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where jewels wear the crown – India

Dr Usha Balakrishnan: Few items of really ancient jewellery have survived. – Photo by Rizalde Cayanan, courtesy of DAI

Dr Usha Balakrishnan, in her riveting talk, “In Jewels, India is the Treasury of the World”, shed light on the art of Indian jewellery, decoding the deep symbolism of its forms and discussing the connections between jewellery as personal and societal statements that are manifest in material and motifs.

Her lecture, held at the Yarmouk Cultural Center on Monday evening as part of the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 24th cultural season, also included captivating stories of love and passion, trade and war, enshrined in Indian jewels.

Dr Usha R. Balakrishnan is a cultural capital consultant based in Mumbai. She is a highly regarded independent scholar of Indian art and culture and the pre-eminent historian of Indian jewellery. Her mission is to collaborate and work with museums, individuals, and organizations to curate exhibitions, plan programmes, form collections, manage cultural spaces, and deliver India to the world.

She shared that the title of her lecture borrows from Sir Thomas Roe and his famous description of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Stunned by the jewels Jahangir wore and the wealth that he saw displayed in the court, Roe proclaimed in a letter, “In Jewels, he is the treasure of the world”. She shared a miniature from the same time period that depicts the Emperor beautifully bejewelled, weighing his young son, the future Shah Jahan on the occasion of his birthday with gold and silver coins and an array of jewels at the bottom.

She pointed out that what Roe saw on that day in 1616 was just a miniscule fraction of the immense wealth that reposed in India, historically alluded to as the golden bird.

For thousands of years, the gems and jewels of India have captured the human imagination. Adventurers like Marco Polo came to Indian shores in the 13th Century drawn by stories of the wealth of the East. He declared that the region contains most of the pearls and gems that are to be found in the world.

Merchants like the French jeweller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier made no less than six trips to Persia and India to buy Golconda diamonds, recording in his diary, — ‘the diamond is the most precious of all stones and it is the article of trade to which I am most devoted.’

Invaders like Nader Shah descended in 1739, plundered the Mughal treasury and carted away vast treasures including Shah Jahan’s peacock throne and the Kohinoor diamond.

The treasury of India was the most important constituent of Empire. Kautilya, author of the Arthashastra, a 4th Century treatise on statecraft and economics, stated that the king, the minister, the country, the treasury, the army are the elements of sovereignty and further described that the best treasury was one that was rich in gold and silver, filled with an abundance of big gems of various colours, gold coins and capable to withstand calamities of long duration.

Dr Balakrishnan shared that wealth was accumulated in the treasury of India in a variety of ways. Rulers of various kingdoms were offered the best gems mined in their kingdom or for sale in the gem bazaars in their territory. Nobles and vassals regularly offered nazarana ie gifts of gold, gems and jewels as expressions of loyalty to the king. Furthermore, vast quantities of gems and jewels flowed in the treasury in the form of war booty.

Jewels were not merely decorative accoutrements but images in temples. The agamas, or rites prescribed for worship, stipulate that alamkara or adornment with jewels was an important part of the daily rituals and continues to this day in temples around India.

For people around India, jewels also constituted savings. For a woman, jewels were her stree-dhan, wealth she received at the time of her marriage. Jewels were also social barometers of affluence, power and status.

Distinctive ornaments indicated caste and ethnic identity as seen in the jewels of the Konyak Naga, the hornbill feathers and the wild board teeth formed his head dress as a symbol of status and rank within the community.

Jewels were also worn to ward of the evil eye as amulets for good health as part of rite of passage rituals, she explained.

“Jewels beautified, they seduced and maintained the human body in perfect equilibrium. Therefore the range and variety of ornament forms in India is of cosmic proportions spanning a history of 5,000 years spread across a geographical expanse of more than 3 million square kilometres. Adornment in India is actually a way of life”, she remarked.

She noted that through history, terracotta figurines and sculptures in stone, bronze and wood from every period in history testify that while gods and goddesses and even human figures may lack clothing, they are almost never devoid of jewels. Indian poetry and literature are also eloquent in their descriptions of jewels while inscriptions on temple walls record the receipt of magnificent gifts and chronicles in diaries are filled with accounts of overflowing treasuries.

