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Jewellery Around the World - Indian Jewellery

Our second instalment in our jewellery around the world series, this week, we decided to shine a light on the glamorous and infatuating world of Indian jewellery. 

Today, India is famed for its hypnotic dizzying atmosphere, stunning architecture, delicious cuisine and gorgeous landscape. From the chaotic and wild exciting streets of Delhi to the blushing pink city of Jaipur, this country continues to enthral backpackers, yogi seekers and families alike. 

India’s culture is one-of-a-kind, and it’s jewellery is in an entire league of its own. Unlike other countries, for centuries India had vast deposits of Gold and gemstones. Not only did this mean that it had a head start in creating elaborate, vibrant and decadent pieces, but it also established vital global trade links too. 

To understand more about Indian jewellery, first we will take a little look at India’s incredible and vast history.

The Little History of India

It is no secret that India has a colossal history. From a multiplicity of religions to independent governed states, India’s history has dramatically changed each century. So, we have briefly collated together an overview of India’s history, offering you a glimpse into its diverse past. 

Ancient India 

Historians believe that the history of India begins in 2500 BCE with the Harrapan civilisation. The Harrapan civilisation grew in Western India and in regions of Pakistan. Part of the Indus Valley, which also had the ancient urban civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, this civilisation was discovered during the 1920s where the ruins of two old merchant cities called Mohenjodaro and Harappa were unearthed. 

Amazing discoveries from these two cities showed a myriad of Gold and Silver ornaments, toys, pottery wares, and war weapons. This suggests, especially within a Western gaze, that this society was sophisticated, a highly-developed civilisation, and established within world trade.

An artist's reconstruction of the gateway and drain at the ancient city of Harappa, Chris Sloan, Source - Sci-News

In ancient India, there were two religions, Buddhism and Hinduism. Early Hinduism is traced to the Vedic civilisation which lived along the Saraswati river, and in regions of Haryana and Punjab. By the 7th and early 6th centuries BCE, India had 16 great powers known as Mahajanpadas with both republics and monarchical states. During these centuries, Buddhism was born. 

In 326 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded India, resulting in a battle between King Porus (ruler of the kingdoms between the rivers of Jhelum and Chenab) and Alexander’s warriors. Interestingly, ancient accounts tell of the Indian army using elephants in battle which both amazed and terrified the Macedonians, and has contributed to cultural connotations of India in the eyes of the west. However, the Indian army lost, meaning that Alexander now governed his territory.

Drawing of the Phalanx Attacking the Centre in the Battle of the Hydaspes, André Castaigne, c.1899, Source - Wikimedia Commons

After Alexander's death in 323 BCE, The Mauryan Empire began (322 - 185 BC). Here, India’s politics, trade, art and commerce elevated as the fragmented republics and monarchical states unified. Plus, India’s trade with other countries grew exponentially. The Mauryan Empire governed the whole territory of Hindu Kush, Bengal, Afghanistan, Balochistan, Nepal and Kashmir. One of India’s most famed kings Ashoka ruled during this time, yet he was succeeded by weak rulers which encouraged the old provinces to want their independence back. 

After this, there were multiple dynasties that ruled India. Between 1st century AD and the mid 3rd century AD, India was ruled by the Kushana dynasty which was instrumental in spreading Buddhism across Asia. Between the mid 3rd century and early 6th century AD, India was ruled by the Gupta dynasty, which is often referred to as one of India’s Golden ages. As the Gupta’s reign declined, there were several invasions by the Huns. 

Ancient Coin of the Gupta King Chandragupta II, Photograph by the British Museum, Source - Wikimedia Commons

During the 7th century, in North India, Harshavardhana ruled. He was known for being extremely diplomatic, tolerant and able to maintain good trade links and communication with  Chinese rulers. 

Between the 6th and 8th century, in South India, the Chalukyas of Badami ruled. And, in the last quarter of the 6th century to the 9th century, the Pallavas of Kanchi also became a major power, building many temples, palaces and creating beautiful art and literature. 

