On the Trail of Chests, Safes and Cabinets

A compilation of exquisite Indian devices for storing and safe-keeping valuables

By Museum of Design Excellence

Chest With Brass Detailing by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India

Valuable Voyages

Whether it was wooden chests that travelled across the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, ornamented cabinets that held household valuables, or duplicitous padlocks that guarded priceless treasures, these objects serve to preserve memories and are indispensable testimonies to India’s glorious craftsmanship. Although they constantly adapted to changing political regimes, artistic movements, climatic conditions, and technological advancements, they continued to preserve their regional essence and safeguard their primary purpose. Chests, locks and cabinets are no longer produced in their original forms in India, however, variations of them continue to fill homes across the country. 

Brass Chest with Geometric Metalwork by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India

CHESTS | sandooks

Before the arrival of cupboards and suitcases, wooden chests called sandook (derived from ‘sanduq’, Arab for ‘saving box’) were used to store household items. In Indian homes, elite or humble, a variety of boxes and chests were utilised as storage units for objects that ranged from utensils, to mattresses, and heirloom drapes. Sandook was a sought after, major item of Indian export. Sandooks were significant commodities along the Arab trade route - from the Persian Gulf to Zanzibar and Mombassa along the east coast of Africa. Whether a symbol of status in the Arab community, or a necessary piece of storage amongst wealthy merchants and regular seamen, the uses of the wooden chests was universal - as travelling trunks, jewelry strongboxes or dowry chests.The design of these wooden chests evoked a blend of regional, cultural, and religious influences, and embraced the essence of the area where they were crafted. Constantly adapting to changing times and situations, the wooden chests also served as practical pieces of furniture for many centuries.

Carved Camphor Chest by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India

CARVED CAMPHOR CHEST

In the 18th and 19th century, chests made from naturally fragrant camphor wood were primarily used to transport tea, porcelain, and silks from China to Europe. Prior to their use in sea trade, camphor chests were used in Chinese households as storage units for objects such as blankets and linens. More decorative renditions of these chests were also used as pieces of furniture in wealthy houses.

This carved camphor chest features bracket legs with step-like carved patterns on the sides. Intricately carved motifs of boats with sails, human figurines, cranes, herons, foliage, as well as rosette and floral patterns adorn the lid and the front panel of the chest. Similar patters also curve around the edges, sides and back.

Malabar Chest by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India

MALABAR CHEST

It is believed that trunks similar to the Malabar chest were used in the 19th Century by workers travelling from the Gulf to the Malabar region in India. Originally created by carpenters in Bombay and Surat, these sturdy chests were then exported to the Gulf. They were generally made from dark rosewood or teak, and furnished with metal clasps, hinges and handles.

This chest is devoid of legs and sits flat on the floor. The vertical fluting lines along the frontal panel are carved into the wood creating a linear, ribbed pattern. The chest is decorated and strengthened by vertical mewl clasps along its frontal periphery.

Painted Domed Chest by UnknownOriginal Source: Philipa Antiques

PAINTED DOMED CHEST

The Portuguese commissioned the crafting of furniture such as writing tables, sewing boxes and trunks to local Indian craftsmen during their rule in the subcontinent.

The lid of the chest is cambered - outwardly convex in its structure, and shaped like a dome - and its fittings are made of iron. The lid is hinged with two slaps that make provisions for locking. The base of the chest is completely flat and is elevated onto a custom-made wooden stand. The skirting of the stand as well as the S-shaped legs are embellished with floral, scroll-like patterns. Additionally, the chest is coated with striking, green paint.

Brass Chests by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India

STUDDED BRASS CHESTS

Wooden chests played a vital role in establishing trade between colonial India and Africa through Arab trade routes. Similar to tea chests or vanity cases, they are also known as Shirazi or Basra chests as they travelled from India to Shiraz and then onwards to Zanzibar.

Brass-studded wooden chest were considered symbols of wealth and status, and were coveted by wealthy merchants and seamen. Smaller chest - resembling briefcases consisting of various tiers on the inside and generally layered with velvet - were lighter in weight and could, therefore, be moved easily.

Chest With Brass Detailing by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India

A number of wooden chests from the 19th century were lined and studded with decorative elements using brass. Intricate marquetry work, fretwork, ornate finials, and riveted, spiked or braided metal edges were key features. Fittings such as the handles, clasps, hinges, nails and straps were as detailed as the motifs that adorned the surface of the chests.

It is also believed that the sailors, during their voyages, added elements such as brass studs in arabesque patterns on their surface to boost their value.

LOCKS

Medieval India had a rich past of trick locks - padlocks that worked like technical riddles.  Whether they were Rim locks fitted into the exterior of doors or keyless-combinations ones, locks in India have been key in guarding history’s secrets.  Hidden keyholes were revealed when the correct buttons were pushed, pulled or slid, and specific keys had to be used in particular orders to unlock the contraption - such as this lock from Madhya Pradesh.

