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The History of Asiatic Jewellery: India & the Indus Valley

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Jewellery of the Indus Valley

Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

Humans first began to migrate from Australia to the Indian sub-continent around 60,000 years ago. These early settlers were descendants of the Australoid aborigines, and became the known as the Dravidian, whose reach extended from India to Iran.

Jewelry making in the Indus Valley dates back to the Neolithic-age Mehrgarh culture (7000—5500 BC), and Late Harappan (aka "Cemetery H") age, which predates the iron-age development of metal-casting and metal working. The Indus Valley region, which encompasses Persia and the Indian sub-continent, was the home to the Indus-Sarasvati civilizations (Aryan, Harappa and Vedic peoples) which were the largest (both population and geography) of the major ancient civilizations from Egypt, Mesopotamia, South Asia and China. The Sarasvati was a river praised in the Rig-Veda (a collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns), running the length of the Indus Valley, from Punjab to the Arabian Sea.

Dancing girl of Mohenjo Daro

Dancing girl of Mohenjo Daro c. 2500 BC

   Map of the Indus Valley

Early Indus Valley jewelry consisted of strands of simple beads that were carved from soft stone, or fashioned from shells. The Harappans were expert craftsmen, making beads from agate, amethyst, carnelian, lapis lazuli and turquoise. Some stones were heated to produce a reddish color which was prized by the early Indus civilization [4].

Jewellery of the Harappan Culture

During the Late Harappan period craftsmen began to work with bronze, copper silver, and gold, fashioning simple necklaces, head-bands, bangles and other ornamentation from cast metalwork, glazed faience (a non-clay ceramic), terracotta, shells, and carved ivory. Copper was mined locally by the Harappans, in Baluchistan and Rajasthan [9]. Examples of this early jewelry can be seen on the cast-bronze statuette of the 'Dancing girl of Mohenjo Daro' (Mohenjo Daro, Pakistan), believed to have been made in 2,500 BCE (above, left).

The Harappans were also accomplished sailors and navigators, helping them to expand the boundaries of trade Bahrain and Sumer For navigation, the Harappans carved compasses from conch shell, which they used to measure the angle between stars.

Jewelry was also made in the form of anthropomorphic symbols such as animals, trees, and sexual organs, due primarily to their pagan, and matriarchal spiritual beliefs. Jewelry was worn predominantly by the female, and was not buried with the deceased, but passed on to their heirs. Another popular Harappan spiritual motif was the Shiva Pashupati, or Yogic "Lord of Beasts."

Jewels of the Indian Subcontinent

As India's abundance of mineral wealth became known throughout the world, the indigenous people became increasingly wealthy and their lifestyle grew in opulence. Beginning in the time of India's Maha Janapadas, or "Great Kingdoms" (700—300 BCE), the region's wealth and power steadily increased, reaching its zenith during the Mughal Empire which spanned from the 16th century to the mid-19th century, and who's empire extended from Indian sub-continent to Afghanistan.

Gemstone use in India was well documented in the 6th century BCE Sanskrit encyclopedia known as the Brihat-Samhita (Utpalaparimalä,), written by Daivajna Varahamihira (505-587). Varahamihira, who was an astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer from Ujjain, categorized twenty-two gems, or "ratnas," which included: Marakata (emerald), Mukta (pearls), Padmaraga or Mänikya (ruby), and Vajra (diamond), as well as Brahmamani (bicolored tourmaline), Gomeda (jacinth or zircon), Indranila (sapphire), Jyotirasa, Karketana (chrysoberyl), Pravals (coral), Pulaka (garnet), Pushparaga (topaz), Rajamani (royal gem), Rudhirakhya (carnelian), Sasikanta (moonstone), Saugandhika (sapphire variety), Sphatika (rock crystal), Sasyaka (copper sulphate), Vaidurya (Lápiz lazuli), and Vimalaka (pyrite).

The classification of gemstones were further divided into distinct categories by the disiplin of Jyotish, which is an ancient Indian system of astronomy and astrology. Gems were divided into mahäratna (major gems) and uparatna (minor gems), with the former group being tied to the nine planets or astrological signs: Diamond (Venus), Ruby (Sun), Emerald (Mercury), Topaz or Yellow Sapphire (Jupiter), Garnet (Rahu), Blue Sapphire (Saturn), Pearl (Moon), Red Coral (Mars), Cat's-Eye Chrysoberyl (Ketu) as nine stones. These nine stones were typically set in a Navaratna (nine gems) setting system, with ruby (the sun) at its center.