Image of the Shore Temple, an ancient Indian temple from the Pallava Dynasty, Source - Outlook Traveller India

Medieval India

Medieval India not only saw huge changes in religion, but the political map of the country drastically oscillated from independent to unified states. 

Historians say that medieval India began in the 9th century. For the first 300 years India was ruled by a range of rulers and dynasties including the Palas, the Senas, the Pratihara, the Rashtrakutas and the Chola empire. 

Despite, Hinduism and Buddhism becoming fully established in India’s ancient history, it was during India’s medieval period that Islam started to take root. In 1175 A.D Muhammed Ghori successfully invaded India which started a decisive rule and the spread of Islam in North India. 

Traditional Illustration of Muhammed Ghori, Date Unknown, Source - Notes On An Indian History

Between 1206 and 1526, this period of history is known as the Delhi Sultanate period, where five dynasties ruled in Delhi and Islam became more apparent.

  • The Slave Dynasty (1206-90) - This dynasty was important in South Asia’s history as slaves were raised to status of Sultan, and it was the first Muslim dynasty that ruled India. 
  • The Khiliji Dynasty (1290-1320) - This was the first Muslim rule of India whose empire covered pretty much the whole of the country we know today. 
  • Tughlaq Dynasty (1320-1413) - Succeeded by the Governor of Punjab, the Tughlaq Dynasty extended the kingdom into central Asia. Although the Tughlaq’s ruled until 1413, the invasion of King Timur in 1398 brought it to an end. 
  • Sayyid Dynasty (1414-1451) - This time in Indian history was peppered with confusion and revolts. 
  • Lodhi Dynasty (1451-1526) - with a view to restore India to is Delhi Sultanate glory, many more territories were regained in this period. 

Between 1526 and 1565, India was part of the Vijayanagar Empire. This saw the development of cordial relations between India and Portugal, as well as sculpture, dance and music becoming encouraged. 

Image of Vijayanagar Empire, Source - Pinterest

What’s more, during this time, there was also the Bahmani kingdom which was a predominantly Muslim kingdom.

The Delhi Sultanate period and the Bahmani kingdom shows that Islam was a strong and fervent religion in medieval India. However, the Bhakti movement saw the rise and revolution of Hinduism. The Bhakti movement had roots in the 12th and 13th century, yet it really started to gain traction during the 15th, 16th and 17th century. 

Yet, when you think of medieval India, you are likely to think of the Mughal Empire. The Mughal Empire was one of the greatest empires in the entire history of the world! Not only was India finally united under one rule, but there were huge cultural and political changes. As you can see above, India had many split Hindu and Muslim kingdoms that were not only constantly changing but also always at war. So much so it can be hard to keep track!

Babar Receives A Courtier, Farukkh Beg, c.1580-85, Source - Wikimedia Commons

Established by Babar, the great grandson of Genghis Khan in 1526, the Mughal empire lasted into 1857 when Britain invaded. There were many innovations during the Mughal empire:

  • Under the rule of Sher Shah Suri, there was an establishment of effective public administration, justice systems, roads, transport links and civil works. 
  • During the rule of Akbar, there were many liberal policies towards non-Muslims, religious innovations, a land revenue system and his famous Mansabdari system which became the basis for military organisation and civil administration. 
  • Under the rule of Jehangir, the Mughal empire experienced a time of religious tolerance, where art, literature and architecture prospered.
  • During the rule of Shah Jahan, the Mughal empire experienced unparalleled prosperity and peace. This was when the famous Red Fort, Jama Masjid and Taj Mahal was built.
  • However, when Aurangzeb ruled, the Mughal empire started to break down, and on his death in 1707, the money that once flourished in India was no more. Rebellions broke out with motivations to enforce the independent and semi-independent states of former regions.  So, the empire rapidly shrank to occupy a small district around Delhi. During this time India was largely an amalgamation of Hindu, Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism, with some Christian and Jewish sects also.

