Treasures from the East at V&A Museum

  • Arts
  • Sunday, 06 Mar 2016

Bejewelled sword from Hyderabad. Photos: Victoria and Albert Museum

Visitors to London’s V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) will be treated to an Aladdin’s cave of jewels going back to the Indian Mughal era that gave us the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the glorious Taj Mahal.

The Bejewelled Treasures exhibition brings 100 objects from the Timur Ruby to a 70.21-carat Golconda diamond, from jewel-encrusted swords to turban ornaments.

Most of the collection is owned by Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al-Thani from the Qatari royal family. The Queen has also lent three of her jewellery pieces including the fabled Timur Ruby; a set of huge spinel chunks on a necklace of pearls. Perfectly matched, the pink hue of the spinels radiates off the pearls beautifully. The jewellery was never owned by Timur and the stones are not ruby but they are nonetheless spectacular. Taken from their treasury when the British defeated the Mughals, one of the spinels is engraved with a minute inscription to the Mughal emperor, Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605. Spinels, are red stones mined in Badakhshan in central Asia, valued by Mughal emperors of the 16th and 17th centuries more than any other precious stone.

Also from the Mughal treasury are nephrite jade objects including a dagger and scabbard set with rubies and emeralds in gold, from the late 16th century, belonging to Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and a wine cup belonging to his father, Jehangir, made in 1607. The cup is decorated with fine Persian calligraphy, the cultural language of the court and the administrative language of the Mughal empire. Nephrite jade is a light-coloured jade imported from Khotan, on the silk road.

Exhibition curator, Susan Stronge described this as “arguably one of the best jade collections in the world.”

Diamond turban jewel made for the Maharaja of Nawanagar.
Spinels on a necklace of cultured pearls belonging to Queen Elizabeth.

Turban decorations in enamelled gold with diamonds and spinels and an aigrette with fine, fluffy feathers, in platinum, studded with diamonds and sapphire, topped with fine white feathers exhibit the opulence of the Indian emperors and the superiority of the imperial craftsmen.

A video of the ancient kundan technique employed by the Indian goldsmiths of the imperial courts to set gemstones with highly refined gold is so informative it made me feel like reaching for the nearest adult education prospectus for a jewellery course. The goldsmiths combined this technique with the enamelling technique used by Europeans to create exquisite pieces like the turban decoration with the front adorned with gemstones in kundan settings while the back is decorated with intricate enamel work. This technique is still used today in the traditional jewellery of Jaipur and Bikaner.

The 70.21-carat Arcott II diamond from the Indian Golconda mines given to Queen Charlotte in 1767 by the Nawab of Arcot draws gasps from visitors, overshadowing a case of smaller diamonds.

Anita Delgado’s Peacock brooch in gold, diamond and enamel.
Anita Delgado’s Peacock brooch in gold, diamond and enamel.

Gold tiger finial from Tippu Sultan’s throne.
Gold tiger finial from Tippu Sultan’s throne.

India had influenced jewellery design in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, so I learn from the modern jewellery on display, like those from the house of Cartier and designers like Paul Iribe which had interpreted the traditional Indian forms in Art deco style and setting Indian-cut emeralds next to sapphires.

The appeal of Bejewelled Treasures is not only from the aesthetic perspective but their historical significance, even the love stories. The jewellery that has people queuing before it is the peacock brooch and hair ornament from the French jewellery house, Mellerio dits meller.

It was purchased by the Maharaja of Kapurthala, Jagjit Singh in 1905 on a stopover in Paris en route to a Royal wedding in Madrid. There, like a fairy tale, he fell in love with a 16-year-old dancer named Anita Delgado and gave it to her at their wedding. It is an exquisite gold, diamond and enamel peacock with blue, green and yellow enamelling for the upper body and long, delicate strands of gold feathers studded with diamonds.

Delgado returned to India as the Sikh ruler’s fifth wife. Another piece of jewellery in the collection is an emerald brooch, which started its life as a decoration for one of the Kapurthala royal elephants. Delgado was admiring it and the Maharaja promised to give it to her if she learned Urdu successfully. She learnt the language and was eventually given the emerald for her 19th birthday. The emerald was later set as a brooch in Paris, but Delgado often wore it as a bracelet, necklace or hair ornament.

Some of the treasures were spoils of war looted by the East India Company soldiers from the imperial treasuries changing ownership several times, some ending up in England. One of them, the golden tiger’s head finial from the throne of Tippu Sultan ended up in Windsor Castle. Tippu Sultan, the Maharaja of Mysore, in the southern state Karnataka was a thorn in the side of the British who were intent on seizing Mysore and lay hands on its mineral riches. Tippu Sultan was used to opulence and was known to fight with a sword encrusted with beautiful and rare gems. A tough general who led his army to success against the East India Company on five occasions, Tippu said that he would rather live a day as a tiger than a lifetime as a sheep. He adopted the tiger as an emblem.

Arcott II diamond presented to Queen Charlotte by the Nawab of Arcot.
Brooch set with emeralds, sapphires and diamonds by Cartier.

Tippu Sultan was finally killed defending his kingdom in the siege of Seringapaham in 1799. His hexagonal throne, bedecked in gold and gemstones, was brutally broken up and looted by the British soldiers. Surgeon-Major Pulteney Mein, an eye-witness to the plunder, later wrote “this gorgeous throne was barbarously knocked to pieces with a sledge hammer.”

Of the eight gold tiger head finials decorating the throne, three remain, one of which was auctioned in London in 2010 for £434,400 (at today’s rates that is RM2.5mil). Fortunately one of them, in the Queen’s possession, is also on loan to the exhibition. The other exquisite piece, previously presented to Queen Charlotte, is a canopy decoration from Tippu’s throne, of the mythical Persian Huma bird, the size of a pigeon, with a long, upright tail like a peacock’s, made with gold and decorated with precious stones. The neck is made of emeralds and the body, of diamonds and rubies.

Bejewelled Treasures is part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s India Festival and ends on March 28.

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