Trappings of a monarchy
The glory of Indian royalty and the mystique of its stunning collections of precious stones form much of the substance of Maharajas' Jewels. While bringing alive the fairy-tale-like feudal past, it presents a pictorial survey of lapidary styles from 11th Century temple sculptures to the wave of Orientalism in Western jewellery and fashion design in the heyday of the Raj, says ZERIN ANKLESARIA.
Prabhu Narayan Singh, 1900, Maharaja of Benares, wearing a striking array of royal jewels, mostly emeralds and diamonds. The gem-studded epaulettes are fringed with seed pearls.
"FROM the east to western Ind/No jewel is like Rosalind," sang besotted Orlando in the Forest of Arden. Indeed, in story and in legend, fabled India was synonymous with precious stones and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, and with good reason as Katherine Prior and John Adamson show in Mapin's sumptuous book.
For 2,000 years, the Deccan plateau was the world's only source of diamonds and, except for emerald, coral and turquoise, every conceivable gem was available in the subcontinent, in such profusion as to make Western adventurers salivate. Rubies were found in Burma and Ceylon, topaz, beryl, garnet, amethyst and pearl in Ceylon and Southern India, and spinels and deep blue sapphires in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
The uses of jewellery went far beyond personal adornment. Associated almost exclusively with royalty, it was an emblem of power, and a change of ownership made a strong political statement. Further, as gems were thought to be concentrations of cosmic energy, their value bordered on the magical. No ruler, for instance, was without a navratna, a powerful talisman against evil, which cured disease and bestowed upon the wearer wealth, prosperity and peace of mind.
Medieval accounts of the riches of the East are scarce but highly coloured. Sir John Mandeville, who probably never set foot in Asia, described a valley in the vicinity of the Ganga, the floor of which was littered with gold and gems. But should a covetous Christian venture within, a hundred devils were waiting to tear him to pieces. Marco Polo, like many Europeans after him, remarked on the curious fact that local potentates wore minimal clothing with loads of jewellery. The King of Maabar (Tanjore?) was dressed only in a loincloth fringed with rubies, sapphires and emeralds and a waist-length necklace of 104 pearls and large rubies. Gold bracelets and anklets, and rings on his fingers and toes thickly studded with gems completed the picture of barbaric splendour, "their piece exceeding that of a fine city".
Dalip Singh, deposed boy-king of the Punjab, George Duncan Beechey, 1852
This was but a prelude to the magnificence of the Mughals, whose favourite horses and elephants were as opulently bedecked. As for the Emperors themselves, Sir Thomas Roe was stunned to see Jahangir on his birthday in 1617 covered in diamonds and rubies "as great as walnuts", and enormous pearls. His sword and throne were thickly bejewelled, as were "his head, necke, breast, armes, above the elbows, at the wrists, his fingers every one with at least two or three rings ... "
Jahangir's treasury, described by William Hawkins, contained more than 37 kg of large diamonds, as many rubies, twice the weight in emeralds, semiprecious stones to infinity, 1,000 gem studded saddles, 2,000 turban ornaments, and several thrones, royal umbrellas and lances.
The Indore Pear diamonds were sold to Tukoji Rao Holkar in the 1910s by Chaumet. They were set in turn by Chaumet, Mauboussin, and after their sale by Yashwant Rao Holkar in 1946, by Harry Winston of New York.
Exceptionally valuable gems were gifted from father to son, acquiring a dynastic significance. There was the 184 carat ruby worth Rs. 1,25,000 at the time, and the Akbar Shah diamond of 116 carats inscribed with the names of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The ruby, considered auspicious, passed from Akbar's mother to her son, her grandson and great grandson, and was worn by the Emperors as a turban ornament, that distinctive Mughal emblem of royalty adopted, after them, by all Indian rulers, Hindu or Muslim.
Sometimes the ornament, or sarpech, was fastened to the turban with strings of pearls or diamonds as the cover picture of Dalip Singh, the deposed boy-king of Punjab shows. In others its base was a crown or tiara placed over the turban. This book has some breath-taking reproductions of this truly regal adornment, which could impact an air of kingly hauteur to the plainest physiognomy.
The fabulous Mughal treasure was dispersed as the Empire declined. A part went to finance Aurangzeb's never-ending wars against the idol-worshipping infidel, a fact not mentioned in this book but sufficiently elsewhere. Many valuable pieces fell into the hands of local princes who gifted them to Clive or Hastings or Queen Victoria herself as the balance of power changed. The worst blow was struck by Nadir Shah, who sacked Delhi in 1739 and carried off the Peacock Throne and several legendary diamonds, among them the Koh-i-Nur and the Akbar Shah.
