Zerin Anklesaria sets items from the al-Sabah Collection, currently on exhibit at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, in their historical context. The exhibition is on till June 27...

It was the last day of our Singapore holiday and late afternoon when we heard, quite by chance, about this splendid exhibition of Jewelled Arts of India in the Mughal Period running at the Asian Civilisations Museum. It was a scramble to get there and the Museum was huge, but wheelchairs were freely available for superannuated legs as was the lift, and in five minutes we had left quotidian concerns far behind and stepped into the fabled world of one of history's greatest dynasties.

Literally, because the first thing one encountered was a step-in painting, a spectacular 3-D replica of a portion of the famous miniature showing The Emperor Jahangir formally presenting a turban ornament to the future Shah Jahan as a gaggle of courtiers looks on reverentially. The centrepiece of the ornament is a huge 249.3 carat spinel, now a proud al-Sabah acquisition.

Near life-size cut-outs of the courtiers were positioned on the floor mimicking the painting, and yours truly became a Mughal grandee for a fleeting moment by wearing one of the period turbans so thoughtfully provided, and having my picture taken in their midst talking to a grey-beard resplendent in a gold brocade jama. Yes, photography was not only allowed but encouraged. No dog-in-the manger attitude here.

Envy of Europe

In the age of Jahangir and Shah Jahan, Mughal magnificence was the envy of Europe. In terms of excess of riches no other monarch could even approach them. The British Ambassador, present at the birthday celebrations of Jahangir in 1617, was stunned at the Emperor's appearance, ‘laden with diamonds, rubies, pearls…so great, so glorious', equally his sword and throne. His head, neck, breast, arms were covered in gems, and two or three rings adorned each finger studded with ‘Dyamonds, Rubies as great as Walnuts (some greater) and Pearles such as mine eyes were amazed at.' And here is William Hawkins trying to assess the value of Jahangir's treasury — 30 kg. of diamonds, huge stores of other gems and semi-precious stones, a thousand gem-studded saddles, and jewelled swords and daggers in numbers that boggled the mind, quite apart from items of personal adornment.

The Exhibition encapsulates this breath-taking opulence on a nano scale. In an age in which men wore more jewellery than women and favourite horses and elephants were similarly accoutred, there was plenty of scope for lapidary skills. India, particularly Golconda, was the world's only source of diamonds, but emeralds came from faraway Colombia or Brazil. They were therefore the most coveted of gemstones, with diamonds and rubies or spinels coming a close second.

We see them in a profusion of avatars — as ear studs, rings, necklaces, bracelets, armbands, and that potent emblem of royalty, the turban ornament. Only the emperor himself, his family and select members of his entourage, human and animal, were permitted to wear one, and the splendid specimen on display, set with large diamonds and emeralds, mimics a plume, with a pear-shaped emerald at the top giving it a stylish droop. In contrast with this chunky item there is a delicately worked gold belt of chain-linked squares, with a flower on each square picked out in small stones.

From the time of Akbar onwards European styles were fashionable, in painting as much as in personal adornment. This most eclectic of monarchs encouraged the miniaturists of his atelier to paint Christian subjects against an Indian background or to use Western techniques of landscape distancing with Asian themes. At the Exhibition we see an unusual example of this kind of fusion in a pendant with a cameo portrait of Shah Jahan encircled in rubies.

Much of the display is devoted to weaponry. Swords and daggers were essential components of a nobleman's dress and were as aesthetically pleasing as they were lethal, and even tiny utilitarian objects such as the thumb guards used in archery were lavishly adorned. There are many handsome specimens here with hilts and scabbards of gold that, apart from the usual three gems, are inlaid with ivory, agate, red coral from Italy and seed pearls, in beguiling arabesques and floral patterns that belie their deadly functionality. A large, heavy shield in enamel work has similar motifs.

Running riot

Additionally there are innumerable cups and bowls in glass, crystal and ceramic, while the goldsmith's imagination found free expression in decorative handles of who-knows-what (listed as ‘probably a staff' or something other) shaped like birds or animal heads, real or fantastic.

The skill of the lapidary was tested to the utmost in the difficult art of inscribing on precious stones, particularly diamonds. Gems held a mystique for the Mughals that went far beyond mere cupidity, and stones of exceptional size and quality became powerful dynastic emblems. Jahangir passed on to Shah Jahan a ruby of 184 carats that had been given to Akbar by his mother when he, Jahangir, was born, and other stones of similar value were passed on from Emperor to Emperor, duly inscribed.

Jewel in the crown

The gem in the miniature painting described above and exhibited here is the oldest and best known. A huge spinel, it carries no less than six royal inscriptions, the oldest dating back to the Timurid ancestors of the Mughals. There are other noteworthy pieces, among them an emerald of 85.6 carats with an entire verse of the Qur'annscribed on it in seven lines covering its entire face.

The Mughals used jade extensively, even for items of crockery. A very early miniature shows Babur at a feast with food laid out in dark green dishes, presumably of jade. Nephrite, the white variety, was often embellished with inlay work, another of the skills imported from Europe. The Emperors brought in master-workers from the court of the Medici in Florence to train their artisans in the laborious art of pietre dure as the Italians called it and the end-result of the workshops they established was the magical delicacy of the marble inlay work at the Taj Mahal.

There are several items of inlaid jade in the Collection. A bowl is patterned with a floral design in red, and an illuminated Qur'an from the time of Aurangzeb, so tiny that it almost escapes notice, is bound between slabs of nephrite adorned with a floral spray, spare and minimalist, in emeralds and rubies.

The stems are done in gold inlay. Apparently it was meant to be worn as a pendant, for an ornate gold case of the requisite size in diamonds, rubies and emeralds is displayed next to it.

Under Aurangzeb the interest in gems declined and with it the art of the lapidary. Austere, fanatical and murderously fratricidal, he had neither the showmanship of his predecessors nor their heightened aesthetic sensibility.

Though he was known as The Last of the Great Mughals he hardly deserved the title.

During his reign their legendary wealth was squandered to finance his interminable campaigns, and the matchless superbity for which they were a byword passed into history.