The Mughal Emperor
Akbar, (1556-1605), created the "Imabat Khana" during
his reign, where religious leaders of different faiths were invited
to discourse on their philosophies. These included Jesuits, Jews
and Hindus. Akbar was the first Muslim ruler perceived to have
a tolerant outlook towards other religions, and even structured
a new religion called Din-I-Ilahi based on the teachings of all
faiths. Perhaps this is why Akbar is so beloved in India, a land
richly diverse in religions, dialects and ethnicity; he chose
to capitalize on this wealth, to learn from it, which was amazing
considering he was himself illiterate and had spent most of his
formative years in and around battles as his father, Humayun,
who was the Emperor from 1530-1540 and from 1555-6, tried to maintain
a foothold in India.
A cultured and scholarly man, Humayun left
to his son a more stable empire than he had inherited; his tomb
is one of the glories of New Delhi, India, and was the proto-type
for the Taj Mahal, built by his grandson Shah Jehan (1592-1666).
In these dark days of fundamentalism and terrorism in the name
of Islam, it would be wonderful to have noble Akbar around.
It is the Mughal dynasty which is the subject
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's current show, "Treasury of the World: Jeweled
Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals" which made its New
York debut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art having opened at
the British Museum in London earlier in the year, with lavish
jeweled masterpieces spread across the "billboard" advertisements
of London's underground stations providing visual excitement for
weary commuters. The exhibition will travel to Cleveland and Houston.
The title of the exhibition is taken from a
quote in a letter from the English ambassador to the Mughal court,
Sir Thomas Roe, (1580-1644 A.D.), written in 1616 to Prince Charles,
later King Charles I, (who was beheaded), in which he describes
the emperor Jahangir (1569-1627 A.D.): "In jewels (which
is one of his felicityes) here is the treasury of the world"
("Treasury of The World: Jewelled Arts of India in the Age
of the Mughals," by Manuel Keene, published by Thames &
Hudson, $29.95). Jahangir was famous for festooning himself in
gems, which made foreign dignitaries re-think their wardrobes
so that they did not appear to be the pea-hen to his peacock at
It is wonderful to have this dazzling addition
to New York's cultural scene, and it is a perfect show for the
holiday season after the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
The New York press preview at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was
packed, and the presence of Phillipe de Montebello, the museum's
director, gave added weight to one of the most opulent displays
of gems ever assembled for public viewing. One can only imagine
how such sumptuousness and finery appeared to courtiers, noblemen
and ordinary folk back in the days of the Mughal monarchs, for
whom many of the humbler items on display (which belonged to courtiers
and hangers-on) would have been mere fripperies.
Phillipe De Montebello explained that the Metropolitan
Museum of Art had remained steadfast in its resolve to mount the
show in the wake of September 11th, in the best interests of art
and culture. The exhibition is on loan from the al-Sabah Collection,
Kuwait National Museum, Saudi Arabia, and was assembled over three
decades by Sheik Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. The jewelry in
the show was created by Muslim and Hindu craftsmen during the
three hundred year occupation of the Indian sub-continent by the
The history of the collection is as dramatic
as the jewels themselves: the entire treasury was stolen from
the Kuwait National Museum (which was burned down) during the
Gulf War and carted off to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad by a group
of Iraqi archaeologists acting on the orders of their government.
Presumably Saddam Hussein wanted the world's most prestigious
jewelry box for his personal use. Thanks to the intervention of
the UN, most of the original collection was recovered, with the
exception of three outstanding carved Indian emeralds, which are
While the collection is technically Indian,
there are numerous techniques and decorative elements showing
Islamic influences. The artisan craftsmen responsible for these
works of art were both Hindu and Muslim, members of prolific guilds
and workshops, and selected for their individual talents and skills
and not their religious affiliations. They were bound together
by a common goal: in this case, the creation of jeweled artifacts
which hold their own with the very best Fabergé and Cartier
pieces. The fusion of cultures and traditions of the Indian sub-continent
combined with the influences of an Islamic heritage to produce
the unique and beautiful Mughal jeweled arts on display at the
In his preface to the catalogue, Sheikh Nasser
Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah noted that he began to discover his "love
of historic art" during his "schooling in Jerusalem
in the 1960s." "I was particularly enthralled by the
monuments of that ancient city, especially her Islamic monuments,
which number in the scores and span the 7th to the 20th centuries
A.D. As part of my own heritage, these filled me with pride and
planted the germ of curiosity abut the extent of Islamic artistic
achievements....it was quite natural for me, as a native of the
Gulf region, to feel an affinity with India and Indian art, due
to a long familiarity with objects which came from the Subcontient.
