Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Ancient Tradition of Indian Jewelry

Tinmaniya (three gems) pendant, Jaipur  The broad, flat pendant bears parrot and moon motifs. Note its fine work, and the continuation of the ancient granulation technique.
For centuries the fabled wealth of India, her textiles, her spices, her gold and jewels, attracted traders, invaders, explorers and adventurers. In late medieval times, the earliest armada to land on Indian shores was that of Vasco da Gama, Portuguese soldier of fortune, discoverer of the Renaissance route to India. How his eyes must have widened at his first sight of the Zamorin, the ruler of Calicut, blazing with jewellery the like of which he had probably never seen—a gem-studded bracelet with a pendant diamond "the thickness of a thumb"; a gold chain with rubies and an emerald set in its centre; ropes of pearls around his neck, each pearl the size of a hazel nut; his hair swept up into a top knot and adorned with strings of pearls which ended in a large pear-shaped pearl. His ears were pierced to receive many gold earrings, while beside him a page boy stood at the ready with an enormous gold spittoon. 

Dancing Girl, bronze, Mohenjo-Daro, Indus Valley, ca. 2500 BC  Perhaps the most famous figure of the Indus Valley civilization. Her right arm bears two bangles and an armlet, very simple of design, whereas her left arm is covered with bangles. Her necklace has three cowrie shell pendants. The Zamorin was not alone in his display of fine jewellery whose value was beyond reckoning even in those times. Each ruler, each king, could boast of a similar treasury, some more modest, some infinitely larger, like that of the Emperor of Vijayanagara in whose domain, it was observed, ladies were so heavily laden with jewellery that they had to be supported by other women lest they stagger and fall under their luxurious burden. Many rulers vied with each other to acquire rarer or richer ornaments of exquisite craftsmanship. As well they might. For India was a seemingly inexhaustible source of the finest gold and precious gemstones, an eager consumer herself, a supplier to the rest of the world. What she could not produce, or needed more of, she got from elsewhere, emeralds from Egypt, bullion from Rome. 

This love of jewellery permeated all sections of Indian society from the wealthiest to the humblest, as it does to this day; and the fashioning of ornaments was from materials as diverse as precious metals, gemstones, ivory, beads, feathers, cowrie shells, terracotta, berries and animal claws, to name just a few. 

Mother Goddess, late Mauryan, 2nd cent. BC  This depiction is of the Mother Goddess (matrika) as a beautiful young girl. Note the spectacular ornamented head-dress, the necklace and garland, the heavy anklets, and the huge bell-like earring. But, like most things Indian, there is a resonance beyond the surface. Certainly jewellery was prized as personal adornment, as much for its intrinsic value as for the beauty and precision of its craftsmanship. However its parts and whole held other values far richer than mere monetary worth. Ananda Coomaraswamy's comment on Indian art was equally true of jewellery: it is not just the appearance but the significance that is sought for, not just the object but the concept that stands before it. 

A world of meaning suffused each piece, each stone, investing it with mysterious powers to act as a talisman to ward off evil or create auspicious and protective auras. Ornamental motifs were symbols of hopes and aspirations; the fish, for example, stood for fertility; curling vines, plants and seeds for fecundity and reproduction. Jewellery and its secret prayer lay on the skin, near the heart or on the forehead, placed on chakras or vital body areas for the greatest efficacy. A woman's ornaments were not just decoration, they brought peace and prosperity to the family and long life to her husband and children. 

Necklace, Harappa, ca. 3000 BC  Recovered from an excavation of an Indus Valley site, this necklace shows an almost contemporary sophistication. The necklace is of steatite and gold beads with pendants of banded agate and jade. Not only was jewellery a marker of wealth and status, it identified its wearer in a number of ways, often simultaneously—region, caste, marital status, personal achievements. The cycle of family life was spun out in the rites of passage of its members; each occasion, be it birth or an infant's naming ceremony, the first feeding, the beginning of education, marriage, had its own significant emblems in jewellery. Just as land was immoveable wealth, jewellery was its moveable counterpart, to be added to whenever possible, to be sold only in times of distress. It was also streedhan, a woman's personal wealth, her support when life inflicted harshness or penury. In its most perfect form, it was commissioned and crafted as an act of piety and devotion to adorn the serene images of gods in their temples.

Earrings, Taxila, 1st cent. AD  These earrings, found in an excavation in Sirkap, have a main circle of plain hollowed gold; but notice the fineness of the gold granulation on the pendants, and the clasps in a coil shape.Such is the tradition that goes back in an almost unbroken line for at least 5000 years. We know this from excavations carried out at the sites of the Indus Valley civilizations dating back over two millennia before the Christian era. Here, not only have ornaments been found but also objects and sculptures, such as the famous Dancing Girl from Mohenjo-Daro, which testify to a flourishing tradition. The finds from the excavated sites show the use of a variety of materials ranging from gold and silver to faience and an overwhelming array of beads of semi-precious stones. These were fashioned into bracelets, bangles, earrings, necklaces and ornaments for the head. Even at that stage the skill of the craftsman is evident. 

