Monday, 10 June 2013

A Rosary of Wishing-Jewels

This diamond set necklace is enamelled with solar symbols. The sun represents creation; it is the source of light, knowledge, energy and life. "All that exists was born from the sun. Of what is and has been and is to be, and what moves or remains still, the sun alone is the source and the end." Since gold is prana, by this rite, the vital breath which has left the body, is pm into it again. The indestructible and therefore immortal metal facilitates the passage of the soul from this life to the life hereafter. Some Hindus even place a tiny bit of pure gold on the tongue of the deceased in symbolic purification of the body for its last journey and as payment to Yama's attendant for ferrying the departed soul to the other world.

The Evil Eye

The form and function of amuletic jewellery arose from the primal need to protect the self against the harmful effects of the many evil spirits and the 'evil eye'. Amulets are believed to confer certain qualities on the wearer; they deflect danger, protect from evil and even have the power to attract good. In Kalidasa's famous play Shakuntalam, Shaktmtala's son is given an amulet containing a rare herb called aparajita by the Sage Maricha at the time of his birth. Touched by anyone other than the mother and father, it turns into a poisonous snake. In the Buddhacharita, the newborn baby Siddhartha was presented with "strings of jewels, filled with magic herbs."

The most basic amulet in India is the bead, whose antiquity dates to the pre-Harappan period. The large number of beads in animal and bird Corms, including the elephant, monkey, bull, ram, and lion, excavated at Taxila, were perhaps intended to be used as amulets. The preponderance of beads in the form of lions, a symbol of the Buddha, was probably intended to bestow the strength of a lion upon tile wearer. The steatite seals of the Indus valley culture too might have served the purpose of amulets. They incorporate a multiplicity of symbols and were designed to be worn. Steatite ring stones found in areas extending from Gandhara to Bihar during the Mauryan period bear intricate details of female mother goddess figures and symbols. Lockets and amulets made in the form of boxes to hold sacred inscriptions or as pendant plaques are sometimes inscribed with the names and images of gods and goddesses to invoke their blessings. Set with gemstones designed to harness the energies of the cosmos, these amulets were made only after due scrutiny of a person's birth chart and then tailored to specific individual purposes.

Gem-set enamelled gold bangles with elephant-head terminals; the elephant symbolizes strength, and is associated with the goddess Lakshmi. Amuletic powers were also attributed to designs and shapes. Based on a doctrine of similars, the properties of an object were believed to transfer to another fashioned in its image. This resulted in the association of gold and gems with qualities like immortality, life, and purity. Thus, jewellery with fish motifs became amuletic symbols of fertility, and auspicious emblems such as the lotus (padma), the trident (trishul) and the wheel (chakra) are observed on sculptural images from the 2nd century B.C.

Through history, amulets have been fashioned from organic and inorganic materials. A particular flower worn in the hair is an organic amulet, while a gemstone set into a ring is inorganic. Primitive tribes living in the remote areas of India even now fashion their body ornaments from a wide variety of organic materials. They paint their body with pigments in complex patterns; they string bones, shells, flowers, leaves and seeds and use them as adornment; they weave stalks of grass into wreaths to tie around their wrists and necks. In this sense, anything and everything could function as a spirit-scaring jewel, invested with life-protecting qualities. Many of these organic forms have been transposed into gold, and the power of the jewel was often enhanced by incorporating organic elements such as the rudraksha and tulsi beads, tiger claws, elephant hair, ivory, bird feathers, beetle wings, and other plant and animal forms. Symbols rooted in everyday life, whose meanings formed a part of the colloquial language of the people, were repeatedly employed in design. Seeds portraying fertility and regeneration, flowers symbolizing beauty and perfection of form, geometric diagrams (yantras) invoking magical powers and protection against evil spirits, (388) and birds, animals and fantastic creatures were used as "symbols of the omnipresent powers of nature and imagination that arc used as defenders and guardians of religious faith." While many of these forms have survived unchanged, others have undergone subtle changes, their forms so stylized that their source of inspiration is no longer discernible; only their original intent remains intact. Thus, in the Indian way of things, a jewel was not a mere ornament. The constituent elements like gold and gems elevated it to a metaphysical realm.

Metaphors of Nature

Four pairs of crocodile heads, instead of the usual single pair, curve towards each other, in this gem-set, enamelled gold ornament. "Shaped like sea-monsters tmakarat, the earrings of Visnu represent the two methods of knowledge, intellectual-knowledge (Sankhya) and intuitive-perception (Yoga)."Jewellery forms, designs and terminology contributed in many respects to the mystical allure of ornaments. Kundala, ratnakundala, sitabar, kanchanmala, mohanmala, kinkini, tirumakaram, srichbandam these names roll off the tongue like beautiful poetry; rich in imagery, evoking visions of beautiful flowers, the bounty of nature, sweet scents and tinkling music. Not only was the form drawn from nature, but all that was inherent in the form was then ascribed to the finished ornament: its beauty, its delicacy, its fragrance, its strength and power, its ability to deflect danger, give courage, convey valour and provide protection. A necklace simulating jasmine buds was intended to impart its delicate beauty, heady perfume and implicit sexuality to the wearer. Far from being a purely decorative piece of body adornment, the jewel assumed superhuman responsibilities as a mediator between the human and the unknown. Similarly, the lotus, its delicate pink blossoms floating on the many temple ponds of India, was the cradle of the universe and the subject of many poetic metaphors. "Growing in the mud, and yet so clean, the lotus a symbol of purity: lotus-pool, with leaves and flowers in widely opened, and again dying down, is an image of the ebb and flow of human  Iife (samsara)."

