As a journalist, I enjoy writing jewellery stories for various international magazines but writing for coffee table books has been a dream come true. Apart from my series of books written with Crystal Art Publication, New York; I was recently asked to contribute to ‘Treasure Trove’, a jewellery coffee table book from The Art of Jewellery media house that talks about the rich jewellery heritage of India and also features top 100 iconic jewellers of India.
Sharing here one of my chapters from the book… ‘MUGHAL MONARCHY’ that talks about the magnificent jewellery that was created during the Mughal era and how they are being re-defined even today!
All jewellery images are courtesy: Chrietie’s
THE CULTURAL BLEND
The opulence with which the Mughal Empire flourished is beyond comprehension for many historians till even today. Their glory and mystique hasmesmerised many and the splendid nature of their lifestyle still stuns many first timers.
They saw, they liked and they conquered. This rule took them across lands and seas, increasing the size of their kingdom many folds over the centuries. This Persianate culture empire ruled the Indian sub-continent for over two decades. Founded by Babur in Kabul in early 16th century, the Mughals entered India through Khyber Pass and over the years they took over most of India and Persia. Thus began the influence of Persian taste in the Mughal culture.
It was during the reign of Akbar and Shah Jahan that the Mughal Empire flourished the most and Akbar is often called the ‘true architect of the Mughal Empire’ by many history chroniclers. Men with a refined taste for art, music and finery, they commissioned creations of lavish palaces, jewels, artifacts and magnificent marvels like the Taj Mahal. Due to reasons like addiction to opium, political instability, illness and untimely deaths their future lineage lost the power slowly that eventually led to the decline of the great Mughal Empire.
THE GOLDEN AGE
With the arrival of the Mughal emperors in the 16th century, the so-called Golden Age of Indian jewelry began. The Mughal Empire was bestowed with adequate richness to survive them for decades. This in combination with their keen interests in art, jewellery, architecture, music and literature made them a wealthy and active class of patrons, thus, they splurged with open hands whenever creating something new. From rich cuisines, garments to even gardens, they lived their lives extra grand and everything was larger than life. Monuments from their time are still intact and are important lessons for all students learning architecture. While most of the jewels have got lost over time but whatever has survived, is today a part of important collections and museums. Such collections are exhibited regularly across the globe for visitors to marvel upon and designers to learn from.
‘Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals’ that opened at the British Museum in London, ‘India: Jewels that Enchanted the World’ exhibited at the Moscow Kremlin Museum, ‘Maharaja: the Splendour of India’s Royal Courts’ and ‘Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection’ exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are few of the most famous exhibitions that have showcased the magnificence of the Mughals in the best way possible. These galleries display meticulously crafted jewelled objects like daggers, spoons and bowls, royal turban pins and armbands, archery rings, rock crystal cups, necklaces, bracelets and staffs encrusted with diamonds and precious gems. Apart from showcasing finest jewellery and artifacts, these exhibitions also tell numerous stories that encompass Mughal beauty, rulers lifestyle and their rise and fall.
With the fertile lands of the Indian sub continent, there was never a dearth of gold, diamonds or superior quality gemstones. The uses of this precious bounty of Mother Nature went far beyond personal adornment. Everyday life objects like vases, bowls, swords, daggers, turbans, door handles, animal clothing… everything was jewelled, exclusive and spoke of power for this splendid lifestyle was also a measure of the rulers social status, insurance policy, talisman, diplomatic calling card and, sometimes, a means and motive to murder.
Royalties were decked in loads of jewels right from childhood, both male and female. Mughal men were famous for their love of jewels and can be spotted wearing layers of fine jewels in most portraits.
India was the sole supplier of diamonds to the world till 1725 when diamond mines were discovered in Brazil. With abundant supply of diamonds and gemstones, Mughals used only the biggest pieces and often gemstones used were as large as walnuts. It is said that Jahangir’s treasury contained more than 37 kg of large diamonds, as many rubies, twice the weight in emeralds, semi precious stones to infinity, 1,000 gem studded saddles, 2,000 turban ornaments, and several thrones, royal umbrellas and lances.
Today, many important pieces of jewels and large precious gems have made their way back in the market, after being underground for centuries. Antiques like these often make their way to auction houses like Christies and Sothebys and land under the hammer resulting in prices that are unheard of, entirely due to the history attached to them.
The Timurids, ancestors of the Mughals, had begun the tradition of engraving titles and names on diamond and precious stones. The tradition continued with the Mughals and one can find many emeralds, diamonds, rubies and red spinels engraved with names of famous Mughal rulers along with their years of rule. In some cases, one gemstone had more than one way with rulers adding their names after their succession to the throne. The inscriptions were executed using the traditional cutting wheel or diamond-tipped stylus.
Spinels or balas rubies were highly prized in the Mughal court and were considered highest in the list of preciousness, ahead of diamonds, emeralds, rubies or sapphires, due to their colour. Usually drilled as beads and used as pendant gemstones on necklaces, turban ornaments or earrings. One can find many such important spinels engraved with names of prominent Mughal rulers as a way to commemorate royal ownership.
The Mughal Spinel Bead pendant auctioned by Christies in 2016 for USD 421,470 is one such example of the Mughal luxuriousness. The spinel bead, weighing approximately 128.10 carats has been engraved with ‘Jahangir Shah Akbar Shah’, dated ‘AH 1018/1609-10 AD’, and ‘Shah Jahan, Jahangir Shah’, dated ‘AH 1049/1639-40 AD’. The origin of the spinel is Tajikistan, with no indications of heating.
