By Kumud Mohan
The Nizam of Hyderabad’s jewels are on display for the first time ever. Going by the huge crowds outside the National Museum in Delhi, no one seems to mind the expensive entry tickets.
Never before did the National Museum in New Delhi witness so much activity, such enthusiasm and yes, such a unified sense of pride about being an Indian. Since last month, the museum rose from being the monumental morgue to becoming the destination for people from different parts of the country and abroad. And for once, everybody seemed keen to shell out the Rs 50 for the entry ticket, and not mind being searched publicly and frisked, sometimes a little embarrassingly, as they waited patiently in a queue that ran half the length of the massive museum.
It was all for a good cause. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a 30-minute glimpse of the world’s greatest treasure-the Nizam’s jewels. Gems and jewellery mostly kept locked inside the toshakhana (treasury) of a palace, worn only on state occasions and seen only by privileged visitors were now open to the public eye.
There was much speculation as the serpentine queues progressed somewhat slowly towards the high security walls. But the enthusiasm didn’t wane, not even for a minute. Someone said that after the exhibition came to a close, towards the middle of this month, the jewels would be taken to Hyderabad. Shouldn’t such a truly representative repository of India’s cultural heritage be retained in the capital, asked his friend. Nobody had an answer. And frankly, no one thought it merited one. The moment was now and the collection in its glory.
As for the museum staff, never had they felt so important. It had taken five months to put the arrangements in place. The whole area was under the surveillance of armed guards from the Central Industrial Security Force. Closed circuit TVs and a special monitoring device with X-rays had been installed to check bags. Occasionally the security personnel would point out a cell phone, cigarette lighter or Walkman on the screen. These had to be then deposited in the lockers outside the exhibition area.
Understandably, nobody wanted to take a risk with a collection that was bought by the government for Rs 218 crore two decades ago and is now considered 10 times that amount. For 50 long years the greatest treasure known to mankind remained hidden inside dark metallic vaults. Its initial owner, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, who died a citizen of free India in 1967, had hoped to pass it down to his progeny numbering around 200. But after litigation that lasted 23 years, a national quest finally fructified as a national bequest when the government of India acquired the collection of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad and displayed it for the first time to the general public in New Delhi from August 29.
The collection comprises outstanding specimens of Rajasthani, Lucknowi and Hyderabadi workmanship. There are in all 173 pieces of rare value and antiquity. These range from rings, necklaces, belts, brooches, buttons and studded swords to diamond- encrusted images of animals and birds. By far, the most numerous and strikingly elaborate among these are sarpech or turban crests that became the hallmark of Indian nobility after a royal injunction in Queen Victoria's reign that no British subject may wear anything resembling a crown.
Presently the largest diamond possessed by India is the Jacob, a part of the Nizam's collection. It was obtained from African mines as late as 1867. At 184.75 carats, the Jacob is almost twice the size of the Kohinoor as it exists today. The Jacob, which was purchased in 1891 by the sixth Nizam, Mahboob Ali Pasha, was kept as a simple stone in his collection. It was discovered several years after his death by his son, the seventh Nizam, in one of his slippers, and was used as a paperweight by the latter.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ala Hazrat Lieutenant General His Exalted Highness Asaf Jah Muzafar-ul-Mulk wal Mamlik, Nizam-ul-Mulk, Nizam-ud-Dowla, Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur, Fateh Jung, Rustam-e-Dauran, Arastu-e-Zaman, Sipah Salar, or simply, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad- considered the richest man in the world- was probably the most whimsical.
His clothes rarely looked ironed and he'd wear the same cap for years together (unlike his father, the sixth Nizam, who'd devoted a whole wing of his palace to his wardrobe and would never wear the same dress twice). Visitors to the seventh Nizam’s Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad would be astounded to find undusted rooms cluttered with bundles of different sizes and shapes, scattered all over the place.
Many of these may have contained the Nizam's fabled jewels, they surmised, but though they were convinced that the Nizam knew exactly where all his gems were kept, no one would have dared to express their curiosity to His Exalted Highness. People believed that the Nizam personally carried the key to his vaults in a lining in his vest and he alone could set his eyes on the entire collection.
The Nizam was the seventh generation heir to the richest region of the land. He ascended the throne in 1911, the year of King George V's Durbar in Delhi. The area of his dominion, equal in size to Italy, stretched from the river Tapti down to Trichinopally and Madurai (minus a small strip dominated by the Marathas), encompassing the legendary Golconda mines and reaching out to the entire east coast.
