu and Buddhist deities are often shown wielding or holding khanda swords in 18th/19th-century art. For the Sikhs, the Khanda holds a high place, as it was the weapon of choice in the Amrit ceremony (often referred to as Khanda-Ki-Pahul (nectar of the double-edged sword) and welded by the likes of Baba Deep Singh, the famous Sikh Saint-Soldier. Often the Patissa is linked with the Khanda as spine yelman tip edge ricasso they look very similar. The key difference is the width of the blade. The Patissa has a slimmer blade with a more triangular tip, whereas the Khanda is more rounded.
Hendley attributes ‘Sirohi’ swords to the state of Sirohi, a southern state famous for creating swords of a high standard. He says “Rajputana, Rajasthan, or the land of the Rajputs, the sons of kings, should produce, and does produce, everything necessary for carrying on the art of war. Sirohi [southern Rajasthan], the small state in which is stated Mount Abu, the Mons Capitalium of Pliny, had been famed since the days of Herodotus [5th century BC] for its sword blades, and at the Jeypore Exhibition it retained its ancient reputation by carrying off the first prize for arms. This small state of the Deora Rajpurs supplies blades and spear points to all Rajputana, but every court employs its own armourers, some of whom have attained fame beyond their homes.” Pant however describes the Sirohi based on the blade’s architecture, which is slim and slightly curved, and of a very hard temper. Pant also states that this type of sword was favoured by the Rajputs.
The blade is of a shamshir (Persian: شمشیر (type, which refers to a Persian or Iranian sword with a radical curve. The name is derived from the shamshīr, which means “lion’s claw or lions tale” in the Persian language – pointing towards the curve of the blade. These types of blades are normally used for slashing unarmored opponents either on foot or mounted; while the tip could be used for thrusting. In India, the term ‘Goliya’ (meaning circle) was used to describe these types of blades; referring to their curve.
Associated articles: How to look after your collection of antique arms and armour.
• The Indian Sword by P.S. Rawson
• Indian Arms and Armour by G.N. Pant
• Handbook of Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour by Egerton
• On Damascus Steel by Leo Figiel
• Arms and Armour: Traditional weapons of India by E Jaiwent Paul.
• Islamic Weapons: Moghbir to Mughal by Anthony C Tirri.