An unusual pihiya (piha kaetta) | Peter Dekker's Mandarin Mansion: Antique Arms & Armor

An unusual pihiya (piha kaetta)

The antique knives of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) are known among collectors for their elaborate decoration, executed in fine workmanship. Many were made in the Four Workshops or pattal-hatara, working exclusively for the king, and were bestowed to nobles and officials together with the kasthané and a cane as a sign of rank and / or office. Others were presented as diplomatic gifts.

These knives are indiscriminately referred to as pihā-kaetta, in following of their mention as such in Parker (1909).1 However, further study of the literature reveals that pihā-kaetta literally means "billhook knife", which is just one of various types of Sinhalese knives. In his defense, Parker also mentions that by his time such knives were almost invariably called gal-mita pike meaning "stone handled knife", regardless of the materials of their hilts, indicating some fluidity and perhaps confusion in terms used, even by the Sinhalese themselves.

Deraniyagala (1942) makes a distinction between several types. According to him the pihā-kaetta describes the various forms of a large, chopper-like knives encountered. The smaller, more delicate ones that come in a scabbard together with a stylus for writing on palm leaf, are called ul pihiya.2 Finally, De Silva & Wickramasinghe (2007) clear up the matters with contemporary romanisation of Sinhala: pihiya is knife. ul pihiya is a knife with an acute point. The chopper type is correctly romanized today as pihiya kättha.3

This example

Overall length sheathed: 31 cm / 12.2 inch
Knife length: 28.8 cm / 11.3 inch
Blade length: 16.5 cm / 6.5 inch
Blade thickness: 6 mm at base, 5 mm middle, 3 mm at tip.
Weight outside scabbard: 240 grams
Weight total: 335 grams

An interesting Sinhalese knife, pihiya, probably from the late Kandyan period. Blade mostly straight with single groove and moderately sharp tip. It has panels of silver damascening on either side of rhythmically disposed vegetation, a typical Sinhalese decorative element called liya-vęla.4 A simplified version of the same motif is repeated on the back of the blade.

The most unusual feature of the piece is the style and material of its pommel which is cast from a single piece of brass, in the form of a Sinhalese mythical bird called the sérapéṅdiya. It's tail is connected to a brass, heavily silver-plated "sleeve" from which the blade emerges, as if it sprouted from the bird's tail. The sleeve is decorated with more liya-vęla, some flowers, and a number of intricate curls upon curls, again typical for Sinhalese work, called liya-pata5. This elaborately worked sleeve is almost always present on Kandyan knives, but with many knives the handle doesn't represent the bird, at least not anymore.

Such sérapéṅdiya hilted knives are very rare. One, possibly the oldest, is published in Hales (2013) and is thought to date from as early as the 15th century. Hales suspects that the earliest forms all had the sérapéṅdiya head, and the hilt lost the bird shape in favor of ever more elaborate abstract forms later. 6 Another, probably 18th century example is published in Deraniyagala (1942), which seems to have a horn or wooden hilt.7 According to De Silva & S. Wickramasinghe there are only five more in verious Sri Lankese museums.8

This knife comes with its original carved wooden scabbard. Made of two halves of dark hardwood, joined at the tip with a metal pin and held together at the top with a brass sheet sleeve. The scabbard's surface is grooved. It comes complete with its original writing stylus, called paṅhinda. These were used to write on palm leaves that were held in the left hand while the stylus was held in the right. The stylus has a steel point, fitted in a brass sleeve. The top part is made of a single piece of cast bronze in the form of decorative spheres and rings, decorated with floral motifs.9

A knife of Sri Lanka, representing one of the rarest forms of its type. It is probably a later manifestation of the original bird-hilted forms that most later Kandyan knives seem to have derived off. It comes with its original scabbard and palm leaf writing stylus. A very rare, complete pihiya in great condition. While not as fine or ornate as some, it will be a notable addition for the more advanced collector who can appreciate the archaic iconography of its hilt.

Price € 1200,-
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Interested? Questions?

1. H. Parker, Ancient Ceylon. Luzac & Co, London, 1909. Page 531.
2. P.E.P. Deraniyagala, Sinhala Weapons and Armor. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Volume XXXV. No. 95 Part III, 7th December 1942. (Reprint, Ken Trotman, 2009.) Pages 109 - 110.
3. P.H.D.H. De Silva & S. Wickramasinghe, Ancient Swords, Daggers & Knives in Sri Lankan Museums. A Publication of National Museums of Sri Lanka, 1st Edition, 2007. Addendum, pages 1 and 2.
4. Coomaraswamy, Ananda K., Medieaval Sinhalese Art, Pantheon Books, New York, Second Edition of the 1908 original, 1956. Pages 98 - 99.
5. Coomaraswamy, pages 82 - 83.
6. Robert Hales, Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime's Passion, England, 2013. Pages 62-63.
7. Deraniyagala. Page 145 (plate II).
8. De Silva & Wickramasinghe. Pages 202 - 203.
9. For more on Sinhalese writing styles, see Coomaraswamy, pages 195 and De Silva & Wickramasinghe, page 208.

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