Necklace, Taxila, 1st cent. AD  A necklace of remarkable charm in Greco-Roman style, it has gold set with turquoise and garnets. The pendants feature the famed filigree work of Taxila, and its equally famed granulation. The goldsmith had moulds for metal and terra cotta, and he could flatten gold into thin sheets or mix it with other metals to make alloys. The lapidary could accomplish the difficult task of boring tiny holes through beads so that they could be strung into necklaces, bracelets, earrings. 

Indeed, it is this genius of the Indian craftsman that has enlivened the jewellery tradition through the centuries. His ability to absorb, his talent for innovation, enabled him to re-fashion and adapt outside influences to create a uniquely Indian fusion. Techniques that originated elsewhere stayed on to become staples of the jeweller's art. 

Tara, bronze from Kurkihar, 9th cent. AD  The figure of Tara embodies the classical concept of feminine beauty and bears delicately-wrought ornaments. She wears different earrings in either ear, bangles and armlets; a pendanted band adorns her forehead while the lightest of anklets grace her feet. We see this, for example, in the jewellery excavated from Taxila and its environs. Taxila was the old capital of the Ganelhara region that lay at the western edge of the Kushan Empire (around 1st century BC to 4th century AD). Later it was Sirkap that became the principal city. Taxila itself had already gone through a chequered history, passing as it did through Greek, Mauryan and other influences before coming under the sway of the Central Asian Kushans. And, since the area stood on the crossroads of a major trade route to the Mediterranean, the influences permeating it had several origins, including Persian and Graeco-Roman. These are visible in the finds from this area comprising necklaces, girdles, pendants, brooches, amulets and earrings. 

It was the Greek techniques of granulation and filigree that are seen to such advantage in the Taxila jewellery. Granulation had come to India earlier, probably with Alexander the Great in his attempt to conquer India in the 4th century 'BC, and there are exceptional examples of this art pre-dating the Taxila finds. In this painstaking process, gold rounds are created through the application of extreme heat that causes the metal to contract into balls or granules. The granules are then sifted to sort out sizes and patterned on a gold surface, being fixed in place through a heating process that requires great skill. In filigree, finely-drawn wires are twisted together and flattened or bent to form designs and motifs. 
Rakhdi, Jaipur  The rakhdi owes its origins to the many head ornaments described in ancient texts. Most were worn on the crest of the head, as was this, never to be seen because they were covered by the head veil. This one has diamonds in a kundan setting of burnished gold. Granulation has been a mainstay since those times, practiced even today by goldsmiths from Tamil Nadu to Rajasthan; and perhaps it could be claimed with truth that the exquisite filigree work of Orissa that we see owes its origin to the masters of Taxila.

We have made a jump from the Indus Valley to Taxila, but in the intervening centuries and beyond, much that we know of the jewellery tradition is drawn from other sources. Perhaps this is because of the Indian propensity to re-fashion jewellery by melting down metal and prising out stones. Perhaps, as with deities in bronze, hoards of ornaments were buried deep under the ground as a protection from marauders—who knows? What is certain is that if the vitality of the tradition is not visible through tangible examples, it has at least been preserved for us in sculpture, painting, the great epics, Sanskrit scriptures and literature. 

Jhela with chain, Jaipur  The gold jhela head ornament—has been carefully crafted to drape over the head and fall to either side of the face, ending in earrings which would have been fixed to the lower ends.
Literary sources provide information about the Vedic period (around 1500 BC). There are references to ornaments in the Rig Veda, a text which abounds in such poetic descriptions as karna-shobhana for the adornment of the ear. But it is not until later, when we come to the great sculptures of the Mauryans, the Shungas, the Shatavahanas and the Kushans, that we are able to actually see the words come to life. It is a grand parade of figures that we encounter, gods and kings and queens, saints and sinners, beautiful nymphs and inebriated harlots. Except for those deliberately left austere, they are draped one and all with jewellery from forehead to ankle. Their necks are adorned with a profusion of chokers, chains, pearl strands, their arms encased from forearm to wrist, their waists and hips girdled. The monuments at Bharhut, Sanchi and Amaravati, the images from Gandhara and Mathura, all bear witness to a spectacular and vital tradition, the unknown sculptors capturing with grace and precision the art of the jeweller. 

Anklet or paizeb, Rajasthan, 19th cent. AD  Gold is traditionally valued as a symbol of Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, therefore would not normally be worn on the feet. However, royal families did not always share this sentiment, as seen in this gold anklet studded with spinals set in green glass frames. Pearls lavishly skirt the borders on the top and below.
Lokanatha, gilted bronze from Kurkihar, llth-12th cent. AD  This striking image of the Bodhisattva Lokanatha is richly bejeweled and detailed in its ornamentation. Note the armlets with their lion heads and the pearl-festooned waistband. A floral motif is delicately repeated throughout. 
















