The Midas Touch - India Currents

The tale of King Midas' touch that turned everything to gold can be compared to the wealth and luxury of the Mughals of India's Taj Mahal period. This article explains how this was so.

The wealthy Mughals who built the Taj Mahal and ruled India from 1526-1707 surrounded themselves with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and pearls which became an integral and dazzling part of their lives. Discerning and culture rulers, they supported many and varied artists, enabling them to produce jewelry, paintings, and household items in conditions that allowed them not only
financial freedom but the time to create their masterpieces.

The abundance of gems in India was so great the skill of these men raised everyday objects into works of art. Wherever a Mughal looked, beauty abounded. Even a lowly crutch top would be carved of jade and inset with gold and gems. In a village it would be made of wood. A Mughal backscratcher was made from jade with silver and gilded bronze fittings rather than formed from a base metal.

Mughals moved enameled game pieces around boards even as villagers used simpler pieces of more natural ingredients. A bowl? It could be rock crystal with gilded silver mounts in a palace and a tinned alloy in humble huts. Rich and poor alike smoked the water pipe (huqqa), but the bulbous water storage of the villager’s huqqa might be brass, while in a palace it was beaten gold or inlaid nephrite jade. Cups, pots, spittoons and oil lamps were also carved from jade for the wealthy Mughals. Commonly used items were adorned with gems and shaped with graceful curves, scallops and flutes.

Indian artisans developed an exclusive process allowing them to set stones in a wide variation of patterns. They mounted diamonds, rubies, and emeralds into imaginative designs and catapulted this art form to a level previously unseen.

Jewelry was a natural display for gems. Wealthy women wore not only wrist bracelets, ankle bracelets and necklaces, but also arm bands, hair ornaments and forehead ornaments. Rings graced their ears, fingers and toes. The men wore arm bands, turban ornaments, pendants, amulets, and highly decorative daggers tucked into their cummerbunds.

Flamboyant as Mughal jewelry was, the unseen side was frequently finished handsomely enough to be displayed. One such example is a pendant set with rubies and diamonds to resemble a bird with the reverse side fully engraved in a more realistic representation of the same feathered creature.

One particular technique most definitely linked to the Mughals and their jewelry making is enameling. The finest of its kind in the world was created in the Royal Art Schools by talented and expressive artists. Europeans who brought the rudimentary version of enameling to India were soon outdistanced by Mughal-era Indians who took the process to undeniably higher levels. Imperial workshops created a constant stream of cups, rings, armbands, gaming pieces, pendants, daggers, boxes, swords, bracelets, toe rings, mouthpieces for a water pipe hoses, etc., from enamel of breathtaking quality.

Ivory, jade and rock crystal were frequently inlaid with scrolled gold which was in turn inlaid with high quality precious stones. It was not unusual for items to exhibit a combination of materials and techniques.

Gold and silver were hammered together into intricate designs that then gave a rich sheen to huqqas, jewelry, daggers, necklaces, pendants and battle items including axes, shields, and gun barrel rests.

Items both inside and outside the palace were transformed by the artists’ hand and eye. The jewelers of the Mughals most certainly created the Midas Touch for their sovereigns.

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