The Bellydancer’s Kastane:
An Inquiry into the Origin of a Standard Dance Accessory
The art of bellydancing, as performed for Western audiences, requires a sense of the exotic. In practice this amounts to extravagant “Oriental” costumes, to which are accessorized various objects encompassing a dancer’s repertoire. Prominent among these is the scimitar, which is used in various ways to supplement a dancer’s movement.
The use of the scimitar in bellydancing routines will be described in another essay. The present discussion will draw attention to one of the most frequently encountered forms of bellydancer sword, which is something of a curiosity because it combines features of several unrelated historical forms. The most conspicuous aspect of this form is the hilt – that of the kastane of Sri Lanka – so for present purposes we will refer to it as such, being mindful all the time of the distinctions between it and historical kastane.
The kastane is a saber endemic to the Singhala, the major ethnic group of the island of Ceylon. It is distinguished by the lavish sculptured form of the hilt: A stylized beast covered with foliate or geometric patterning. The quality of kastane specimens is consistently very high, implying that they were produced to complement the public dress of high-status men in Singhalese society. Kastane seem only to have come into being after contact with Europeans in the 16th century. This view is reinforced by the configuration of quillons on the guard, which is found on Mediterranean swords of the time but is unseen elsewhere in contemporary South Asia.
Reproduction kastane in the author’s collection. Source: http://www.valiantco.com/kastane.jpg.
Examples of antique kastane, from Stone 1934, fig. 426. Despite differences in length, curvature, and decorative details, the major stylistic features of kastane are consistent. Elaborate carving and surface patterning are typical.
On the whole, kastane tend to be shorter and less curved than sabers generally. They are probably more accurately described as cutlasses, though this term in English has connotations of seafaring that are inappropriate when describing kastane. Historical kastane blades are often of European manufacture, so it is likely inappropriate as well to include them in the tradition of curved sabers that includes the Middle Eastern blades more readily associated, in the minds of Western audiences, at least, with bellydancing.
Much of Ceylon’s coast was successively colonized by Portugal, the Netherlands, and Britain from the 16th century onward. The latter consolidated their rule on the island by incorporating it into the colonial administration of India in the 19th century. It was probably during this time that kastane became available in quantity for export to the West.
Somehow, the kastane’s unique hilt has become a popular (apparently the most popular) sword hilt encountered on bellydancing swords, despite being out of place. Let us examine how and why this might have happened.
Kastane undoubtedly entered the European scene as part of the vast undifferentiated mass of oriental exotica pouring out of Britain’s extensive empire in the 19th century. That the precise origin of the kastane would have been known or appreciated by ordinary European collectors is unlikely, but it was probably considered as simply one variant of scimitar within the broad Indo-Islamic tradition. Consequently, mental images of what scimitars were used for – including bellydancing – would also have been imposed on the kastane.
The author has observed numerous decorative kastane which probably date from the early 20th century. These apparently were mass-produced in Europe or America to meet the demand of collectors for oriental-themed home furnishings. They differ noticeably from authentic kastane in having cast metal hilts whose aesthetic proportions sometimes differ from those of Singhalese hilts, and in being supplied with iron or low-grade steel alloy blades. Such blades were more often than not of a completely different profile from originals as well, being typically longer, more markedly curved, and with broadening tips terminating in scalloped or clipped false edges. Since such blades have been seen affixed to a variety of other cast-hilt quasi-historic replicas, it is clear that they were made without regard to what kind of hilt they would be fitted. Hilts and blades were mass produced separately and assembled seemingly without discretion. The objective was to produce ornamental objects, not historically accurate ethnographica.
It is these, and not authentic Singhalese examples, which are the immediate ancestor of bellydancer kastane. The transition from decorative home furnishing kastane to bellydancer kastane could have occurred when some enterprising bellydancer at a European or American nightclub or restaurant realized that a sword would enhance her performance, and noticed a reproduction kastane on a wall where it had been hung as décor. Having realized that, while dramatic looking, it was inappropriately balanced, she may have approached a prop maker to design a more efficient one, and between them the modern performance version was born.