Indeed, the people of the Gulf have a long familiarity with India
herself, a natural and old connection of particular closeness
resulting especially from the maritime trade, which goes back
to very ancient times and which continued through into the 20th
century. There was even a particular and important jewelry industry
connection in the form of our Gulf pearls, universally recognized
as the best ever known, and the most important destination of
which was always India," he wrote. His museum collection
covers many aspects of Islamic art, not just Mughal jewels.
The Mughal emperors certainly knew how to live,
and were responsible for raising Islamic culture to perhaps the
greatest heights it ever achieved; their devotion to poetry, literature,
philosophy and the arts and sciences as well as their success
in battle and territorial gains was legendary. Fortunately for
us, they were sticklers for recording all achievements, which
were carefully documented by court-appointed historians, poets
and artists in royal "histories," poetry books, manuscripts
and illuminated miniature paintings (Mughal miniatures) of great
beauty and refinement. The Mughal emperor Akbar had Indian religious
texts translated into Persian and Islamic books translated into
Sanskrit; 40,000 books were translated during his reign alone.
As a rule, all the Mughal emperors loved manuscripts as much as
they loved jewelry.
Babur, the first of the great Mughal emperors,
was the great-grandson of Timur, or Tamerlane, who died 1405,
and was related on his mother's side to the formidable Mongol
warrior Chengez Khan. The word "Mughal" comes from the
word "Mongol," although Babur preferred to be associated
with the Tumurids. By the 1500s the struggles for succession had
divided the mighty Central Asian empire (now Uzbekistan) into
small warring kingdoms.
At the age of 12, Babur was crowned king in
Ferghana, Afghanistan, where he saw camel trains laden with gold,
spices and silks from the Indian sub-continent. Later, he was
unable to hold the capital of Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan,
once his great-grandfather Timur's domain, and turned his sights
southwards and eastwards toward India, which had fascinated him
since boyhood. In 1526, 1527, and 1529 he defeated, successively,
the armies of the Lodi ruler of Delhi, a coalition of Rajput chiefs,
(fierce Hindu warriors), and the Afghans of eastern India, which
is where this exhibition picks up, in the year 1526.
Humayun had been active in Babur's campaigns
and expanded and established Mughal power, but in 1540 principal
control of Hindustan was assumed by the Afghan commander Sher
Shah Suri as Humayun's brothers "actively undermined him,"
according to the exhibition's wall texts, and he was "forced
to retreat, first to Sindh, then to Afghanistan, and finally in
exile at the court of the Iranian ruler Shah Tahmasp." Aided
by Persian forces, he sought to reclaim his kingdom and recapturing
the throne of Delhi in 1555 defeating the forces of Sikander Shah
Suri only to die a few months later from a fall in the staircase
of his library.
Akbar, the wall texts continued, "was
the true architect of the Mughal empire" that, at his death
was "vast and secure, incorporating all of the Indian subcontinent
and eastern Afghanistan, with the exception of the four remaining
Deccan sultanates, the far south, and part of Orissa."
