Game of Thrones has millions of fans around the world. At one end of the spectrum of fandom are ‘normal’ fans, who stop at binge-watching an entire season in one night. At the other extreme are, well, extreme fans. They fall so inextricably in love with the proto-medieval universe of Game of Thrones ( GoT ) that they will go to any lengths to extend their stay in it.
I am not sure where I fall in the spectrum. But I did blow up my savings on a trip to Dubrovnik to visit King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms. I am the only human that I know of in my social circle to have actually sat on the eponymous Iron Throne. I’ve walked the Walk of Shame down the Jesuit Staircase (though with my clothes on), taken a selfie in Dragon’s Dungeon, and had chocolate brownies in the House of the Undying in Qarth.
So, when I heard that the armour used by the brave knights of Westeros in Seasons 4 and 5 was crafted not far from where I live and much closer than Dubrovnik—in Dehradun, as a matter of fact—I had to check it out. By ‘check it out’, I don’t mean ‘take pictures’. I mean check it out the way any knight in GoT would—in combat.
Knight in shining armour
It took four men 20 minutes to prepare me for battle. One to line up all the parts that made up the body armour: breastplate, helmet, pauldrons, solarets, vambrace, gauntlets, poleynes, greaves, salet. One to secure them on me—fasten the fasteners, buckle the buckles, and strap the straps. A third to hold my glasses and knapsack while I suited up. And a fourth to video-record the proceedings for posterity.
I learnt many things that hot April afternoon when I became, for a brief while, a knight in shining armour—and for once, I’m not using the idiom idiomatically. See picture above.
I learnt, for instance, that if your lord has the budget, you should ask for a titanium chain mail. Not an iron one, which is strong but heavy, nor an aluminium one, which is light but less safe.
I learnt that for a knight, decorative paraphernalia such as insignia and heraldry, which might seem like medieval, self-indulgent dandyism to us moderns, are vitally important, for once the helmet covers the face, there is no way to tell one knight from another.
I also made the discovery that if you’re in plate armour, no matter how great a warrior you may be, your courage and swordsmanship counts for zilch when your nose begins to itch. I had to let go of my long sword, remove my gauntlet, and take off my helmet to scratch my nose. Had this been, say, the Battle of Yunkai, it could have cost me my head.
Luckily for me, I was not in the Battle of Yunkai, nor in the Siege of Mereen, nor, for that matter, in a trial by combat with another knight to save my lord’s honour. I was in the premises of a company called, fittingly enough, Lord of Battles. My opponent was not a medieval brigand but a former captain of the Indian army, Saurabh Mahajan, the company’s founder and managing director.
The lord of Lord of Battles
Growing up in an army household, Mahajan, 40, had developed a fascination for the ceremonial armour that he saw in the army messes and clubs. He followed his father into the army in 1997, and served in 6 Lancers Regiment of the Armoured Corps in Jammu and Kashmir’s Akhnoor sector.
In late 2004, he decided to retire from the armed forces and start something of his own, but wasn’t sure what. “I was in my final months in the army when I went to Rishikesh for a river-rafting camp,” recalls Mahajan. “There I met Jenny, an Australian business woman. She mentioned that she was trying to source medieval helmets for a theatre production.”
Something clicked in Mahajan’s head. He offered to source them for her. “It was a modest order of $1,500. But I was pleasantly surprised by the profit margin,” says the businessman and father of two.
The one-off deal with the Australian encouraged Mahajan to set up shop. In 2005, he founded Lord of Battles with all of three employees. Initially he focussed on supplying medieval artefacts to stage productions and re-enactment companies. By 2008, he had managed to crack the more lucrative movie business.
Today, Lord of Battles manufactures and exports medieval armour, costumes, weaponry, artefacts, and accessories to companies in the US, the UK, Australia, Russia, and countries across Europe. It employs a staff of 130, most of them skilled craftsmen. These include about 30 leather workers, 40 metal workers, 14 engaged in polishing work, 12 to 15 tailors, and several wood workers. While a small number of master craftsmen are based in his Dehradun office, most of them work out of a two-acre manufacturing facility in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh.
Daggers to journals
Lord of Battles exports four kinds of medieval artefacts. First comes armour, which could be anything from helmets and chain mail to plate and leather armour; weapons, including daggers, spears, pikes, swords and shields; then come clothing and accessories such as belts, pendants, and tunics; and finally ‘civilian’ items, such as healing stones, medieval locks, and handmade leather journals.
