With the opening up of sea trade in the 15th century, the items of Indian craftsmanship were in great demand, especially in European countries. Vishakhapattanam, a major port on the southern coast was an important centre of trade, particularly of ivory and shell work. As reported by J.K. Kippling in 1885 the jewel caskets made of ivory on tortoise shells were a speciality of Vishakhapattanam, the execution of which was delicate and their designs flawless.
The Vishakhapattanam artists seem to have mastered the technique of ivory carving. The technique employed is essentially the veneering technique and occasional fret work. Here the surface of the ivory is ornamented with designs in lac. The carved designs consist of mythological themes, animals, hunting scenes, fauna and flora. The carving of the figures is influenced by the Tanjore art style whereas the floral design all over the box bears a distinct European influence.
The box has delicately carved ivory panels on the tortoise shell and is one such example of excellent workmanship of Vishakhapattanam carving. The rectangular box has a complex structure. The inner side of the box is made of sandalwood, arranged in compartments suitable to hold jewellery pieces. The lid of each of these compartments is covered with a thin veneer of ivory painted with creeper designs. There is a figure probably of Krishna, holding a flute and snake entwined around his shoulder. The outer side made of tortoiseshell is covered with fretwork in ivory. The entire surface is covered with designs consisting of gods, goddesses, animals, birds as well as flora.
The top of the box has an elevated panel showing different designs, with a central oval panel depicting Harihara accompanied by a goddess seated on Nandi while the cows are placed in front against the beautifully carved backdrop, not easily visible to the naked eye. Of the two sages standing in salutation, one is Vyaghrapada with the legs of a tiger. The other one who is in the half human and half fish form, is Patanjali. Patanjali is believed to be an incarnation of the serpent Shesa and therefore, in later South Indian sculptures he is shown in the composite form with a human bust on top and a snake as the lower half. Vyaghrapada, a great devotee of Shiva, was provided with tiger legs to enable him to climb easily the thorny Bilwa trees to gather tender leaves for the worship of Shiva. Both of them were Shiva’s ardent worshippers.
The lower elevation shows different ornamental scenes such as horse riders, dancers, hunting scenes etc. On one side of the top is a four-handed figure while the other shows a winged figure blowing a trumpet. The right side of the box has Sarasvati, while the opposite side has a scene depicting a human figure holding a trident and standing on a snake. The front and the rear sides of the box show a hunting scene and the episode of Hanuman carrying the mountain full of life-giving medicine, for Lakshmana. Two women elegantly hold up the decorated keyhole of the box in front.
Indian Decorative Art
Ivory on tortoise shell
c. 1900 CE
Vishakhapattanam, Andhra Pradesh
16.6 x 36.7 x 27.8 cms.