Alamkara - The Beauty of Ornament

National Museum - New Delhi

Incomparable Treasures from The Jewellery Collection of the National Museum, New Delhi

Alamkara is adornment and a body devoid of adornment is imperfect. But once decorated with beautiful ornaments, the body assumes form, becomes visible, attractive and perfect. National Museum has the most extensive collection of jewellery in India. The items on view here tell the story of Indian jewellery. From the beautifully tumbled agate bead necklaces of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, fabulous jewels adorned with images of gods and goddesses to the magnificent items that once reposed in the treasuries of the Mughal emperors and the maharajas, the collection spans important periods in Indian history. 
There are simple everyday wear items and magnificent creations made for ceremonial occasions. Strikingly stylized forms of the peasants and tribals vie with the extraordinary items that were made for the wealthy. From items fashioned from shell, ivory, bone and silver to those made from gold and encrusted with gemstones; from pieces made to adorn, enhance, beautify to those worn to protect, heal and energize, the jewels of India are on par with all other art forms in the study of Indian aesthetics.   
For more than two thousand years, India was the sole supplier of gemstones to the world. Golconda diamonds were coveted and drew merchants across land and sea to India. Emeralds from Colombia, rubies and spinels from Burma and Sri Lanka, sapphires from Kashmir and pearls from the Gulf of Manar and Bahrain poured into gem bazaars scattered across the length and breadth of the country. India was known as the Golden Bird or Sone ki Chidia.
Spanning a legacy of five thousand years, the jewellery of India is a striking expression of the country’s aesthetic and cultural history. The small number of jewels that have survived from different periods and different parts of the country, beautiful jewels carved on sculpted images in ancient temples, references in literature, texts on gemology, myths, legends and chronicles provide evidence of a tradition without parallel in the world. 
The exhibition explores Alamkara - the tradition of adornment. The gods were richly bejewelled at all times, men proudly wore jewels, women adorned themselves with ornaments in myriad ways and unique forms protected children from the powerful gaze of the evil-eye. Painstakingly wrought by anonymous goldsmiths in ateliers and workshops across the country, the National Museum collection celebrates the great variety of forms, the beauty of Indian design and the genius of Indian craftsmanship.

A view of the Alamkara Gallery at National Museum.

Harappan Civilisation was home to treasure trove of jewellery made of gold, terracotta and shell, and a vast quantity of beads. There was a well-developed bead-making industry. Carnelian, agate, turquoise, steatite, faience and gold were fashioned into exquisite beads and interspersed with gold spacers to fashion beautiful ornaments. Dating to 2600-1900 BCE, the ornaments from Mohenjodaro and Harappa exhibit sophistication and finesse that is incredible for the variety of raw materials, knowledge of metallurgy, the technology of fabrication and the range of forms and styles that existed more than 4000 years ago.

This necklace from Mohenjodaro, belongs to the Harappan civilisation. It has steatite and gold beads capped with gold on both sides. The necklace has three pendants of banded agate beads decorated with bright red bands in the middle with five pendants of jade beads on one side and four pendants of jade beads on the other side.

The beads are suspended by means of a thick gold wire that passes through each bead projecting at the lower end and fitted with a small cylindrical bead and a gold cap and coiled at the upper end to form the eyelet for the cord.
The necklace represents the advanced technology of bead making that was prevalent during Harappan times.

One of the most famous jewellery item from the Harappan civilisation, this five row necklace or girdle is made up of thirty long bicone carnelian beads of a translucent red colour. The rows are separated by globular bronze beads sandwiched between flat bronze spacers on either side. At one end there is a semi-circular terminal of bronze.

Another exquisite piece from Harappa, this flat gold brooch is shaped like the figure ‘8’. It has been formed with three thick gold wires laid on a sheet of silver. They are bent to form concentric rows in the form of the figure ‘8’. The two spaces in between the wires are inlaid with tiny cylindrical steatite beads having gold ends.

This gold heart-shaped pendant from Harappa has been worked in repousseé in the form of concentric heart shapes. The hollows are inlaid with ribbed bands of faience. The pendant is fitted with two gold loops on the underside.