The Emporer Shah Jahan Standing on a Globe, c.1618-1619, Source - Wikimedia Commons

India and the British Empire

Although historical accounts and historians believe that India was part of the British empire from 1857, the first British conquest of India was 100 years prior in 1757 at the Battle of Plassey. Although this was a success in the eyes of Britain, understandably in India there were numerous localised revolts.

Portrait of East India Company Official, c.1760-1764, Dip Chand, Source - Wikimedia Commons

Due to this discontent and disgust with British rule, in 1857 a mutiny began. There were many factors as to why this occurred. The systemic racism and prejudice meant that many Indians could not attain positions of hierarchy and, as all of the best jobs were reserved for Europeans, there were large economic gaps between the wealthier European commanders and the poorer Indian leaders and communities. Not to mention, the British were staunchly Christian and India had large Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim communities.

At first, this revolt was led by military soldiers at Meerut, but it quickly gained traction throughout the country, posing a significant threat to British rule. However, this revolt was quashed by the British, and in 1858 Queen Victoria officially declared that India would be governed by a British monarch. 

Photograph of the Maharaja of Patiala and Attendants, Samuel Bourne, c.1870, Source - British Journal of Photography

Allegedly Queen Victoria ‘won over’ the local Indian princes and rulers by giving them her support. However, this did neglect the large majority of the population. So, although British rule was established, and some discrepancies were smoothed over, there was still plenty of unrest and disgust. This led to the establishment of the Indian National Movement. 

A famous leader of the Indian National Movement was Mahatma Gandhi who developed the novel technique of non-violent agitation. This also evolved into the Non-Cooperation Movement and the Civil Disobedience Movement, both which scared the British tremendously. At the outbreak of World War Two, India was, as can be expected, aggrieved at being declared a warring state. In 1942 this culminated in the Quit India movement, which created large-scale violence across the country directed at institutions of colonial rule. 

Photograph of Mahatma Gandhi, c.1931, Source - Wikimedia Commons

After the second World War, the establishment of the Labour party in Britain led to more cordial relations between the British and India. This was where the independence of both India and Pakistan started to take place. At this point, although there were many Christians in India, there were many Hindus and Muslims. The northern Muslim territories were adamant that they wanted there own separate government and country, which essentially meant that Pakistan was officially created. A constituent assembly was formed and despite Indian independence day taking place in 1947, the official constitution was passed in 1950. 

Photograph of India's Independence Day Revellers, Source - The National

Indian jewellery from ancient civilisations to present day

As you can see from above, India has truly had a fascinating yet tumultuous history. So, how did this impact their jewellery creations? 

The jewellery of the Indus valley civilisations were simplistic in design. Crafted from beads, strings, and stones, these understated ornaments may pale in comparison to India’s later glittering creations. Yet, they were indicative of how sophisticated India’s early civilisations were. The craftsman of the Indus valley used Carnelian, Agate, Turquoise, Steatite and Feldspar; these gemstones were crafted into tubular shapes and were decorated with carvings, dots and patterns. 

Image of Harrapan Jewellery Artefacts, Source - Pinterest

In fact, many of these designs resonate with modern Indian women. For example, the Gold sheet forehead ornament is one that many women still wear today. 

For more than 2000 years, India was the sole supplier of gemstones to the world. Vast cachés of Rubies, Emeralds, Diamonds, Gold and other gemstones were found in its arid and luscious landscapes. For rulers, jewels were a sign of prestige and power, establishing both social and economic security and status. 

Gold Filigree, Pink Sapphire, Aquamarine, Green Glass and Pearl Head Ornament, Made in Delhi, c.1853, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Sculptures at Bharhut, Sanchi and Amaravati depict jewellery worn by both men and women. Artworks from around India show dancers at temples glistening in Gold and religious figures like Hindu Gods and Goddesses were bedecked in jewellery. This started temple jewellery, an accessible style that eventually trickled into the trousseau collections of brides to be. 

