x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

21. The painted dowry chest of many names

To mark the nation's 40th anniversary, we feature 40 historic objects.

A metal dowry chest - also known as a Mandoos. Photography; Razan Alzayani, Deepthi Unnikrishnan & Tina Chang
A metal dowry chest - also known as a Mandoos. Photography; Razan Alzayani, Deepthi Unnikrishnan & Tina Chang
Manufactured in Mumbai, the brightly painted dowry chest has many names. To some it is a "sunduk India" or "sunduk aroos", meaning bridal chest. Locally, it is often known as a mandoos. Whatever the name, it has been a feature of life here for at least five decades.
Examples appear in photographs of shops in the old Abu Dhabi souq in the 1960s from the British Petroleum archive, but this particular example was purchased three years ago at Ahmed Metal Boxes Shop, behind Hamdan Street.
Then and now, the design and purpose is essentially the same. The chest will contain the dowry a bride is taking into the match, in particular gold jewellery and fine fabrics.
Made from galvanised steel, this dowry chest is stronger and cheaper than the wooden versions and offers more protection against the rigours of Gulf weather, in particular humidity and the ravages of insects, which are apparently put off by the pungent smell of the enamel paint.
Karem Hameed Khuni, a salesman at the shop and originally from Kerala, has been selling the chests for 15 years but says the business dates back to the early 1970s.
The customers, he says, are mostly Emiratis, Iranians and Pakistanis, although tourists sometimes buy one as a souvenir.
Westerners, he has observed, prefer blue chests, while those who want to use them for their intended purpose prefer red. He does not know why.
The chest is an example of the ancient cultural and economic links across the Gulf to the Indian subcontinent. The shop sells around 700 a year, "mostly during the marriage season", Mr Khuni says. Demand is as strong today as it was when the shop opened.
Mr Khuni points out that design is "special for here". In India, these chests usually feature flowers and birds, but the UAE export version has the domes of a mosque painted on the lid and sides, with Islamic symbols stamped into the clasps. It is an example of how an object rooted in one culture can become personal to another.