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Bejewelled in Banaras

Ruhi Priya
Image 1, Necklace with gulābī mīnā

Image 1, Necklace with gulabi meena

The famed city of Banaras, capital of the Mahajanapada of Kashi, needs no introduction. The wealthy merchants of Kashi have found a fabled place in the Buddhist Jataka tales, while the Puranas associate the city to the abode of the immortal love of Shiva and Parvati, and explicate the foundation of the city to have been laid by Shiva, himself.  The famous Manikarnika ghata of Banaras, which translates to mean a gem encrusted ear ornament, is named after the ear ornament that fell in a kunda, and was worn by Shiva, or according to some versions of the tale, by Parvati.

In the Mughal era, India’s contact with Persia increased. This period witnessed a new wave of influences and inspirations that seeped in from the Persianate and Midle-Eastern world and brought about an overarching amendment to Indian aesthetics. New techniques of enamelling got introduced to Indian jewellers.

A style of painted enamelling, known as gulabi meena which was practiced in Persia and had evolved further in Isfahan reached its zenith under the patronage of Qajar dynasty, was introduced by immigrant Persian meenakars to the Mughal empire, and travelling traders to the jewellers of Banaras. The technique differs from the enamelling methods that flourished under Mughals in the rest of the country, both in execution as well as aesthetics. It metamorphosed at the hands of the indigenous enamellers during the next two centuries acquiring a style unique to the region, so much so that Banaras received a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for gulabi meena. While the champleve technique of enamelling was more popular in the rest of India, Banarasi meenakars used a composite technique of champleve and painted enamelling, which was unique to them. Using five subsequent applications of powdered enamel and firing, the Banarasi meenakar decorates his pieces with translucent pink flowers of roses and lotuses over an opaque white enamelled ground. In some pieces, the colour blue is used instead of pink, creating the same effect over white. The sublime execution of petals of these flowers imbue the jewellery pieces with an ethereal quality, as if reminiscing the romance of a bygone era.

Image 2, Bangle with gulābī mīnā

Image 2, Bangle with gulabi meena

While this technique gained currency, Banaras came to be an important centre of fine handcrafted jewellery making during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Several such pieces of kundan and gulabi meena, comprising of necklaces (Image 1) and bangles (Image 2) are a part of the National Museum’s prized jewellery collection. These pieces, made between eighteenth to twentieth centuries, bear testimony to the fine craftsmanship of the jewellers of Banaras. Apart from these evidential pieces of ornaments, the museum also has in its collection, an album of jewellery sketches made in pencil from Banaras, dating between nineteenth to twentieth century. The album has more than 325 sheets filled with detailed drawings of jewellery designs, so opulent that only the likes of the royalty and wealthy merchants could have afforded them. Certain types of ornaments such as turban ornaments were designed specifically for the needs of the royalty. The designs depict pieces meant for adornment of various bodyparts of men and women.

Additionally, the album has several designs of turban ornaments, such as turra, sarapecha and pagapatta. These ornaments worn by men to adorn their turbans are associated with royal and noble families. The turra is a dangling ornament with an ornate top usually shaped as a bird or a fish, sometimes a flower; the designs are recorded in the sketches in the album. It has a long, arched stem at the back that is inserted between the folds of a turban on the sides. The frontal part of the turban is decorated with a sarapecha or an aigrette, whose inception can be traced to the use of egret feathers used as a turban ornamentation by the Persian and Turkic rulers, popularised by Mughal rulers in India. Originally a real feather, it soon got replaced by gold and gemstones crafted in the form of a stylised feather, also called a kalagi, and became a staple ornament for men of royal families. The next evolution of this sarapecha was a series of such kalagis that were put together in a series to form a more elaborate ornament with variations of odd-numbered kalagis, three or five in a single sarapecha. Thus, the nomenclature is ek-kalagi or teen-kalagi or panch-kalagi sarapecha. From the writings in the margins and the corresponding sketches, one can discern yet another level of variation in kalagis, which was based on the venation of the kalagi. Thus, if the kalagi or the feather like element has one central vein, it is called ek-nasi, if the central vein bifurcates, it is called do-nasi kalagi, and similarly a third variation, teen-nasi kalagi can also be found.

