Post 514 -by Gautam Shah
armarium, arium, almery, almirah, alamari, almarie, wardrobe, cupboard, cabinet, chest, closet, chiffonier, bureau, dresser, panoply.
The word almirah derives from Latin armarium = arma (weapons, tools) + arium =place, a place or device associated with a specified thing or function. Middle English almery and Anglo-French almarie, both are based on weapons or arma. Hindi alamari derives from Portuguese almirah.
An almirah was a free standing chest or closet, and a storage place to keep vestments in the sacristy of a church. Almirah in modern sense is synonymous with a cabinet, cupboard, wardrobe, etc. but not with sandook, patara, chest or box. It is closed or a shuttered-storage entity, so cannot be equated with storage with shelves in niche, alcove, bay or recess. There are some doubts if a chest of drawers or bureaus used for storing small things, underwear, make-up things or writing papers and pens, study chests, etc. may also be called almirah?
Almirahs were custom made, from wood by carpenters, for a client and the place, till about the industrial age. Ancient almirahs were heavy and bulky, and difficult to shift around, except within the room or premises. The bulky almirah, when full of stored items, were almost impossible to move anywhere. For planning any shift, it was necessary to open the concealed, secret and multiple locking systems and empty the contents. In the vast premises of church or palace, almirah were nearly immobile safe keeping unit. And yet during invasions, the almirah, in spite of the bulk and weight, were carried off as treasured catch. Almirah were carried away as part of the luggage during immigration. New almirah were created and offered to European brides as part of the dowry.
There are essentially two classes of Almirahs, fixed and movable. Fixed ones were not bolted or tied to anything but are situationally designed and mounted in a corner, or set inside a niche. The movable ones were placed against a corner or a flat wall. The traditional almirah are of human height with one or two single leaf shutters or with dual doors providing wider access. The almirah have two bottom level drawers opening on the outer face, and sometimes two internal drawers covered by the main shutters. It had secret chambers on the sides of drawers, under the head side, and as a false bottom. Almirahs were also made into smaller height cabinets, or as dual depth cabinets.
The inside faces of the doors were simply finished except in the post 18 C periods, when metal hooks and micro shelves began to be included in the door. Early almirahs were all shelves’ arrangement, with no provision of rods or hooks for hanging of clothes. Similarly the door fronts were carved or decorated with veneer or marquetry, but no mirror or painted, etched or engraved glasses were used. The almirahs in renaissance period began to have a top heading of pediments. The solid or square bottom now had round ball or pawed legs. The legs were spaced with an intermediate panel.
First almirah were used for storing and protecting the armour (almery and almarie). Religious places like churches used this for storing vestments and ritual vessels. Craft’s person like carpenters, goldsmiths, used it to store delicate proprietary tools. Master muralist stored parchment, fabric and paper-based cartoon roles and studies on canvas. Almirah have compartments some of which were used for storing items of day to day use, and additional secret chambers and drawers for securing jewellery, documents and other valuables, which were rarely opened.
Very early Almirahs (pre 7- 8th C) were a simple wood log like raw assembly without any decorative finish or embellishment. The remarkable surface ornamentation was of iron or bronze hardware like hinges, spikes, nails, and locks. The Egyptian Canopic chests are cases used to contain the internal organs that were removed during the process of mummification. These chests, and later a walk-in cabinet like forms were tall wooden shrine-like forms. These were made from wood and coated with gesso, and brightly painted.
The painted wood style continued for several centuries, in absence of any better wood surface finishing methods. Corners and bevels are often decorated with gilding. Flat surfaces were painted with landscapes. Painted wood surfaces were not long lasting. And as a result the emphasis turned to use of good quality of wood and carve it. Woods were explored for the arrangement of grains or natural patterns.