A new museum in Pune showcases a grim tool of human evolution — historical weapons. Meant to injure and kill and associated with violence and bloodshed, weapons rarely occupy the position of art in galleries and museums. The Veer Baji Pasalkar Shastra Sangrahalaya in Pune is attempting to rectify this. Here, you see daggers, swords, javelins and a variety of battleaxes for men and women as well as armour-piercing weapons, chainmail and headgear, among others, which have taken part in wars. Women, for instance, had special hidden weapons such as the tiger claws, small pistols, Bichhwa daggers, which were tiny and could be hidden under the waistline. A specific katyar known as Rampyari, particularly in North India, was very popular with women. Varsha Kotphode, secretary and head, conservator of Core Heritage Studio, which conducts restoration and conservation of antiques and art objects, reveals more in a conversation with Dipanita Nath:
Researchers do not consider a sword as a weapon — we refer to it as a cultural object, research link or museum artifact that depicts our culture as it has gradually changed. A stone age tool-weapon can tell us how we took our first steps in survival and in the development of humankind. History of mankind was unravelled by the tools of Stone Age man ..whose purpose was mostly for protection — as a weapon. In the same way, with help of our historical arms and tools, it has been possible to gather some very important data for the reconstruction of Indian sciences, its history and cultural heritage. Weapons help us know about technology, different kinds of sciences and metallurgical innovations that took place over the centuries and present a fascinating study of metallurgy and warfare.
We ask, ‘Why was there cause to develop a new weapon?’ History is often told through books, paintings, sculptures and objects. Objects of art represent the luxurious part of our lives while weapons, being tools of protection, are a necessity in our day-to-day development. A key point to note about the development and application of knowledge in the military context is it is generally considered as ‘art’ rather than a ‘science’ because ‘warfare is essentially a human and social activity’. If we want peace, we need to be prepared for ‘war’, strategic environment, geography or topology of the battlefield in the past.
We have 269 weapons. These are from the 16th to the early 18th centuries and mostly cover the era of Shivaji Maharaj. We display them in nine panels dedicated to shiv kalin shastratre, types of swords, cavalry arms, armour and armour-piercing arms, spears and battleaxes of medieval age, daggers of indigenous invaders of India, muzzle-loading guns of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s era, arms and armour of women and children, and ceremonial arms and armour. Each panel has a story. The weapons specifically designed for children show how, in those days, children were trained from the age of three. The size of the hilt of the swords is very tiny in these cases — these weapons seemed like toys, but were real and meant to be carried by children continuously for development of their muscle tone. We have a special board for darbari weapons, which were ceremonial in nature and used only for ceremonies and processions rather than war.
The institute has been working on historical arms and armour for more than 25 years. We want to bring out the mysteries behind a sword, knife or a gun. Ten years ago, we were conducting mobile exhibitions. We were going to different schools and had a display of five to six boards where students could see and handle the weapons (scientific replicas of historical objects which were made under different research projects) during their history lessons.
In India Kshatra Dharma was very much prevalent during Vedic times. Kshatra Dharma is not limited to ruling a kingdom, but also includes protecting the kingdom. Our weapon design and manufacturing techniques changed over the years. We can see some of our Maratha weapons have an Islamic influence. Why? Because we were fighting Mughals and, when when we won a battle, loot was brought in and we altered those weapons as per our needs, geographical details and physical conditions of our warriors and terrain. Weapons kept changing as per history and the person who used it, whether it was a common soldier or a sardar or a high ranking official. In some swords, you can see that the blades are from Rajasthan or various parts of the world, but the hilt is from South India. As we were from the south.
People came with their own collection and donated to us during our previous exhibitions. An ancestral collections and few weapons we found literally in juna bazaars and old markets. Because these were broken weapons, people thought they were a waste and used to sell them as scrap metal or wood. They did not know the value of objects-weapons. We have a lot of broken weapons that are a link in the history of weapons and warfare and solve certain mysteries about our cultural heritage. Sometimes we have a broken sword on display to depict the story of the panel.