The jewels of Sirkap are Indo-Greek - classically Graeco-Roman in design and workmanship but manifest elements of indigenous idioms. There are fabulous earrings crafted from sheet gold and decorated with micro-granules no larger than grains of sand and elaborate necklaces decorated with wire and cloisons arranged in floral designs inlayed with coloured stones and turquoise paste. From the jewels, it is evident that the people of Sirkap decorated their hair with fillets and pins, wrapped elaborate girdles of rows of fish around their waist and adorned their fingers with exquisitely crafted rings. The Sirkap jewels are distinguished by imaginative designs, rich decorative details and intricate craftsmanship.

This intricate piece from Sirkap is ‘leech-and-pendant’ type earrings which combines sheet gold and granulation.
The crescent or ‘leech’, a term derived from the insect of similar shape, is hollow with an inverted bud-shaped pendant suspended from it. The pendant is attached to a moveable ring embossed with gold granules. The clasp is in the form of a double-leech pattern with decorative details.

The pendent drops are covered with fine granulation with clusters of gold granules at the end. The hollow crescent forms are filled with a solid lac or pitch.

These square amulets of gold are decorated with a swastika outlined in repoussé beading. At the center of this piece is a diamond-shaped depression and at the four corners are heart-shaped depressions. These might have been inlaid with a stone or filled with paste. The amulets are fitted with four copper rings at the back to facilitate attachment.
These two amulets from Sirkap are the earliest archaeological evidence of the swastika in an ornament.

A one of a kind piece of jewellery from Taxila, this segment with fishes in a row might have been a part of a longer girdle.
It comprises three horizontal rows of four fishes made of thin sheet of gold stamped with a design of fish scales. Holes are pierced in their mouth and tails for the cords to pass through.
The jewels of Sirkap are Indo-Greek in design and workmanship but manifest elements of indigenous idioms.

This elaborately decorated gold necklace from Sirkap, consists of eleven pendants with ten spacer beads and one terminal. The eleven pendents are of two types. The design of one type of pendant consists of an oval cabochon crystal set within a beaded surround enclosed by two repoussé worked dolphins face-to-face. From the tails of these dolphins hang three plaited chains ending in flat gold disks. At the top is attached a spherical bead the surface fully decorated with micro-granules.

The other pendant is of quatrefoil design with seven cloisons inlaid with white orthoclase feldspar and three chains with flat gold disks hanging below. The bead on top of this pendant is plain.

The spacer beads between each pendant are of openwork design of circles inlaid with white feldspar and studded with granules. The terminal is in the form of an animal face inlaid with feldspar and black agate outlined with granulated beading.
While the necklace was strung through the beads, there is also a series of gold tubes at the back for another cord to pass through.

Images of gods and goddesses decorate head ornaments, necklaces, and armbands. Amulets and marriage pendants that invoke the blessings of the divine and ward off evil are decorated with deities. The Indian craftsmen drew upon the many popular myths and legends extolling the valour and power of the gods to decorate jewels. The legend of Krishna vanquishing the snake demon Kaliya is a quintessential motif of head ornaments and pendants. Shiva and Parvati are depicted in almost three-dimensional relief on gold pendants and images of goddess Lakshmi occur across all ornament forms while episodes from the life of Shri Nathji (Krishna) are painted on necklace plaques. Such jewels also served as portable shrines and were carried on pilgrimage.

This necklace (har) from Rajasthan is composed of nine square plaques, each with a painting depicting an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu and other stories from Bhagavata Purana. The paintings are set into gold frames surrounded with bunches of gold beads. Each plaque is fitted with five loops in the form of flower and strung on a plain red and gold cord.

Such necklaces with Puranic imagery acted as portable manuscripts for pilgrims and others.

This exquisite necklace of gold (kanthla), from Udaipur, Rajasthan centers on a rectangular pendant which is flanked by two fan-shaped pendants. These are interspersed with decorated beads set with gems and pearls. The pendants are strung on thick gold cord and attached to a three row gold chain at the back.

Each pendant bears a painted portrait of Shri Nathji of Nathdwara set within a frame decorated with white sapphires, rubies, emeralds, blue glass, pearls and gold beads.

The nineteenth century was a period of magnificent splendour and ostentatious display in the many native courts that were scattered around India. Rajas, maharajas, nawabs and the nizam emulated the style of the Mughal emperors and jewels were quintessential accessories to court life and aristocratic privilege. To the maharaja, personal adornment was not just a matter of tradition or personal taste, but also a proclamation of rank, wealth, and power. They exhibited their privileged status by their blazing turban jewels, magnificent necklaces studded with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, and even objects such as fly whisks, ink stands and boxes. The maharajas’ attire was a mixture of traditional and modern, Indian and Western.

