Portraits of Sultan 'Ali 'Adil Shah of Bijapur (r. 1558–80) show him wearing daggers with zoomorphic hilts which combine Persian and Indian symbols of power. In this superlative, ruby-studded example, a dragon, whose tail wraps around the grip, attacks a lion, which in turn attacks a deer. Before the deer is a parrot-like bird with a snake in its beak, symbolism associated with the deity Garuda. Lower down on the hilt is the head of a yali, a mythical lion-like animal, with floral scrolls issuing from its mouth.
More linear and attenuated than its cousins, this dagger falls into a family of related weapons distinguished by hilts that are composed of interlocked animals drawn from Persian, Indian, and European sources. At the center, a tiger attacks a deer, a long-standing Perso-Islamic hunting motif. Before it a bird standing on a palmlike frond grasps a shrunken snake in its beak. This motif, widely seen in South Indian art, is associated with the enmity between Garuda, the mythical bird mount of Vishnu, and the nagas (serpent kings). A dragon, whose tail wraps around the grip, attacks the tiger. Lower down on the hilt is a kirtimukha (monster mask) with floral scrolls issuing from its mouth. For whom could this richly iconographic dagger have been made?
The motifs convey messages of power and dominance relevant to specific dynasties of the region. The dagger could have been meant for a Nayaka ruler (successors to the Vijayanagara Empire) or one of the Deccani Muslim states, Bijapur being the frontrunner as a similar style of dagger (David Collection, Copenhagen, no. 36/1997) was adopted by ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah I (reigned 1558–80). The iconography is extremely Hindu in some respects, especially the protective lotus at the base of the hilt where it joins the blade. The tiger, with tiny stripes, small head, and curly mane, is quite naturalistically styled, even possibly Europeanized, in comparison to other sculptural forms of the time. The elongated dragon, too, has a distinctly foreign air with scales, a ruff, and a long snout. Perhaps this motif is the key to solving the mystery of the dagger’s origin.
A comparable lizardlike dragon, with a hatched pattern on its body, appears on the latch of the gold filigree and enamel casket of around 1597(fig. 56 in this catalogue) of the Portuguese viceroy Matias de Albuquerque (ruled 1591–97). This impressive object was commissioned in Goa by his widow and made its way to the Convento da Graca monastery in Lisbon. Thus such Westernized creatures appear to be related to Portuguese tastes and commissions of luxury objects, their style comfortably aligning with the existing language of makaras (aquatic beasts), nagas, and other Indian mythical dragons and snakes. Therefore, besides the existing suggestions, a third possibility comes to the fore: perhaps the dagger was made for a Portuguese noble in Goa, reflecting both his own culture and that of the Deccan.
Navina Najat Haidar in [Haidar and Sardar 2015]
Thanks are due to Robert Elgood for his insights on this object. Dias, Pedro. "The Palace of the Viceroys in Goa." In Goa and the Great Mughal, edited by Jorge Flores and Nuno Vassallo e Silva, Exh. cat. Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon. London: Scala, 2004, p. 94
[ Howard Ricketts, London, until 1974; sold to Welch]; Stuart Cary Welch, Cambridge, MA (1974–d. 2008; his estate 2008–11); his estate sale, Sotheby's, London, April 6, 2011, no. 103, to MMA
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy," April 20, 2015–July 26, 2015, no. 63.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. p. 17.
"6 April 2011." In The Stuart Cary Welch Collection, Part One: Arts of the Islamic World. London: Sotheby's, London, 2011. no. 103, pp. 130-133, ill. (color).
Canby, Sheila R. "The Islamic Galleries at The Met." Arts of Asia, Arts of Asia, vol. 42 (September/October 2012). p. 89, ill. fig. 13 (color).
Alexander, David G., and Stuart W. Pyhrr. "in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Islamic Arms and Armor. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. p. 15, ill. fig. 16 (color).
Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "Opulence and Fantasy." In Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. no. 63, pp. 145-146, ill. pl. 63 (color).