Indian jewellery, she revealed, is not just about gems or even antiquity, quantity or just the Mughal period. Instead, it is a legacy that straddles history, science, religion, trade, craft and even fashion. Even stripped of their functional and symbolic meaning, the jewels in India hold their own as beautiful objects.

“It is the art of Indian jewellery that captivates me. Ever since I began my study of Indian jewellery, these powerful metaphors of adornment have fascinated me. It is what makes each jewel a work of art. So gathering gems and jewels that were crafted in the workshops of the Mughals that once reposed in the treasuries of the maharajas and lay in the vaults of families, I present to you my dream treasury to show to you all, that not just Jahangir, but in jewels, India is the treasury of the world”, Dr Balakrishnan exclaimed.

She stated that few items of really ancient jewellery have survived; gold and gemstones were recycled into new settings or used as cash to fund wars and was looted by waves of invaders.

In her lecture, Dr Balakrishnan went back to where it all began — the Indus Valley and the city of Mohenjo-Daro. She exppressed that the chronicle of Indian adornment starts with a simple bead. “India was the bead manufacturing centre of the ancient world. Hundreds of thousands of beads in different shapes and sizes crafted from lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate, jasper, onyx and others were discovered in excavations at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa.”

She showed the audience an example of a necklace made of jade, gold, banded agate, and jasper beads and another strung with flat disc shaped gold beads interspersed with turquoise, agate and faience. Both pieces of jewellery date between 2600 and 1900 BCE and attest to the technical knowledge of metallurgy, skill in fabrication and sophistication that was known more than 4,000 years ago.

Also from antiquity, she provided examples of royal earrings, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York dating to the 1st Century BCE. The earrings are made of sheet gold and decorated with a winged lion and an elephant. The earrings, large and heavy are 3 inches long. She points out that when worn, they would’ve distended the ear lobes and rested on the shoulder.

Other examples from Taxila, the capital of the Bactrian Greeks located on the ancient Silk Road are found in a collection of the National Museum in New Delhi dating back to the Common Era making them more than 2,000 years old and articulate the legacy of Indian craftsmanship in this early period.

Diamonds were known in India 600 years before the Common Era. The Golconda mines in the Deccan supplied the world with this precious gem. She shared the example of a earring, a rare piece from the 12th Century sultanate period set with three Golconda diamonds.

The diamonds in their natural octahedral form, have their exposed faces polished to outline the natural facets. The jewel, she affirmed, establishes that the Indian lapidary was conversant with the art of diamond polishing 200 years before it was invented in Europe.

She highlighted the significance of and references to jewellery in ancient Indian texts. In the Ramayana, Rama’s signet ring and Sita’s head jewel, serve as important elements in the plot and in the Silappadikaram, a second century text considered to be one of the greatest Tamil epics, the story revolves around a golden anklet filled with rare gems.

Dr Balakrishnan informed that Shringhara, or adornment, is among the sixteen rituals of beautification prescribed for a bride in India in preparation for her wedding. It comprises a whole array of ornaments, from the top of the head to the toes. Ornaments, it is believed, transform a bride from a temporal being into a divine goddess.

The marriage necklace, is one of the most important rite of passage rituals for a woman. She gave the example of the kalathra from the Naga Dosham community from South India. The necklace is made up of elaborate claw-like pendants which are believed to be inspired from shells and crabs, a throwback to the seafaring ways of old. It is crafted from sheet gold and exquisitely detailed with wire work.

In the category of ear jewels, the choices are vast. Dr Balakrishnan selected the pambadam and tandati, jewels of stunning abstraction and the most enigmatic earrings in the repertory of Indian jewellery. In both jewels, circles, triangles and squares are juxtaposed in a brilliant grouping of forms. They are timeless in their elegance and laden with infinite symbolism.

She talked about another set of earrings known as the karanphool jhumka or dangling ear-flowers that are also historically important examples; A pair from the al Sabah collection from the 17th Century with floral forms completely encrusted with rubies and each gemstone precisely individually cut to fit into the setting, and another pair found in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as part of the cabinet of curiosities collected for William IV in The Hague, set with rubies, emeralds and pearls and decorated with fine granulation.