Flora and fauna are an inseparable aspect of Indian jewellery design. Even ordinary everyday foods like the mango, garlic pod, the jackfruit, wheat cars of corn, grains of millet, pounded rice, clove, pepper, the seed of the gooseberry, rice, rice husk, grains and pulses are all found in jewellery designs, incorporated to propitiate deities for food and sustenance.

The leaves of the banyan and pipal tree were frequently employed as jewellery motifs. The banyan tree symbolizes the Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The tree was especially sacred to women as a symbol of fertility; a single leaf forms the central pendant of a baby girl's waist-cord (aranal sangili) to provide protection to the private parts. The full name of the jewel, ala-ilai-arai-sangili, indicates the banyan leaf as the design source (380a, 380b). The image of a baby Krishna cradled on a banyan leaf is repeatedly seen in the plastic arts. Similarly, the pipal leaf form derives from the aswatta or pipal tree, also sacred to Hindus. The motif's antiquity can be traced to early Indus sites. It rests elegantly on many a shoulder of a Chola period bronze deity.

Courage and valour, traits of the lion, made it a popular motif. The heaviness of traditional kadas, reflected in the solid gold lion-head terminals, is juxtaposed with western style spreading floral motifs in hollowed cutwork gold set with tiny diamonds.The use of mythical winged creatures and aquatic animals in three-dimensional jewellery forms dates to the early monuments of Bharhut and Sanchi. Such images were also used to decorate belt buckles, necklace pendants, as terminals and in bracelets. The use of the composite creature (yali), demon face (kirtimukha) and crocodile (makara) forms are quintessential elements of jewellery design particularly in south India. Incorporated from designs in sculpture and architectural friezes, they make repeated appearances. Other popular animal motifs include the peacock, the bull, the elephant, the lion, the parrot, the snake and the royal double-headed eagle and the goose or swan, regarded as an epiphany of god.

The love for nature and colour made purely geometrical designs rare. The preference was undoubtedly for the soft and gentle curvature of floral motifs. Nature provided Indian jewellery not only with names, but a sketchbook of designs and a palette of colours as well. The love for colour as seen in nature is reflected in the use of colours in enamelling, the juxtaposition of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires and in the simulation of colour in the profuse floral decorations of monochromatic gold ornaments. In the minakari tradition, even the metaphors for enamel shades were borrowed from the vocabulary of gems, which in turn drew its inspiration from nature. Like the ruby, enamel reds aspired to the deep crimson of' khoon-e-kabouter (pigeon's blood); the ideal shade of enamel green was, as with emeralds, tote ka par (parrot's wing); gardan-e-taus (the peacock's neck) simulated the lustrous blue of a sapphire.

Two intertwined gold serpents, their bodies worked with distinctive scale patterns, hold aloft a celestial jewel. The snake is a potent symbol in Hinduism. Sexual energy (kundalini), the serpent power, is believed to lie coiled at the base of the spine. The root cause of employing so much of nature to adorn is perhaps the importance of fertility agricultural and human and the basic need to keep the cycle of life in perpetual motion. Of the many elements of nature employed as fertility motifs, the snake is perhaps not only universal, but also the most enduring and potent. In Kerala, "people believe in the existence inside the earth of a precious stone called manikkakkallu. These stones are supposed to have been made out of the gold, which has existed in many parts of the earth from time immemorial. Certain serpents of divine nature have been blowing for ages on these treasures of gold, some of which dwindle into a small stone of resplendent beauty and brightness called manikkam. The moment their work is finished, the serpents are transformed into winged serpents, and fly up into the air with the stones in their inouths." The combination of the cobra-head symbolism with the green colour of emeralds in the Kerala nagapada tali (220) probably originated in an old myth that a serpent can be blinded by an emerald.

Worship and propitiation of the elements such as the sun, the moon and the planets were absorbed into jewellery design. The crescent moon, 'an emblem of the Mother Goddess, Shakti, symbolized female power. The moon controls the tides, the seasons, the rains and the floods and therefore life itself The moon symbolism was closely allied to the need to prolong the span of human life. Similarly the supreme solar motif, the sun, a symbol of male strength, was among the most popular forms used for ornaments and for decoration. The circular form of earrings is a direct association of solar symbolism, and denotes knowledge and the life force.

Ornaments function as a canvas for the narration of myths and legends. Using the highly effective repousse technique, the craftsman was able to transform a thin sheet of gold into a canvas, rendering in great detail, minute elements of a storyboard. This is especially evident in the magnificent nakashu-velai jewellery of south India, which renders in gold, myths and legends associated with the many deities of the Hindu pantheon. The principal characters are set amidst a rich design of foliage, scrolling vines and flower motifs. 
These gold bangles with finely etched surface designs, culminate in a pair of peacock terminals, each holding a serpent in its beak. The peacock is believed to be a killer of serpents.
Extending this principle to votive offerings, goldsmiths can be seen working outside temples, beating out likenesses of the human body or individual parts like a foot, a hand, or eyes from sheet gold. These are offered by the devotee to the deity of the temple in thanksgiving for the cure of disease or to ensure good health. Devotion to a personal god facilitated constant communion with the Supreme Being. In this scheme of things, gold ornaments served as portable shrines. A simple pendant with an image of a god or goddess, or even just the feet of the Lord, small pendant boxes housing miniature replicas of the lingam, the elaborate necklaces with painted enamel figures of Sri Nathji from Rajasthan, and the magnificent gowrishankaram necklaces of south India, all functioned as portable shrines.

A motif seen repeatedly on pendants and necklaces is the vishnupada (footprints of Vishnu).

Writer – Usha R Bala Krishnan & Meera Sushil Kumar


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