Greek Gold and the Indian Spice Routes

The first oceanic trading routes between the ancient Greeks and India began in around 130 BC, established by a Greek navigator named Eudoxos of Cyzicus, under Ptolemy VIII, who was king of the Hellenistic/Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. With the assistance of an Indian navigator, Cyzicus made the first recorded journey in c.118 BC. They sailed from the Arabian port of Aden (Eudaemon in Greek) to the west coast of India using the Indian Ocean's seasonal monsoon winds to carry them along.

Perhaps the first commodity that attracted the ancient Greeks was spice, and one of the first spices that was heavily traded was Piper nigrum, or black pepper (Sanskrit: pippali, Latin: piper) from Tamil Nadu in southeastern India. This was followed by other exotic commodities such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, rice, and gemstones.

Roman Trading Port in India

Ancient map of Roman trading ports in India

   Amaravati Scroll

Greek Amaravati Scroll c. 300 AD

The Romans expanded trade with the Tamil Chola, Pandyan and Chera dynasties, establishing trading settlements which would remain long after the fall of the Western Roman empire. Spices were not the only commodity that interested the Greeks and Romans - live peacocks were highly prized as garden decor in ancient Greece. In exchange, the Indians got what they wanted from the Greco-Roman world - gold, and lots of it.

Along with gold there were other Mediterranean commodities such as copper, silver, olive oil, and wine, but it was gold that the Indians were after. Rather than use the bartered gold for currency, as did the Greeks, the Indians were simply in search of new ways to decorate themselves. By the latter half of the first century AD Pliny the Elder said of this trade imbalance: "We must be mad bankrupting ourself for India" [5]. One notable manifestation of India's preoccupation with gold and self-decoration was in the Hindu tradition of the "sixteen adornments."

The Birth of India's Golden Age

Founded by Chandragupta Maurya in 332 BC, the Mauryan Empire was one of the largest empires to rule the Indian subcontinent, and a precursor for the modern nation of India. The golden age of the Guptas began in the Indo-Gangetic Plains in the 3rd century BC, with Chandragupta seizing conquered territories within the Indus basin that had been held by Alexander the Great. At its height in the 2nd century BC the Mauryan Empire extended to Kerala at the tip of India in the south, Afghanistan in the west, and Assam (Bangladesh) in the east.

War and conquest was a fact of life in the ancient world, and India's women were an integral part of the equation. During the time of Gupta, female warriors were common, but they had been celebrated in battle since the time of the Rig Veda in 1,000 BC. With the rise of the Mauryan empire, the city of Patna became the seat of power for the Indian sub-continent, and a symbol of the greatness of India. Patna was situated at the confluence of four rivers — the Ganges, Arennovoas, Sonabhadra and Hiranyawah — and the city became a major trading hub for the ancient world.

Maharajahs Singh & Ashoka

Chandragupta (left) & Ashoka (right)

   Mauryan Coins

Silver Mauryan coin (photo: public domain)

The Greek historian Megasthenes (350—290 BCE), who was also an ambassador to the court of Chandragupta, gives the first written account of Patna in his book Indika, which he refers to as Palibothra. Under Chandragupta grandson Ashokavardhan Maurya (alternately "Ashoka the Cruel" or "Ashoka the Great") transformed Patna from a city of wooden construction to a magnificent, 22-mile-long city of stone with over 64 gates.

Late in life, Chandragupta Maurya renounced his throne and material possessions to join a wandering group of Jain monks, ushering in the age of Jainism in India. Like his grandfather Chandragupta before him, Ashoka also renounced bloodshed to follow the teachings of Buddha, after witnessing first-hand the mayhem he had unleashed during the Kalinga War of Orissa in 264 BC.

Ashoka spread his message of non-violence (the "Edicts of Ashoka") on the "Pillars of Ashoka," which were a series of columns dispersed throughout northern Indian. In H. G. Wells' book "The Outline of History" he wrote of Ashoka: In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves "their highnesses," and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day."

Lord Rama and wife Sita

Lord Rama and wife Sita


Ramayana - battle between Rama & Ravana

Punctuating this special time in India's history is the story of Rama who is one of the more popular folk heros and deities in the Hindu religion. The legend of Rama is told in one of India's greatest epics, the Ramayana. The tale of Rama's life, and his spiritual journey is one of perfect adherence to the concept of dharma, that of living a life of goodness and righteousness. But Rama is both a lover, and a warrior, one of the constant contradictions within the Hindu culture.