Far to the south, discoveries in Tamil Nadu yielded a rich hoard of coins and jewellery dating as far back as the 1st century BC, a time when direct trade between India and Rome flourished. The gold jewellery includes rings and a pendant, reminders of an era when poets sang of the Yavana seamen who came to the wealthy ports of the southern shores bearing gold. Gold was used in abundance in the south as jeweller), offered to gods and worn by kings alike. The Chola kings were generous in their endowments to temples, and inscriptions list the details of the jewellery that poured out from the royal treasury to adorn images of the deities. No less than 65 different ornaments featured on the vast repertoire of the Chola jewellers, from necklaces of various kinds to bejewelled waistbands. 

Hansuli, North India, 18th cent. AD  The hansuli, a stiff, torque-like necklace, is seen in Kushan sculptures, so clearly it is of ancient origin. This one is richly enameled and studded with diamonds, rubies and emeralds with a skirting of pearls.This was all of a piece with the fascination for jewellery displayed in the epics and literature. In the Ramayana, as the abducted Sita is forced to go to Lanka with the demon Ravana, she drops her jewelled armband and earrings to indicate the path she has taken. 

In the Mahabharata, the valiant Karna, scion of the Sun God, is born with divine armour and earrings that render him invincible. But when, in a fateful gesture, he is tricked into cutting them off, he is doomed to die. In the immortal Shakuntala of Kalidasa, the eponymous heroine is abandoned by her royal husband until the ring he has given her comes to light and his memory returns. In the great Tamil poem of the Sangam age, Silappadikaram, a man is condemned to death after being falsely accused of having stolen a jewelled anklet from the queen. His wife's grief turns to fury, and the intensity of her rage sets a whole city on fire. 

Mukut, ca. 19th cent. AD, Jaipur  The mukut, a crown-like head ornament, is mentioned in Sanskrit texts. Here, set in kundan and rubies, it has been inverted as a necklace, with two delicate pendants fringed with Basra pearls.
Rounded breasts adorned with gems sandal-scented, Broad curving hips with girdle bands all belled, Sweet-sounding anklets making music on delicate feet, So do women enhance their beauty...

In the familiar and much-loved stories described above, jewellery plays a dramatic and central role. But on a softer and much more romantic note, it is the essential accoutrement of a seductive maiden whose anklets jingle enticingly as she walks. It is part of the solah shringar enjoined by ancient texts, the sixteen artful decorations used by a woman to make herself beautiful for her beloved. There on that list, amidst the scented baths, hair oils, fragrant unguents and henna, lie the essentials of jewellery, no less than eight separate items. Among them were the kundala or earrings, celebrated in folklore as love's messengers. The mala, or necklace, was to be placed around a swan-like neck; pre-eminent among the many kinds of necklaces was the mangalsutra, the tali of South India. It was and remains the sacred symbol of marriage from which a woman would never part unless she had to. There were bangles and anklets and karadarpana, the mirrored ring that permitted a quick glance at her own beauty. 

Nath, nose-ring, Himachal Pradesh, 19th cent. AD  The nath or nose-ring though not part of the ancient Indian repertoire has now become a staple. The gold here is studded with gems and pearls. At the upper end, the foliage is embellished with stones, while below tiny gold leaves shimmer in the light.
Jewellery, however, was not a feminine preserve. Men reveled in it as well, decorating their persons, their tools of work, whether they be weapons and shields or studded covers for the horns of animals. Each region had its stylistic variations or distinctions, and in the nuanced vocabulary of Sanskrit there were precise names for each piece identifying the design, the purpose and the significance. For pearl necklaces alone there was a plethora of names, the induchhanda for that with 1008 strings, the vijayachhanda for that with 504. So specific were the names that the original meaning of balika was an ear ornament "formed of three pearls comparable to the bakul flower".

Karnaphool and jhumka, Jaipur, ca. 19th cent. AD Pair of karnaphools (floral studs for the ears) with hanging jhumkas. White sapphires, Basra pearls and fine Jaipur enamelling feature in this pair, probably commissioned for a buyer from Lucknow.
From top to toe, both men and women adorned themselves with a dazzling array of jewellery as we see from the sculptures and paintings of the Gupta period and onwards. The head was decorated with the chudamani or crest jewel, the mukut or crown; the forehead with the tika that hung in the centre or with jewelled strips along the hairline. It was inauspicious to leave them naked, thus the profusion of jewellery for the ears—plugs, studs, hoops, graceful hanging jhumkas. The neck bore chokers, chains, collars, ropes of pearls and beads whereas armlets, bangles and bracelets covered upper and lower arms. Waists and hips, ample or sinous, carried belts and girdles made of gold or silver studded with stones; these could be rigid, flexible, braided or highly ornamented. Anklets graced the feet, almost always of silver, for to wear gold on the feet was to profane its deity, Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth. Only royalty considered themselves exempt from this observance. 

Armlet, Rajasthan, 19th cent. AD  A decorative and ornamental armlet with kundan gold work inset with diamonds. Note the brilliant red enamel so characteristic of Jaipur whose enamellers held the secret of its rich ruby colour.
From north to south, east to west, the great temples and sculptures of Bharhut, Sanchi, Belur and Halebid, Thanjavur, Orissa, Khajuraho, to name just a few, spread over time and under the influences of various dynasties, display this stunning wealth of the jeweller's art.


Writer - ASHARANI MATHUR
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