Gold Babul Work Brooch, Made in Delhi, c.1853, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Remember when we said that you probably associate the lavish history of India with the Mughal empire? Well, the Mughal empire created a vast amount of incredible jewellery. Here, the fusion of Indian and central Asian styles really came into fruition. Intricate enamel work blossomed, and ancient Indian designs were adapted to include floral, geometric and nature-inspired motifs. 

Unlike other jewellery trends that come and go, Indian jewellery generally appears to stick to a repetitive colour palette of green, red and white, and encrusting their jewellery with multiple gemstones. Goldsmiths intensely used Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds in their pieces. The gemstones not only had aesthetic weight, but they also had spiritual weight too. It is no secret that India was and still is a deeply spiritual country, and many wore these gems as protective talismans. Gold and Silver were not only precious metals by nature, but they are also sacred. Gold and Silver jewellery was considered lucky and were often bought and worn on auspicious occasions. 

Gold, Diamond, Ruby and Emerald Turban Ornament, Made in the Mughal Empire, Early 18th Century, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

During colonial rule, the cross cultural influences of Russia and Europe impacted jewellery creations immensely. Indian princes and local chiefs bought jewellery from the great names of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.

The Canning Jewel, A Gift from the Prince of House Medici in Florence to a Moghul Emperor in India, c.1850-60, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

A direct impact of this was that these distinct Indian jewellery designs started to be requested by British and European nobility. Notably, one of Cartier’s famous ‘tutti frutti’ style was inspired by South Indian flowers and traditional Indian gowns.  

Today, Indian jewellery can be categorised into 3 different types: temple jewellery, spiritual jewellery and bridal jewellery. Temple jewellery is bright, beautiful and heavy chunky jewellery, and adorned the idols of Indian deities, Gods and Goddesses in Indian temples around the country. Temple jewellery is also worn by persons on occasions and festivals as it is believed to bring good luck to the wearer and bind them closer to their belief systems. 

Spiritual jewellery is closely intertwined with temple jewellery, yet spiritual jewellery contains motifs and materials that have specific deep meaning attached. For example there are the Rudrashka beads which are the seeds of the Eliocarpus Ganitrus tree. This tree is rare in India, and is believed to play an important role in a spiritual seeker’s life as the seeds are Lord Shiva’s tears, the God of eternal cycle of creation and destruction. 

Image of Rudrashka Mala Prayer Beads, Source - Wikimedia Commons

Another example of spiritual jewellery is the use of the AUM symbol and the Mandala symbols. These symbols were and still are worn around the neck as amulets and as protection. 

For bridal jewellery, there is a tradition of gifting women Gold jewellery on her wedding day as it will provide financial security for her new life. Traditional Indian bridal jewellery is heavily bedecked in red stones and Gold. Indian bridal jewellery consists of necklace, earrings, nose rings, Gajra (a necklace made from jasmine flowers), oversized rings, heavy anklets, bracelets, and Kamarbandh (a bejewelled belt-like piece of jewellery that hangs around the waist). 

Image of an Indian Bride, Source - Pinterest


In the 1950s and 1960s the emergence of Bollywood films dramatically changed Indian fashion and culture. It is known that Bollywood films majorly changed the way that Sarees were designed, with the Bollywood saree being highly embellished, colourful and tighter around the body. To complement this form of dress and to captivate the audience, jewellery was bolder, larger and more elaborate. 

Indian Jewellery Techniques and Styles:

With jewellery so embedded with Indian culture, it won’t come as no surprise that there are a wealth of Indian jewellery techniques and specific styles. So, we have collated a few of these below. 

Kundun: A traditional form that originated in the royal courts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the Kundun method has been used extensively throughout the history of Indian jewellery. This is where gemstones are set in pure Gold foil between the stones and its mount. The word Kundun itself means highly refined Gold. This type of jewellery is also referred to as Bikaneri or Jaipuri jewellery. Interestingly, the enamelling and use of vivid colours is on the reverse, whereas the Kundun setting is on the front. 

Image of Kundun Neck Piece, Source - Indian Bijou

Jadau: Introduced to India by the Mughals, Jadua jewellery is a type of jewellery that extensively uses the Kundun method, yet it does differ slightly. Jadau is primarily an engraved jewellery work and is often worn during engagements and weddings.

