I’ve always been fascinated by jewelry, as far back as I can remember – it must have something to do with my childhood memories of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves and their cave full of bags of pearls and precious stones and gold jewelry. So when I grew up and traveled across India, I marveled at the stories of jewelry that unfolded for me in museums, palaces, temples… voluptuous apsarsa carvings dipped in strings of pearls and precious stones…gods and goddesses adorned with jewels…
Among the fabulous carvings adorning the Temple of the Sun at Konark was a helper of the god Surya, resplendent with earrings, a choker, strung beads, a mala chandrahar, arm bands, a jeweled belt and a hasli. A bronze Vishnu (11th century) from South India wears a crown, makara earrings, hasli, chains, bracelets, bracelets and a belt. Miniature paintings from Kangra, Rajasthan and Garhwal feature Mughal-inspired renditions of kings and queens, courtiers and courtesans – in an array of ornaments of all kinds.
India’s unparalleled and centuries-old tradition of ornamentation continues to be as prominent in the social, religious and cultural context of the country to this day. The love of jewelry has never been limited to adorning our gods or filling treasure chests and the royal body.
Since ancient times, our sculptures and paintings have even depicted ordinary men and women adorned with jewelry for their ears, necks, chests, waists, hands and feet. Gold and silver… common pearls and fantastic precious stones, each has its place in the Indian repertoire of jewelry traditions.
Dredged from the ground of the ruins of Mohanjadaro, dating back thousands of years to the time of the Indus Valley culture, we have one of the earliest symbols of this magnificent obsession with jewelry. The iconic bronze sculpture (c. 2500 BCE) of the ‘Mohanjadaro dancing girl’, has her right hand standing on her hip, her left hand on her left thigh, adorned with virtually nothing but a necklace and 24 bracelets climbing almost from the wrist to the shoulder on one arm and 4 on the other.
In Kargil Attending the festival, I am mesmerized by the fantastic headdresses of the women entertaining us with their traditional dance forms. Known for its regional variations, the perag, a headdress worn exclusively by women, is one of the most iconic jewels of Ladakh.
Beginning with a single large turquoise stone on the woman’s forehead, it is an exotic mix of turquoise and silver, defined as a long, tapering band of lines of turquoise interspersed with silver and gold pendants, coral and pearls, falling halfway down the back. Silver chains, called thenthak, hold the perag and earflaps in place. The tradition is beautifully represented in wall paintings from the 16th century to Tsemo Temple in Leh and the Basgo Monastery. Browse Leh’s shops for turquoise and silver necklaces and earrings that reflect the hues of the lakes set amid the glacial expanse of this cold desert.
During a short stay in Rajasthan, the land of warm winds and golden sands, I reflect on museum exhibits in Jaipur and Udaipur, featuring the amazing Mughal miniatures in which emperors, adorned with necklaces adorning their graceful necks and sparkling jewels in turbans, received gifted kalgis and trays of jewels. Even the colorful wall decorations of some palaces in Rajasthan feature a lush display of people wearing jewelry.
A piece of inspiration still today is the Jahangari paunchi (bracelet) designed by Noorjehan with a central rectangular pendant, which is a poem of diamonds on a green background and enamelled foliage.
Whereas Jaipur was world famous as a gem polishing center, it is famous for its exquisite minakari (enamel) jewelry, which was introduced by the Mughals and made into works of art in their royal workshops.
The obsession of the Mughal emperors (Akbar, Jehangir, Shahjehan – even the curator Aurangzeb) for the jewelry of India also inspired a new impetus to elements of design and ornamentation, especially in the field of enameling if richly evident in jewelry from Jaipur and Udaipur jewelry houses.
The decorative appeal of the elaborate sarpech and sarpatti, by the end of the Mughal period, had become an intrinsic part of the head ornaments of kings and high-ranking men.
The Palace of Gems in Jaipur, ruled by the Kasliwals who were the court jewelers of the Mughals, offers some of the finest traditional and antique jewelry in all of India.
In a small shop Udaipurfrom the old quarter, I pick up a necklace with moonstones set in silver. A sparkling piece of jewelry in a nearby window catches my eye as I leave. Filigree gold thread interlacing adorns what appears to be a red gemstone.
This is my first introduction to this exclusive Rajasthani tradition of thewa jewelry. Created by the craftsmen of Pratapgrah, the wa required such work that it was done for royalty alone. And I’m going to let you in on a secret. It is a closely guarded art of delicate lace gold leaf
watermark on colored glass. Yet the grace and beauty of thewa, over 400 years old, was so exotic, and this interpretation is so exclusive that only a royal could pay the asking price. Easily mistaken for a form of enameling, it is the art of fusing 23 carat gold with multicolored glass.
The most commonly used glass colors are red, blue and green. The most exquisite examples of thewa’s work are housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. There is now only one family that continues to make thewa jewellery, which has been revived by designer Roopa Vohra, who has an outlet in Bombay.
Stroll through the old bazaars of Amritsar I was seduced by the beautiful kundan jewelry (gemstones set in a thin, soft band as opposed to the Western concept of setting them in bezel sockets) – a long part of a Punjabi girl’s trousseau.
At the time, I didn’t know that in Gujarat they had the tradition of pachchikam which replicates the royal technique of kundan – for the common man. Rooted in the kutch region around the 18th and 19th centuries, the pachchikam has rich European nuances (in the open-claw tuning simulation of the grooves in the envelope). Crafted in silver rather than traditional gold, it is created with uncut white semi-precious stones that are set in a hollow silver case rimmed with lacquer.
In West Bengal, the ancient terracotta temples of Bishnupur are filled with inspiring sculptures of lavishly bejeweled female forms. Even today, Bengali jewelers have a rich portfolio of such necklaces such as the beautiful waist-length Chandrahar chain (adorned with gemstone links or medallions) and the hansuli.
In the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, the murals feature a stunning array of handcrafted jewelry for both women and men. But the highlight of your visit is the 5th-century fresco of the apasara adorned with the flashing gemstones of the large headdress, the shining pearl necklaces, the circular earrings and the guluband with hanging pearl tassels. Beads have been the pride of Maharasthra’s jewelry traditions, especially for the head and hair. Look for variations of chandra and surya head jewelry, agraphool (for hair), and nagaveni (braided ornament).
Back from the sound and light show of Fort of Golconda, I remember vividly its mines as the main source of diamonds for the world until the 16th century. The Kollur mines at Golkonda produced the legendary Kohinoor (Mountain of Light) and its twin Darya-i-noor (Sea of Light).
Standing wide-eyed in front of Kohinoor during my visit to the British Crown Jewels in London, I recalled that the Darya-i-Noor resided among the Iranian Crown Jewels! But wandering through HyderabadI discover that everything revolves around pearls in its popular bazaars. If you have time, spend some time at the Salarjung Museum drooling over the famous ‘Nizam Jewels’, a fraction of the original collection of the ruler who was India’s richest man in his day, but a miser in addition.
In Chennai, attending a Bharatnatyam performance can be a real treat; but what is even more fascinating are the sumptuous jewels, inseparable from the dress code of the classical dancer. The Bharatanatyam dancer on the modern stage carries on a centuries-old tradition of adorning the devdasis, the temple dancers who considered themselves the consorts of the temple deities.