Image 3, Portraits of Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (Maharaja of Banaras) and his successors, Prabhu Narayan Singh and Aditya Narayan Singh

Image 3, Portraits of Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (Maharaja of Banaras) and his successors, Prabhu Narayan Singh and Aditya Narayan Singh, acc. no. 2005.64.169, Asian Art Museum, Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, San Francisco. Source:$0040:16298

The portraits of Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (r.1835-89) who was the ruling Maharaja of Banaras, his successors Prabhu Narayan Singh (r.1889-1931), and Aditya Narayan Singh (r.1939-47), currently in the collection of Asian Art Museum, Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, San Francisco (Image 3). The king, and the crown princes are shown in their full royal glory bejewelled with elaborate jewels befitting to their stature. All their jewellery, and especially the sarapechas and turras (Image 4) are comparable to the designs from the album. The sarapechas worn by the three men in this dynastic photographic painting of the Narain dynasty, tell an interesting story. The ruling king’s sarapecha has one kalagi, while Prabhu Narayan, the first in line succession, and Aditya Narain are wearing do-kalagi and teen-kalagi sarapechas. It seems that the number of kalagis in the respective sarapechas of the men are representative of their position in the line of succession.

Image 4, Design of a turrā

Image 4, Design of a turra

Pagapatta (Image 5) is yet another ornament for the turban. On several of the sketches from the album, this term is scribbled and can be easily confused for an armband or choker necklace due to its similar design. However, as the indigenous term suggests, it is a patta or a strap for a paga, a local variation in terminology for a pagari the indigenous term for a turban. The design consists of a bold central motif, often a stylised paisley set on a broad ornate band, encrusted with gemstones and pearls. If observed closely, it can be understood that the bands on the either side do not run in a straight line like a choker or an armband. The bands are set at a slight angle in symmetry with each other, to be draped seamlessly along the turban.

Image 5, Design of a Pāgapaṭṭa

Image 5, Design of a pagapatta

While the album has several designs of turban and head ornaments for men, it also has several sketches of different designs for head ornaments for women such as sheeshaphul, baina/maangatika, borla, ketaki, choti and mathabandi. These ornaments are designed to be worn on different part of the head. While the baina and borla ornament is for the forehead and central hair partition, sheeshaphul ornaments the topmost part. Ketaki is a hairclip and choti decorates a woman’s braid. Among these, mathabandi is a combination of several pieces like borla, baina and an elaborate network of flexible bejewelled bands called sarapattis.

Image 6, Design of a crown

Of all the jewellery sketches in the album, most remarkable are those designed for the idols of the gods. They include several designs of crowns called mukuta (Image 6) for gods and goddesses. The peacock is a popular central theme.  These designs bear remarkable resemblance to the crowns worn by sculptures of Krishna and related deities like Radha and Balaram in the Kumbha Mahadeva temple of Banaras (Image 7).

Image 7, Sculptures of of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā at the Kumbha Mahādeva Temple, Varanasi

Image 7, Sculptures of Krishna and Radha at the Kumbha Mahadeva Temple, Varanasi

Apart from head ornaments, the album also exhibits jewellery styles of   necklaces, armbands, wristlets, bangles, rings, earrings, cross belts, and waistbands. The cross-belts, a very interesting type of jewellery which adorns almost the whole torso, highlighting the breasts, is meant for women. They are referred to as baddhi (Image 8) in these sketches.  It is an elaborate piece of ornamentation, which is very opulent and expensive.

Image 8, Design of a baddhī

Image 8, Design of a baddhi

The design language used in the pieces is distinctively Mughal, which has hitherto remained a major source of inspiration for the Indian jewellers catering to the domestic market, especially for the weddings. The motifs such as lotus, rose, peacocks, parrots, fishes, crescent, and the other typical Mughal foliates form the primary palette of creating these designs. The designs are also the telltale of the technique used to create them, which is a kundan setting with gulabi meena. There is a remarkable similarity in the makara bangadis (makara terminal head bangles) and the ornate kanthi (torque necklace) (Image 9) in the NM jewellery collection with designs similar to the one’s in the said album. 

The wealth of designs on the pages of the album illustrates a shimmering picture of the jewellery sector that flourished in Banaras. The album might have once belonged to a jeweller who catered to the well-to-do clients of the time, and not just from Banaras but from far-off regions as well. Another possibility is that the album, might have been commissioned from one of the leading jewellers for the purpose of reference by the royal family of Banaras, a tradition not unheard of, amongst the wealthy. In any case, it cannot be denied that the album must have been the inspiration for jewellery that adorned the members of the royal family of Banaras.

Image 9, Design of kaṇṭhī (torque necklace)

Image 9, Frontview of the necklace in Image 1

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