Thursday, 31 January 2013

Indian Royal Jewelry - Divine Might & Splendour

A navaratna, or amulet of the nine planetary stones of Hinduism, set in a bazuband (upper arm tie). The ruby is always placed at t he centre of a navaratna. North Indian, I9th century. A Golden Past

India's love affair with jewellery is without parallel in the world an unbroken tradition of personal adornment spanning five thousand years. From simple floral garlands to the coruscating brilliance of creations in pure gold laden with gems, India has spawned a prodigious range of jewels, each replete with symbols and meanings appropriate to the status and beliefs of its wearer. So intricately has the art of jewellery been woven into the fabric of Indian life that the tumultuous history of the Indian subcontinent itself is reflected in the story of its jewels. 

The evolution of religious and social belief, the rise and fall of myriad kings and empires, the incoming waves of foreigners, the impact of imperialism all can be traced in the symbols, forms, and techniques of Indian jewellery as it developed over the millennia. And yet, paradoxically, for all its richness and wider importance, much of the history of the jewellery itself has to be pieced together through the subsidiary evidence of sculpture, painting, and literature, for few jewels have survived intact from before 1750, and even authentic creations from the following hundred years are rare. 

A mid-20th century interpretation of a navaratna, using faceted stones and brilliants in gold. Design conceived and drawn by Ambaji Shinde, c. 1970.
The same vitality which has ensured the continuity of India's jewellery-making tradition has also seen to it that old jewels have repeatedly been cannibalized their stones plucked out, their beads restrung, their gold melted down to feed the new. In no case is this more true perhaps than in the fate of the sumptuous jewellery collections of the subcontinent's maharajas. Centuries of dynastic rivalry, foreign trade, and plunder have fuelled a perpetual turnover in royal jewels, and even today when royalty can no longer claim a formal place in the modern republics of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the survival of the remaining jewels tucked away in palaces and old state treasuries is not guaranteed. Here, before too much more evidence vanishes, we attempt to capture something of both the splendour and the turbulence of India's history of royal jewels.

The Gift of the Gods

The subcontinent of India was extraordinarily richly endowed with pre-and semiprecious stones, a fact which the ancient Hindus never to attribute to the blessings of the gods. The Sanskrit word for a gem, ratna, means 'bestowed'; gems were seen to have been given e gods without any exertion or effort by mankind. For almost two thousand years India was the world's sole supplier of diamonds, with a host of rich mines stretched out across the eastern side of the great central Deccan plateau. 

Sardar Singh, Maharaja of Jodhpur (1880-1911), in 1902.
From southern India and the island of Sri Lanka came sapphires, topazes beryls, cat's eyes, moonstones, amethysts, garnets, earls. Sri Lanka also produced rubies', but it was in Burma India's neighbor to the north-east, that the best; were found. To the west, in northern Afghanistan, red spinals ('balas rubies') occurred in abundance. They prized for their size; other transparent red stones, such e rubies and garnets, could not match them. Centuries in the 1880s Kashmir in north-western India was discovered to be sources of sapphires, stones of a velvety cornflower hat were instant favorites with international buyers. 

With this magnificent gem wealth, India was the envy of the world, and well able to afford to import the few precious stones that she lacked, principally emeralds from Egypt (and afterwards Colombia), red coral from the Mediterranean, and turquoise from Iran and China.

The gem wealth also gave Indians the means to import huge quantities of gold. India's own gold deposits, although competently exploited throughout history, have never been equal to her people's id for it, for Hindus regard gold as sacred and are reluctant to set the stones bestowed by the gods other metal. In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder complained of Rome's outflow of bullion to r pearls and gemstones imported from India; over sixteen hundred years later an Italian visitor to the subcontinent observed that 'all the Gold and Silver, which circulates throughout the World, at last s here.

Nawab Sher Muhammad khan Zorawar (1852-1918), Diwan of Palanpur, in 1902. " Today India is thought to have the largest undeclared gold reserve of any country in the most of it stored in jewellery fashioned in the meltingly rich yellow of 22- and 24-carat gold. Attempts in the 1960s and 70s by the government to liberate this treasure for national investment failed dismally; Indians of all walks of life stubbornly refused to accept jewels with a lower gold content.
In the past the gems that were embedded in this gold were neither chosen nor worn solely for deco-Pr aesthetic reasons. Gems were seen as powerful agents, capable through their refractive ability of absorbing and radiating the energy of the cosmos.  This energy could influence people's lives for better or for worse. Sanskrit treatises such as Ratnapariksa (sixth century AD) and the Agastiimata (tenth century AD) explained at length the characteristics of precious stones, and Hindu astrologers relied upon them to advise individuals which stones or combinations of stones were right them. 