Moving her attention to jewellery for the neck, Dr Balakrishnan highlighted the beautiful champakali necklace from the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha which is set with magnificent old cut and rose cut diamonds and decorated with lotus flowers on the reverse. “While the provenance of this necklace is unknown, it appears to be identical to one worn by the Maharaja of Dhar from the same period”, she added.

She iterated that jewels dispel anonymity, they proclaim caste, religion and ethnic identity, and unequivocally communicate an individual’s region of origin. This is particularly the case for tribal and pastoral communities around India.

She described an outstanding 19th Century hasli, a necklace that rests on the collarbone, from Rajasthan with an extremely unusual and stunningly beautiful luminous green enamel on a white ground on the reverse. The flowers in the front are set with diamonds and rubies.

She added, “Incidentally, it is also the location of the thyroid gland and such jewels it is believed, were intended to keep the thyroid stimulated. Now the placement of jewels on different parts of the body was not just decorative but had physiological importance as well. According to a branch of ancient Indian Science, known as marmashastra, there are vital points along energy pathways in the body and the placement of ornaments on these points is believed to gently stimulate the area and keep the body both physically and emotionally in equilibrium.”

Arm bands too, were worn around a vital energy point in the body. Hence amulets, tabiz and powerful gemstone were all incorporated into armbands. keeping with the amuletic functions, Dr Balakrishnan described while presenting a few selections of jade jewellery.

Jade had talismanic properties with the power to confer immortality on the wearer. She described a piece with an exquisitely carved nephrite jade flower from the al Sabah collection, designed as a marigold blossom with perfectly delineated, overlapping petals. “This hybridisation between hard jade and the delicate beauty of a flower is a hallmark of Indian lapidary skills”, she stressed.

Another piece, a jade armband from the 17th Century heyday of the Mughal empire shows jade inlaid with gold, exquisitely carved, and containing an engraved of a tiger in the middle set with cabochon rubies, individually cut to form the body of the tiger.

“In their ability to visualise design and execute such unique pieces lies the exceptional genius of the craftsmanship”, she exclaimed.

In the Arthashastra, she revealed, Kautilya stated that the trade route across South India were the superior routes because they were rich in mines, and abounding in diamonds, rubies, pearls and gold. The Golconda mines were in the Deccan, rubies and emeralds came from Burma. Pearl fisheries were located off the Coromandel coast in the Deccan. The Deccan was a hunting ground for gems, jewels and works of art for the Mughal. Emperor Akbar sent his emissary to collect the treasures throughout its dominions.

“The debate on enamelling continues amongst scholars but I believe that enamelling entered India through the Portuguese enclave of Goa into the Deccan”, she stated. She noted that the sophistication, finesse and colour palette of Deccan enamelling is exceptional and the most important and incredible examples of this art form are in the al Sabah collection.

She presented two examples of enamelled pendants, simple and elegant with a striking colours, both quintessential features of the Deccan. In the Deccan, Hyderabad emerged as an important centre of enamelling and she shared examples of a few pieces from the Nizams of Hyderabad.

The Portuguese arrived in India in 1498 and in 1510, they seized the fort of Goa and established their empire in the Orient. Goa became the hub of the gem trade. It was the place where the Portuguese did the greatest business in Asia.

She presented several examples from Goa. One, a pendant dating back to the 17th Century set with diamonds and cabochon rubies in front, the minutely detailed engraving on the reverse depicts lions, lionesses and gazelles, amidst flowers and vines, reminiscent of hunting scenes depicted in miniature paintings and textiles of the period. The Portuguese influence, she stated, was manifest in a gold tiara-like comb known as the dantoni which dates back to the early 19th Century.

From the Deccan, designs, techniques and skills, travelled north into the Mughal court where they coexist with Mughal artistic sensibilities to present the quintessential Mughal style of jewellery, a unique combination of gold, gems and enamel. To the Mughal emperors, gems and jewels were symbols of power and sovereignty and more importantly, of legitimacy, she revealed.