Yet we are still left with the question as to why the kastane in either authentic or replicated form, as opposed to other scimitars, became most popular for use in modern bellydance performances. Again, the answer certainly has to do with the kastane’s visual appeal. Islamic iconoclasm militated against sculptural decoration on the hilts of most Middle Eastern sabers. The restriction was less of a concern in Muslim-ruled India, yet even here figural hilts were the exception rather than the rule. The Singhalese, by contrast, were never under Muslim rule and, being overwhelmingly Buddhist, were not subject to the same artistic restrictions.
This is not to say that any of these other swords lacked visual appeal; far from it. However, the type of decoration found on these swords – inlays, damascene, enameling, and the like – do not translate into cast replicas, which are the mode by which bellydancer swords are produced, for cost and other reasons. Three-dimensional figural decoration, by contrast, does retain most of its original form in the casting process. Furthermore, figural decoration can be appreciated from a distance, whereas other forms of decorations cannot. This is a key factor in performance arts, when the audience is situated outside the immediate proximity of performers and their accessories.
Bellydancers balance scimitars on their heads or hips as part of their standard routine (the origins of this move are the subject of another essay). This requires the balance point to be near the middle of the sword, which in terms of form demands a roughly symmetrical curve throughout the piece and an even distribution of weight at the ends. Because the hilt is large, the blade tip is subsequently broadened to provide counterbalance.
Kastane balanced on a dancer’s head. The blades are widened at the tip to counterbalance the hilt. Source: http://www.ansuya.com/photoView.html?ansuya/bench_sword.jpg
One peculiarity of bellydancer kastane concerns the orientation of the hilt assembly. Almost always, the pommel is mounted backwards – the head faces away from rather than toward the knucklebow. I believe this is done intentionally, because the crest on the monster’s head is exaggerated in reproduction versions, and sloping downward toward the grip and interfering with hand movement. Rotating the pommel (easily accomplished since it is screwed on) 180 degrees alleviates the problem. The hilt assembly consists of separate grip, guard, and pommel pieces, the last being threaded to the blade tang. This is in contrast to historical kastane, whose grips and pommels are sculpted as a single piece.
Also, as often as not, the blade is mounted backwards – the curvature is forward instead of backward. Cf. the figure below.
Bellydancer kastane in which the blades are mounted backwards, the curvature being concave rather than convex. Source: http://bellytwins.com/default2.htm
The swords, like all else in bellydancing, are intended to be dramatic, so they frequently have a shiny appearance. The blades are sometimes etched, and in many cases have an Islamic crescent and star motif. Though historically inappropriate, it does contribute to the overall impression of Middle Eastern ambiance.
Bellydancer kastane showing etched motifs along the blade, including an Islamic crescent and star at the tip. The extended monster’s crest on the backward-turned pommel can be seen touching the bottom of the knucklebow. Source: http://dancingmara.g2gm.net/images/Photos/purple_sword_profile.jpg
This photo clearly shows three major non-historical features – the backward-facing pommel, the backward-mounted blade, and the etched Islamic crescent and star motif. Source: http://www.magicalmotion.com/dancepix2.html
The purpose of this commentary is most definitely not to criticize bellydancing or its accessories. (I happen to be an enthusiastic fan of the art!) Rather, it is to reflect on how one particular form of traditional weapon has been appropriated for a completely unrelated purpose. The process seems to have happened independently of any single person’s intent, yet it is likely that impersonal evolution such as this accounts for many stylistic changes in ritual weapons throughout history, and particularly during this most important phase when traditional weapons are making the final transition out of their original roles as true weapons. If anything, the bellydancer kastane highlights the transcultural importance of visual appeal in functional art.
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 The term “scimitar” is understood to refer generally to swords with an exaggerated curvature, typically of Middle Eastern origin. Although ultimately derived from the Farsi shamshir ‘lion’s tail,’ it is incorrect to equate these terms. The various sabers encompassed by non-specialists under “scimitar” are quite distinct as to their culture of origin, having specific and easily recognizable forms, materials, and decoration. Since this essay is for a general audience, the term “scimitar” is used in its non-technical sense, according to popular understanding.
 Stone, George Cameron 1934. A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times. S.v. “Kastane.” Jack Brussel reprint, 1961.