After the Mutiny of 1857, India's jewels remained largely in the hands of the rulers of the princely states, and much of the book is concerned with these colourful characters, their wealth and their women, their extravagant life-styles and their chequered fortunes.
A painted lead model for a turban ornament, featuring the Indore Pear diamonds, designed for Yashwant Rao Holkar of Indore by Mauboussin, 1935.
Sayaji Rao III was an illiterate village urchin grubbing around with goats and chickens till the age of 12. Then, in a single day, he was chosen to rule Baroda, one of the richest Indian states. Fluently multi-lingual and widely travelled, he became the greatest of Baroda's rulers. Throughout his long reign, he showed a genuine concern for his people's welfare and a sturdy refusal to kow-tow to the British. The educational institutions which he endowed are symbols of excellence to this day.
While Sayaji Rao gained a throne, Dalip Singh of Punjab lost one at about the same age. His father left him a fabulous treasure, including the 186 carat Koh-i-Nur diamond taken from the Afghan ruling dynasty who had appropriated it on the death of Nadir Shah; and the rose-pink Timur ruby inscribed with the names of the Mughal, Persian and Afghan kings who had owned it in succession. When the British forced him to abdicate, these priceless gems were presented to Queen Victoria.
For decades the leading designers of French Academicians' swords, the Parisian jewellery house of Chaumet also ventured, in the 20th Century, into designing swords for Indian princes.
Soon Dalip Singh converted to Christianity and migrated to England where the Queen, whose linking for exotic males belied her reputation for prudery, took a fancy to him. In those heady days he became the court favourite, "Queen Victoria's Maharaja", but gradually his pride re-asserted itself. In late middle age he reconverted to Sikhism and made an abortive attempt to regain his throne. Six years later he died a broken man, having sought and received the Queen's forgiveness.
The most flamboyant of the princes was undoubtedly Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, whose lust for women and food, travel and sport, and jewellery of course, was legendary. Of emeralds alone he possessed 1,432 huge ones, weighing an unbelievable 7,800 carats. Proud inheritor of the magnificent De Beers diamond, at 234.5 metric carats, one of the world's largest, he got Cartier of Paris to create a spectacular five-stringed necklace shaped like a bib to showcase it. Containing literally thousands of coloured diamonds, "pink, yellow, greenish, ... pale brown, all as large as my thumbnails," it sent rivers of light cascading down his imposing chest, according to bedazzled observers.
Ranjitsinhji of Nawanagar, the peerless Ranji of the cricketing world, was the most loved of the princes, quite unlike Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala. The latter, an ardent Francophile, built himself a pretentious Versailles-like palace where the long-suffering servants were ordered about in French and wore perukes to wait on his guests. The interiors featured pink, buxom females without even a fig-leaf on, cavorting all over the ceilings, walls and panels to the amusement of foreign visitors.
The emeralds in Queen Mary's Delhi Durbar necklace were a gift from the `Ladies of India'. The necklace was made by Garrard and presented to the Queen in Delhi by a deputation of women headed by the Maharani of Patiala.
The glory and evanescence of kingship and the mystique of precious stones are recreated with verve and elegance in Maharajas' Jewels. The book has a fairytale fascination enhanced by the illustrations which present a pictorial survey of lapidary styles, starting with 11th Century temple sculpture and ending with the settings created for royal jewels by Cartier, Boucheron and Harry Winston of New York in the heyday of the Raj. There is a stunning array of turban ornaments, necklaces, ear-rings and single stones, and charming reproductions of Mughal miniature paintings.
The feudal past comes alive in the splendid portraits of royalty in full regalia, the photographs of palaces and luxurious interiors, and curiosities such as the Bahawalpur bed. Made of teakwood covered with silver filigree, it had a life-size female figure at each corner with natural hair and movable eyes. At the press of a button they would gently fan the sleeping Nawab to the sound of soothing music. This reviewer was delighted to see the most famous of royal gizmos, the silver "port and dessert train" which ran on tracks circling the banqueting table at the Gwalior palace and which, at the behest of the Maharaja, sped furiously past diners who were over-fond of their triple.
In a book so prodigal of riches one finds, unbelievably, neither an index nor a glossary. So, if one wants to know exactly what a bazubandh is, or a jigha, or to reread the story of The Second Mrs. Simpson, one must trawl doggedly through the book, all 200 pages of it. With the illustrations the situation is worse, for they are not numbered or listed anywhere, and there is no indication of any kind, marginal or bracketed, of the figure corresponding to a description in the text. As a result this reviewer spent thrice as much time turning pages as reading and writing, with her stress levels mounting the while. These basic reference tools are provided as a matter of course in less prestigious publications, and there can be no excuse for their omission here.
Maharajas' Jewels, Katherine Prior and John Adamson, Mapin Publishing, p.200, Rs.3,000.
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