While the jewellery of the rich and affluent combined gold and gemstones, the language of folk jewellery was expressed primarily in silver. Gold and silver were essential to the Indian way of life. Gold was a symbol of sun and fire well as silver was a symbol of moon and water.

She stressed that every effort was made in ancient India to preserve maximum mass and weight of the stones. While geometry was important, symmetry was not considered essential. fabulous diamonds and exquisite workmanship come together in two pieces from the Hyderabad treasury.

One, a belt buckle has the front set with old cut and rose cut diamonds in a design of lotus blossoms while the back is finely etched with floral motifs, reminiscent of the bidri work of the Deccan. Another, a diamond belt from the Nizam’s treasury, set with 822 carats of golden coloured Golconda diamonds. The belt was designed by Oscar Massin, French jeweller and crafted in his workshop over 8 months. Also from the Nizam’s treasury are a set of anklets set with parallels rows of Golconda diamonds.

In ancient gemmology texts, rubies were classified according to their colour. Padmaraga was red as lotus, purplish ones were called jamuniya from the fruit jamun and gems with a hint of blue or black were called neelagandhi.

She presented two necklaces, classical jewels of the South, known as the Vyajanthimala, both pieces are set with the most beautiful collection of Burmese cabochon rubies.

Dr Balakrishnan stated that emeralds poured into India from the 16th Century coming from Colombia in South America. The Mughal were passionately fond of the gem and collected them in large quantities. “Green was the colour of paradise and emeralds were a symbol of eternal life.”

She presented examples from the al Sabah collection, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. “Both gems attest to the extraordinary genius of the gem cutter who was able to see the form of this narcissus blossom in a rough emerald stone and placed the flower exactly in the centre of the bead with such delicate precision.”

She added, “In my recent book, Treasures of the Deccan, pieces of jewellery that are scattered in far away collections come home and are reunited with royal members who once wore them. An armlet with a hexagonal Colombian emerald beautifully carved with chrysanthemum flowers did not have provenance. The arm band is in the al Sabah collection. We now know that it belonged to Dulhan Pasah Begum, Principal Wife of Mir Osman Ali Khan who seeing the jewel.”

Pearls were also treasured in India. She illustrated this with a beautiful baroque pearl pendant from the Al Thani collection. The jewel dates to the 16th century, a composite figure of a snake God whose intertwining tails are set with diamonds, cabochon rubies and blue glass.

As the Mughal Empire declined and eventually collapsed, powerful native courts rose in power throughout India. To the maharajas, turban jewels were very important and the one single jewel that proclaimed their sovereignty. She described various pieces from the Nizam’s treasury. One set with a beautiful collection of Burmese spinels and rubies and another with three carved emeralds set with diamonds.

In the 19th Century, the Maharanis of India were no less bejewelled, she informed, showcasing a chintak or collar necklace which were made in large quantities in the workshop of the Nizam of Hyderabad, set with beautiful diamonds.

Dr Balakrishnan shared the story of Anita Delgado, a Spanish flamenco dancer who was seen by Jagajit Singh, the maharaja of Kapurthala, a fairytale romance at the time. Delgado records in her diary, that one day in the palace she saw the royal elephant wearing a beautiful emerald on its forehead and she became infatuated by it and begged the king to give it to her. He gave her a beautiful crescent moon shaped emerald, set in a belle époque design. She wore it as a forehead jewel and sometimes as a pendant.

In the 19th Century of the British Raj, jewels functioned as a means of expressing allegiance to the king and the examples from Murshidabad in Bengal and depict the coat of arms of the Nizam.

The love affairs between Europe and India climaxed in the early 20th Century and manifests itself in ornament types, design and manufacturing techniques. The great European jewellery houses, Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, and others, all turned to India for inspiration and created jewels which were a new genre in design, marrying Indian colours, motifs and forms with European elegance and technique resulting in unique, exotic and sensual pieces.

She ended her lecture with the words of the Arab traveller, Al Masudi — “India, is the most agreeable abode on the earth, and the most pleasant quarter of the world. Its dust is purer than air, and its air purer than purity itself; its delightful plains resemble the garden of Paradise, and the particles of its earth are like rubies and corals.”

By Cinatra Fernandes
Arab Times Staff


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