Akbar was succeeded by Jahangir,
who reigned as Emperor from 1605 to 1627 and was succeeded by
his son, Shah Jahan, shown above in a cameo portrait in the exhibition,
who reigned from 1628 to 1657. Shah Jahan, the wall texts noted,
"continued the religious tolerance, wise administration,
and general peace and prosperity of his two immediate predecessors,
though the influence of religious Muslim parties was increasing....[and]
oversaw territorial gains in the Deccan...[and] spent the last
eight years of his life in palace detertion, after his son Aurangzeb
[who ruled as Emperor from 1658-1707] seized the throne. Shah
Jahan is fabled as the builder of the Taj Mahal, a monumental
mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. He was actively
involved in the planning of this masterpiece, along with other
architectural projects, and, like his predecessors, he was engaged
in artistic patronage of all types. In accounts of his father,
Jahangir, and of European travelers he is recorded as having been
a practicing jeweler and acknowledged as an outstanding expert
The galleries display jade and jeweled daggers,
jade spoons and bowls, royal turban pins and armbands, archery
rings, enameled and rock crystal cups, bracelets and staffs encrusted
with rubies, precious gems so large they look fake (which they
are not) and necklaces straight out of an exotic fairytale, and
highly covetable enameled and jeweled boxes, bracelets and pendants.
Technical innovations like "kundan," a manual fusion
of 24 kt gold foil at room temperature, gave the jeweler greater
creative freedom, as did the abundance of precious gems in a land
famous for its natural resources in diamonds and gold, Burmese
rubies and Sri Lankan emeralds and sapphires. The ability to "set"
the gems before the gold hardened allowed great flexibility and
The "kundan" style dominates the
show, and is the essence of "Mughal" jewelry design:
Akbar's minister and historian Abu `l-Fazl said of "kundan"
that "the gold of the inlayer was made so pure and ductile
that the fable of the gold of Parviz which he could mould with
his hands becomes credible," the catalogue noted. The repetitive
color palette of green, red and white in the designs corresponds
to the intensive use of rubies, emeralds and diamonds.
The "kundan" technique in jewelry
also corresponds to the widespread use of inlaid hardstones in
Islamic culture, and typifies the Mughal period in India: just
as jewels were inlaid with precious rubies and emeralds, the interior
marble walls of famous buildings like the Taj Mahal were inlaid
with malachite, tiger's eye, carnelian and lapis lazuli on a staggering
scale. The dome of the Taj Mahal once held precious rubies, diamonds,
emeralds and sapphires, but they were vandalized over the centuries.
The tradition of inlaid hardstones lends itself to tabletops,
platters, frames, tiles, and screens, and the craft is very much
alive in India today. The technique appears in miniature in rock
crystal, jade and agate artifacts at the show.
Historically, the most important piece in the
collection is perhaps the "Inscribed Royal Spinel,"
(better known as the "Balas Ruby"). It bears the inscriptions
of 6 monarchs representing 4 dynasties: the first, Timurid, (as
in Timur or Tamerlane), Ulug Beg (before 1449 A.D.); the second
Safavid, Shah Abbas 1 (dated AD 1617): the third, Mughal, Jahangir,
(dated 1621 A.D.); the fourth, Shah Jehan, (the builder of the
Taj Mahal, undated); the fifth, his son Alamgir, (Awrangzib),
dated 1659-60 A.D.); the sixth and final inscription is Durvani,
Ahmad Shah (dated 1754-55 A.D.). The inscriptions on the ruby
have been drilled, manually engraved with a diamond-tipped stylus
- an innovation in its day - and wheel-cut.
The court-appointed jewelers used precious
gems as we might use crystals or sequins, and the results are
awesome, as for example the extraordinary "Handle,"
probably for a staff, (India, Mughal or Deccan, Late 16th-1st
Half 17th century A.D.) in the form of the head of a dragon or
water creature, shown above. The handle is set with rubies, emeralds,
diamonds and agate in gold in the "kundan" technique.
Scholars compare the mysterious creature to the Makang the mystical
water beast and symbol of the Ganges as well as the more familiar
fire-breathing dragons of Iran and it is one of a small group
of carved, set gemstones. In these days of minimalism and burglaries
it is inconceivable to think of walking around with anything so
valuable or ostentatious but, judging by the costumed courtiers
in the average Mughal miniature, they were par for the course
in an opulent durbar hall.
