The Bird of Gold
"Gods, Asuras, Gandbaras, Kinnaras began to pour into Dwaraka, to Krishna and Valarama. Some descended from the sky, some from their cars and alighting underneath the banyan tree looked on Dwaraka, the matchless. The city was square; it measured a hundred yojanas, and over all, was decked in pearls, rubies, diamonds, and other gems. The city was high, it was ornamented with gems; and it was furnished with cupolas of rubies and diamonds, with emerald pillars, and with court-yard of rubies. It contained endless temples. It had cross-roads decked with sapphires, and highways blazing with gems. It blazed like a meridian sun in summer"
The story of Indian jewellery goes back over 5000 years to the pre-historic past. It is scattered over vast tracts of land, and nestles amidst silent emblems of human endeavour. But then what is 5000 years for the god-intoxicated Indian who believes that life is only a temporary halt in the eternal cycle of birth and re-birth? Only an ephemeral moment! In every birth, he sought to immortalise his presence by leaving his imprint on earth. Decoration of his physical surroundings and of his self was a consuming pre-occupation. From the clay beneath his feet, he fashioned items for everyday use, toys for his amusement and images for veneration; from the mountains and quarries, he hewed slabs of stone into architectural edifices of great proportions and sculpted them into likenesses of himself and of his environment; from deep within the earth, he extracted imperishable minerals and metals and crafted beautiful pieces to adorn his body. Generation after generation these archetypes of human endeavour passed through time, and were admired, worshipped and worn by man, woman and child. The story of Indian jewellery is woven from these time-worn threads. Silent links in the history of our land.
Indian jewellery defies chronology In spite of a belief in the transmigration of the soul the custom of burying worldly possessions with the dead was not prevalent in India. Few pieces of jewellery have been found in the course of archaeological excavations and even fewer have an accepted provenance.
Examples from different parts of the country and from each era in history are therefore negligible. The country is vast, the influences many and there has been a continuous movement of people, concepts, designs and even techniques over large areas. If extant examples of jewellery are rare, rarer still are names of jewellers, goldsmiths, and designers. Families hold jewellery as private wealth, sometimes worn, but never shown. Throughout history, the easy portability of jewellery has been the one factor that has not just allowed vast quantities to be carried and displayed at will, but also made it the prime target of invaders seeking to loot. Therefore, unlike the plastic arts, it has not been feasible to strictly compartmentalize and segregate jewellery forms on the basis of historic periods, geographical regions or even caste and religion.
Indian jewellery is not merely craft; it is an art, both in design and workmanship. It therefore deserves to be studied as a major art form, on par with architecture, sculpture and painting. The study of Indian jewellery in fact warrants a multi-disciplinary approach. Thus, we are the archaeologist-historian voyaging back in time, tracing references in literature and the plastic arts; perusing the chronicles of kings, travelling along ancient trade routes from the diamond mines of Golconda to the emerald mines of Colombia, and thereon to the royal ateliers and humble workshops. We assume the role of the anthropologist seeking the meaning behind the pieces to learn about people and traditions.
We delve into the meanings of symbols and forms, as well as the social, psychological and spiritual ethos in which these jewels have taken root. We probe the creative mind of the jewellery designer for whom all Creation was an inexhaustible source of inspiration. We humbly sit by the craftsman painstakingly shaping precious metals and gems into timeless jewels. Above all, we are the chroniclers, documenting an art whose terminology, purity of form and distinctive reason for being are fast vanishing even as we write.
In the absence of any documentation of designs, symbolism and terminology, we have had to rely on evidence in sculptures, paintings, photographs, contextual literary references, and discussions with elderly people, jewellers and craftsmen, temple priests and philosophers. Ancient texts and travelogues have proved to be invaluable sources of information in this endeavour. They are first-hand accounts about t he locations of the rich mineral resources of India, the demand for them in the west and the trade in these commodities. While it has been necessary to sift fact from fiction, the colourful imagery of life and culture in the past and the descriptions of wealth and pomp of court life all evoke powerful images to complete the picture.
Jewellery in India has drawn upon many facets of the culture of its people, and has in turn been inspiration and solace to wearer and beholder. Sculptors and painters transgressed boundaries between the real, the ideal and the imaginary, profusely embellishing their images with ornaments. To the many classical Indian writers, gold and gemstones were a source of enchanting visual metaphors. Rulers used jewels as statements of power and prestige and as a monetary bulwark to fund wars and buy peace. To the Indian woman, jewellery has been more than the ultimate enhancer of beauty; it was stridban her security, to be encashed in times of need and distress.
Jewellery was also indicative of the wearer's social status. And going beyond their earthly allure, jewels find a place in the realm of the metaphysical. Belief in the prophylactic and apotropaic power of gems was deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. Thus a jewel often functioned as a medium between the known and the Unknown, between man and God.
