Indian Ivory Antiques in England and Russia! (Post No.5393)

Research article Written by London Swaminathan

Date: 4 September 2018


Time uploaded in London – 21-39 (British Summer Time)


Post No. 5393
Ivory products of India are found in Ancient Egypt, Russia and Britain. Ivorry objects are mentioned in Kalidasa’s works and Sangam Tamil Literature. Harappans of Indus valley exported Ivory combs and other gold and silver ornaments to Sumeria accoording to Mortimer Wheeler. That shows India is one of the oldest countries in the world to make and use ivory products.

It is supported  by later inscripttions and litearature.

The ivory recovered from elephant is referred toby Kalidasa and other poets:

In Tamil there is a proverb “An elephant is worth 1000 gold coins whether it is alive or dead’. This expalins the value of its tusk and the hide. Moreover Hindu literature is full of references to pearls dropping from tusks (though it is scientifically not proved).

Ivory is referred to in Sangam Tamil Literature as well. Through 200 similes of Kalidasa found in Sangam Tamil literature, I have proved Kalidasa, the greatest Indian poet and playwright, lived before Sangam period, may be in first century or second century BCE.

Ivory Throne : Raguvamsam 17-21

King Athithi had the coronation abishekam sitting in Bhadrasana posture and then went to the next room for changing his clothes where he sat on the Ivory seat (Chair or stool)- (Rv 17-61)

Several Sangam Tamil poets used ivory objects in their poems:

Kapilar sings about the women who pounded the grains in the mortar with pestles made up of ivory and sandal (Kalitokai 40-4)

Tol Kapilar sings about a hunter using the ivory tusk to dig the land to get gold. While he was doing it the tusk broke and pearls inside the tusk came out along with the gold! (Akam 282 -Thol Kapilar).

There is an inscrption in Sanchi (200 BCE) which mentions a guild of ivory carvers in the nearby city of Vidhisa (now known as Besnagar). This fully testifies to the craft ivory carving. Ramayana also mentioned ivory craft. The indian stauette found in Herculaneum and the ivory paques found in Begram further testify to the antiquity of ivory trade. Varahamihira’s Brhat Samhita advises people to make legs of the bed with solid ivory. High ivory potal of a courtesan’s house is mentioned in Sudraka’s ‘The Little Clay Cart’ drama. All these refereces are from the first few centuries of moden era.


Chessmen made up of ivory were used in Brahmanabad in Sind. Ivory laid doors of Bijapur Palace was famous in the eighth century. So we have continous refrences from the Indus valley Time.


Terry in his’ Voyages to the East Indies’ (1655 CE) tells us of the skill of Indian crafsmen in making cabinet boxes, trunks and stands. He also describes the ivory work on tortise shells. Portugese traveller Paes wrote about a hall made up of ivory in Vijayanagara Empire. Hindu temples in South India has several ivory objects. A nagaswara instrument (Tamil Pipe) made up of ivory is in a Hindu temple in Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu. Sir George Watt made a deep study in the ivory craft of Indians during the 1903 exhibition in Delhi. He has collected lot of trade secrets of ivory traders. Form Kerala to Himachal, there were several towns famous for ivory craftwork.Till ivory sale was banned, all craft shops in India were selling ivory boxes, caskets, statues and combs.

There is ample evidence that ivory craft was well developed in India before the second century BCE.

Jawaharlal Nehru, former Prime Minisrer, donated a three fold ivory carved screen to Soviet Union in 1955. This is on dispaly in Moscow.

Museum in London has a statue of Durga made in Burhanpur in 1851.

Indian Ivory Throne to Queen Victoria
Edgar Thurston, former superintendent of Madras Government Museum, has related the interesting history of India’s ivory industry of 1800s. When one Maharajah, Rama Varma, saw some five ivory carvings , he became enthusiastic about the craft and began to strongly encourage a broader application. The Maharajah who succeeded him, Marthanda Varma sent to Queen Victoria a new ivory throne, elaborately carved and decorated with inset jewels. After prominent display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, it was installed in the State Apartment at Windsor Castle. Nineteenth century ivory products included individual cases for calling cards, envelopes , gloves, handkerchiefs, bookshelves, chessboards etc.

Also carved in Madras was scent bottles, special talismans for children, ‘howdahs’ for carrying royalty on the back of the elephants.
Especially in western India ladies combs and bangles were very common ivory products

The residual ivory saw dust was sometimes sold to cow and buffalo dealers, who fed it to the female animals to increase their milk yield. In northern India ivory saw dust was considered to be a fortifying medicine. In India, ivory craft was a family trade. Boys learnt from their parents when they were young.

The ancient Indian town of Pali, on the old trade route between Bombay and Delhi, turned ivory bangles for several centuries. Entire streets of crafts men made only this article in sets of graduated sizes, so as to cover a woman’s arm from shoulder down to wrist. They were cut from the tusk as it too decreases from base to Point.

English alphabet sets were also made during British rule for export.

In Madras some children wore special talisman s made of ivory.
Following India n museums have ivory products
Prince of Wales museum in Mumbai
Crafts museum, Thapar House, Delhi
Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad
Art Museum, Thiruvananthapuram

and abroad:-

Museums in London and Windsor

Museum in Moscow

Ivory Craft In other parts of the World:-

The Old Testament includes references to ivory One passage tells that “King Solomon made great throne of ivory and overlaid it with pure gold”, 1 kings 10:18 and 2 chronicles 9:17
More strikingly Ahab allegedly made a house of ivory, 1Kings 22:39
“And the houses of ivory shall perish”, Amos 3:15

The earliest surviving ivory carvings are mainly from Egypt, Phoenicia, Assyria, China and India.
In pre dynastic Egypt tombs contained ivory and fish hooks, arrowheads pins, bodkin,s spoons, knives, combs, bracelets and necklaces

The British Museum has probably the best collection of the Assyrian ivories, 1200-600 CE from Ancient Nineveh

Elephant tusks were used through out ancient China; in addition walrus tusks were utilised in the north, and hippopotamus tusks in the warm southern regions.
China imported tusks from South East Asia and India. The first Chinese, Shang Dynasty , was already producing animal figures and other items .

Source books

Ivory and its Uses by Benjamin Burack,Tokyo 1984

Handicrafts and Arts in India, Taraporevala

Tamil and Sanskrit Literature

Please read Indian Ivory in Ancient Egypt in the following article:-

  1. Egypt ivory figures | Tamil and Vedas

Posts about Egypt ivory figures written by Tamil and Vedas


The pearl recovered from elephant ivory is referred by Kalidasa and other poets: … //




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