This enchanting necklace (kanthi) from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh is in the form of an openwork torque in five hinged sections.

In the front, the necklace is set with white sapphires in a design of seven flowers with an octagonal stone in the middle. The stone is surrounded with petals, meandering creepers and leaves all set with white sapphires. The chain at the back in the form of a row of single stones.

On either side of the center flower there is a graceful peacock with head turned back and a single pearl positioned on top in the middle and a pear-shaped floral pendant suspended below.

The back of the jewel has a garden of flowers in painted pink enamel with green and blue highlights- typical of gulabi mina palette of Varanasi.

Turban ornaments are symbols of temporal power and are quintessential to royal attire in India.

This turban jewel (sarpech) designed as three openwork emerald and diamond-set foliate cluster panels represents the excellent craftsmanship of Rajasthan goldsmiths. The scroll aigrette tapers with a row of emeralds in the center and flanked by diamond petals. A single emerald drop and five emerald drops are suspended below.

The center panel is set with a large hexagonal emerald carved with a chrysanthemum flower and the two side panels each center upon a rectangular emerald carved with a floral motif.

Alamkãra – adornment expressed in the beauty of ornament extended from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. On the top of her head, the woman wore jewels that covered the parting of her hair while flower forms and crescent moons studded with gems hung down over her forehead. Jewels were fashioned to even decorate the plait. Hair jewels were believed to activate the energies resident in the sahasrara chakra located on top of the head. Rich or poor, irrespective of caste or class earrings were mandatory and worn to energize vital acupressure points in the ear. From simple chains to elaborate collars and stiff torques necklaces were an important part of adornment. Gold circlets with a variety of motifs were fashioned to curve around a woman’s wrists. Belts crafted from precious metal and studded with stones were clasped around the waist. Ankles and toes were also not left bare and adorned with tinkling bells and delicate toe rings. 

The head ornament (maang tika) in the form of a crescent is a beautiful amalgamation of kundan work, diamond, pearl and gold.

The crescent is set with diamonds with a flowering lotus blossom kundan, set with diamonds in the middle. It has two pearls on top and a row of pearls hang along the lower end. The ornament is suspended from a row of pearls with a gold hook on top.

This intricately designed head ornament (jhumar) from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh is in the form of semi-circular openwork foliate panel with a design of a crescent moon. The panels are set with diamonds and green enamel and surmounted with a gold hook.

Fourteen rows of pearls interspersed with ruby beads from the bottom are attached to a crescent shaped panel set with diamonds. At the bottom are suspending gem-set pieces and bunches of pearls.

The jewel is worn pinned to the hair on one side of the head.

This nose ring (balu), a typical ornament of Himachal Pradesh, is of a circular form. It is decorated with pearls, and red and white gems. Delicate gold leaves interspersed with gem-set crescent shaped and fish-shaped elements fringe the bottom of the nose ring.

On the upper portion a drop-shaped gem-set pendant from which are suspended seven gold leaves each with a turquoise in the middle within a granulated frame.

The centre part of the nose ring is decorated with a gem-set lotus and a couple of birds which are set above a row of semi-precious gems.

A chain of stamped gold flowers with a fringe of gold leaves and pearls is attached to the nose ring. This chain is tucked into the hair above the ear to support the weight of the large jewel.

The earrings (chand bali) are in the form of two crescent moons set within each other. Each crescent is studded with diamonds and rubies within geometric outlines. A fish-shaped pendant set with diamonds and ruby eyes is suspended from the large outer crescent moon, which is further edged with a line of pearls and bunches of pearls.

The crescent forms are surmounted with a flowerhead with ruby center and diamond petals and a pearl border.

The reverse of the earrings is enamelled in a palette of red, green and white.

The well crafted necklace (har) from Rajasthan is made of sheet gold worked in repoussé. It consists of twelve lobed diamond-shaped pendants and a central fan-shaped pendant.

Each of the diamond shaped pendents bear the image of Krishna as Venugopala, standing with legs crossed and flute in hand, amidst foliage. Each pendant is edged with gold beads. A chain at the back completes the necklace.

The central pendant has an image of Lakshmi flanked by a caparisoned elephant on either side. She is shown seated with lotus flowers and leaves around her. Small gold bells decorate the lower edge of this centre piece.