Jewellery made of precious gems and gold had an intrinsic value, to be encashed if the need arose. Ornaments were taken apart, the gold melted and stones recycled into new settings in accordance with changing styles or for equitable distribution of family property. As a result, it is primarily amongst the peasants and the wandering tribes of India that "the oldest and most historic forms of ornaments have been preserved" in a purer form. "The chief reason is that being made of base metal, it has never been worthwhile to break them up, as would be the case with silver or gold in case of poverty of the owner." In India, jewellery has always been portable wealth; history has proved just how portable this Wealth was. Treasuries and temples were constantly raided in the course of invasions, and large quantities of precious metal and precious stones were carted away by invaders. Upheavals of this kind resulted in the destruction of old jewellery.
Since the bulk of the jewellery was non-denominational, and superstitions and belief's were common to many parts of the country, ornaments became the one constant among all communities, resulting in a pan-Indianness in this art form. Moreover, the plastic arts and literature together testify' that the jewellery forms of India in each historical period are SO hybridized, that to separate and class0 individual currents is difficult. Such a task, even if it were attempted, based on evidence culled from diverse sources, would be a hypothetical exercise to some extent.
From very early times, people moved from place to place for various reasons. Tradesmen and emissaries came to India in search of its fabled wealth. People migrated as a result of marriage alliances, seeking better livelihoods, journeyed on religious pilgrimages, and were compelled to move on expeditions of war and conquest. In this migratory movement, people became prime vehicles for the transmission of culture. As a result, ideas and design influences flowed freely past geographical boundaries. Craftsmen also carried their technology and skills, to cater to this population in flux. Manufacturing techniques too were synthesized. During the long years of dynastic rule, the courts set fashion trends, which found an echo in the tastes of the common people.
Surat and the Malabar Coast are excellent examples of the cross-fertilization that took place in jewellery traditions; they are microcosms of so many other parts of the country. The plurality of these two major gem trading regions, where indigenous inhabitants interacted with foreigners, merchants and migrant communities from other parts of the country, produced jewellery forms which exhibit a mixture of influences, whose individual strains are no longer identifiable. By amalgamating, absorbing and indigenizing the many influences, the Indian jeweller crafted an ornament that was distinctly and uniquely Indian.
The artistic merit of this unbroken tradition has been misunderstood by the uninitiated, who have labelled it 'aesthetic conventionalism'. Suffice here to quote Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy's thoughts on Indian art: "In this kind of art there is no demand for novelty, because the fundamental needs of humanity are always and everywhere the same. What is required is originality, or vitality. What we mean by 'original' is 'coming from its source within'... the artist can only express what is in him... It makes no difference whether or not the same thing has been expressed a thousand times before. What matters is the intensity of the expression and such work will be original in the same sense that 'the recurrent seasons, sunrise and sunset are ever new'."
In spite of the strong Portuguese, Dutch, French and British presence in different parts of the country from the 15'" century onwards, very little western influence of prevailing contemporary European styles is evident until the 20th century. The art deco movement that was popular in Europe at the time contributed a small share of influence, as did other western styles that were introduced by renowned foreign jewellery firms soliciting business in India; but this was confined to the wealthy aristocratic classes with little or no visible mark on the vast jewellery using peoples of India.
Jewellery in India was not the exclusive prerogative of women. The jewels of gods and kings rivalled those of women. Three distinct categories of precious jewellery for personal use were made in ancient India. In the first category were items that were made for daily use. Traditionally, no Indian woman, irrespective of status or caste, was without a set of basic daily wear ornaments. Ceremonial jewellery, made to be worn on special occasions, was more opulent. The most magnificent specimens that left many a chronicler speechless were the jewels of the gods and kings. However, quality of workmanship was not compromised irrespective of the value and size of the ornament or the status of the intended wearer.
The subject of Indian jewellery is vast and complex. This enquiry is only the beginning, whose scope has been limited to gold and precious gems. This journey is not meant to be a geographical sojourn through the different regions of India, nor is it meant to be a strictly chronological and historical analysis. Accurate dating of Indian jewellery is a difficult task, since styles and designs continued unchanged over long periods of time. In assessing the historical, social or religious value of evidence, it is essential to bear in mind that in this field, more than in any other, 'things heard are not things seen and to see things is to not comprehend them properly'.
It must be noted that the geographical boundaries of the country have expanded and contracted through millennia. The terms 'India' and 'Indian' have been used in this work to refer to ancient boundaries extending beyond the Hindu Kush in the west, to Burma in the east, and from the Himalayas in the north to the island of Ceylon in the south. Rubies and spinels from Badakshan and Burma, sapphires from Kashmir and precious gems from Ceylon were all traded in the bazaars of ancient India, supplying the many vibrant ateliers with an abundance of gems.
If all these jewels could only speak, what stories they could tell! Of their dark homes within the bowels of the earth; of being wrenched out, traded and transported over great distances to workshops and ateliers to be lovingly fashioned to grace the bodies of gods, men and women. They could tell stories of war, intrigue, love and hatred. Their sojourn in the forbidden precincts of the zenana made them privy to heartbreak, to gossip, to Iover's passionate embraces, to the vicissitudes of human life.
