Nautilus Shell Powder Flask (barutdan)
This impressive and extremely rare powder flask (barutdan) is made of a single nautilus shell of considerable size. The nautilus is polished to reveal the inner layer of the shell, a composite commonly known as mother-of-pearl, which displays a pearl-like iridescence. A mount of gilt steel in stylised leaf shape runs across the original opening of the nautilus shell, attaching to another piece of mother of pearl. There are two lids of gilt steel attahced to the powder flask, one large and one small.
Despite the development of other mechanisms, matchlocks continue to be used in most parts of India and surrounding regions throughout the 19th and even early 20th century, due to their simple and robust nature. Powder flasks are an essential accessory for matchlocks, and they are used to contain gunpowder for firearms. They usually come in two sizes, the largest, like this one, contain coarse grain powder for the main charge in the barrel.
This flask was almost certainly used in association with a hunting or sporting weapon, where such accessories were often highly decorated or made of high-quality materials to reflect the status of the owner. A rare nautilus shell powder flask like our example would have been considered appropriate for gifts and presentations.
Powder flask are often made of wood, horn, papier-mâché and lacquer, shells. In 18-19th century India, one can also find powder flasks of wood or horn in imitation of nautilus shells. For example, see this wood powder flask shaped like a nautilus shell (2009.469), and this horn power flask (1976.176.2).
Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2598[IS])