The rigid collar necklace (arya) is crafted with gold and set with diamonds. The necklace comprises a broad, curved oval piece in an openwork foliate design with table-cut diamonds. This is surmounted by a row of pearls in gold cups along the upper edge.

Below the oval piece is a flexible mesh of diamond-shaped pieces set with diamonds. This suspends four tiered rows of triangular units, each set with diamonds and a fringe of pearls. The five diamond-set pieces, fringed with pearls at the bottom, completes this magnificent necklace.

On the back, there is a complex network of loops and rings that holds the various elements of the jewel together.

This rigid collar necklace (arya) from Rajasthan, is crafted from gold and set with diamonds.

The necklace comprises a broad, curved oval piece in a openwork foliate design with table-cut diamonds in foliate against a green enamel ground.

The oval piece is surmounted with gold cups that would have originally held pearls. The cord is in the form of a bunch of woven green and white glass beads. The reverse is enamelled with floral motifs in green, blue, red and white.

Suspended below the oval piece is a network of joined small triangular units in four tiered layers. Each unit is set with diamonds within a green enamel border and a fringe of pearls and blue beads. Three diamond-shaped pendants with a flower set with diamonds against a green enamel ground and a fringe of pearls are suspended below this network.

This elegant necklace (timaniya) is of rectangular form and is composed of a network of gold beads. This network suspends a multi-tiered fringe of triangular stamped sheet gold pieces. The pieces have a fringe of gold beads. There are three gem-set pieces framed in seed pearls with a fringe of gold beads below.

Surmounting the network of gold beads is a rectangular panel set with rows of rubies and emeralds. Above it are diamond flower-heads with blue enamel detail encircled with seed pearls. On either side of the pendant, the necklace is strung with pearls woven into beads interspersed with gold beads and gem set panels.

The pair of bangles (gokhru) in flat form with radiating flower-pot like elements each set with a bunch of seed pearls, is an excellent example of craftsmanship by the goldsmiths of Rajasthan. The sides of the bangles have cut work details and finely etched decorative patterns.

The openwork armband (keyuram), from South India, is curved to fit around the upper arm.

It is diamond-shaped and has a flower in the center. Around the flower it is covered with delicate floral designs set with cabochon rubies, white sapphires, and emeralds.

A nagothu is an armband in the form a small crown. It has a flower-head in the middle flanked by two peacocks set with cabochon rubies and white sapphires.

Three rows of gold beads are placed along the lower edge.

This single anklet (paizeb) from Rajasthan, is crafted from gold and composed of eighteen octagonal panels. Each of these panels have a kundan set octagonal shaped emerald inset with a diamond framed in gold in the center. The panel is surmounted with a pearl set in a gold cup.

It is likely that the piece was originally a necklace and a portion was later adapted to a bracelet. The clasp is modern.

A single leaf set with a ruby projects from one side from which is suspended a pearl. A loop at the bottom suspends an inverted lotus flower with a diamond in the middle surrounded by blue enamel. This is flanked by two ruby-set petals on either side and has three sets of pearls hanging

The ring (arsi) has a large round mirror faceted around the edges set within a gold mount. The mount is of sheet gold decorated with floral motifs in repoussé and the hoop with three rows of granulation.

The ring was traditionally worn by brides enabling them to sneak a look at the face of their bridegroom from underneath her veil.

This belt (kamarband) of gold in the form of eighty-four rectangular interlocking plaques in two rows, is a well crafted example of Northern Indian jewellery designs. Each of the plaques have a floral motif set with diamonds and cabochon rubies on a green and gold ground.

On one side, the drop shaped petal of the flower projects in a semi-circle which fits into a corresponding semi-circular recess in the next plaque. The clasp of eight similar plaques arranged vertically. The reverse is plain gold.

South India or Dakshinapatha was a golden land and the repository of the mineral wealth of ancient India. Ships from around the world laid anchor in ports along the Malabar and Coromandel coasts of South India. Merchants flocked to gem bazaars in Goa, Bijapur, Vijayanagar, Madurai and Hyderabad exchanging gold for diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls as well as spices and cottons. The renowned Golconda diamond mines produced millions of carats of the most beautiful diamonds. Pearl fisheries in the Gulf of Manar produced large quantities of lustrous pearls Flat collar type necklaces made from sheet gold and worked in repoussé are embellished with gems and pearls; ear jewels take the form of crocodiles, peacocks and flowers and armbands and bangles range from simple circlets of gold to elaborate gem-studded forms. Elaborate hair ornaments were modeled in the form of the snake and worn on the long braid. 

