Mysteries and Surprises of the Box


Ever since I was a child I have always loved boxes. Whether this stems from my desire for tidiness and the ability of boxes to hide otherwise unsightly collections of ‘treasures’ or junk; or the allure of what might be hidden inside, I’m not sure.

As a child, I would have derived endless enjoyment from this Carved Wooden Box, with its four compartments. Each is accessed by sliding the tops off rather than lifting the lids, making them feel concealed and secret. Even now it gives a frisson of pleasure when I open it.

Carved Wooden Box with four Drawers

Carved Wooden Box with four Drawers

Many years on, the fascination with boxes remains and I get lots of pleasure from selecting boxes for the Gallery. From small containers originally used for make-up, to larger dowry boxes; chapatti boxes to flour chests, I am still irresistibly drawn to them.

Often the make-up boxes are still stained red inside, like the one below. This is from the paste traditionally made from red turmeric powder or, much more dangerously, toxic vermilion. The paste is used to make the bindi or tilak mark often seen on the foreheads of Hindu women.

Red Vintage Indian Make Up box

For me, the best boxes were always the ones containing further ‘secret’ compartments, and one of my favourites is the Old Dowry Chest shown here:

Indian Carved Wooden Dowry box

It has a three drawers at the bottom, most probably originally for jewellery but with endless possible uses. These drawers do not lock however, so I imagine that the most valuable pieces were kept in the internal ‘box within a box’, safely padlocked and out of sight.

The main compartment would be used for embroidered cloths, often made by the bride in the years preceding her marriage. Such boxes would be filled by the bride and her family and taken to her marital home. The practise has not entirely died out but these days the boxes are often metal trunks which withstand damp and insects better than the traditional wooden ones.

Not all boxes have such symbolic and special use but illustrate the Indian tendency to decorate and beautify even the most everyday items – for example these carved wooden chapatti boxes used to keep chapattis warm.

Carved Wooden Chapatti Boxes

Carved Wooden Chapatti boxes

Rather than carved, some of our boxes are beautifully painted, such as this Tibetan box depicting horned deer on the front; Yama, the lord of death, on the top; and crossed vajras on each end.

Painted Tibetan Box




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