Of Foreigners & their Blades

Throughout history natives have given names to foreign communities. These names are often derogatory, or just corrupt form of the appearance of people or their place of origins. Perhaps, these name offer a stronger sense of identity to the native community.

Over time, in the age of political correctness and civility, many such words have fallen out of favour and have been replaced by technical terms, that nevertheless, often refer to the place of origin.


By Mughal School [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One such word that has somewhat survived and is still in used, is firangi. A word often used, generally to refer to a foreigner, and specifically used to refer to a person of Caucasian descent. I haven’t heard this pejorative used to refer to a foreigner who is not Caucasian. One of the popular theories of the etymological roots of the firangi is that it is a portmanteau of fika and rang — pale and colour — and therefore applies to Caucasians. Far from the truth.

Firangi derives from the Arabic word al-faranji. This word was used to refer to Franks (Germanic people who conquered Gaul in the 6th century and controlled much of western Europe for several centuries afterward), The Arabics derived the word from the Latin – Franci. The word came into being with the Crusaders, most of whom were Franks.

Around the 16th century, the word had gained a different distinction in India and lent meaning to weapons, rather than to refer to certain people. The Western Euopean sword-blade was finding favour with the Mughals and was called the firangi. However it was made popular by the Marathas, which they bought from the Portuguese. The Portuguese did not manufacture this blade however, they only imported and traded it. Therefore the use of the word firangi was still associated with Western Europe and not with the Portuguese. Interestingly,

The origin of the ethnic name [Frank] is uncertain; it traditionally is said to be from the old Germanic word *frankon “javelin, lance” (compare Old English franca “lance, javelin”), their preferred weapon, but the reverse may be the case. [Link]

Further, during the 16th century:

Syphilis was known in India as the Portuguese disease, or firanga or firangi roga, terms that identified it with the firangis (‘Franks’), or Europeans. According to historians, the disase was first recognised in India in 1498 after the arrival of Vasco-da-Gama, who had left Portugal in 1497.

It is perhaps due to the trade of the Marathas that the word has been strongly associated with the Portuguese, and it seems they referred to the commodity than the people. However, certain documents describe different names for various European traders in India:

Amongst the merchants the Portuguese (Firangi), the English (Ingraz), the Dutch (Valandaze), the French (Francese), the Danes (Dingmar) and hat wearing (Topikar) merchants carry on trade, and commerce.


  1. Dutta, Tarun Kumar, and Subhash Chandra Parija. Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases. New Delhi: Jaypee Brothers Medical Pub., 2013. 118. Print.
  2. Darpan, Mahesh. “पुर्तगाली-बंगाली एंथनी फिरंगी – Navbharat Times.” Navbharat Times. Navbharat Times, 5 May 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
  3. “Firangi (sword).” Wikipedia. 27 Nov. 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. .
  4. Kadam, Umesh. “French-Maratha Relations: India in the 17th Century.” ResearchGate, 21 May 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Bhawani: The Sword of Shivaji

An article in the Times of India from a few years ago, talks of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s Bhawani Sword  having originated in Toledo, Spain. This claim was supported (as a possibility) by none other than Babasaheb Purandare.

“Yes, it can be true because there has been documentary evidence to show that swords had been imported from Spain because of the quality of steel and the mastery of its workers in designing swords and knives,” confirms historian Babasaheb Purandare. According to Purandare, Shivaji possessed three swords which were named Bhawani, Jagdamba and Tulja. Via Desperately Seeking Shivaji’s Sword

Ninad Bedekar, however, casts doubts due the inscriptions on the sword.

What is the class (type) of the Bhawani sword?

According to S. N. Sen, the Bhawani sword is a Genoese blade and the firangi, a Toledo Blade. There is more information about the Bhawani sword being a Genoa blade.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 16.46.56If you look at some of the old paintings of Shivaji, it seems that the sword on his right arm was a Patta or a Dandpatta, which has an integrated gauntlet. However, if we go by the description of the Bhawani in the text above, by Nick Evangelista, it could not have been a Patta. The existence of a spike, means that there could not have been a gauntlet.

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Portrait of Shivaji; painting mounted onto an album folio. Inscribed. Album contains 26 paintings of Indian princes. Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper. Album bound in red leather and stamped on both covers with a central medallion, spine decorated with gold leaf. Interior cover marbled. Courtesy British Museum

There are many such images of Shivaji, that often depict a Dandpatta in the right hand and another sword in the left; which looks more like the firangi (which a straight blade).

There seem to be no specific references to a Toledo Sword or a Genoa sword — they always refer to them a the Toledo Blade or the Genoese Blade. Which makes sense because, according to this page in the Higgins Collection:

As European traders came to India in the 1500s and 1600s, they brought swords from the blademaking centers in Spain, Italy, and Germany. The blades of these swords were much admired in India, and some were fitted into Indian-made hilts. English swords were less respected: one Indian admiral of the 1600s remarked that English blades were “only fit to cut butter.”

So, while the blade itself was imported from either Spain or Italy, the class of the sword is an entirely different matter, because the sword was crafted locally. A distinction needs to be made between the blade and the sword, I suppose.