So many epithets have been used to describe the wealth that was India. None seems more apt than 'Sone ki Chidia’, the Bird of Gold. For, indeed India has been a bird of gold, soaring above land and sea dispersing her wealth across vast geographical areas for over 5000 years. From the ancient past, her gold, her precious gems and her vast treasure of diamonds have not only appealed to every taste but have been in constant demand. For her jewels alone, this bird of gold has been assaulted and caged in successive periods of history. Her jewelled wings depleted, the bird continues to fly, occasionally soaring and swelling with pride, when one of her beautiful treasures surfaces for the entire world to see.
"The peacock calls gently to his mate who tarries, and glances once again toward the sky; then, leaping from his stage, the earth, making a parasol of his unfolded tail, to the sound of thunder sweet as loud reverberations of a drum he performs his joyful dance."
Writer – Usha R Bala Krishnan
Photo detail 11a1-
A crest jewel in the form of a gem set peacock. The bird of India dances with outspread feathers in celebration of its timeless heritage.
Photo detail 12a1-
Petals of rubies encircle table-cut diamonds in foliate panels suspended with large spinets. Such exquisitely crafted jewels were emblems of court splendour and were hallmarks of the aesthetic vision of patron and craftsman.
Photo detail 12a1-
A sculpture of the beautiful courtesan Vasantasena, heroine of the text Mricchakatika, decked in the jewellery of the period. Literature and the plastic arts together provide an insight into the ornament traditions of ancient India.
Photo detail 13-
Maitreya enters the sixth court in Vasantasena's home and looks about: "Well! Here in the sixth court they are working in gold and jewels. The arches set with sapphires look as if they were the home of the rainbow. The jewellers are testing the lapis lazuli, the pearls, the corals, the topazes, the sapphires, the cat's eyes, the rubies, the emeralds, and all the other kinds of gems. Rubies are being set in gold. Golden ornaments are being fashioned. Pearls are being strung on a red cord. Pieces of lapis lazuli are being cleverly polished. Shells are being pierced. Corals are being ground."
Photo detail 15a1-
This stiff gold neck collar is lavishly decorated with champlevé and painted pink enamel on the reverse. The front (plate 5b) is set with diamonds, turquoise, rubies and some synthetic stones, perhaps replacing missing gems.
Photo detail 15a2-
A striking emblem of marital felicity, this enormous gem-set circlet is no less than 10 cm in diameter and has rubies and diamonds kundan-set in gold.
Photo detail 16a1-
Uncut diamonds and Burmese peridots are set in an open cut-work setting in these jewels reputed to have once belonged to a princely family.
Photo detail 17a1-
The ornament gets its name from the curving crocodile (makara) tail shape of the upper pendant. In this piece two gem-studded peacocks flank a large rosette. Forms derived from nature were a never-ending source of inspiration to the Indian craftsman.
Photo detail 18-
For the marriage of his daughter Visakha, Treasurer Dhananjaya commissioned the making of a jewel. "On that very day Visakha's father caused five hundred goldsmiths to be summoned and said to them, 'Make for my daughter a great-creeper-parure.' So saying, he gave them a thousand nikkhas of ruddy gold and a sufficient supply of silver, rubies, pearls, coral, and diamonds to go with it... four months passed, and the parure was completed. In the making of this parure, four pint-pots of diamonds were used, eleven pint-pots of pearls, twenty-two pint-pots of coral, twenty-three pint-pots of rubies; with these and other of the seven kinds of jewels the parure was completed. Ordinary threads were not used in the making of this parure; the threadworlz was entirely of silver It was fastened to the head and extended to the feet. In various places seals of gold and dies of silver were attached to hold it in position. There was one seal on the crown of the head, one on the top of each ear, one at the throat, one on each knee, one at each elbow, one at the waist, and one at the small of the back. In the fabric of this parure the goldsmiths wrought a peacock; in its right wing were five hundred feathers of ruddy gold, and. in its left wing five hundred. Its beak was of coral, its eyes were of gems, and likewise its neck and its tail-feathers; the midribs of the feathers were of precious stones and likewise its legs. When it was placed on the crown of Visakha-'s head, it appeared like a peacock standing on the peak of a mountain and dancing; and the sound of the midribs of the thousand feathers was like the music of the celestial choir or of the five kinds of instruments. Only by going very close could people tell that it was not a real peacock. The materials used in the making of this parure cost nine crores, and a hundred thousand pieces of money were paid for the workmanship."
Photo detail 19a1-
"Metals arc (as Plants) hidden and buried in the bowels of the Earth, which have some conform in themselves, in the form and manner of their production; for that we see and discover in them, branches, and as it were a bodie, from whence they grow and proceede, which are the greater veines and the lesse, so as they have a knitting in themselves: and it seemes properly that these Minerals grow like unto Plants, not that they have any inward vegetative life, being only proper to Plantes: but they are engendered in the bowels of the earth, by the vertue and force of the Sunne and other Planets, and in long continuance of time, they increase and multiply after the manner of Plants."
Photo detail 20-
This necklace of coins extends down to the waist. A pan-Indian ornament, the use of coins in jewellery constituted a form of savings and a display of wealth.