Polki: Polki jewellery is traditional Indian Diamond jewellery. Interestingly, this is actually an affordable Diamond jewellery as it uses uncut Diamonds. This makes Polki jewellery gorgeous and beautifully raw in both texture and appearance. Like Jadua jewellery, Polki jewellery originated in the Mughal period and was a speciality within Bikaner. Throughout time, Polki jewellery accrued other popular gemstones like Rubies and Pearls, making its way into bridal trousseau. 

Image of Polki Diamond Neckpiece, Source - Zeva Emporium

Meenakari: Meenakari is an art of painting and embellishing various types of metals with vivid colours. In western jewellery, this is known as enamelling. Yet, Meenakari is distinct in the fact that it often portrays floral and fauna motifs. Meenakari Gold is mainly practised and made in Jaipur, Benarus and Delhi, whereas Meenakari Silver is done in Udaipur, Bikaner and Nathdwara and Meenakari Glass is done in Pratapgarh. Interestingly, Meenakari is a technique that is passed from one generation to another and to make one piece of jewellery, it would pass through several artisans. 

Meenakari Bangle, Made in Jaipur, c.1850, Source - Victoria and Albert Museum

Karanphool Jhumka: Karanphool Jhumka are a distinctive style of earrings that are exclusively Indian in origin created in the Mughal period. Karanphool translates to ‘flower for the ear’, and is a round disc that sits on the earlobe. The Jhumka is an inverted cup or bell-shape which can vary in size depending on the style and price of the piece. The earrings have rich spiritual symbolism meaning eternal life and the blessings of spiritual awareness. These two components can be detached to be worn individually. Depending on the region in which these earrings are created, they can vary in design. For example in Rajasthan, the Jhumka is often set in Gold with uncut Diamonds, Rubies, Emeralds and Sapphires, whereas in other parts of India, the Jhumka is just created from solid Gold. 

Karanphool Jhumka Earrings, Made in Calcutta, c.1853, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Navaratna: Part of the bridal trousseau, the Navaratna is a traditional nine-stone pendant. Typically, this is square in style with eight semi-precious gemstones around the edge and a Diamond in the centre. 

Mangal Sutra: The Mangal Sutra is a customary jewellery in Hindu households and worn by married women. This custom dates back to the 6th century, where a single yellow thread was tied around the bride to ward off the evil eye. Today, the Mangal Sutra is made with black beads that absorb negative vibrations and creates everlasting happiness for the couple. 

Mang Tikas: Another must-have for an Indian bride’s trousseau is Mang Tikas. Elaborate hair accessories, Mang Tikas are draped over the head with a central pendant-style feature resting on the forehead. This elaborate piece of jewellery not only completes the bridal jewellery look, but it is a distinct and recognisable part of Indian jewellery. 

Image of a woman wearing a Mang Tikka, Source - Pinterest

Nose Ring: Widely worn today in western jewellery and a form of body modification, nose rings are central to Indian jewellery and their culture. These are known as Naths, a small ring embedded with gemstones. Naths are part of other Indowestern attires and are an ethnic attire of Sarees and Lehenga. 

Gold Nath, Made in Gujranwala, c.1853, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Bindi: Considered to be the nucleus of Indian beauty, Bindis are central to Indian culture and are a key symbol of Indian pride. A decoration placed on the forehead of a woman, traditionally the Bindi was aligned with Hindu beliefs. In Hinduism, it is believed that the 6th chakra is in the centre of your forehead. Here, the placement of the Bindi was believed to help enhance your wisdom. Today, you can find both simplistic or ornate Bindis, with some created from gemstones and metals. Bindi’s have become increasingly popular in western fashion, yet this has made them a target of cultural appropriation. 

We hope you have enjoyed reading and learning about this incredible period of history! If you would like to read more of our ‘Jewellery Around the World’ installments, below are our past and present features:

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Love, Lillicoco xo

Molly Chatterton

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