A sabre or Farang; slightly curved seventeenth century European steel blade stamped on each side with an Arabic inscription and chased on the right side with a crescent moon face; Indian iron basket hilt grip covered with purple and silver gilt cloth; flat circular pommel and curved spike. Green velvet covered wooden scabbard with chased gold mount and chape. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust

A sabre or Farang; slightly curved seventeenth century European steel blade stamped on each side with an Arabic inscription and chased on the right side with a crescent moon face; Indian iron basket hilt grip covered with purple and silver gilt cloth; flat circular pommel and curved spike. Green velvet covered wooden scabbard with chased gold mount and chape. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust

As regards the Jagdamba sword, it is commonly assumed (and accepted, I guess) that the Jagdamba was gifted to Edward VII, the Prince of Wales, during his visit to India. It’s a badly cropped image, so there is no way to clearly state that this is a straight blade or a curved one. The Trust makes no mention of the name of the sword. Also, on the page, there are images of two swords.

A look across various old illustrations of Shivaji, indicate the possibility of the Bhawani sword being a straight blade, and not a scimitar. Also, because I believe it is a gauntlet sword, there’s a good chance that it was a broadsword (double-edged).

Yet, in contemporary illustrations, it is shown as a talwar or a scimitar (curved blade). Are these representations of the Bhawani sword or the Jagdamba sword?

I’ll keep updating this page as I find new information. If you have anything to contribute, please suggest, using comments below.



  1. TNN. (2002, July 2). Desperately Seeking Shivaji’s Sword – The Times of India. Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/pune-times/Desperately-Seeking-Shivajis-Sword/articleshow/14790290.cms
  2. Sen, S. (1920). Siva Chhatrapati being a translation of Sabhasad Bakhar with extracts from Chitnis and Sivadigvijaya, with notes. (Vol. 1, p. 19). Calcutta: Univ. of Calcutta.
  3. Evangelista, N. (1995). The Encyclopedia of the Sword (p. 55). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
  4. Pata (sword). (2014, November 29). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pata_(sword)
  5. British Museum – Portraits of Indian Princes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=135116&objectId=265601&partId=1
  6. Firangi (sword). (2014, November 27). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firangi_(sword)
  7. Pata (gauntlet sword). (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.higgins-collection.org/artifacts/1550
  8. Sabre. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/38023/sabre

The Cultural Connotation of History

I’ve been reading a book. It has captured my imagination and helped me understand a context of viewing history. I’ve not finished reading the book; by number of content pages, I am somewhere 17% in the book.

1200: Vishalgad Milestone

Conventional and contemporary formulation of a war plan is based on “game-theory (numerically based, conflict analysis.) The author of the book, that I’m reading, uses the phrase, “Contemporary cultural arrogance of strategic assumption.” Some of us may find the phrase familiar.

Early, in The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India, by Randolf G. S. Cooper, there is context-setting for the book. Or, at least that is how I look at it.

What role does cultural conditioning and cultural perception play in the formulation of war plans and the prosecution of war?

[ … ]

In other words, linking your military response to assumptions about your enemy’s action’s (i.e. strategy and tactics) is dangerous if you come from a different cultural background than that of your opponent.

[ … ]

If you wage war against an opponent from a different culture, it is never safe to assume that the ‘givens’ that govern your behaviour also govern those of your enemy.

In a cross-cultural conflict, the assumption that the opponent will respond in a way that you would expect (in a similar situation) is dangerous, to say the least. When we adopt the line of this thought, we tend to ignore the cultural upbringing and therefore the compulsions of the opponent. Risk-perception and other similar qualities aren’t predictable, more-so because of disparate cultural, historical, and even geographical considerations.

Distorted notions, or invalid assumptions of cultural comprehension of the opponent comes from dealing with “large blocks of time” that enables easier and, perhaps, faster analysis. These simplified explanations are easily peddled, comfortably absorbed, and lubricated without resistance, down generations. (As is obvious this process runs the further risk of over-simplification over time). Each side does this unfailingly and attempts (with varying degrees of success) to propagate and insert their version within the world view.

Some of the recent and ongoing conflicts in the world today are a case in point. While the physical conflict continues, in such instances, a parallel conflict of continuous cultural conflict and misrepresentation continues to compete.

When one side has complete dominion (e.g. the colonisation of India) over the other, the description and definition of the cultural ethos is owned by the oppressor. The oppressor works on it in two ways: one, to systematically put to death the original cultural ethos; two, by laying a thick shroud of a permanent propaganda of an artificial, oppressor-oriented identity. The oppressed then start believing, over generations, in the oppressor’s version of the cultural ethos of the oppressed.

Generations pass by.

The reclaiming starts. The oppressor is long gone. But it is not always easy to reclaim reality from the rotting corpses of yesterday.

History suffers, and becomes a victim of hollow chest-beating and rhetoric.

How to Write (and Read) About History (via OpenCulture)

History books are usually fun. Not all books, but most of them who tell stories well, and who tell them right. The more interesting books are about the history of history or the science of history, if I can call them that. And then there are books about the writing of history.

