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Exquisite containers...with a twist!

22 Nov '16

Red Sandalwood and White Elephants

Posted by Lanchi Vo

During the course of my wood collecting, I came across a specimen called Red Sandalwood. Of course, a common name does not mean much to a wood collector, so I jumped on the net and searched for the possible scientific name of the species. I learned that there are at least two timbers with that common epithet: Pterocarpus santalinus and Adenanthera pavonina.

My sample is positively a Pterocarpus, a nice, deep red wood related to Amboyna, Narra and African Padauk. It is a highly sought after timber and a rare find here in the West. Having a piece of a rare timber is always exciting, but that excitement is nothing in comparison to what I discovered about Adenanthera pavonina, a tree that produces bright red seeds.

Years ago, a colleague of mine gave me a tiny, intricately carved elephant perching on the top of a round, red base (Thanks! Goeff).

It was a delightful addition to my miniature collection. I never suspect that it contains magic, until I tumbled onto this article while searching for information on Red Sandalwood:


I learned that in India, the shiny red seed of Adenanthera pavonina were used to produce good luck charms known as "Magical Seeds" or Manjadikuru: "The [hard shell] seed is slit across the top, hollowed out, and left to dry. Then a series of elephants is then carved from bone—usually camel bone—and placed inside, with a slightly larger elephant carved to seal the mouth of the tiny container. The idea is that the owner of a Manjadikuru will be granted one wish for each elephant contained in the seed" (quoted from http://elephantaday2.blogspot.com/2013/09/elephant-no-6-manjadikuru.html.)

I felt a rush of anticipation as I got out my own Manjadikuru, pulled out the elephant stopper, and shook out all twelve white elephants from the tiny red seed! All perfectly carved with minute details.

It was such a thrilling, accidental discovery!  This little red seed with the magical elephants is definitely the coolest thing that I have ever came across. Such whimsical container! Such awesome content!

Now, to put things in perspective, I do make tiny bead-size containers with a screw-on cap and am very proud of the intricate threads on teeny boxes. But this herd of elephants is an order of magnitude more complex. We are talking about incredible craftsmanship here.  

I was so taken by this little surprise that I went on the internet and searched for these magical seeds. I found a source on Ebay (Yes, Ebay is such a great place for obscure thing like this!) and purchased a dozen more just for fun. I learned that not all Manjadikuru are created equal, some have an elephant as the stopper, some just have a knob (like the one I purchased). Some contain carved elephants with elaborate 3D details, others only have flat slivers of crude elephant shape.

I realized that my original, very well made magical seed is a rare specimen, a cultural artifact, and a lost art.  But above all, it is such an inspiration for someone like me, who uses traditional, non-computerized tools to create intricate pieces.