A glittering "Dagger and Scabbard"
(India, Mughal, circa 1615-20 A.D.) in the first room visually
"reverses" the technique applied to the dragon's head
"Handle;" the scabbard is set with gemstones on a gold
floral ground, finely worked in the "kundan" technique,
but with gold predominating. The al-Sabah hilt and dagger dates
to the reign of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, Akbar's son, (1605-27
A.D.), and further inscriptions have been linked by scholars to
an archery ring belonging to the emperor Shah Jehan in the State
Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The hilt and scabbard together
hold a total of 1,685 rubies, 271 natural, unpolished diamonds,
62 emeralds, 321 pieces of transparent emerald green-glass, 39
pieces of transparent dark blue glass, 9 pieces of ivory and 6
layered agates for a grand total of 2,393 stones.
Despite its royal pedigree, this dazzling,
curved bladed dagger conjures up images of Ali Baba and his forty
thieves dashing through incense-laden bazaars and all the mysterious
wonders of the East. The urge to hold and touch some of these
glittering objects locked behind glass cases is persistent, and
memories of movies featuring James Bond type heroes confronting
ruthless villains in dangerous jewelry heists are a reminder of
the lengths human beings will go to capture and possess these
magnificent objects, throwing all caution to the wind.
Changing the extravagant pace, Mughal miniature
paintings illustrating scenes from court life accent the walls
of the dimly lit galleries: magnificent jeweled and painted elephants,
elegant ceremonies, courtly rituals, royal hunting parties and
beautiful women tell of a rarified and highly cultured existence.
The meticulously detailed paintings offer examples of how the
daggers and jewels were worn and who wore them; the beauty of
the Mughal miniatures - so named because of their small size -
their elegant compositions and gorgeous colors, deepen the longer
one looks at them. It is disappointing that the paintings were
not included in the exhibition catalog, which is otherwise detailed,
informative and sumptuous. Some of them, however, are reproduced
in other museum publications that were published in conjunction
with other recent exhibitions and are available at the museum's
A "Portrait of the Elephant, Alam Gurman,'"(India,
Mughal, circa 1640 A.D.), shows one of the many splendid royal
elephants used like carriages or horses by the nobility in India
at that time decked out in ceremonial finery, right down to face
and trunk paint and jewels. It was painted during Shah Jehan's
reign, and the attribution reads "probably by Bichtir,"
who was one of the most prized court painters of his day. It is
no wonder that foreigners were so mesmerized by the spectacle
of Mughal royals and nobles perched in sumptuous howdahs on royal
elephants, especially when there were processions of them all
jostling for position like limos outside an important New York
A delicate portrait of "Shah Jehan Holding
a Miniature Portrait of Himself: Leaf from an Album of Shah Jehan"
(India, Mughal, 1627-28 A.D. Inscribed (on platform), "Work
of Charam, the Divine Year I." It is placed beside the "Pendant
with Cameo Portrait of the Emperor Shah Jehan," (India, Mughal,
17th century A.D.), featured in the painting and it shows the
distinguished, carved profile of the emperor who built the world
famous Taj Mahal in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The pendant
was originally part fabricated from gold, set in "kundan"
technique with rubies, and a cameo carved from layered agate,
in pinkish tan/white (17th century): the back is of engraved silver,
inlaid with niello, and dates from the late 19th century (Deccan,
India). The Metropolitan Museum considers this pendant, along
with the "Balas Ruby" and the dagger and scabbard described
earlier as the most important pieces in the show.
The Metropolitan Museum's own collection of
Mughal miniatures in the Islamic galleries is spectacular and
well worth a visit after the jewelry show. The Persian rugs and
glass lanterns, painted ceilings and ceramic tiles also help "place"
the jewels in an historical context, even though they were created
in India. It is a pity that there are so few historically appropriate
"props" for the magnificent gems: as, for example, a
life-sized mannequin of an Emperor or Empress decked out in all
their jeweled finery, silks and brocades, in a room strewn with
Persian rugs, with a tinkling mosaic fountain and a painted ceiling,
softly lit by one of those other-worldly brass or glass lanterns
hand-painted with curvaceous Islamic calligraphy.