The Kushan Empire and the Silk Road

No empire in word history had more influence on global trade than the Kushans (c.60 AD—375 AD), who were a (Mahayana) Buddhist mercantile culture that was singularly responsible for the creating the overland Silk Road, thereby dramatically expanding trade between China, India and the Western World. The Kushans were also partially responsible for exporting Buddhism to China. During its zenith in the first century AD, the Kushan Empire extended from the Khyber Pass and the Indus Valley (Afghanistan, Pakistan) to the Ganges river valley in northern India, and was the first truly "multi-cultural" empire.

Ancient Silk & Spice Trade Routes

   Gold Kushan Coins

Gold Kushan coins (photo: public domain)

Althoug the Kushans ruled most of northern India, they were not Hindu, and not indigenous to the Indo-Gangetic Plains. The Kushans did practice Hinduism, along with Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and the religion of the ancient Greeks. The Kushan Empire began in Bactria and Gandhara, in present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. By the second century AD, Rome under Hadrian ruled the lands to the west, and the Han Dynasty ruled the lands to the east, but the center of trade was under the dominion of the Kushans, and the capital city under the Maharaja Kanishka I, was Peshawar, in northwester Pakistan. Marking the trade route was the great stupa of Kanishka, which was said to be one of the most imposing structures in the ancient world.

Kushan Carnelian Signet Seal

Kushan carnelian signet seal (photo: public domain)

   Kushan Jewelry

Kushan jewelry c.200s BC (photo: Phgcom/GNU).

Within the Ganges river valley of northern India the city of Mathura (near Agra, in Uttar Pradesh) was a major trade city for the Kushan dynasty, and Chinese raw silk that was destined for Greece and Rome was first woven in Mathura. Kushan coinage featured symbols from every culture and religion along the trade route, and the Kushan tolerance for religious diversity led to a long period of peace and prosperity.

The Chola Dynasty of Southern India

The Cholas (c. AD 850—1250) were a Tamil dynasty that ruled southern India during the same period that the Mauryan and Kushan empires ruled in the north. The Chola Dynasty were practicing Hindus who left an enduring legacy in art, architecture and metalworking, as well as literature, science and mathematics. They were both an agricultural, and maritime culture that was an integral part of the oceanic gem and spice trade with the western world.

The southern Tamil region of India is especially known for its accomplished bronze metalworkers, and the multitude of lost-wax-casting statuary they have produced. One of the most enduring bits of iconography that is inextricably linked to India's Hindu culture is the cast-bronze statue of Nataraja, the Lord of Dance.

Jewellery of the Mughal Empire & the Marathas

The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526, by Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483—1530), after the defeat of Ibrahim Shah Lodi, the last of the Delhi Sultans, at the First Battle of Panipat. This was the beginning of Islamic imperial dominance on the Indian subcontinent. The Mughal Dynasty reached its zenith under Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar (1542—1605), who was credited for the greatest expansion of the empire, and fostering harmonic relations between the Muslim and Hindu factions.

Maharajahs Singh & Patiala

Maharajahs Singh (left) & Patiala (right)

   Mughal Emerald

217.80 carat Carved Mughal Emerald c. 1107/1695 AD

India's Maharajahs were fabulously wealthy, and their taste in architecture, clothing and jewelry reflected their desire to project that image of wealth. Ultimately, the Maharajahs' ostentatious lifestyles may have been an open invitation for emerging powers to take advantage of their weaknesses, and hasten India's plundering, and eventual decline.

It was during the 15th and 16th centuries that the Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, developed a keen interest in the mineral wealth of India, especially when it came to India's prized emeralds, rubies, and Golconda diamonds, also known as vajra, which is the Sanskrit for "thunderbolt." By the end of the 16th century, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and France had all established trading posts throughout India.

Darya-i-Nur Diamond

The Darya-i-Nur 'Sea of Light'

   Babur Koh-I-Noor & Bhupinder Singh

Zahiruddin Babur (left), Bhupinder Singh (right)

The Mughal Empire began to crumble under pressure from the Marathas (Mahrattas, Maranthas), who were an an Indo-Aryan group of Hindu warriors from the central-western state of Maharashtra. At its height during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Maratha Empire's "Maratha Confederacy" (1674—1820) covered a major part of the Indian sub-continent. It was during this period that the Maratha Empire established a protectorate over the mughal emperor, bringing an end to Muslim rule in Punjab. The last Emperor, Bahadur Shah II (1775—1862), was imprisoned and exiled by the British after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (aka: "India's First War of Independence," or the "Sepoy Mutiny").

