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Athena Review: Vol.3, no.2: Exhibition Reports

“Treasury of the World":

Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals

Metropolitan Museum of Art

 Special Exhibition Galleries, The Tisch Galleries, 2nd floor; 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028    (tel: 212-570-3951)

October 18, 2001 - January 13, 2002

The Islamic Mughal empire, which dominated much of India and parts of Central Asia (particularly Afghanistan) in the 16th to 19th centuries, is undoubtedly little known to most Americans. This is despite the power and wealth of the six principal Mughal emperors (AD 1527-1707), and the great heights they achieved in the arts - as exemplified by the most famous Mughal monument, the Taj Mahal, built in the Agra region of north-central India by Shah Jahan (1628-1657). Thus, while it would be easy to tour this exhibit merely to indulge in the brilliance and splendor of precious, gem-encrusted objects, a more careful viewing of the over 300 works on loan from The al-Sabah Collection of the Kuwait National Museum can also provide a rare and valuable glimpse into the glamorous world of the Mughal courts.

Fig.1: Gold bottle, probably from northern India, ca. early 17th c., worked in kundan technique and set with rubies, emeralds, and natural diamond crystals; 46 x 40 mm (The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait National Museum; photo: Edward Owen).

The exhibit is arranged rather loosely around several “themes,” but as in the Glass of the Sultans exhibit, what sets the objects apart most is the techniques and materials used to create them. The exhibit opens with a display of bejeweled objects which emphasize the great skill of Mughal craftsmen in gem-setting. The kundan technique of fusing hyper-refined gold at room temperature was an Indian innovation which allowed for a broad range in setting styles. One impressive example of this technique is the extravagant dagger and scabbard of the emperor Jahangir (1605-27), inlaid with a total of 2429 stones and glass shards (including 1685 rubies, 271 unpolished diamonds, 62 emeralds, 6 agates, and 9 pieces of ivory) to form an intricate design in which trees, insects, flowers, birds and other figures can only be detected with careful scrutiny. A small bottle in which rubies, emeralds and diamonds are set in the form of a bursting flower demonstrates a more subtle use of the kundan technique (fig.1). Particularly delicate are àjour settings (pierced, perforated, or openwork decorations) in which larger, high-quality stones are set without backings so that light passes through them, in a refractive display of color like radiant stained glass (fig.2).

Fig.2: Early 17th c. gold turban ornament from India with champlevé and overpainted enamels, worked in kundan technique and set with emeralds and diamonds; 64 x 39 mm (photo: The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait National Museum).

In the same room we see examples of objects made of hardstones inlaid with gold and gems. Such stones, including jade, are too hard to cut even with steel edges, and require repeated grinding with a wheel and an abrasive such as sand, with water or oil used to prevent excessive heat from friction. The earliest such item in the exhibit is a nephrite jade bowl from East Iran or Afghanistan, dated to the 12th century, in which now-empty carved channels provide evidence of designs once inlaid in gold. Many other objects, including dagger hilts and scabbards, cups, boxes and spoons are also of jade in various shades from white to gray-green, inlaid with gold, often in floral designs. More unusual are objects carved from ivory or rock crystal. The latter material was used for a small cup, both elegant and whimsical, inlaid on the outer surface with fine trails of gold, setting rubies, emeralds and sapphire-blue glass which are painted to reveal tiny smiling faces on the interior of the bowl. (fig.3).

Fig.3: Late 16th-early 17th c. cup carved from rock crystal of either Deccan, or Mughal style. Inlaid with gold in kundan technique and set with rubies, emeralds, and dark sapphire-blue glass; the stones underlain with painted miniature faces and with kingfisher feathers. Height: 48 mm, diameter: 85 mm (photo: The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait National Museum).

