is a calciferous (dental) substance, which according
to chemists, falls somewhere between bone and
horn. Obtained mostly from the tusks of elephants,
the material is highly suitable for engraving
and carving. Hence it has been since ancient
times, a cherished medium of artistic expression.
Despite the worldwide ban on trading in ivory
products, old pieces are still much sought after.
India, with its large elephant population,
has long been a centre of ivory work. Ivory
carving, described as one of the noblest crafts
by Vedic literature, is one of the oldest
craft traditions in India, King Solomon of
Biblical times is said to have bought Indian
ivory and King Darius of Persia used ivory
decorations in his palace in the 6th
century B.C. Along with muslin and frankincense,
ivory ranked among the foremost products sourced
from India by kings and courts of other countries
in ancient times.
A brilliant piece of
The use of ivory in crafts, in India, may
be traced back to the Indus Valley
civilisation (2300 – 750 B.C).
In 1920 excavations in Sindh unearthed animal
figurines, diverse ornaments for women’s
hair, combs and buttons made of ivory. However,
since the region did not have a native elephant
population, evidently ivory was acquired from
elsewhere for the manufacture of these artefacts.
Female figurines and dolls made of ivory
dating from the 6th century BC
have been discovered at Champanagar in Bihar.
Many fine specimens made of ivory and bone
from the period 500 to 200 BC have also been
found at Nagra and Maheshwar (Madhya Pradesh).
An ivory statue pertaining to the 600 –
200 BC period has been found in Gujarat. Ivory
works of the same period have also been found
at Ropar in the Punjab. Stone inscriptions
found in the vicinity of the ruins of the
Sanchi Stupa (Madhya Pradesh), speak of the
flourishing trade in ivory crafts that used
to take place at Bidisha (modern Madhya Pradesh)
in the 1st century BC. During the
Sunga rule (185 BC – 78 BC), ivory craftsmen
were engaged to work on the gates of the stupas
at Bharhut, Sanchi (both in Madhya Pradesh)
and Bodhgaya (modern Bihar). Ivory artefacts
dating back to the Sunga period meant for
ornamental and decorative purposes have also
been found at Chandraketugarh in West Bengal.
Ivory crafts were also popular during the
Kushan period (1st – 3rd AD), as suggested
by the abundance of ivory artefacts found
at Taxila and Begram (modern Afghanistan).
. In the beginning of the Middle Ages, ivory
crafts flourished in Orissa. There the tusks
of elephants were used mainly for making legs
of thrones, furniture and temple decoration.
In Bangladesh (which was a part of India till
1947), the first evidence of ivory crafts
were found in the district of Sylhet. The
styles of ivory craft underwent some changes
after the advent of the Muslims. Ivory continued
to be used to make furniture legs, but it
was also used to make penholders, back scratchers,
hookah parts. Hilts of swords and daggers
made of ivory were extremely popular. The
Mughals greatly patronised this industry.
The Mughal emperor Jahangir mentions in his
autobiography that he had a number of ivory
craftsmen in his permanent employ.
After the influx of European traders in India
around the 16th century, ivory craftsmanship
was greatly influenced by western art. The
British frequently imported elephant tusks
from their colonies in Africa to get different
products fashioned by the talented Indian
craftsmen for export to Europe. Tusks were
also collected from tuskers found dead in
the Indian jungles and from those maintained
by the Indian princes and zamindars.
During this time the craft flourished in Jaipur,
Kerala, Mysore, Assam and Bengal.
Apart from elephant tusks, tusks and bones
of other animals not native to the continent,
such as the hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal
(a whale with a long, twisted tooth, swims
in Arctic waters. Narwhals can grow to be
about five metres), dugongs (dugongs, or sea
cows as they are sometimes called), can grow
to about three metres in length and weigh
as much as 400 kilograms. They are the only
marine mammals in Australia that live mainly
on plants. The name sea cow refers to the
fact that they graze on the seagrasses, which
form meadows in sheltered coastal waters),
hornbills and whales were also carved and
turned into artistic pieces.
The production methods of ivory are still
primitive. Before starting work, the hollow
part of the tusk is usually cleaned by boiling
it with soda and calcium or by burying it
underground for a few days. The crevices of
the tusk are filled with liquid wax. Work
is commenced only after the task is hard and
dry. The artisan saws through a part of the
tusk and then traces a design on it with a
pencil. The engraving is done with the help
of a chisel and a hammer.
Delicate work is done with the help of a stone
pen while the perforations are done with a
drill machine. After the piece has been carved,
it is soaked in water. The work is smoothened
with the help of sandpaper, ivory dust, fish
scales, china clay and chalk powder. In Kerala,
leaves of a certain tree are used to make
the design smooth and bright. Although ivory
has its own natural lustre, craftsmen are
wont to use colour. The craftspeople of Harappa
used black and red. Egyptians soaked the tusks
in red, yellow, violet, green or black dyes.
An ivory comb
Over the centuries, the list of popular ivory
products has come to include billiard balls,
perfume bottles, chessmen, paper knives, and
trinket or pan boxes, jewellery items like
beads, bead necklaces, bangles and rings.
The ivory carvers of Bengal, Jaipur and Delhi
are known for their engraved models of 'ambari
hathi' or processional elephant, bullock
carts, caskets, book covers, sandals and palanquins.
Orissa has had a tradition of offering ivory
inlaid furniture to the Jagannath temple at
In Kerala and Karnataka, ivory is used for
making miniature shrines with delicate pillars
and intricate relief floral work, caskets
depicting scenes from myths and legends, besides
images of gods and goddesses, including Christian
icons and symbols. This traditional craft
is still flourishing well. Rajasthan is known
for its ivory fans, centre pieces for the
dining table, with ornately carved receptacles
shaped as flowers and half-opened blossoms,
the lids adorned with birds. Craftsmen of
Gujarat specialized in carving exquisite human
figures besides images of deities.
The ivory-inlaid and veneered furniture that
used to be made in Vizagapatam (a.k.a Vishakhapatnam),
India, in the 18th and early 19th centuries
illustrate the swiftness with which furniture
designs were transmitted from cosmopolitan
centres to the colonial periphery at that
For more than three decades now, the government
of India has imposed a ban on sale and purchase
of ivory. Hence the profession of ivory craft
has almost come to a standstill. The same
craftsmen now work on bone. Consequently the
artistic pieces possessed by affluent families
and wealthy individuals have virtually become
antiques, precious collector’s items,
worth their own weight in gold!
A table inlaid with
an ivory chessboard