India European Trade

European trade with Calicut, India from the atlas Civitates orbis terrarum c.1572

Most of India was now under the control of the Britain and the British East India Company, and subject to direct rule under the British Crown. Under the leadership of Indai's Mahatma Gandhi, a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience brought a close to colonial rule in 1947. In 1950, India became a republic, and the Muslim-majority areas to the northwest were partitioned to form the separate nation of Pakistan.

Today, India maintains a thriving gem and jewelry industry, centered around Gujarat and Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra. Once agian, the Hindustan diamantaires of Gujarat are reclaiming their legacy, and supremacy in the field of gems and jewelry.

Solah Shringar "The Sixteen Adornments"

The term "Solah Shringar" (aka Haft-O-Nuh) refers to the "sixteen adornments," or "arts of beautification," which is an ancient Hindu wedding custom dating back to medieval India. The so-called "sixteen adornments" belong to a woman's "wedding set" of jewellery and cosmetics to be worn on the day of her marriage.

There Solah Shringar starts with the bride's hair being oiled, parted and pulled back, then decorated with a borla, which is a conical hair ornament at the rear of the head. Added to this is the Tika, Mang-Tikka, or Bhor, which is a single pendant that dangles from where the hair parts at the forehead. There is also a Gaajra which is a single hair decoration of flowers and pearls, and earrings that are hung from the Karn Phool, or "ear flowers" which are piercings in the earlobes.

Other jewlery items that are unique to the Solah Shringar include the Sarpech or feather-pin, the Arsi or archer's ring (mirror ring), and the Hansali which is a collar-type choker. A beaded necklace called the Mangalsutra is another symbolically important piece of Hindu wedding jewelry. If the woman is from Tamil Madu, she would add the Thaali, which is a temple-shaped gold medallion held by yellow thread.

Solah Shringar in Maharashtra

Painting from Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra c. 600s AD

   Maharani Jindan

Maharani Jindan (Jind Kaur) c. 1840

The face may also be adorned with a Bindi which is the single dot that Hindu women wear on their foreheads. The nose ring, or Nath can be very elaborate, decorated with pearls or gemstones, and may be attached to the hair on one side of the head, with a chain containing multiple drop-beads. In some regions the nose ring is never removed, becoming an enduring symbol of marriage. An black eye-shadow called Kaajal is then used to accentuate the eyes.

These are accompanied by a standard assortment of anklets, armlets, bangles (as many as twenty or more on each arm), bracelets, earrings, nose rings and toe rings. Bangles consist of the Pola which are typically made of gold, silver or iron, and Shankha made of ivory or ceramic. Some jewelry items in the Solah Shringar must contains the color red is considered to be "auspicious." The Pajeb is a bangle made of red glass, and the bride would also apply a vermilion powder called Sindoor (Puja in Hindu) in her hair, red Chudda on her hands, and a red Anjana or Kohl around the eyes. Rings may be worn on all ten fingers, and include a Hathphulor, which is a single medallion on the back-side of the hand that is attached to each ring by a series of gold chains.

The bride's sari would also be red, held in place by a gold waist-belt. The Mehndi is an elaborate henna tattoo that is applied to the palm side of the hands, the forearms and the feet.

Tribal Ethnic Jewelry Books
Asian Ethnic Jewelry Books

Bibliography on ancient Asiatic jewelry from India and the Indus Valley

1. Oppi Untracht, Jewelry Concepts & Technology - Complete Reference Guide . Doubleday

2. William Meacham, The Neolithic of South China . www.jstor.org

3. Elena Neva, Types and Forms of Ancient Jewelry from Central Asia . www.transoxiana.org

4. C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, Industries of the Ancient Near East. 1997 American Oriental Society

5. PBS, The Story of India . www.latimes.com

6. Elena Neva, Types and Forms of Ancient Jewelry from Central Asia . www.transoxiana.org

7. Untracht, Oppi., Traditional Jewellery of India. New York: Abrams

8. Neich, R., Pereira, Pacific Jewellery and Adornment.

9. Michel Danino, The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization . www.voiceofdharma.com

10. Radha Krishnamurthy, Gemmology in Ancient India . www.new.dli.ernet.in

11. Solah Shringar for Indian Bride . www.weddings.iloveindia.com

12. Colors of India Indian Bridal Fashion . www.colors-of-india.com

13. Women and Jewelry - The Spiritual Dimensions of Ornamentation . www.exoticindiaart.com

14. Caroline Perry, Jewelry Inspired by Ancient Cultures . Running Press

15. The British Museum, Ancient India . www.ancientindia.co.uk

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