The hair ornament (jadainagam) is crafted from gold and set with cabochon rubies in the traditional South Indian idiom from the five-headed cobra on top to the bell-shaped tassels at the bottom.
At the top is the cobra (nagam) with five parallel rows of cabochon rubies with a diamond in the middle.

Below the cobra head is a rectangular floral plaque in openwork set with gems. Below this, the jewel tapers with identical units held together by a cord along the side, each executed in openwork with peacocks set amidst flowers and leaves.

The jewel ends in a gold bead with a row of cabochon rubies around the middle and three bell-shaped tassels crafted from gold and set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds.

This necklace (manga malai), from South India, is made up of forty-six mango-shaped pendants each set with a white sapphire in the middle and surrounded by cabochon rubies.

Each mango pendant is interspersed with trefoil- shaped elements set with cabochon rubies. The units are strung on a flexible flat woven gold cord.

The gold pendant (padakkam) from Karnataka is designed as a composite animal and bird form. It has a double-headed yali, a mythical monster and gandaberunda or double-headed eagle.

The body centering upon a cabochon ruby in the center and surrounded by rubies and diamonds with emerald highlights.

The fan-shaped tail is set with parallel rows of rubies with an emerald in the middle.

The plain gold reverse of the pendant is decorated with incised designs corresponding with the form in front.

The necklace (manga malai), from South India is composed of thirty-six gold mango-shaped pendants. A ruby is set on top of each mango and surmounted with an incised attachment for suspension. The mango pendants are interspersed with palmette shaped pieces of thick sheet gold incised with designs. The clasp also of a sheet gold mango form.

This v-shaped arm jewel (vanki) from Tamil Nadu was worn on the upper arm above the elbow.

It is crafted from sheet gold and worked in repoussé. A round cabochon ruby in the middle is surmounted with a kirtimukha or “face of glory” motif.

Lions, birds, peacocks, flowers and scrolling vines decorate the entire surface with minute decorative details executed on the images.

The Mughal period represents a zenith in India’s cultural history, manifested in its outstanding artistic achievements. The Mughals were aggressive warriors, powerful rulers and discerning aesthetes. They established an empire in India that was politically and artistically pre-eminent from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Jewellery and gemstones was the ultimate symbol of wealth and power. Mughal jewellery is a unique combination of precious metals, fabulous gemstones and polychrome enamel. By inlaying coloured enamel paste onto the metal surface of ornaments, the jeweller created a veritable garden ablaze with all manner of flowers, leaves and birds. The Mughal idiom endures in the ateliers of Rajasthan today.

The Mughal necklace (kanthi) of openwork foliate design is a masterpiece of jewellery. It centers upon a lotus in full bloom set with diamonds with graduating panels of lotus flowers set with diamonds on either side.

A row of pearls set in gold cups and a fringe of emerald beads flank the necklace from top and bottom respectively. The necklace is attached to three gold chains.

The reverse of the necklace is enamelled with red and green floral motifs on a white ground.

This Mughal armband (bazuband) from Rajasthan is of dome-shaped hemispherical form. In the center is an eight-petalled flower with diamonds kundan-set in gold. It has festoons of diamond flowers and leaves arranged all around on a green and gold enamel ground. Around the edge is a row of diamonds enclosed in gold.

The reverse of this armband is enamelled with red flowers and green leaves with lilac highlights on a white ground.

The necklace (guluband) from Delhi is in the form of nine openwork square panels. Each panel is alternately set with a pearl and a ruby in the middle and with ruby and turquoise petals around. The panels are surmounted with pearls in gold cups. A fringe of pendants set with diamonds and pearls are suspended below.

The reverse is decorated with a design of birds in polychrome enamel.

The necklace (guluband) has ten floral panels. The panels are surmounted with gold cups, some holding pearls. A fringe of gem set elements with bunches of pearls hang along the lower edge.

The reverse is enamelled with floral designs in red, green, and yellow on a white ground.

Eight panels are of square shape set with a diamond in the center and four petals set with carved emeralds. The last panels on either side are set with a diamond in the center and three petals.

