Silver polished wooden image of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s vehicle
Silver polished wooden image of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s vehicle

ONE of the earliest metals to have been used by man, not only in India but also in other parts of the world, silver — the brilliant white shining metal — is second only to gold in preciousness. It has carved a special niche for itself due to its malleability and its multiple uses. In India, it perhaps surpasses gold in popularity because of its greater affordability. In fact, most goldsmiths in India craft a variety of silver ornaments, silverware, religious and decorative figures and utility objects. That India has always had a fascination for items such as jewellery, urns, and figures of deities in silver is manifest in palaces, museums, private collections and even in ordinary Indian homes. In the light of studies by scholars on silver jewellery, coins, and religious and utility objects, an attempt will be made in this monograph to present an overview of Indian silver.

Silver jewellery dates back to the Harappan period (c. 2500-1800 BC), as evidenced by the excavation of silver objects from the ancient sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. By the sixth century BC, silver coins known as punch-mark coins were introduced, inaugurating the first coinage in Indian history. Gradually, silver also began to be used to make utility items, as has been corroborated in the findings from excavations at Taxila (early first century of the Christian era), indicating the overall prosperity of the people as well as the popularity of silver as a metal.

Indian coinage is an important source of Indian history. Through the earliest Indian punch-mark coins, belonging to the sixth century BC, archaeologists and historians have unravelled many hitherto unknown facts of Indian history. For example, the silver coins used during the Satavahana dynasty the round shape of the coins, the engraved portraits of kings and queens, their achievements and important events during their rule constitute a valuable pictorial record of the time. The Satavahanas ruled in the western Deccan in the first century BC but part of their empire was conquered by Nahapana, a powerful Kshatrapa ruler and founder of the Kshatrapa monetary system. He was the first to mint portrait-type silver coins, usually with a thunderbolt and arrow engraved on the reverse.

Delicate filigree work adorns a silver perfume box set in a flower-shaped container on a tray; each exquisitely carved flower holds fragrance-filled cotton ball in the centre.

Each region of India has evolved its own designs and techniques in creating silverware, depending on local traditions, aesthetics and religious beliefs as well as environmental conditions. The state of Kashmir excels in the production of silver plates. These are made in either a shallow repousse with pierced designs or as flat surfaces with engraved lines. Kashmiri craftsmen make all kinds of functional articles such as tea-sets, trays and jugs. Common designs used are kalka, (paisley motifs), the arabesque, the rosette, and chinar leaf shapes. Sometimes, silver objects are covered with gold in a technique called the Ganga-Jamuna style.

In Punjab, most silver artefacts are made by Kashmiri workmen who settled there in the nineteenth century, while in Lucknow, from where the erstwhile Nawabs of Awadh once ruled, designs of silver items are similar to Kashmiri workmanship. The silver articles of Lucknow are ornate, with shallow repousse work depicting hunting scenes or showcasing tree and floral motifs.

The royal families of Rajasthan patronised the manufacturers of silver plates. Known for the fine quality of their creations, Rajasthani artists also crafted exquisite figures of men, women, elephants and camels and fashioned wine flasks, huqqas (smoking pipes) betel-nut boxes, and itradaan (scent flagons). Most of these objects can be seen in museums of India, especially the National Museum of New Delhi, which has an impressive collection of such silver artefacts. Silver images of gods and goddesses, such as Durga, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Krishna, and Saraswati, are popular in India and are kept in tiny shrines in homes for worship. A notable example is a small temple covered with repousse work that belonged to Gujarati royalty (National Museum).

Cuttack (Orissa), in the eastern part silver. Its filigree creations are renowned not only in India, but also all over the world. Artists of this region have produced a large number of decorative items in delicate filigree work, but some artists, however, later moved south to Karimnagar (Andhra Pradesh) and Tiruchipalli (Tamil Nadu), continuing their work there. Filigree work is also created by artists in Central India.

In Kerala in South India, ornamental and utility articles were made from small silver coins (chakrama) threaded together with a fine silver wire or soldered together, leaving small spaces between two pieces to produce the effect of lattice work.

Poona (now Pune, in Maharashtra) and Kutch (Gujarat) were two main centres in western India where silver ornaments and silverware for everyday use were made in a very deep, bold form of repousse. These creations were often moulded into graceful human shapes or figurines of deities.

With the growing market for modern designs and articles, silver craftsmen need technical knowledge about the amount of alloy required to produce a certain hardness in the metal. In India, large firms, such as the well-known Cooke & Kelvey, have experimented with the quality of alloys and have set their own seal on articles to guarantee the quantity and quality of silver in each piece. Today, Indian craftsmen are second to none in the world in terms of designer and quality silverware, not even to their competitors in European and Arabic countries.

A rose water sprinkler


Enamelling is the art of colouring as well as embellishing the surface of metal by fusing together various mineral substances. The art was well known in ancient India and practiced throughout India during the medieval period. The meenakari work of Alwar and Jaipur in Rajasthan, Lucknow and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Kashmir are famous.
The method of enamelling employed in India is called the champleve. In this process the metal is engraved or chased to provide the necessary depressions in which the enamel colours are applied and heated. The article is first burnished to a fine lustre. The colours are applied in the order of their fusibility — those requiring the most heat are used first. After each colour is embedded in the engraved lines, the object is exposed to fire. When all colours are applied, the article is finely polished with corundum and cleaned with a strong acid.

Excerpted with permission from Indian Silver by S.K. Pathak. Roli. Pages 135.