The final objects in the room highlight the “classic” phase of Mughal goldworking, from 1600-1635/40, in which precious stones were set flush within in a field of finely engraved gold, usually in floral and foliate patterns. In the best of these works, such as the locket of the scabbard to a Katar dagger (fig.4), the stones are more than merely “set” in metal, but both gems and gold form an integrated, complementary design. Similarly textured precious metal can be found in a series of outstanding gold and silver Huqqa (waterpipe) reservoirs displayed in the next room (cat. # 3.1-3.2); like the earlier pieces they primarily feature flowing floral designs in low relief.

Fig.4: Gold locket from the scabbard of a Katar dagger; worked in kundun technique, set with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, engraved and chiseled; India, Mughal Empire, ca. 1615-1620. Size: 56 x 83 mm (The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait National Museum; photo: Bruce M. White).

Floral patterns are also the most common design carved in relief on hardstones. The graceful flowers carved onto the hilts of sharp 17th century daggers reflect a Mughal concern for both efficiency and elegance in design and ornamentation. The carving of precious gems (also often with floral designs) is also unique to India; these engravers preferred to release the inner beauty of the stone rather than hide imperfections or cut the stone to any preconceived form (fig.5).

Fig.5: Bored emerald from India in the 1640s; probably Mughal. Size: 37 x 33 mm (The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait National Museum; photo: Bruce M. White).

Other gemstones are inscribed with royal insignia. Deep red spinels were preferred, but diamonds and emeralds were also sometimes engraved, although often re-carved and the inscriptions lost. The inscriptions on these gems usually commemorated royal ownership, but several of a devotional character are known. Also of royal heritage is a “cameo” pendant carved with the portrait of the emperor Shah Jahan (fig.6). Although cameos are known from the region in earlier times, this phase of cameo carving seems to have been brought to India by European jewelers employed at the Mughal court in the first half of the 17th Century. This particular example shows a strong, mature and bearded Jahal, bedecked in jewels, and may actually have been made by a local artist.

European jewelers also seemed to have introduced the technique of enameling to the Indian subcontinent in the Mughal period. It is interesting to note that while enameled glasswares were popular in 13th and 14th century Egypt and Syria, by the 15th century the technique was largely preserved in Europe (see exhibit review, Glass of the Sultans), from whence it spread back east. On display are several daggars decorated in the “early classic Mughal” enamel style (cat. # 6.16-19), in which sparkling red rossette flowers and carefully patterned emerald green leaves are the dominant designs on an opaque white background. While these colors continue to dominate later enamels, there are also pale blues (pendant from ca. 1630-50; cat. # 6.24), turquoise (interior of a box from ca. 1630-50; cat. # 6.28), pale greens (dagger and scabbard from ca. 1650-70; cat. # 6.37), and pinks (scabbard of finely painted birds and flowers, early 18th century; cat. # 6.40). Likewise, rarely a more pictoral design was depicted in enamel, such a scene of the Ragini Todi depicted on an archery ring (ca. 1700; cat. # 6.47).

Fig.6: Pendant with cameo portrait of the emperor Shah Jahan on front. This original part, carved during the Mughal empire in the 1660’s, has gold set in the kundan technique with rubies and a cameo (layered agate). Its silver back was later engraved and inlaid with niello in the Deccan region (Hyderabad) in the 19th century. Size: 37 x 33 mm (photo: The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait National Museum).

A loose grouping of objects which are formed in the round range from a large silver standard of a fish and crescent to several small gem-carved birds. An assemblage of knife-hilts, mostly of jade, end in animal heads - primarily horses, but also a lion, ram and blue-buck - which are both life-like and expressive. The exhibit ends with a display of “jeweled magnificence;” i.e. heavily bejeweled objects demonstrating the peak of Mughal opulence and design. The most interesting of these is a case for a ceremonial conch shell, which is compactly set with an abundance of rubies, emeralds and diamonds forming various motifs and figures. Royal, symbolic, skillfully crafted, clever and a depository of enormous riches, the case exemplifies the best of the Mughal arts and empire.

Reviewed by Michele A. Miller

Appearing in Athena Review, Vol.3, no.2.

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