In the 19th century there was increased European influence on Indian jewellery. The presence of foreign craftsmen and British jewellery firms in cities and the exposure of Indian craftsmen to foreign manufacturing techniques resulted in various western elements creeping into Indian design. Indian jewellers and craftsmen, ever innovative and quick to learn new techniques, started working in the western idiom. They produced traditional jewels based on western designs incorporating lighter mounts, placed gems in claw settings instead of traditional kundan and incorporated faceted gems in their jewels. Entranced by European craftsmanship, Indian customers commissioned pieces in the new western style. They re-modelled old jewels by incorporating European elements and commissioned western-style buckles and hat jewels. Each region developed unique designs and forms reflecting the cultural influences and changing tastes of the people.

This pendant from Calcutta, Bengal, is set with a large octagonal table-cut spinel. This is set within an octagonal gold frame set alternately with marquise-shaped rubies and diamonds. It has a spinel bead suspended below.

This enchanting gold bracelet centers on a flowerhead with a white stone center. It is surrounded by petals of white, red and green stones. The encircling band is of zig-zag form set with coloured stones. The screw head set with three stones on top and one in front.

The navaratna necklace (har) is crafted with gold and set with the nine planetary gems each in the center of a flower. The flowers are surrounded with ruby petals.

The nine flowers are interspersed with leaves and scrolling vines set with emeralds, rubies and diamonds and green enamel leaves. There is a two row gold chain at the back.

The light open setting and claw setting manifest the European influence in jewellery manufacture of the period.

The nine flowers with different gem stones in the middle are attached to the vines on springs. This would give the flowers slight movement when the necklace is worn.

Nature unfolds in all its glory in the jewels of India. Just as gestures, postures and expressions transmit messages, jewellery in ancient India communicated in a language of metaphors and symbols. Flowers, fruits, seeds and even trees were carefully chosen not only for their beauty but for their nourishing properties and metaphysical significance. Seeds portray fertility and regeneration while flowers symbolise beauty and perfection of form. The beautiful world of nature provided the jewellery craftsman with an infinite supply of designs and served as inspiration for colours and textures.

This gold openwork hair ornament centers on a lotus flower with a diamond center and cabochon light pink ruby petals. It is surrounded by flowers and leaves similarly set with rubies and diamonds. Of curved form, the jewel is fitted with loops for fixing to the hair braid.

The pendant from Rajasthan centers on a lotus flower set with white sapphires and surrounded by five flower blossoms. The flowers have red petals and are interspersed with leaves. A pearl pendant hangs below.

The reverse of the pendant is decorated in red enamel with white and green highlights.

Birds, animals and fantastic composite beasts were used in Indian jewellery as symbols of the omnipresent powers of nature. The graceful peacock with its iridescent feathers is a symbol of joy, beauty, and pride in India. Parrots and peacocks dance amid gardens of ruby-and-diamond flowers; elephants, lion monsters, tiger claws, and snakes were all incorporated into Jewellery designs in countless different ways. The use of mythical winged creatures such as the double-headed eagle, fishes and even dolphins, dates to a very early period in Indian jewellery. The yali (a composite creature), kirtimukha (demon face), gandaberunda (double-headed eagle) and makara (crocodile) forms are quintessential elements of jewellery design particularly in south India.

The pair of bangles (kada) from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh with elephant-head terminals is a beautifully executed piece.

The tusks are entwined and are set with diamonds. The outer surface of the hoop is set with table-cut diamonds in foiled foliate surrounds on a green enamel ground. The inner surface is decorated with painted pink enamel flowers. The pair of opposing elephant heads with diamond set details is decorated with painted pink and white enamel or gulabi mina.

This magnificent necklace (har) from North India centers upon a foliate pendant. It is set with an emerald within an octagonal frame and surrounded with diamond petals and fishes. The fishes are set with small pieces of turquoise. This is surmounted with a lotus similarly set with gems accompanied by turquoise fishes. The pendant suspends another small fish pendant with rubies and pearls dangling.

The pendant is connected to a necklace made up of six pieces. Each piece is a crescent moon set with turquoise in the middle enclosed with gem set and enamelled fishes on either side. There are pearl pendent on the sides. The pieces are connected with four rows of pearls and a middle row with a spinel and pearls.

From time immemorial, amuletic jewellery has been worn as a protection from danger, the harmful effects of evil spirits and the power of the evil eye. The most basic amulet in India is the simple black bead. Lockets made in the form of boxes to hold sacred verses or pendant plaques decorated with images of gods and goddesses were worn to create a protective shield around the wearer. Belief in the prophylactic and apotropaic power of gold and gems was deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. Verses inscribed on jade, semi-precious stones and even on gemstones served as powerful amulets to ward off evil, while pendants and armbands decorated with symbols and images of gods and goddesses served to provide enduring protection to the wearer.

