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Hardstones, gems and ivory in Mughal India

Hardstone marquetry is a long-standing local tradition. The refined technique of inlay, which the Persian and Mughal chroniclers refer to as parchîn kârî, and which was brought to an almost unbelievable peak of excellence by the imperial stoneworkers during the reign of Shah Jahan, consisted of setting in marble or sandstone thin sections of hard or semi-hard stones that had been cut with the greatest of care and fashioned in the shape of tendrils and floral arabesques. The Frenchman François Bernier , who lived in India between 1656 and 1668, describes the mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658) for his wife Mumtâz Mahal, in a letter dated 1663 to Monsieur de La Mothe Le Vayer: he speaks with great enthusiasm of the mausoleum’s perfect architecture and of its opulent interior decoration, floral motifs in white marble inlaid with jade, jasper and other sorts of precious stones.
The hardstones used in the decoration of the Taj Mahal, as well as in palaces and imperial buildings all over India and in the surrounding regions, included yellow amber from Burma, lapis-lazuli from Afghanistan, nephrite from Chinese Turkestan, and carnelian, agate, amethyst, jasper, green beryl, chalcedony, onyx and coral from the different regions of the huge Indian sub-continent.

At the Mughal court precious and semi-precious stones were also used to highlight imperial tableware, writing desks, mirrors, huqqa, weapons, royal saddles and even gold and silver gem-studded thrones. Rock-crystal and jade, hardstones which could only be worked with diamond dust, were particularly appreciated at the Mughal court. Objects fashioned in the second half of the seventeenth century by Mughal ateliers or karkhâna from jade – or to be more precise from the nephrite and jadeite imported from Kashgar and from Khotan – such as boxes and pen boxes, huqqa stands and mouthpieces, dagger hilts and archer’s thumb rings, bowls and cups, are particularly remarkable for their delicate inlays of precious stones, predominantly emeralds, diamonds, rubies and spinels, set in gold and forming stylized floral motifs. Jade was thought to contain talismanic virtues such as the power of prolonging life – and indeed even that of ensuring immortality; it was also considered to favor success on the battlefield – hence its name of “stone of victory”. It was therefore considered the most appropriate material for the manufacture of ornate arms symbolizing victory. The hilts of these ornate weapons which were only used for ceremonial purposes were often carved in the shape of the head of a horse, a ram, an antelope, a lion or a falcon, always with a quite remarkable and moving expressivity. This repertoire of animal motifs is known to have existed as early as the second half of the reign of Jahangir, and became particularly important under the emperor Shah Jahan.

Ivory carving was an important craft in ancient India. It was to be equally appreciated at the Mughal court, where it was used in the making and ornamentation of chests and caskets, as well as dagger hilts, flasks and powder horns. The latter were given a lively, zoomorphic décor, in which different birds and animals were intermingled – elephants, lions, monkeys, buffaloes, rams, antelopes and hares, as well as composite and imaginary animals. Hunt scenes predominate in these exuberant animal scenes, derived from the iconographic repertoire of Mughal miniatures. Similar scenes also appear in the décor of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Mughal carpets. Some of the ivory powder horns were clearly gilded and embellished with colors, and the eyes of the animals were occasionally encrusted with amber and precious or semi-precious stones.

The floral and plant motifs predominate in the decorative repertoire of Mughal India. The combination of the naturalistic yet subtly stylized treatment of Mughal flowers, together with their balanced and symmetrical arrangement, is emblematic of Mughal taste in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the floral motif became a leitmotiv that permeated all the arts of the court (textiles and decorative arts, arts of the book) and even architecture. This fascination with the floral motif can be traced back to the reign of the Emperor Jahangir. It originated during a journey made by Jahangir in 1620 to Kashmir, a country where the emperor was enchanted by the variety and profusion of the flowers which grew there, and which he was subsequently wont to describe as “a garden where spring reigns eternally”. During this trip the monarch was accompanied by one of the great masters of the imperial atelier of painting, the animal painter Ustâd Mansűr Nâdir al’Asr, who, at the request of the sovereign, executed more than a hundred flower studies, of which only three precious examples still survive. This poetic delight in the exuberant blossoming flowers of Kashmir was reinforced by the discovery of European herbals brought to the Mughal court by Jesuit missionaries and agents of the East India Company.

The herbals were to exert considerable influence on Mughal flower painting, on the precision with which they were drawn, on the extreme care taken with the representation of botanical details, and on the presence of butterflies and dragonflies fluttering above the corollas and leaves, which Mughal artists, who were familiar with Persian works, often replaced with small meandrous-shaped Chinese clouds (t’chi), which were considered in China to be the vehicles of the gods, and which became a decorative motif in Persian art. As so pertinently noted by M. L. Swietochowski, the regular arrangement of flowers and bouquets in the margins of Mughal miniatures is reminiscent of the ornamentation of a number of Books of Hours from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and perhaps even more so of the borders of Flemish engravings on religious subjects.

Chest Chest
MAO 2039
© RMN / Berizzi
Mirror Mirror
R. 451
© RMN / Blot
Foot-rest in pietra dura Foot-rest in pietra dura
MAO 769
© RMN / Berizzi
Priming powder horn Priming powder horn
MAO 716
© RMN / Berizzi
Powder horns Powder horns
R. 437
© RMN / Berizzi
Cabinet with floral design Cabinet with floral design
MAO 1188
© Musée du Louvre / C. Tabbagh
Window screen (jali), floral and lattice design Window screen (jali), floral and lattice design
MAO 2045
© Musée du Louvre / H. Bréjat