The Golconda mines were the sole suppliers of diamonds to the world till the beginning of the 18th century, when these precious stones were discovered for the first time in Brazil. By a royal injunction, the best of the mined gems were to be offered to the Nizam for his treasury. Added to this, the Nizam's personal estate yielded Rs 25 million a year in an era when the rupee could compete with the pound and the dollar from a much stronger position than it does today. To crown this was the typical Indian feudal tradition of nazrana.
Any subject bringing a petition to the king, regardless of the outcome, was expected to offer a handsome gift (minimum being one gold and four silver sovereigns) for being granted the privilege of a royal audience. Besides nazrana, gifts in the form of gold or jewels from gazetted officers found their way to the palace during the Id festival and on the Nizam's birthday. Sometimes the Nizam would randomly send a delicacy like a mango to some subject to get back nazar as an expression of the latter's gratitude. If the Nizam happened to honour some nobleman by visiting his home or by attending some function, gratification again took the form of jewels or gold sovereigns.
The Nizam of Hyderabad was not educated in a public school like the other princes of his time. Taught entirely by British and Indian tutors within the confines of his palace, and being well aware of his important position in the universe that revolved around him, he disbursed his wealth guided by his own wisdom and judgement. Though he did not lend much credence to the rising voice of the Hindu majority in his province, he spent considerable sums in improving their living conditions.
The seventh Nizam was an able administrator. Issuing his own currency, he encouraged financial reform, maintained a private army, acquired a major railway network, and, after the deplorable extravagance and excesses of his father, led his state to an enviable credit position.
However, while Mir Osman Ali Khan's name is associated with his legendary wealth, he is also remembered for being the staunchest ally of the British in India. He was the greatest individual benefactor of the British during the two World Wars, providing for naval vessels as well as Royal Air Force squadrons. In recognition, he was honoured as Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India in 1911, the Knight Grand Cross of the British Empire in 1917 and the Royal Victorian Chain in 1946.
The Nizam savoured a life of heavenly treasures coupled with worldly comforts and pleasures. A magnificent obsession that had little to do with the reality around. In 1947, when the British withdrew, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad refused to submit to Indian sovereignty. Placing a case for an independent state before the United Nations, he rejected an Indian ultimatum. Finally, he was obliged to surrender to Indian troops in September 1948. He was appointed Rajpramukh, or a constitutional president who had to act on the advice of a cabinet of ministers responsible to an elected legislature.
The stature of the Nizam was further reduced in 1956, when his dominion was trifurcated during the general reorganisation of Indian states on a linguistic basis. The Nizam then withdrew into splendid retirement with three wives, 42 concubines, 200 children, 300 servants and aging retainers, including a private army. He provided pensions to some 10,000 dependents and serfs of his former empire and even aided Muslim refugees from Palestine.
Linked with the past
The coveted Golden Bird-sone ki chiriya-shone for centuries: inexorably alluring adventurers, wayfarers and plunderers towards it.
Little wonder. For India was the sole supplier of diamonds to the world till 1725 when diamond mines were discovered in Brazil. The world’s most famous diamonds-the Kohinoor, Darya-i-noor, Taj-e-Mah, and the Hope- came from India. There is no record of when they were discovered here, but Alexander the Great is said to have seen them in 323 BC.
According to Encyclopedia Brittannica, Indian women were “the first to decorate themselves with huge quantities of jewels”. Their clothing consisted of “tiaras, necklaces, earrings, armlets, bracelets, belts and toe rings worn on their bare skin and complemented by nothing more than precious veils and scarves.”
Men, women and children, irrespective of their caste, religion or economic status, wore jewellery on special ceremonial occasions as well as part of their everyday apparel. Jewellery added to ornamentation and the gems were valued for their inherent prophylactic and curative qualities.
A large variety of precious gems were popular in the Indian subcontinent while far off lands were busy spinning tales about them. The Brhat Samhita, a 6th century text dealing with several subjects of human interest, lists the variety of pearls obtained from different parts of the country. The pearls from the Gulf of Manaar, off the eastern coast of South India, were the most ancient.
Marco Polo, the famous Venetian traveller, gives a vivid description of kings of the Coromandel coast in the 13th century. “The king...goes stark naked, except for a handsome loin cloth with a fringe all round it set with precious stones-rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other brilliant gems-so that this scrap of cloth is worth a fortune. Slung round his neck is a cord of fine silk which hangs down a full pace in front of him, and strung on his necklace are 104 beads, consisting of large and beautiful pearls and rubies of immense value... What need of more words? Suffice it that he wears in all so many gems and pearls that their price exceeds that of a fine city.”
That was a long, long time ago. There are no longer any pearls and gems in any of the kingdoms today. And after the exhibition draws to a close this month, you are unlikely to come this close to India’s gems and jewels. Due to security reasons, the government will probably not hold similar exhibitions for the public in future. History will have to remain on bookshelves.