This is a remarkable object that appears to have no parallel in the published literature. Not only is it a great survival, but even more so, it is of a size that ensures it retains great impressiveness.
Lacquered wooden objects are known from the early mediaeval Islamic period; recently this is a field on which scholars have spent more time as various objects have come to light. Two small tables with turned and lacquered legs have been dated to the 11th/12th or 12th/13th centuries, one in the David Collection, the other in the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait (Kjeld von Folsach, "A Number of Pigmented Wooden Objects from the Eastern Islamic World, Journal of the David Collection, vol.1, Copenhagen 2003, pp.72-96, esp.pp.78-98). These use an Eastern technique of lacquer, covering the surface with different coloured layers and then carving it away to reveal different colours. In the history of Islamic lacquer however, nothing seems to be known in this Eastern trechnique after the 12th century.
The present dish is worked in a very similar technique, although the lacquer is never carved away to reveal a different colour underneath. Rather, it is carved away and the sunken areas are decorated in gold. Not only that, but the ground colour varies through four different alternatives, black, green, orange and blood-red. These are used to create the larger-scale design on the interior of a central ship within a panelled border. The sunken spiralling vine which is picked out in gold is of a formula that seems to date from the first half of the sixteenth century. It is very easy to find parallel designs in the arts of Iran of this period, for instance a book cover in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Jon Thompson and Sheila R. Canby, The Hunt for Paradise, exhibtion catalogue, Milan, 2003, no.6.4, p.159). The sharp contrast of the spiralling gold vine on this bookcover set against the background panels of two shades of blue and one of green must give a passing idea of the original brilliant impression given by this dish. Similar scrolls can be found on Sultanate manuscripts from India of the same period such as a Qur'an in the Khalili Collection (David James, After Timur, London, 1992, no.29, pp.110-111). The designs in the border are also easy to parallel in metalwork of this period, such as a small pot in the Victoria and Albert Museum dated to 1496-7 AD by comparison to a dated dish (A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World, 8th-18th century, London, 1982, no.111, p.252-3).
It is however the main subject of the centre of the dish that is the most unusual and difficult to parallel. It is a ship with large billowing sail. A ship of this design does not appear on any known manuscript, either from India or Iran. It is a most unusual combination of the illustrator's and the illuminator's arts. But there are still clues in the superstructure. Here there are two pronounced pavilions with large awnings surmounted by striped domes. These are very similar to those found in two of the best-known Sultanate Indian manuscripts, the Laur Chanda, the body of which is in the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai. Different authorities have placed slightly differing dates on the manuscript, but the dates almost always lie somwhere in the first half of the 16th century. This is a manuscript that loves to include shallow slightly pointed striped domes, sometimes even set on spreading awnings (Linda York Leach, Indian Miniature Paintings and Drawings, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1986, no.7, pp.18-20; Linda York Leach, Painting from India, London, 1998, no.1, pp.14-15; Jeremiah P. Losty, The Art of the Book in India, London, 1982, nos.45-6, pp.52, 69 and pl.XVI). Elements of the architecture in the miniatures in this manuscript also often have spiralling vine in gold, although not as tightly drawn as on our dish. Another manuscript in the British Library gives another possibility. The Sharafnama was written in 938/1531-2 for Nusrat Shah Sultan of Bengal. The style shows a greater Iranian influence, but still has many of the features that link it to the present dish. It displays Indian style pavilions and similar scroll-work. Bengal's placement on the sea, on the East Coast of India and therefore more open to influence from further East, and indeed right next door to the Burmese local lacquer tradition which is not so dissimilar, is very credible as the place of manufacture of this very remarkable lacquer tray.