Another fine example auctioned by Christies in 2011 for USD 5,214,348 is the eleven Spinel bead necklace. The eleven polished spinels, weighing a total of 1,131.59 carats are linked to the yellow gold link back chain and hook clasp, probably mounted in the 19th Century. Three of the spinels are engraved. Two with the name of Emperor Jahangir, one with the three names of Emperor Jahangir, Emperor Shah Jahan and Emperor Alamgir, also known as Aurangzeb.
In 2014 Christies auctioned another one of engraved spinel necklace from the Mughal era. This spinel and pearl necklace has seven engraved spinels, along with cultured pearl spacers and a dyed green beryl drop.
Emeralds were enormously popular with the Mughal Court, and were spotted in almost every ornate object in the largest of sizes. One of the most treasured Emeralds in the Indian history is the Taj Mahal Emerald circa 1630 – 1650. The hexagonal-cut emerald, weighing approximately 141.13 carats is carved with stylized chrysanthemum, lotus and Mughal poppy flowers, within asymmetrical foliage. In 1925, this hexagonal gem formed the centrepiece of a Cartier neck/ shoulder ornament known as the Collier Bérénice, which was displayed at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. After the exposition, the jewels in the neck ornament were disassembled. The Taj Mahal Emerald was then mounted onto a brooch before being detached once again and passed through several private owners in Europe. The gem resurfaced in 1980 in New York City’s Diamond District on 47th Street, and remained in the possession of a private gem dealer who exhibited the emerald in the exhibition Romance of the Taj Mahal (1990–91), organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the late 1990s, jewelry historian Michael Spink uncovered a historical photograph clearly showing the Collier Bérénice emeralds, which allowed him to connect the Taj Mahal Emerald to its Cartier history. The gem has since been celebrated for this important provenance. The whereabouts of the other large carved emeralds from the Collier Bérénice remain unknown. Christies auctioned the Emerald in 2009 for USD 794,500. It was subsequently acquired by Sheikh Hamad bin Kalifa Al Thani who, circling back, had it reset by Cartier as a brooch.
One favorite ornament for all Mughal rulers were their turban ornaments. A mark of pride, turban ornaments were elaborate in both size and with the number of gemstones studded on it. Also known as Sarpech, these ornaments were fastened to the turban with strings of pearls and silk threads. Christies have auctioned many turban pins and Sarpech from the Mughal era over time, each generating larger revenues than the one before.
LEGACY TO THE WORLD
Mughals have left many legacies behind, some in the form of important diamonds and jewels and others in the form of jewellery making techniques. India, famously known as ‘sone ki chidiya’, shone for centuries attracting many eyes towards it, some in awe and many with desires to conquer and own. While monuments could not have been uprooted and taken by invaders, many important objects and diamonds were looted and carried back by invaders as war trophies.
Nadir Shah, who sacked the city of Delhi in 1739, dented the Mughal wealth with irreplaceable loss, took legends like the Peacock Throne to Persia. He also took with him important diamonds like the Akbar Shah diamond, Great Mughal diamond, Great Table diamond, Koh-i-Noor, Shah diamond and many other important gemstones that were either a part of the Mughal treasury or were infixed on the throne. Today, most of these diamonds and gemstones are either part of crown jewels, important jewellery collections or displayed in museums and yet, there seems to be no survival records of the complete Peacock Throne. The Koh-i-Noor gained most popularity as it changed many hands, came back to Punjab in India again but was finally presented to Queen Victoria after the British conquest of Punjab and today it is set in the front of the Queen Mother’s Crown, part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom, and is seen by millions of visitors to the Tower of London each year.
While these diamonds and gemstones were marvels of God, owned by the Mughals, they also created their own legacies through their excellent skills, intelligence and intricate craftsmanship. Jewellery techniques like jadau, kundan and meenakari that we all have grown up seeing and enjoyed wearing have originated through the Mughal era. Motifs like peacock, paisleys, arches and flowers along with the colour palette of green, red and white also showcase the Islamic influence that these techniques come with.
Although these techniques were developed in India, artisan craftsmen were both Hindu and Muslim, selected for their individual talents and skills and not their religious affiliations. The imagination and inventiveness of these artisans was spellbinding. Genesis of the kundan technique by fusing 24-karat foil manually to encase gemstones is one such example of their talent.
They also looked at Europe for inspiration and thus, the art of enamelling came to India. The current Indian enamelling technique is a result of European jeweller’s travels to India in the 16th and 17th century and Indian craftsman’s ability to learn and adept, giving the art their own flavour. Influences can also be spotted from Rajasthani style and Iranian style. Styles even transformed with the change of the rulers.
As Mughal rulers married many Rajputana princesses, the jewellery from that era sports few distinct features from the Rajputs like the maangtika and the nath, as they probably brought their own jewellery with them, along with many jewelled gifts. This new concoction of the Hindu- Muslim culture clubbed with Rajput craftsmanship and Mughal artistry eventually diminished the thin lines of differences over the period of time and the jewellery across northern India started looking from one era.
Few specific jewellery trends from the time were gem-set armlets, bangles and bracelets with exquisite floral patterns. Aarsi, a unique thumb ring with a mirror in the centre worn by the women is a very distinct feature of the Mughals. Hair ornaments were very popular as the Rajputs wore maangtika in the centre while Mughals wore a passa on the side. Eventually, women at times wore both.
Even today, most brides in northern India prefer traditional kundan- polki jewellery to their contemporary counterparts. This jewellery has also played an integral role for character definition in Bollywood movies whose stories are based on the Mughal era.
With no discrepancy, Mughal treasury was one of the fullest and the most endowed in all of Indian history. This has certainly helped place India on the list of many international jewellery connoisseurs for some of the most coveted pieces of jewels.