Heritage Matters: India’s Fabled Jewels

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    The Kohinoor diamond is probably India’s most famous jewel, but as hypnotic as this ‘Mountain of Light' may be, there are other jewels that are just as fine in the rich jewellery tradition of the country.

    India’s love for jewellery goes back almost 5,000 years, to the earliest evidence of jewellery that has surfaced from the Indus Valley Civilisation, to the valuable collections of the royals in the 19th-20th centuries. In fact, Golconda (in present-day Hyderabad) remained the world’s diamond capital for hundreds of years, till the 18th century, and was home to the rarest of diamonds. One of the commodities that drove trade to India for around 2,000 years was its priceless gemstones. Yet, why do we know so little about India’s jewellery heritage? And what happened to the great jewels and jewellery collections of India? Where are they now?

    In India’s Fabled Jewels, a part of our weekly online talk show, Heritage Matters, we discussed the treasures of Indian jewellery. We were joined by Dr Usha Balakrishnan, leading jewellery historian, and Akshay Chavan, Head of Research at Live History India. Both Dr Balakrishnan and Chavan have researched the jewellery traditions of India and they offered fascinating insights and anecdotes about India’s relationship with jewellery across the ages. They also discussed why India has never celebrated its rich heritage of jewels, and what we can do to change this.

    What is India’s great jewellery heritage and why have we not showcased it?

    For centuries, India was known as ‘Sone Ki Chidiya’ (‘golden bird’), for the great wealth the country possessed. India was one of the greatest bead-producing centres in ancient times and went on to become the diamond hub as well. It has been home to the finest jewels in India.

    But while many know of the Kohinoor diamond, said to have been mined at Golconda, other greater and equally precious diamonds such as the Dariya-i-noor, Orlov, Nassak and Hope diamond were also mined in India and are now among the most precious jewels in the world.

    Gemstones and jewellery were always an important part of the royal treasuries of Kings, Rajas and Nawabs in India. Dr Balakrishnan pointed out how the ancient Indian treatise Arthashastra by Kautilya has a chapter that focuses on how jewellery is significant for the treasury of any state. It comes as no surprise that the royal collections of jewellery from princely states like that of Patiala, Kashmir, Rampur, Darbhanga, Baroda and many others are among the most exquisite in India.

    While researching records at the National Archives of India, Chavan said he came across documents that talked about the wealth that a few of these kingdoms possessed. On the Kashmir jewellery collection, Chavan said, “One collection that hardly anyone talks about is the Kashmir collection. Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir took a lot of his personal (jewellery) pieces to Bombay... I have seen some descriptions saying 40 sarpeches, 40 necklaces, toys made of gold studded with rubies, around 400 kg of gold… all of this was sealed in eight boxes and the last time it was opened was in 1985-86.”

    One of the greatest jewellery collections in India is that of the Nizams of Hyderabad. The Nizams ruled Hyderabad state between the 18th and 20th centuries and the territory thy ruled included the famed Golconda mines. It is believed the Nizams had around 6,000 pieces of jewellery in their collection. In 1995, the Indian government acquired 173 pieces from their collection, which was just 3 per cent of their entire collection.

    Dr Balakrishnan, who has cataloged and documented the Nizam’s jewels for the Government of India, said, “The great thing about the Nizam’s jewels is that they have a provenance. It is the single largest collection of royal jewels that has survived... It is a fabulous collection of Burmese spinels, Columbian emeralds and Basra pearls... The collection also allows a jewellery historian to actually see for the first time a chronology of design and craftsmanship, because there are pieces that go back to the 18th century and there are pieces that come right up to the early 20th century.”

    Unfortunately, this great wealth of India’s jewels has not been properly recognised.