In a nutshell, the book argues that historians have lost their public relevance by writing histories of the ‘short term’ — essentially ‘micro-scale’ histories — when they could be writing bigger, deeper histories, covering longer periods of time, that help readers put our world into perspective. What Guldi and Armitage are calling for is a return to long, meaningful narratives and big-picture thinking — the kind of thinking that could perhaps pull the historical profession out of crisis. As someone who got his PhD in History during the ‘micro-scale’ era, all I can say is — amen to that.”

Free Download of The History Manifesto: Historians New Call for Big-Picture Thinking | Open Culture: (Via. Open Culture)

History manifesto

I believe the short-term or the micro-history is interesting because of the specifics in the story. The big-picture histories are loftier, abstract to an extent, and perhaps not-so-interesting. It does not however mean that “big-picture histories aren’t important. The context of a micro-scale histories are equally important as the specific in it.

In my study of the Maratha Confederacy  I’ve been studying the histories of various confederacies around the world, and have been curious about the nature of how confederacies come in to existence, their character, and their eventual demise.

While I don’t intend to write a book on history, it seems that the book may help me find a better direction to the manner in which I study history. I am looking forward to reading this book.

History’s Coin

In my opinion, this would undoubtedly be the most impressive project ever undertaken in the realm of History. Especially because the project does not attempt to create a singular view of history, rather, it just places them alongside each other for you, the student, to evaluate the two views.


History as a concept as well as a subject has been subject to much maligning. This project and similar such projects (if they come up in the future) will help history reclaim its deserving position, not just in academia, but also for the curious mind.

“In school, we learn that History isn’t like Maths. It isn’t a ‘scoring subject’. A two plus two will yield the same result all over the world, but history is subjective. It’s written by people, after all. People are subjective too; people find it difficult to not pick sides, a fact borne out by those history textbooks of India and Pakistan.

In a way, this conflict led to a book that illuminates the biases and subjectivity inherent in history. The History Project — launched on April 30 — was born at the Seeds of Peace, an annual camp for teenagers from countries in conflict, held at Maine, in the U.S. Feruzan Mehta, then director of Seeds of Peace-India, came up with the idea in 2005. Six years later, The History Project was founded by three young Pakistanis: Qasim Aslam, Ayyaz Ahmad and Zoya Siddiqui. They brought together a team of editors and volunteers from both countries to produce the Project’s first history textbook.”

(Via One story, two sides – The Hindu.)

The project page is here and the “textbook” can be downloaded here. [18MB PDF]. If you are willing to appreciate history without embellishment, opinion or colour, this is a definite read.

For the Love(rs) of Hummus



I must say that this is not happening by design – two consecutive posts related to Food history. Yet, it was fascinating as I read it, so I had to share:

“For example, chickpeas are widely grown by traditional farmers from the Mediterranean and Ethiopia east to India, with the latter country accounting for 80 percent of the world’s chickpea production today. One might therefore have been deceived into supposing that chickpeas were domesticated in India. But it turns out that ancestral wild chickpeas occur only in southeastern Turkey. The interpretation that chickpeas were actually domesticated there is supported by the fact that the oldest finds of possibly domesticated chickpeas in Neolithic archaeological sites come from southeastern Turkey and nearby northern Syria that date to around 8000 B.C.; not until over 5,000 years later does archaeological evidence of chickpeas appear on the Indian subcontinent.”

Excerpt From: Diamond, Jared. “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

You may also be interested in reading this article on Hummus and this entry on Chickpeas in Wikipedia.

A Dip in History | Sambar

IMG 1100  Version 2

So here’s how a simple mistake or a turn of circumstances caused a great dish to become. Of all the happy accidents in history, I think I’ll peg this one as my favourite. As much as Sambar – my favourite dish! Of course, as accidents go, this discovery happened on one of my favourite blogs, Varnam, where he wrote of The Origin of Sambar. I couldn’t find the content the post had linked to, so some fun research led me to this:

“The Marathas were ruling Tanjore. Sambhoji was a great cook (the male clan members to note) and very fond of his amti with a handful of the tart kokum thrown in. In a particular season the kokum that was imported from the Maratha homeland did not reach the bare larder of the king’s kitchen. Sambhoji was cooking and the minions were shivering in their dhothis to tell him that his favourite dish could not be made that day. A smart Vidushak, who had been elected sous chef for the day, decided to solve the problem. He whispered in the king’s ears that the locals used very little tamarind pulp to gain a better sourness to the curry and that Sambhoji should experiment with this variation. Voila, the dish with the tuvar dal, vegetables, spices and the tamarind pulp was cooked and served by the king to his coterie. The court declared the dish an outstanding preparation (they had no choice with the king as Chef) and thus was born Sambhoji’s amti that in time became sambhar.”

(Via The Story of Sambhar by Padmini Natarajan.)


The link above is not working, you can view a cached image of the article here. If for some reason, this link also disappears, here’s the PDF of the Original post: The Story of Sambhar by Padmini Natarajan, from 2002, by Dr. Padmini Natarajan. This article was also mentioned in The Hindu – A Tale of Two Sambhars.