Hindu Casket

Sandalwood box sheds light on Anglo-Indian history

This Yorkshire World Collections object, is one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.


This Sandalwood casket or box, from Agra, India, was made around 1900. It was possibly made for a tourist, a visitor to Agra, location of the famous Taj Mahal.  It is inlaid with buffalo horn and ivory, and decorated with a floral pattern on the outside, and two images of Hindu gods on the lid. The casket has a small key-hole, with a key inside the box on a length of fabric. It stands on four small feet, each one the shape of a different animal. We don’t know who first made or sold it.

 

It seems to fall into the category of Anglo-Indian crafts, which were made for the English living in India. Generally the Anglo-Indians were not keen on images of gods as they were Christians, so the presence of Brahma and his consort Sarasvati mean that we cannot be sure who it was made for.

 

The Taj Mahal was built nearly 400 years ago as a shrine for a beloved wife. Millions of people have come to Agra to see it from all over the world and bring back souvenirs.  

The box was donated by the Imperial Institute in 1926. This organisation was set up in the 1880s as a kind of exhibition space to showcase trade goods from the British colonies and to host overseas government visitors. In 1962 the massive Victorian building that house the Institute was replaced by a modern structure called The Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park in West London. By this time the 'Empire' was broken up and countries given independence and allowed to govern themselves.


Glossary

Anglo-Indians - People who were and are, partly of White British and partly of Indian descent. During the time that the British were in India, from the end of the 17th Century to the middle of the 20th Century, many people travelled from Britain to India. Men came as soldiers or to work in the administration of the country, others came to trade. Before the 1880s very few women made the journey, it was too long and dangerous. As a result the men got together with Indian women and the families which resulted are known as Anglo-Indian. After the opening of the Suez Canal, women from England came in large numbers to find husbands. These Victorian ladies disapproved of the mixed marriages and poisoned the opinions of the British towards the Anglo-Indian families which had previously been accepting of them. As these families had grown up with British traditions, values, and religion this was devastating, they were shunned by the Indians and by the British.


Young person's response to this object

Who owned it? Where was it made? What was it used for?

Jordan Keighley.

Objects like this one stimulate our curiosity. This comment reflects a need to make connections and find out more.


Discussion ideas:

  • What might have been kept in the box and what would you keep in a similar box?
  • Why do you think the Victorian Christian families in India would not buy a box showing Brahma and Sarasvati?
  • What are the biggest differences between the Hindu and the Christian religions? 
  • This box was made for a specific purpose apart from keeping things in; it was made as a souvenir, as a reminder of India. What souvenirs do you think visitors might take back from Britain?
  • We learn that attitudes to Anglo-Indians changed when the Victorians arrived. They were prejudiced towards Anglo-Indians. How could this have been prevented?
  • 'The Imperial Institute' was changed to become 'The Commonwealth Institute'. What did this change of name mean?

Activity ideas:

  • Write a list of the qualities that help us live in a mixed society.
  • Design an inlay pattern for your own box. Look at the Related Links at the bottom of the page for ideas.
  • Imagine a group of Anglo–Indian women meeting a group of British women who have just arrived in India from Britain. They meet at the local church. Role play some of the conversations that might take place between them.     



 
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