    One of the main reasons we know so little about the history of jewellery in India is lack of documentation. And some primary sources are in vernacular languages and have not been translated. “We just don’t have that tradition of documentation or maintaining an inventory. I came across an inventory of the Nizam’s jewels in the Chowmahalla Palace (in Hyderabad) archives which ran into some 50 pages and I counted the number of pieces over there, they were more than 6,000. But it said something like 106 pairs of earrings. But what are these earrings, what are the designs, what is it set with? So we don’t have that information. And wherever that information might be, they have probably been lost or disintegrated. So every piece of jewellery becomes a mystery.”

    Another reason India’s jewellery heritage has been ignored is the secretive nature of Indian jewellery collectors and designers, and the unavailability of archival material. Chavan pointed out that while we know of the great international jewellery designers and their work, we know little or nothing about Indian jewellery designs. They need to be studied but there isn’t any archival material on them. And those who own the designs or records don’t wish to share them as they are wary of their designs being copied.

    Another hurdle is that India’s jewellery tradition is not a part of the learning curriculum. “It hasn’t come into the mainstream of art history studies. Everyone is busy studying other forms of art... jewellery has been relegated to a craft form. No two pieces of jewellery are alike but it’s not being studied enough,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

    For a country like India, which has produced some of the finest pieces of jewellery, and where gemstones and jewellery have been at the heart of trade for centuries, it is a pity that there are scarcely any museums dedicated to jewellery. In fact, museums that do have such collections from excavation sites rarely put them out for public viewing.

    Dr Balakrishnan drew attention to temples being large repositories of jewellery. But the jewels in most temples are enveloped in sanctity, secrecy and security. Religious jewels are revered and often not allowed for viewing in public. Many of them might not even be documented. She believes that these collections should be researched and documented, which in turn will add to their security.

    Jewels from royal collections are also missing and nobody knows where they disappeared. For example, when the treasure vaults of the Rampur Nawabs were opened in March 2020, they were empty! Many of the great jewels of the Darbhanga royals also seem to have disappeared without a trace.

    A fundamental reason for the apathy towards this aspect of our heritage is the way we in India see jewellery. Our panellists agreed that we do not look at jewellery as a part of our heritage. Jewels are not seen as markers of history.

    How can we preserve and promote our jewellery heritage?

    One way is to promote research and documentation to the collections. Our panelists were unanimous that the government should take an interest in the jewellery heritage of India and allow scholars and researchers to access them.

    Dr Balakrishnan, who has also been teaching jewellery history and design, said we need to go back to our primary sources. These include folktales, songs, art and the architecture of monuments and temples. Local and vernacular sources can also prove to be significant windows into the history of jewellery traditions, if studied properly.

    While India may have lost a lot of its historic jewellery collections, some of the greatest collections are still right here in the country.

    According to Chavan, a very important part of this narrative is the karigars, who actually execute the designs. Sadly, he pointed out, artisans in the famous silverware hubs in Maharashtra are turning to other professions because of the bleak future of their craft. He said that just as weavers and other craftsmen have been drawn into revival movements, jewellery artisans and designers too need to be given the respect they deserve.

    Dr Balakrishnan said there is a need for trained professionals to lead the preservation and promotion of our jewellery heritage. “We need institution building, we need capacity building, we need curators, researchers and academics, who can work at museums. We need to have these trained professionals, who can take the collections and present them to the world in the manner that they should be presented.”

    Social media is an important tool that can be used to drive conversations and dialogue around jewellery. “What makes famous jewels famous are the stories behind them. The Kohinoor is a 105-carat diamond. There are diamonds that are even larger but what makes the Kohinoor so alluring is its story. It is these stories and conversations that will make people interested in jewellery,” said Chavan.

    It is time we recognised not just the material value but the historical and cultural significance of our great jewels, which can open great windows into India’s past. If only the custodians of this treasure would agree.

    Cover Image: Darbhanga collection of jewels, Maharaja Kameshwar Singh Kalyani Foundation, Darbhanga

    Through our weekly online talk show, Heritage Matters, we offer a platform to anyone who wants to highlight issues surrounding our heritage as well as showcase work that addresses the many problems faced on the ground, across the length and breadth of India. If you have a story to share, an issue to highlight, or work to showcase, write to us at:

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