Mahajan explains how it works. “Typically, a client visits us with a sample taken from a museum. My craftsmen in the workshop here in Dehradun make a replica or a counter-sample based on it. This is the most important part. If they like our counter-sample, they approve it, and place an order. We manufacture the required quantity in our Saharanpur unit and ship it out to wherever the client needs it.” Clients include several high-profile Hollywood and UK-based production houses such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Toom Productions ( Assassin’s Creed , 2016), and TCFTV UK Productions (the American TV series The Bastard Executioner ). The leather tankards in The Hobbit , Michael Fassbender’s chain mail in Assassin’s Creed , and the steel gorgets, aluminium coifs, and leather belts of the warriors in GoT were made by Mahajan’s craftsmen.
I ask him about the one artefact from GoT that made me rush to Dehradun: Jon Snow’s legendary Longclaw. To my disappointment, Mahajan is cagey. “I’m sorry,” he says. “There’s a 20-page non-disclosure agreement.”
But he agrees to speak in generic terms, and explains that unlike other pieces, which are made from mild steel to give them a rusty look, the long swords, including the hand-and-a-half Longclaw, are made from a variety of high carbon steel known as EN 45. “It bends on high impact, but doesn’t break no matter what you do with it.” He picks up a long sword lying nearby to demonstrate. He thrusts it hard on the ground. The steel shaft bends. I have a vision of Jon Snow beheading Janos Slynt with it.
Mahajan’s major competitors are companies based out of the Czech Republic and Poland. These are countries that have actually lived through the medieval history that forms the basis for shows like GoT and The Bastard Executioner . The Prague castle, for instance, has a weaponry museum that has on display a range of medieval arms, and sells replicas of many of them. Dealers from these countries have a natural advantage in terms of know-how and cultural connect.
“But clients prefer us for two reasons,” says Mahajan. “Labour is cheaper in India, so we offer a far more competitive price. Secondly, all our articles are hand-made—just as they used to be in medieval times. This lends an air of authenticity which these productions value highly but find lacking in machine-made replicas.” It is also why Lord of Battles has so far managed to keep the global leader in cheap replicas, China, at bay. “The Chinese replicas are machine-made, ours is hand-crafted,” Mahajan says.
He shows me two nearly identical helmets, slated for use in an upcoming Warner Brothers production. One is a sample left behind by the client—it is shiny, made of titanium, and looks spanking new. The other is duller, the spacing between rivets a bit uneven, and the mild steel with a hint of rust makes it look like it’s seen a battle or two.
Mahajan takes me on a tour. We first go down to the leather workshop, where I strike up a conversation with Vimal Kumar, 57, who is busy cutting strips of leather. “This is for the scabbard,” he says. Kumar is from Kanpur, where he used to make horse saddles before Mahajan lured him to Dehradun.
“The workers are paid ₹10,000 to ₹25,000 a month,” says Mahajan, depending on the level of craftsmanship. The chain mail, which requires sustained physical labour to weave the tiny metal rings together, is hand-made by Muslim women workers who operate from home. The interlocked rings are secured with rivets by metal workers in the workshop.
Manoj Pal, 27, a metal worker, used to work as a machinist in a factory that made auto-components. I find him supervising a worker polishing a helmet. I ask him to explain the process. “You need at least three craftsmen to make one helmet,” he says. “You first cast the helmet. Cutting is one job, jointing the materials is another, then polishing, you add the rivets, and finally, the leather lining inside.”
Role playing buyers
I ask Mahajan if he also sells in India. He shakes his head. “We are a 100% export-oriented unit. Selling in India complicates things on the tax front, so we are not doing it, though I know I can grow my business by 30% if we were to start supplying to the domestic market.”
Theatre companies and movie production houses give him the bulk of his business, with the latter being more lucrative. Even with films and TV shows, a large chunk of the revenue comes from orders for merchandises and memorabilia, as there are millions of suckers like me willing to exchange one month’s salary for Khal Drogo’s arakh or Arya Stark’s ‘needle’ sword.
Their growing numbers has also led to the rapid growth of the LARP (live action role-playing game) industry, where you actually get to enact medieval roles of your choice in a live setting with like-minded medievalist junkies. LARP and re-enactment companies, with their regular demand for authentic medieval costumes, armour, and weapons, form another revenue stream for Lord of Battles.
Indians love to complain about how ‘technologically backward’ their country is when compared to the West and, no doubt, we are. As I say goodbye to Mahajan and his craftsmen, I am struck by how they have leveraged this very ‘backwardness’—hand-made production involving zero automation—as a competitive advantage. Business comes to this modern Indian company because its production technology is medieval. That’s irony to kill for.