GEMS FASCINATE us today as they have for thousands of years. The British Crown Jewels include over a hundred items, some of which we saw in the regalia used at the coronation this month. Although the jewels are undeniably dazzling, it seems that many stones have terrible histories behind them, some of the large ones being notorious. The queen wore Queen Mary’s crown, made in 1911, but she chose to have it set with three of the Cullinan diamonds and not the Koh-i-Noor. As well as the famous stones, this crown has over 2,000 unnamed diamonds.
As well as having historical records, and almost lives of their own, there are many legends about gems. These may be individual stones, such as the Syamantaka gem, or they may be general, such as the nagaratna, the jewels said to be kept in the cobra’s head. There are gems which we’re less clear about, such as the gajamukta, the pearls said to come from the elephant’s head. There are jewels which have mythological origins. So, pearls are formed when a raindrop on the day of the Swati Nakshatra falls onto an oyster shell in the ocean.
India has a long tradition of gemmology, dating back at least to the ‘Ratnapariksha’ in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Gemmology is linked to astrology. Stones may be worn or avoided according to planetary influence, and Ayurvedic gem therapy uses stones for healing. For example, sapphires are held to be very powerful and while they may bring some people good luck, they can be dangerous for others. Whenever I have worn my aunt’s sapphire ring, I have been asked if I have checked that it is safe to do so. I have not had any problems, but it was my aunt’s engagement ring and her husband was killed in World War II soon after they were married. I noted Amitabh Bachchan began to wear a blue sapphire just before he made his massive ‘comeback’ with Kaun Banega Crorepati. As Einstein said about the horseshoe he kept on his wall, apparently it works whether you believe in it or not.
The word “ratna” itself is used as a metaphor for excellence. So, Ratnakosha, a “store of gems” means a lexicon and putra-ratna is “an excellent son”. This usage is still current. In the film, Ram Lakhan (1989), a mother sings that her sons are priceless gems: (‘Mere do anmol ratan, Ek hai Ram to ek Lakhan’) while India’s greatest civilian honour is called the Bharat Ratna.
People are named after jewels. So, Heera or “diamond” (Teesri Kasam, 1966, adapted from Phanishwarnath Renu’s novel, has leads called Heeraman and Heerabai), Neela, Jawaharlal, and so on. Elephants are often called “Moti” or “pearl”, as is the hero of Kipling’s story ‘Moti Guj-Mutineer’ (1891), the story of a great elephant who loved his drunken but devoted mahout but rebelled against the coffee planter.
Indian jewellery has long been known to be some of the most beautiful as well as valuable in the world. It can be seen in ancient sculptures and gives names to some of the oldest texts: Tamil Sangam literature has the cilippatikaram (anklet) and manimekalai (the jewelled belt). Jewellery also has its own auspiciousness, such as in the 16 items of adornment, the solah sringar. There are many other outstanding traditions of jewellery in India among the Mughals and the rulers of princely India.
In Sanskrit texts, descriptions of beauty are often based on flowers and other natural features but images of jewels abound. I look at some examples of Kalidasa, the gem among poets, drawing on only two of his poems, the ‘Kumarasambhava’ and the ‘Meghadūta’.
There are numerous Hindi film songs about every item of jewellery as well as plots that hinge on jewels, including the gem among films, Jewel Thief (1967). It’s not surprising that when western films pay tribute to Hindi films, they fall back on the age-old traditions
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In the second part of the ‘Meghadūta’, where the Yaksha describes his home, Alaka, Kubera’s city, on Mount Kailasa, jewels are part of the decoration of the city itself. Floors are paved with jewels (mani), and rooms are lit by jewel lamps (ratnadipa). Rooms are cooled by moonstones (candrakanta) hanging from threads, which are said to drop water when moonbeams fall on them. Pools have emerald (marakata) steps while a peacock sits on a gold perch on a crystal (sphatika) slab inlaid with emeralds.
In the ‘Kumarasambhava’, the gods know that the demon Taraka can only be killed by a son of Shiva. However, Shiva is a great ascetic. The gods send Kamadeva to distract Shiva from his meditation but he burns the God of Love to ashes. Then Parvati performs rigorous tapas (asceticism) to win Shiva as her husband. She succeeds and the poem describes their wedding and their lovemaking that will lead to the birth of Kartikeya (Skanda).
In the opening verses of the ‘Kumarasambhava’, Himalaya is ‘anantaratnaprabhava’ (a source of limitless jewels) and snow cannot obscure his great beauty. He has minerals (dhatu) on his peaks where lions drop pearls from the elephants they have killed, which allows the lion-hunters to track them.
When Himalaya’s daughter, Parvati, is born, she and her mother are compared with beryl (vaidurya) splitting off, and although she is compared in many verses with flowers, her mouth is a pearl (muktaphala) on shining coral (vidruma).
In the demon Taraka’s city, the ocean provides him with jewels, while Vasuki and the serpents keep their jewels blazing all night for him. But in the mountains, Parvati wears flower jewellery which puts gems to shame, while Shiva wears his rudraksha and has the moon for his crest jewel. Gauri offers him a garland made from lotus seeds from the Ganga.
Although the wedding decorations are jewelled: Parvati’s wedding pavilion is lined with slabs of beryl and inlaid with pearls, while her canopy has four jewelled pillars (manistambhacatusta), her bridal ornaments are barely described apart from ivory (danta) earrings.
Yet, Parvati herself is compared to a jewel. When Shiva approaches her in disguise as an ascetic to find out why she is performing penance, he says, “na ratnam anvisyati, mrigyati hi tat”—”a jewel does not seek, it is sought.”
One of my favourite Sanskrit verses is Poem 16 from the Amarushataka (7th or 8th century). In the morning, a pet parrot starts to repeat what he heard two lovers say at night in front of the elders. The young wife is so embarrassed, she tries to silence him by feeding him a padmaraga (red sapphire) from one of her earrings, pretending it’s a pomegranate seed. This vivid image, condensed in a tight verse, shows the woman is willing to lose a precious jewel to save her embarrassment in front of the elders.
There are numerous Hindi film songs about every item of jewellery (an excellent guide is https://shorturl.at/aouO6), as well as plots that hinge on jewels including the gem among films, Jewel Thief (1967). It’s not surprising that when Western films pay tribute to Hindi films, they fall back on the age-old traditions. So, the song ‘Hindi sad diamonds’ from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) mixes ‘Chamma chamma’ (‘My anklets jingle’ from China Gate, 1998, with ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953).
The beauty and the controversy of jewels were very much part of the coronation. Yet, the British Empire had lost India, the jewel in the Crown before King Charles was born and a month after Queen Camilla’s birth. It was a sign of how much the UK has changed that ‘This Sceptred Isle’ has a prime minister of Indian origin participating in the coronation.
About The Author
Rachel Dwyer is an author and culture critic based in London. She has written extensively on Hindi cinema and is an Open contributor
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