The pendant (padakkam) from Kerala features a pair of tiger’s claws encased in gold with beaded outline. This is attached to the bottom of a pendant of cusped arch form, made from sheet gold. A bead is suspended between the claws.

The pendant is strung on a necklace of ribbed gold beads, black and yellow glass beads and tulsi (Ocimumtenuiflorum) beads.

This pendant combines the powerful amuletic properties of the tiger’s claws and the kirtimukha to deflect evil and bestow protection on the wearer.

The pendant is decorated in repoussé with a kirtimukha - a mythical monster resembling a lion, set amidst profuse foliage and a border of cabochon rubies.

This sheet gold necklace from Karnataka is composed of eighteen identical panels each in the form of a tiger’s claw. The claw is fitted with a cap decorated with a kirtimukha ‘face of glory’ motif in relief. This is surmounted with a cabochon ruby. The center panel features a flower set with a ruby in the center. The triangular pieces at the end are also worked in relief. All the panels are filled with lac.

Tiger claws were fashioned into ornaments because they symbolised courage and power.

In India, women display their married status through adornment. One of the most important symbols of marriage is the marriage pendant – known as tali or tirumangalyam in south India and mangalsutra in north India. The jewel, in the form of a necklace, is strung with pendants that are powerful tokens of fertility and protection. The designs of marriage pendants vary in different parts of the country and among different communities. Among some communities, the tali pendant is a complex work of art and craftsmanship. Stylised emblems that include nature deities, the wish-fulfilling tree, symbolic representations of gods and goddesses, flowers and plants are crafted from gold, set with gems and decorated with intricate details. The form and the symbols combine to bestow prosperity, wealth, protection and fertility on the wearer. 

The marriage pendant (tali) from Chettinad, Tamil Nadu of cut work gold is of long rectangular form and arched on top. The jewel is inset with an image of goddess Lakshmi standing on a lotus within an arch surmounted with two female attendants. There are two deer below and a bell in the middle. Fine decorative details are incised on the thick gold sheet.

The necklace (kaluthiru) is made up of three claw-like pendants strung on a cord with round and tubular beads. It weighs more than half a kilo.

The kaluthiru – the name derived from kaluthu meaning neck and uru meaning bead is the marriage necklace of the Nattukottai Chettiar community of Tamil Nadu.

The claw-like pendants are believed to be modelled on shell forms or the paws of a tiger. Embellished with pyramidal architectural forms, wire work and beautifully crafted open work decoration, the three pendants are strung with fourteen gadrooned beads, eight cylindrical beads with fine granulation work and two elongated rectangular beads at the end that are decorated with wire and granules.

The jewellery of south India is unique and techniques of manufacture are distinct to the region. The technique of repoussé known as nakashu-velai or swami-velai, in which a sheet of gold is beaten to the desired thinness and laid over thick wax, is extensively used. Diamonds and cabochon rubies predominate in gem set jewels due to the plentiful availability of diamonds from the Golconda mines and rubies from Burma. These gems are embedded in gold in closed settings in a technique known as izhacha-velai or kundala-velai. The back surfaces of jewels are not enamelled but covered with a plain gold plate or etched with delicate floral designs.

These earrings from Kerala are crafted from sheet gold and are in the form of cobra heads. They have applied gold wire decorations and set with cabochon rubies to simulate the eyes of the cobra. The opening on top decorated with an applied gold flower with ruby center.

The head ornaments (suryan and chandran) represent the sun and the moon respectively. It is worn on either side of the center parting of the hair on top of the head.

The circular sun simulates a chrysanthemum flower with a diamond center surrounded by rows of rubies and diamonds and radiating petals set with cabochon rubies. The crescent moon is also encrusted with rows of cabochon rubies with a diamond, ruby and emerald flower in the middle.

The beauty and grandeur of Mughal-style jewels – a unique combination of precious metals, fabulous gemstones and polychrome enamel – is characteristic of the jewels of north India. All traditional Indian jewellery made in the Mughal style is a product of teamwork. The designer (chitera) makes a drawing of the jewel, the goldsmith (sonar) then crafts the individual hollow gold units that make up jewel. These are passed to the khodnaker or engraver who carves out the areas marked for filling with enamel colours. The minakar or enameller then applies thin layers of enamel paste into the grooves firing the jewel between each application. This technique is known as champlevé. The gem setter or kundansaz sets each gem securing it with thin strips of pure gold or kundan to form a solid wedge around the gemstone. A quintessentially Indian technique, the process has remained unchanged for centuries and endures even today.

