Architectural bracket

19th–20th century
Rosewood, carved
Architectural elements
Overall: 53 1/8 x 4 1/4 x 17 5/8 in. (134.94 x 10.8 x 44.77 cm)
Arts of Asia
Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley via the Alvin and Lucy Owsley and Alconda-Owsley Foundations

General Description

These elaborately carved wooden brackets originally served as flanking struts at the entrance of a mansion belonging to a wealthy mercantile family. More specifically, they were created for a Hindu merchant community in south India known as the Chettinad. These are wooden versions of stone carvings found in nearby temples of the 16th and 17th centuries, where horsemen and riders were carved as decorative brackets on temple pillars. Here horses, mythic animals, and riders are carved in wood, a medium more appropriate for domestic dwellings, with the top figures the largest and those below becoming increasingly small in size. Carved on these brackets are turbaned men wearing various types of clothing, usually with umbrellas held over their heads. In India, umbrellas have long been considered symbols of kingship. While the merchant-owner of the house was not a literal king, he was a king among businessmen, and hence this symbolism can be seen as a statement of power. Gods and animals too are included in this riot of carving. A stylized lotus finial hangs over the head of the largest horse.

These brackets marked the edges of an even more elaborately carved wooden door that served as the entrance to the the house. More than just an entrance, the door, often embellished with images from the epic the Ramayana or with other deities, symbolized the family's wealth and welfare. The door's location was determined by priests and astrologers based on the owner's astrological signs. Special ceremonies were annually enacted to ensure prosperity and happiness, and to deter evil. When residents were inside the house, the door was never closed, so that Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, would always be able to enter. In addition, with the door open, any evil spirit who might be inside could depart.

The Chettinad had long been a merchant community, but they made their fortunes during the mid-19th through mid-20th centuries as traders for the British empire's new interests in Southeast Asia, particularly in Penang, Rangoon, and Mandalay. They used their wealth to build huge mansions in their homeland just off the south Indian coast of the Bay of Bengal. After independence, many of the most successful moved to major Indian cities and established businesses there. While many of these mansions have been abandoned due to the expense of maintaining such massive complexes, those that are intact are used by their owners to celebrate life cycle events such as weddings. The doors flanked by these elaborate wooden brackets welcome the owners, guests, and the goddess in a fitting style.

Excerpt from

  • Catherine Asher, "Architectural brackets" in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 108.