Imagine the noble paisley "Turban Ornament,"
(India, probably Deccan, 2nd Half of the 17th century A.D.) nestling
in a yellow or tangerine orange silk turban; fabricated from gold,
with champleve and overpainted enamels, worked in "kundan"
technique, topped by the piece de resistance - deep, flawless
(and very large) emeralds and equally magnificent diamonds. Pair
the turban ornament with two tiny birdies nestling in neighboring
folds, or "Elements from a Turban Ornament," carved
from emerald, eyes inlaid in "kundan" technique and
set with rubies, mounted on gold (India, Deccan or Mughal, probably
17th Century A.D.), shown below, and perhaps you begin to get
the picture. The imagination and inventiveness of the artisans
Continuing the bird theme there are some covetable
finger rings, like "Finger Ring with Rotating and Bobbing
Bird" (India, Mughal or Deccan, probably 1st quarter 17th
century), which is not only beautiful but gave the wearer something
to do during those long, boring ceremonies. This ring is fabricated
from gold in "kundan" technique, with rubies, emeralds,
chrysoberyl cat's eyes and a single sapphire. Hopefully the Met
will strike a deal with the Kuwait National Museum and provide
us with a faithful, bobbing reproduction for the jewelry shop
in the near future.
It should be noted that the exhibition has
a sales room with many impressive offerings from the Gem Palace
in Jaipur, whose craftspeople include descendants of the Mughal
goldsmiths. A blue Iris handwoven shawn is available for $7,500
and other offerings including a Panchlada necklace of amethysts
and rubellite for $48,000, a tanzanite necklace for $35,000, an
enameled camel chess piece for $5,750 and many other baubles.
Two of the most impressive pieces in the show
are carved from rock crystal, following the inlaid hardstone technique
familiar in Islamic architecture: in the first gallery a "Dagger
Hilt, Locket and Chape" in the form of a horse, (India, Mughal,
later 16th-first half 17th Century A.D.), in the form of a horse
head, is inlaid with gold in "kundan" and set with rubies,
emeralds and agate. Nearby is a delicate cup cut from rock crystal
no ordinary achievement at that time also in "kundan"
technique and precious gems, but this time with the addition of
stones under-painted with miniature faces and kingfisher feathers
visible only through a magnifying glass! (India, Deccan or Mughal,
later 16th-early 17th century A.D.). The single-hair brush was
used in Mughal miniatures and in situations like this.
A delicate, sculptural "Spoon," with
a handle carved from nephrite jade, inlaid with gold in "kundan",
is set with rubies and emeralds. It is one of the most sophisticated
and beautiful utensils ever created, considering that most of
Europe and Great Britain were still eating with their hands or
spearing large items of food with an enlarged version of a chopstick.
This "prong" or fork can be seen at Shakespeare's birthplace,
Stratford-on-Avon, at the home of his wife Anne Hathaway.
There is much to absorb at this magnificent
show, including the more recent examples of enameled jewelry,
collectively so georgeous it is hard to select only a few pieces.
A fine "Box," India, Deccan or Mughal, circa 4th-5th
decade 17th century A.D.), fabricated from gold, champleve-enameled,
set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, is a refreshing departure
from the red/green/white/gold palette with a sky blue background
color on its inner lid. (6.27 in catalog)
Unlike most of the techniques used in the collection,
enameling had no relevant background in India. Enameling was imported
by European jewelers who came to India in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Mughal-Indian enameling was a direct result of the inventiveness
and technical abilities of the Indian jewelers in this medium.
In Akbar's time, "artistic delegations" between the
Mughal court and the Portuguese enclave of Goa strongly encouraged
the cross-fertilization of cultures.
The swirls and curves of Islamic design are
highlighted in an "Archery Ring," (India, probably Deccan,
16th-early 17th century A.D.), which has the unusual addition
of turquoises set in "kundan" with rubies. A delicately
enameled handle of a "Katar Dagger," or "punch"
dagger with its unusual handle, (India, probably Mughal, 3rd-4th
decade 17th century A.D.), but with small amounts of over-painted
details of fine delicacy. The blade is of "jawhar" steel
and the hilt is gold over iron core. There are a large number
of sculptural "punch" daggers which were designed to
be pushed into the victim, along with the punch.
A "Bracelet" (India, probably Mughal,
17th century A.D.), bears the same motif of the dragon/sea-creature
at the clasp as the ruby "Handle" described earlier.