This pair of armbands (bazuband) is in the form of wide gold bands each set with rows of table-cut diamonds. The diamonds are set in rectangular vertical interlocking units that end in loops decorated with gold floral motifs on a blue enamel ground. The armbands are threaded through these loops to fit together.

The reverse is decorated with red, green, blue and white enamel floral motifs.

This elegant torque necklace (hansuli) is in the shape of a hoop. It centers on a multi-petaled flower-head set with white sapphires and surrounded by pearls. The hoop of the necklace is set with a row of gem-set flowers and leaves on a blue enamel background. The enameled arc at the back opens to fit the jewel around the neck.

The underside of the torque is decorated with polychrome enamel.

Nava or nine and ratna meaning gems is a compound word referring to jewels set with the nine celestial gems in Indian jewellery. The “nine gems” correspond to the nine celestial objects: pearl (Moon), ruby (Sun), emerald (Mercury), diamond (Venus), coral (Mars), blue sapphire (Saturn), yellow sapphire ( Jupiter), and Hessonite, a golden-coloured garnet or zircon (Rahu), and chrysoberyl or cat’s-eye (Ketu). The combination of the nine planetary gems is a powerful amulet in India, which functions as a shield against the harmful effects of the changing positions of the planets within an individual’s astrological chart. Gems are endowed with healing properties and are believed to be both therapeutic and capable of bringing positive changes in an individual’s life. 

This is an egg-shaped pendant casket (ayigalu) crafted from gold.
The casket is designed to hold a portable sacred Shiva lingam.

The ayigalu, usually of silver is a sacred amulet worn by members of the Lingayat community in Karnataka.

The presence of the gandaberunda or double-headed eagle – emblem of the Wodeyar royal house of Mysore on the pendant implies that this was a royal jewel.

The pendant has diamonds set in diagonal lines and rows of cabochon rubies around the top and the bottom.

Set in the middle of the diamonds on one side of the casket is a gandaberunda or double-headed eagle motif in emeralds and rubies. The other side has a flower set with the nine celestial gems or navaratna. On top of the lid there is a minuscule emerald Shiva lingam set within a gold snake hood.

A rock-crystal lingam would have reposed inside.

The amulet pendant from Rajasthan is in the form of a slim rectangular box. The cover has a flower in the middle having a ruby center and diamond heart-shaped petals kundan-set in gold. Around the flower are the navaratna gemstones interspersed with diamond-set foliage and a red enamel ground. There are three suspension loops enamelled in green and white and three loops below, suspending emerald beads.

A variety of objects from daily life were decorated using the techniques which were used for jewellery making. Gem encrusted boxes, buttons, pen stand and other objects exemplify the master craftsmanship of the goldsmiths. Intricately decorated buttons were worn by the royalty. Household items like tea cups and saucers are also found with wonderful designs and exquisite craftsmanship.

The box of gilded silver with floral motifs and flower lotus worked in relief all around the sides. The lid of jade set into silver and with a scrolling design of flowers and leaves inlaid with gold, diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

The box is of silver with thewa work decoration on the lid and around the sides. Thin sheet gold with a design of Shreenathji flanked by two devotees amidst a floral backdrop decorate the lid. A design of flowers goes around the sides. The sheet gold with minutely incised designs is fused on green glass in a technique unique to the region, to give a base to the thewa work.

Credits: Story

Script and Curation: Dr. Usha Balakrishnan

Collection Incharge - Dr. R.K. Tiwari

Conservation and Mounting - P.K Nagta

Exhibit Compilation - Vasundhra Sangwan and Rajalakshmi Karakulam

Gallery Design - Siddhartha Chatterjee

Design Implementation - Mr. K.K.S Deori, Mr. Kuldeep Pokhriyal and Ms. Priya

Photography - Hariom Maurya, Suresh Mahto & Yogesh Pal

Photo Editing - Hariom Maurya

Exhibition Coordination - Joyoti Roy

References - Alamkara - The Beauty of Ornament, Dr. Usha Balakrishnan, National Museum, 2014, New Delhi.

The Jewelry Collection, National Museum, India

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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