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The Talwar: A Masterpiece of Indian Sword Making

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Updated: February 1, 2023
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The Islamic world has a long history of swordmaking. From Mughal India came the talwar with its characteristic disc pommel and curved blade. Sometimes spelled tulwar, the Indian sword served as a fearsome slashing weapon on the battlefield used by Muslim princes and Hindu Rajputs.

Let’s explore the history of the Indian talwar, how it differs from other Islamic swords, and where you can get it online.

Characteristics of Talwar Sword

Indian swords, like the talwar, are recognized for their distinctive curved shapes, high-quality metalwork, and ornamentations.

Here are the unique characteristics of the Indian talwar:

Metal and Construction

Heavy wootz hilted talwar
Wootz steel blade of a talwar sword – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The ancient Indian wootz steel was one of the finest in the world and was traded over Europe and the Middle East to produce damascus blades that have a watered and streaked appearance. Historical Indian talwars were often made of prized wootz steel and had damascus steel blades that were tough and flexible. By the 18th century, many talwar blades were manufactured from Europe.

However, contemporary swords with so-called damascus blades have nothing to do with wootz steel, as its production declined in the mid-18th century. Historical damascus steel was cast from wootz, which gave it its pattern and properties. On the other hand, modern damascus steel is constructed by pattern-welding soft and hard steel, making its watery pattern a decorative feature than a functional one.

Blade Appearance

Saber Talwar with Scabbard
16th-century blade of an Indian Talwar – Credits: Met Museum

Similar to the European sabre, the talwar is a curved blade but sometimes has a raised or sharp back edge. Indian talwars often had a ricasso, an unsharpened portion on the blade, inlaid with gold. Ones made for Muslim princes often had an inscription along the back edge, while others had plain surfaces and fullers.

Lehria Chevron Blade of a Talwar
Talwar with lehria, chevron-patterned blades – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Some swordsmiths also showed off their skills with chevron patterned blades called lehria, which was common in Rajasthan and Punjab during the 17th century. The pattern was achieved by welding alternate sections of steel in a chevron design. The blade design did not make it stronger, but it did not make it too weak for actual use as well.

Size and Length

Historical talwars usually had a blade length of over 70 centimeters and overall length of more than 90 centimeters. They served as slashing weapons, suited for making powerful draw-cut blows, and could easily split helmets with a single blow.

Sword Mounting

Apart from the blade, talwar hilts were often made from wootz steel and may vary in design depending on the region. Some featured a knuckle bow and different shaped langets and quillons.

Grip and Pommel

Talwar of Mohta Bakhtawar Singh Grip
Talwar of Mohta Bakhtawar Singh – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Indian talwars have a vase-shaped grip section with a V-shaped top. It is also most recognized for its disc pommel, which usually features a spike that a swordsman could use to strike an opponent in close quarters combat. Some swords had an inscription in Punjabi under the pommel, usually the owner’s name and the date they were made.

Sword Guard

Talwar with Wootz Hilt and Blade
Talwar swords with sword guards – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Apart from short quillons or arms of the crossguard, the talwar features two langets or metal strips extending down the blade to help secure the hilt in the scabbard. Talwars from Rajasthan often had more squared langets.

Rajasthan-manufactured hilts often had an open knuckle guard, and those from Punjab usually had a knuckle guard ending in a flower bud. However, many Rajput swordsmen preferred a talwar hilt without a knuckle bow.

Gold or Silver Decoration

Fine dated Talwar from Ratlam
Talwar from Ratlam with thick gold overlay – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The talwar hilt is often decorated with koftgari—steel inlaid with gold—which is typical on Indian swords. On the other hand, metalwork done in contrasting colors, usually silver and gold, is referred to as Ganga-Jamni. 17th-century designs usually included large flowers or birds, while 19th-century designs were more delicate, usually flower bouquets, vases, and garden landscapes.

Scabbard

Sword Talwar with Black Scabbard
Talwar with black wooden scabbard – Credits: Met Museum

Metal scabbards would dull the blade, so historical talwar often had the wooden scabbards covered with velvet or leather with a metal chape to protect its end. However, some rare historical talwar had wooden scabbards encased in iron, elaborately pierced with decorations. Sword scabbards usually have a V-shaped mouth that fits with the langets. Some had a belt attached, while others had suspension rings, which were uncommon for a talwar.

