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10. South Indian Vajramushti Iron knuckles Circa 1800

( ID: ic1259 )

Overall length: 10.16 cm

Overall width: 7.62 cm

Weight: .25 lbs

Price on request

A particularly interesting object rarely encountered in iron and of pleasing form and sculptural design, this pair of iron knuckles is known as a vajramushti (thunder fist) or sometimes an Indramushti (fist of the deity Indra). The vajramushti has a long tradition in south Indian gladiatorial combat, both for sport and as a weapon of war (Elgood 2005). The earliest mentions of this weapon go back to the Manasollasa of the Chalukya King Someswara III (1124–1138), although it has been conjectured to have existed since as early as the Maurya Dynasty. In the Mughal Period, the Portuguese traveler Fernando Nunes was able to record how the vajramushti was present in the gladiatorial contests of the Vijayanagar Empire:

"The King has a thousand wrestlers for these feasts who wrestle before the King, but not in our manner, for they strike and wound each other with two circlets with points which they carry in their hands to strike with, and the one most wounded goes and takes his reward in the shape of a silk cloth, such as the King gives to these wrestlers. They have a captain over them, and they do not perform any other service in the kingdom." (Saletore 1934)

Later on, during the period of Tipu Sultan, gladiators, who were typically of the Jetti Negrito people of south India, continued to fight with knuckledusters made of iron, horn, and, in some cases, ivory or other previous materials:

“They had on their right hands the wood guamootie (vajra-musti) of four steel talons, which were fixed to each back joint of their fingers, and had a terrific appearance when their fists were closed. Their heads were close shaved, their bodies oiled, and they wore only a pair of short drawers. On being matched, and the signal given from Tippu, they begin the combat, always by throwing the flowers, which they wear round their necks, in each other’s faces; watching an opportunity for striking with the right hand, on which they wore this mischievous weapon which never failed lacerating the flesh, and drawing blood most copiously.”(Scurry 1824)

Even today in Mysore, during the ceremony of Navaratri, men fight with vajramushti, most often made of buffalo horn, to draw blood (Elgood 2005). Our example most likely dates to the 18th century and is entirely made of iron. The fighting edge is crowned with five spiked points. and the obverse of the handle with two, stylized, south Indian form Makara heads with eyes embellished with polished iron for contrast. A number of these are known to be held in private U.K. collections, though none in iron exist in any institutional collection in the United States to our knowledge.

An entirely utilitarian and deadly object, the modern lines and singular purpose of this weapon imbue it with a sense of power.

Provenance:

Mahrukh Desai, London, until 1996

Paul F. Walter

References:

Elgood, R. (2005) Hindu Arms and Ritual: Arms and Armour from India 1400-1865. Eburon Publishers, Delft.

Saletore, B.A. (1934). Social and Political Life In The Vijayanagar Empire Vol II.

Scurry, J. (1824). The Captivity, Sufferings, and Escape of James Scurry, Who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib. London

Photo #1 of 10. South Indian Vajramushti Iron knuckles Circa 1800
Photo #2 of 10. South Indian Vajramushti Iron knuckles Circa 1800