Chosen carefully, gems served as talismans and charms, and were believed to ward off evil cure particular diseases, or to generate health good fortune. The most powerful jewel of all' the navaratna (literally 'nine gems'), an amulet comprising the nine planetary stones Hinduism: diamond, pearl, ruby, sapphire, emerald, topaz, cat's eye, coral, and hyacinth (red con). Each of these stones was associated with a celestial deity, which in combination represented the totality of the Hindu universe. 

A rare surviving piece of early Indian jewellery, a portion of a gold and sapphire bracelet, it Bihar, eastern India, 1st-2nd century AD. The flowers are linked by cowry shells, an ancient fertility symbol. The ruby, example was allied with the sun; the pearl w the moon.' By itself, each stone was capable influencing the destiny of individuals, although it is noteworthy that the sapphire was seldom worn alone. Associated with the dark and troubling planet of Saturn, it was believed capable of great malevolence, and only occasionally would an astrologer recommend that a client acquire one. When put together in a set pattern, however, and always with the life-giving force of the Sun-ruby at the centre, nine stones were deemed to be an exceptionally efficacious means of harnessing planetary energy for I good of the wearer. No maharaja was without a navaratna nor without his court astrologers and lapidaries to advise him on the wearing of it and other amuletic gems. 

Gods on Earth

Besides these specific teachings about gemstones and astrology, ancient religious belief exerted much broader influences on the jewels of the maharajahs  Hindu philosophers identified the king (raja) as central to the smooth working of the world. Kings were envisaged as divine beings, deities in human form, whose duty it was to uphold and protect dharma, the moral order of the universe.

A female divinity, richly adorned with jewels which still have recognizable equivalents in India today. North Indian, 11th century. Take away the king, and t world of ordinary mortals would descend into chao's. As a result of their lofty status as 'gods on earth', the maharajahs wore jewels that replicated rue forms and symbolism of those used to adorn Hindu gods. Today, some of the best clue to what older royal jewels might have looked like, especially ii pre-Islamic India, lie hidden in the big temples of southern India which over the generations have received countless donations jewels from devotees for the beautification of their deities.
Hindu lore also helped shape the traditions of royal jewel; through the practical advice it offered to kings. The great Sanskrit manual on the science of government, Kautilya's Arthasastra (third century BC), stipulated that it was the duty of a king to familiarize himself with the mineral wealth of his territory and to control the output of local mines, so as to enrich his treasury and strengthen his army. Such teaching conveniently coincided with hard political reality that the most powerful kings were those with the finest jewels. 

Understandably, many maharajas amassed fabulous stores of jewels under the pretext of becoming a 'better king'. In so doing, they often provided the impetus for the formation of distinctive regional styles of jewellery, as they gathered together at their courts the best goldsmiths to augment and perfect their glittering hoards.

The necklaces, belts, earrings, and bracelets on this statue of the Hindu god Vishnu are similar to those worn by Indian kings. North Indian, 11th-12th century.
Yet India's traditions of royal jewels have not evolved within the confines of Hinduism alone. There have been Muslim sovereigns as well the shahs, sultans, nawabs, and Nizams who have populated Indian history ever since the Turkish invader, Mahmud of Ghazni, occupied the Punjab in AD 1031. Some of the Muslims came only to plunder, others to establish mighty empires, but all were enthralled by Indians' love of adornment and their fathomless reserves of gems. 

Those who became successful rulers only did so by blending their own tenets of kingship with the Hindu traditions they found there. In the realm of jewellery, there was a surprising amount of room for overlap between the two religions. Although, as followers of Islam, the newcomers were forbidden to dabble in astrology, they were accustomed to regarding certain stones as beneficent or lucky, and in their use of amulets, charms, rosaries, and signet rings they had much in common with the wearers of Hindu jewellery. 

Nor did Muslim rulers have any disagreement with the Hindu doctrines of statecraft exhorting kings to swell their treasuries with jewels. From their own jewellery traditions they brought to India new techniques and designs, and sometimes even new materials, such as jade, apparently unknown in India before the fourteenth century. Out of this synthesis of the Hindu and Muslim cultures of kingly display emerged some of the finest royal jewels ever to be created in India, worn by Hindu and Muslim rulers alike. The evolution in royal jewellery reflected the ability of India's kings to adapt to political change, a skill both they and their gold-smiths would need in still greater measure when the first Europeans began to intrude.

Writer – John Adamson

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