Indian Talwar vs. Scimitar

The term scimitar is a generic name the Europeans used to refer to the curved swords of the Islamic world and curved Asian swords. In wars with the Ottomans, the Europeans first encountered the curved blades and called them scimitars. Hence, the Indian talwar belongs to the scimitar family, which consists of the Ottoman kilij, Persian shamshir, and Arabian said.

Indian Talwar vs. Persian Shamshir

Saber Shamshir with Scabbard
Shamshir with scabbard, 18th Century – Credits: Met Museum

Unlike the Indian talwar, the Persian shamshir has a radical curve and tapering blade. In combat, it was efficient for slashing but less effective for thrusting. It traditionally had an L-shaped pommel and straight quillons, though some shamshir blades are mounted in talwar hilts. It came to India in the 16th century, and by the 19th century, it was widely used in Turkey and other parts of the Islamic world.

Indian Talwar vs. Turkish Kilij

Turkish Sword Kilij with Scabbard
Kilij sword with scabbard, 19th Century – Credits: Met Museum

The Turkish kilij is recognized by its deep curve cut and flared tip called yelman which enhanced its slashing power. Unlike the Indian talwar, these Turkish sabers would have been difficult to draw from a scabbard. So, they had specially adapted scabbards that featured a slot cut covered with sprung steel. It was first used in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.

Indian Talwar vs. Afghan Pulouar

Pulouar Sword
The Afghan Pulouar, a saber associated with the Pashtuns – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Closely associated with the ethnic group known as Pashtuns, the Afghan pulouar is a saber with varying blade designs. It sometimes features a disc pommel similar to the Indian talwar, but its quillons droop downwards and often have enlarged ends.

Indian Talwar vs. Sri Lankan Kastane

Kastane Sword and Scabbard
Sri Lankan Kastane with scabbard, 18th Century – Credits: Met Museum

Like the Indian talwar, the kastane is valued for its craftsmanship and efficiency as a weapon. However, it has a short, curved blade and comes with an ornate scabbard. It is also notable for its fanciful decorations on its pommel which often features the head of a lion.

History of the Indian Talwar

The Hindi talwar comes from Sanskrit taravāri, meaning sword. Produced in the 14th century, the Indian sword reached its highly refined form by the 16th century.

The Mughal Empire and the Indian Talwar

In the 16th century, the Mughal Empire in northern India brought with it the fine curved swords found in the Islamic world. It was a Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin that expanded its power over most of the Indian subcontinent and earned the loyalty of the non-Muslims, especially the Hindu Rajputs.

For centuries, the Rajputs prevented Muslim domination of Hindu India, but they later adopted Islam after the Mughals took over. The Mughal emperor Akbar reigned from 1556 to 1605, and his army fought with talwar swords and the latest artillery. Many Hindu princes adopted the talwar, though the straight-bladed khanda sword remained popular.

The British Raj and the Indian Swords

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British East India Company extended its authority over most of India. It led to direct British rule from 1858 to 1947, a period known as the British Raj. However, these political changes had a limited impact on sword making, as Indian swordsmiths continued to produce swords, including talwar and khanda. Some British officers even took these swords home as souvenirs.

Indian Swords in Martial Arts

In kalaripayattu, a practitioner would choose a weapon, from a metal sword to a dagger, and a wooden stick or club, depending on the skill he has reached. In training, fighters use a blunt sword called val for practicing martial arts techniques. The most capable fighters use daggers, originally developed for close combat and for piercing armor. Kalaripayattu practitioners also use a small shield called paricha for defense.

Conclusion

The talwar was the typical sword of Mughal India, recognized for its distinctive curved blade, highly ornate hilt, and craftsmanship. The sword was a significant weapon in Indian warfare and remains relevant among sword collectors and martial artists.

Sources Cited
  1. The Anatomy of the Indian Tulwar Sword. (n.d.). Nicholas Wells Antiques. Retrieved August 24, 2022, from https://nicholaswells.com/news/the-anatomy-of-the-indian-sword/ 
  2. Crudelli, C. (2008). The way of the warrior. DK Pub.
  3. Dorling Kindersley, Inc. (2015). Military History: The Definitive Visual Guide to the Objects of Warfare (G. Jones, Ed.). DK Publishing.
  4. Ford, R., & Grant, R. G. (2016). Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor. DK Publishing.
  5. McNab, C. (Ed.). (2010). Knives and Swords: A Visual History. DK Pub.
  6. Ralby, A., & Lomazoff, A. (2013). The Atlas of Military History. Thunder Bay Press.
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