Antiques and Collecting: Making a Great Show of All That Glitters; with Extravagant Displays of Wealth, the Mughals Ensured Their Power Was Clear to the Contemporary Public. Now We Can Enjoy the Legacy of This Affluence at the British Museum. Richard Edmonds Reports
Byline: Richard Edmonds
The Mughal emperors were hugely luxurious. They set beautifully painted miniatures into necklaces and bracelets, and favoured fingerings made from carved jade along with turban ornaments in rubies and diamonds set into gold and feathers.
The Mughals had a need to glitter - especially when seen from a distance - at the end of a throne room, for instance, or when passing through the crowd in a howdah on top of a painted ceremonial elephant.
A string of pearls wasn't really enough, or even six or seven. You had to flash what you'd got like a living firework, frequently using precious stones brought from the mines of Golconda (a magical word).
It was probably these mines which supplied six-strand diamond necklaces which set a prince quite firmly apart from his people. And it didn't stop there by any means as the current exhibition of the jewelled arts of India, on show at the British Museum, proves conclusively.
Some spectacular items are in the showcases and these lovely things underline both prestige and social position, qualities valued highly by the Mughals, who were very much in favour of symbolic power statements. If, for example, you sported a jade-handled dagger studded with rubies, and wore it with a cloth-of-gold coat and turban, there was no need to declare who you were since the poorest beggar who saw you would have been quite clear on that score.
The museum exhibition, which I cannot recommend too highly, includes some 300 pieces from the great collections of Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah of Kuwait. Most of these glamorous - and even perhaps slightly vulgar - pieces date from the reign of the Great Mughals who ruled India from the mid-16th to the early 18th century.
In addition to a king's ransom in jewel-encrusted scabbards and hilts, ruby boxes, bejewelled jade cups, enamelled boxes and gaming pieces which, when seen together, are truly an Aladdin's cave of marvels finer than any genie of the lamp could provide, is the piece-de-resistance, which is a collection of carved hardstones.
These amazing things include nine emeralds ranging from 17-235 carats imported from Colombia and carved by the finest craftsmen. Within this section of the exhibition is a 249.3 carat spinel ruby which carries six royal inscriptions with the earliest dating back to the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg (1447-1449).
This is the very stone which Shah Jehan (he of the Taj Mahal) eventually inserted into the famous Peacock Throne. A man of great taste, Shah Jehan, I have always thought, and he is on the top of my list for interviewing legendary characters along with Marco Polo and Montgomery Clift.
A fine catalogue goes along with the exhibition. It is the first publication to detail these remarkable things and so in those terms Treasury of the World -Jewelled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals by Manuel Keene (Thames and Hudson, pounds 18.95) is likely to become a rarity if it does not happen to go into second edition.
Mr Keene knows his subject well and describes these beautiful jewels as 'portable art par excellence', noting at the same time the paucity of information about the older pieces yet to achieve the historical attribution they deserve.
But when these things were originally fashioned, cataloguing and itemising object and craftsman together was not a development at court, and so for the most part the jewels and their carvers, the miniatures and their painters, and the weavers of the royal cloth-of-gold, simply faded away or were destroyed when war broke out. …