I’ve always been fascinated by jewels, ever since I can remember - it must be something to do with my childhood memories of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and their cave full of sacks of pearls and gemstones and gold jewels. So when I was all grown up and travelled across India, I was amazed at the jewel stories unfolding for me at museums, palaces, temples… sculptures of voluptuous apsarsas drenched in ropes of pearls and precious stones… bejewelled gods and goddesses...
Amongst the fabulous sculptures adorning the Sun temple in Konark, was an attendant of the god Surya, resplendent with earrings, choker, strung pearls, a chandrahar mala, armlets, bejewelled belt and hasli. A bronze Vishnu (11 th century) from South India wears a crown, makara earrings, a hasli, chains, armlets, bangles and a belt. Miniature paintings in Kangra, Rajasthan, and Garhwal showcase Mughal-inspired renditions of kings and queens, courtiers and courtesans - in an array of ornamentation of every kind.
India’s unparalleled, centuries-old unbroken tradition of ornamentation continues to be as significant in the country’s social, religious and cultural context to this day. The love of jewels has never been confined to adorning our gods or stocking up the treasure chests and the body royal.
From ancient times our sculptures and our paintings depict even ordinary men and women adorned in jewellery for the ears, neck, chest, waist, hands and feet (see image above of a sculture in Halebidu, Karnataka; source: Shutterstock). Gold and silver…common beads and fantastic gemstones, each has its place in India’s repertoire of jewellery traditions.
Dredged from the soil of the ruins of Mohanjadaro, dating thousands of years ago to times of the Indus Valley Culture, we have one of the earliest symbols of this magnificent obsession with jewellery. The iconic bronze sculpture (circa 2500 BCE) of the ‘Mohanjadaro dancing girl’, has her standing right hand on hip, left hand on the left thigh, adorned in practically nothing but a necklace and 24 bangles climbing up almost from wrist to shoulder on one arm and 4 on the other.
In Kargil attending the festival, I am mesmerised by the fantastic head-dresses of the women entertaining us with their traditional dance forms. Known for its regional variations the perag, a headdress that was worn exclusively by women, is amongst the most iconic pieces of jewellery of Ladakh.
Starting as a single large turquoise stone over the woman's forehead, it is an exotic mélange of turquoise and silver, set as a long tapering band of lines of turquoise interspersed with silver and gold pendants, coral and pearls, falling halfway down the back (see image above; source: Oleg D / Shutterstock). Silver chains, called thenthak, hold the perag and earflaps in place. The tradition is beautifully represented in the 16th-century murals at the Tsemo Temple at Leh and the Basgo monastery. Scour the shops in Leh to pick up necklaces and earrings in turquoise and silver which reflect the hues of lakes set amidst the glacial expanse of this cold desert.
During a short sojourn in Rajasthan, the land of the hot winds and golden sands, I mull over the museum displays of Jaipur and Udaipur, showcasing the amazing Mughal miniatures in which emperors, adorned in stacks of necklaces adorning their graceful necks and jewels gleaming in turbans, are being gifted kalgis and platefuls of jewels. Even the colourful wall decorations in some of Rajasthan's palaces have a lush display of people wearing jewellery (like this one in Udaipur City Palace; source: Moroz Nataliya / Shutterstock).
An inspiration piece even today is the Jahangari paunchi (bracelet) designed by Noorjehan featuring a central rectangular pendant, which is a poem of diamonds against a green background and enamelled foliage.
While Jaipur was world-renowned as a gem-polishing hub, it is famous for its exquisite minakari (enamel) jewellery, which was introduced by the Mughals and transformed into fine art in their royal ateliers.
The Mughal emperors’ (Akbar, Jehangir, Shahjehan—even the conservative Aurangzeb) obsession with India's jewels also inspired a new impetus to the elements of design and ornamentation, especially in the area of enamelling so richly evident in the jewellery from the jewel houses of Jaipur and Udaipur.
The decorative appeal of the elaborate sarpech and sarpatti, in the later Mughal period, had become an intrinsic part of the head ornaments of kings and men of high status.
The Gem Palace in Jaipur, run by the Kasliwals who were court jewellers to the Mughals, offers some of the finest traditional and antique jewels in all of India.
In a small shop in Udaipur’s old quarter, I pick up a necklace with moonstones set in silver. A gleaming jewel in a nearby display cabinet catches my eye as I leave. Filigree gold wire tracery adorns what appears to be a red precious stone.
This is my first introduction to that exclusive Rajasthani tradition of thewa jewellery. Created by the artisans of Pratapgrah, thewa required such fine workmanship it was made for royalty alone. And I’ll let you into a secret. It is a closely guarded art of delicate lacy gold leaf
filigree over coloured glass. Yet so exotic was the over 400-year-old cameo-like grace and beauty of thewa, and so exclusive is this rendition only a royal could pay the asking price. Easily mistaken for a form of enamelling, it is the art of fusing 23K gold with multi-coloured glass.
The most common colours of glass used are red, blue and green. The most exquisite examples of thewa work are housed in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. There is only one family now which continues to make thewa jewellery, which has been revived by designer Roopa Vohra, who has an outlet in Mumbai.
Wandering through the ancient bazaars of Amritsar I was enamoured by the stunning kundan (gemstones set in a soft thin strip as opposed to the western concept of
setting them in bezel sockets) jewellery– long part of a Punjabi girl's trousseau.
At the time I didn’t know that in Gujarat they have the tradition of pachchikam which replicates the regal kundan technique — for the common man. Rooted in the Kutch region around the 18th and 19th-century, pachchikam has rich European nuances (in the open-claw setting simulation of the grooves in the encasement). Fashioned out of silver rather than the traditional gold it is created with uncut, white semi-precious stones which are set in a hollow silver casing lined with lac.
In West Bengal, the ancient terracotta temples of Bishnupur are filled with inspirational sculptures of richly bejewelled female forms. Even today Bengali jewellers have a rich portfolio of those neckpieces such as the beautiful waist-length Chandrahar chain (embellished with links of gemstones or medallions) and the hansuli.
In the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, the murals feature an astounding range of jewel craft in both female and male figures. But the highpoint of your visit is the 5th-century fresco of the apasara adorned with the winking gemstones of the great headdress, lustrous strings of pearls, circular earrings and guluband with hanging pearl tassels. Pearls have been the pride of Maharasthra’s jewellery traditions, especially for the head and the hair. Look for variations of the chandra and surya head jewels, the agraphool (for the hair) and the nagaveni (plait ornament).
Returning from the sound and light show at Golconda Fort, I'm vividly reminded of its mines as the main source of diamonds for the world till the 16th century. The mines of Kollur in Golkonda yielded the legendary Kohinoor (Mountain of Light) and its twin Darya-i-noor (Sea of Light).
Standing goggle-eyed in front of Kohinoor during my tour of the British Crown jewels in London, I recalled that the Darya-i-Noor resided amongst the Iranian crown jewels! But wandering through Hyderabad’s old quarter I discover it’s all about pearls in its popular bazaars. If you get time do spend time at the Salarjung Museum drooling over the famous ‘Nizam’s jewels’, a fraction of the original collection of the ruler who was the richest man in India in his days, but a miser to boot.
In Chennai, witnessing a Bharatnatyam performance can be a real treat; but what’s even more fascinating is the sumptuous jewellery, an inseparable part of the classical dancer’s dress code. The Bharatanatyam dancer on the modern stage is carrying on a centuries-old tradition of ornamentation of the devdasis, the temple dancers who saw themselves as the consorts of the temple deities.