Godrej's Patent For The Springless Lock by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Godrej Archives

Up until the 20th century, modern locks were generally supplied by small shops and locksmiths, and later by foreign companies.

The founding of Godrej & Boyce in 1897 gave rise to the country’s first facility where locks and levers were set by skilled labour and keys were drop-forged and machine cut.

In 1909, India invented the spring-less lock that clenched attention worldwide - the patent of which is shown to the left.

Earlier, the springs in lock would catch dust and get easily damaged leaving levers open, however, Godrej’s innovation improved the inner mechanisms of the lock, which also made them more resilient to picking.

Gordian Lock by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Godrej Archives

GORDIAN LOCK

Ardeshir Godrej patented the gordian lock that worked with two keys. Both keys could lock and unlock the device; however, the second ‘check key’ could also modify the inner workings fo the lock and, therefore render the first key futile.

This method of joined control was beneficial in the case of loss or suspected duplication of the keys.

Killa Padlock by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Godrej Archives

KILLA PADLOCK

Killa Padlocks were manufactured from brass or gun metal and cost Rs. 29/- . The lock was virtually burglar-proof as its straight stainless steel shackle was completely hidden. This meant a lever could not dislodge it and even if it were cut through with a saw, the lock would not open.

Weak joints and vulnerable rivets were furthermore completely eliminated as the body was manufactured from one solid metal slab.

Safe and Keyless Combination Lock by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Godrej Archives

SAFE AND KEYLESS COMBINATION LOCK

Ardeshir Godrej’s zeal to improve Indian-made security systems led him to introduce keyless combination locks. These devices were equipped with 45 different combination settings and could be fitted onto any Godrej safe as additions to the usual key.

Aside form homes, keyless combination safes were soon used in leading banks, government offices and other prestigious public institutes.

Nav-tal by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Godrej Archives

NAV-TAL

The Nav-Tal padlock was launched by Godrej & Boyce in 1958. This brand of locks was popularly used in important institutions in India such as the Parliament House, the Red Fort, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the Supreme Court. Constant innovation and improvement of the Nav-Tal lock maintained its iconic position for another century.

Door-Lock by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Godrej Archives

DOOR LOCKS

Door locks, usually, are of two types - rim and mortise. While the former attaches to the surface of the door, the latter is fitted into a cavity made in the doorframe. These locks feature a latch that works on a spring and automatically bolts the door when shut. Externally, the latch is operated by a knob or handle. The locking bolt may or may not have a key.

Keyless locking bolts are usually used for rooms within the home – such as the bath, toilet, or bedroom – and are secured by a stopper on the inside.

Brass Studded Cabinet by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India

CABINETS | almirahs

Almirahs (derived from ‘armarium’, Latin for ‘free-standing cupboard’) in Indian households were not only used as storage units, but were also objects that created an atmosphere of community and security as they were often shared by several members of the family. The double-door units, later clad with mirrors, became a staple in middle class homes for decades to come.

Sunburst Wooden Cabinet by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India

SUNBURST WOODEN CABINET

This Sunburst wooden cabinet was created in the 19th century during British rule in India. This sturdy, double-door cabinet sits flat on the floor, and features round knobs and cube-like projections at both ends of its base.

The floating panels of the doors are adorned with sukhyamukhi, or sunburst, carving which were popular at workshops in Gujarat and Rajasthan in the 1800s. This sunburst pattern is a traditional symbol of prosperity and fortune and is characterised by its ovoid shapes, and smaller oval disks laden with floret motifs and leaf embellishments angled at the corners.

The panels are bordered by two narrow bands of intricate carvings - a chain-like pattern which is again surrounded by a floral one. The overhanging eaves has egg and dart cornices.

Godrej Almirah Advertisement by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Godrej Archives

The ornamentation of almirahs was based on the user’s status, and they were generally rendered according to regional styles and influences. By the 1960s - as seen in the advertisement to the left - wooden almirahs were replaced by studier, rodent-proof steel cupboards that were resistant to the vagaries of tropical climates.

Initially, shelves and built in lockers were the typical features in cupboards. As Western attire gained traction, the design of the interiors of the cupboards changed to suit the contemporary fashion - Storwels adorned hanging rods and larger open spaces, while Slimline units functioned in an economy of space owing to their sliding doors.

Godrej Steel Almirah (Early Twenties) by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Design-The India Story

STEEL SAFE CABINET

In 1923, Godrej began manufacturing Steel Safe Cabinets. Initial models closely resembled wooden cupboards and featured adjustable shelves, the option of internal lockers and drawers, and half or full-length mirrors.

Credits: Story

Read more about India's design objects on:
- Keeping it Cool, on thermal comfort;
- Beyond the throne, on elevated seating;
- Pots and vessels, on the philosophy of plenitude;
- Transmitting hope, how electronics linked India.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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