The creature's eyes are set with chrysoberyl catseye. It would
look magnificent worn with a "Pendant" (Indian, Deccan
or Mughal, 17th century A.D.), featuring a single ruby, several
diamonds set in "kundan," and a gorgeous, dangling pendant.
The slight unevenness of all of the stones in this piece gives
it an extraordinary allure.
For a down to earth touch there is the "Flywhisk
Handle" (India, probably Deccan, 18th century A.D.), champlevé-enameled
in green and gold, set with a mind-boggling number of rubies and
diamonds. This extraordinarily imperial object was used by the
Mughal nobles to swat flies or perhaps for their persons-in-waiting
to swat flies - during those long, boring ceremonies. Presumably
long strands of silk or horse-hair completed the object d'art
in its hey-day.
This show exudes romance and razzle-dazzle
glamour and encourages flights of fancy; a very elderly grey-haired
man turned to his wife and said "I wish I could give you
that bracelet," with a twinkle in his eye. The "Bracelet"
in question is lavishly set with diamonds, rubies and a spinel.
It is easy to imagine romantic Shah Jehan giving it to his beloved
Mumtaz Mahal on a birthday or anniversary. When she died he built
the Taj Mahal in her memory the largest, most beautiful symbol
of love in the world. When it came to romantic gestures, the Mughals
The final gallery is so dazzling it inspires
oohs and aahs from old and young alike; a magnificent Rajput "Shield"
(India, circa 18th century, A.D.), shown at the top of this article,
is hammered up from silver sheet, champleve-enamelled and gilded,
set in "kundan" technique, with rubies, diamonds, emeralds,
chalcedony, agate and rock crystal. The Rajputs were noble and
legendary Hindu warriors and a thorn in the side of anyone who
tried to conquer them, including the British. Their wives practiced
"suttee"by burning themselves on their husband's funeral
pyres until the British banned it. A line up of warriors brandishing
shields as amazing as this would dazzle anyone into submission
or at the very least distract them.
Every woman dreams of wearing a "Choker"
(India, probably Deccan, 18th-19th century AD). In Mughal India,
a man was just as likely to wear one like a collar - as a woman,
and they appear over and over again on the necks of maharajahs,
princes and noblemen in turn of the century photographs. This
choker is a glorious blend of diamonds, pearls and gigantic emeralds.
Shah Jehan had continued in the tradition of
religious tolerance of his father and grand-father, but his son
Aurangzeb, (1618-1707 A.D.) ruled his empire on the basis of the
Shariat the orthodox Muslim law. He re-imposed the religious tax
on non-Muslims, stopped the construction of new temples and destroyed
important Hindu temples. Cows, which are holy to Hindus, were
butchered inside their temples, and he banned the Hindu festivals
of Divali and Holi.
Aurangzeb's reign marked the beginning of the
end of the Mughal dynasty in India; the peace and prosperity of
his forefathers was overshadowed by austerity and the fanatical
influence of religious Muslims. Aurangzeb placed his father under
palace arrest for the last eight years of his life - from his
prison window Shah Jehan could see the Taj Mahal. A succession
of wars ensued and from 1707 to 1858 A.D. (when the British took
over) there were 19 Mughal rulers: Tarun Chopra describes it well
in his book "The Holy Cow and Other Indian Stories,"
(Prakash Book Depot, New Delhi, 2000):
"The last of the great Mughals, Aurnagzeb,
ruled India with a fanatical zeal. He realized in his last days
that he had sowed the seeds of discontent, and wrote:
'I came alone and
I go as a stranger.
I do not know who I am
Or what I came for. The instance
Which has passed in power
Has only left sorrow behind.
After me, I see only chaos.'"
These are prophetic words in the dark days
of fundamentalism, but historically Islam has seen great glory,
refinement and tolerance, and better days must lie ahead. Shah
Jehan's legacy, the Taj Mahal, still stands in Agra, a shining
symbol of the magnificence achieved by the Mughal dynasty. As
the sun sets, the white marble of this ultimate symbol of love
it turns a deep rosy pink, very much like the beautiful old ruby
spinels in the show. This is a must-see extravaganza for the holiday