The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 30, 2000

As priceless as the Peacock Throne
By K.R.N. Swamy

TO the question: What is the costliest single treasure made in the last 1,000 years? The answer is the Peacock Throne of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-58). Wrought out of 1150 kg of gold and 230 kg of precious stones, conservatively in 1999 the throne would be valued at $804 million or nearly Rs 4.5 billion. In fact when made, it cost twice as much as the Tajmahal crafted for the same Emperor Shah Jahan.

Zille-I-Illahi or Shadow of God on Earth was one of his titles. As befitting the title, he, the fifth emperor of the dynasty, created in his palaces at Agra and Delhi, the shadow of paradise on Earth, and in his throne, sought to re-create the shadow of the throne of God on earth, taking for its model, the famous throne of Solomon, the prophet-king. One cannot do better than quote the contemporary eye-witness Mughal Court-chronicler, Nizam-ud-din Bakshi, who wrote in A.D. 1635 "in the course of years many valuable gems had come into imperial jewel house (of the Mughal Emperors), each of which might serve as an ear-drop for Venus or could adorn the girdle of the Sun. Upon the accession of emperor Shah Jahan in A.D. 1628, it occurred to his mind that, in the opinion of far seeing men, the acquisition of such rare jewels and the keeping of such wonderful brilliants can only render one service, that of adorning the throne of the Empire. They ought, therefore to be put to such use that beholders might share and benefit by their splendour, and that His Majesty might shine with increased brilliancy.

  It was, accordingly, ordered that, in addition to the jewels in the imperial jewel house, rubies, garnets, diamonds, rich pearls and emeralds in all weighing 230 kg should be brought for the inspection of the Emperor and they should be handed over to Bebadal Khan, the superintendent of the goldsmith’s department. There was also to be given to him 1150 kg of pure gold... The throne was to be three yards in length, two-and-a-half in breadth and five in height and was to be set with the above mentioned jewels. The outside of the canopy was to be of enamel work with occasional gems, the inside was to be thickly set with rubies, garnets and other jewels, and it was to be supported by 12 emerald columns.

On the top of each pillar there were to be two peacocks, thick-set with gems and between each two peacocks a tree set with rubies and diamonds, emeralds and pearls. The ascent was to consist of three steps set with jewels of fine water". Of the 11 jewelled recesses formed around it for cushions, the middle one was intended for the seat it for Emperor. Among the historical diamonds decorating it were the famous Kohinoor (186 carats), the Akbar Shah (95 carats), the Shah (88.77 carats), the Jehangir (83 carats) and the second largest spinel ruby in the world — the Timur ruby (283 carats). A-20 couplet poem by the Mughal poet-laureate Qudsi, praising the Emperor in emerald letters was embedded in the throne.

On March 12, 1635, Emperor Shah Jahan ascended for the first time the newly completed Peacock Throne. The French jeweller and traveller, Jean Baptiste Tavennier, who had the opportunity to examine the throne at close quarters, confirms the court chronicler’s description... Its place in the two fortress-palaces of Delhi and Agra was usually at the Hall of Private Audience known as Diwan-I-Khas, although it was kept at the Hall of Public Audience known as the Diwan-I-Am when larger audience were expected.

Emperor Shah Jahan’s son, Emperor Aurangzeb usurped the throne in A.D. 1658, ruled for 49 years and died in 1707. By A.D. 1739, the Persian emperor Nadir Shah over ran the Mughal Empire defeating emperor Muhammad Shah. He looted Delhi, taking the Peacock Throne to Persia along with other treasures valued (at today’s prices) at US $ 5 billion. In 1747 as Nadir Shah went on a campaign against the Kurdish tribesmen, he was assassinated by his own officers. In the ensuing melee, the costliest treasure in history, the Peacock Throne, was demolished by the tribesmen and the jewels taken away to hideouts all over the Middle-East.

Although some Persian historians make a mention of the Peacock Throne even two decades later, it is known that only a few pieces could be rescued of this fabulous seat of state, later to be incorporated in the Persian Nadiri Peacock Throne kept in the Gulestan Palace in Teheran (1995), Bereft of the Peacock Throne, the Mughal Emperors built for themselves an imitation Peacock Throne.

Many miniature paintings showing the throne or copies of the original miniatures exist in Indian / European / American art museums. But the controversy about only four pillars being shown in many of the thrones has made historians doubt, as to whether any authentic picture of the original Peacock Throne is available today. In this context, the eminent chronicler of Mughal Era, Abdul Aziz (1884-1970) opined that for a full view as to how the original Peacock Throne appeared we have to look at the painting (c. 1827) of the imitation throne, made after Nadir Shah took away the original in 1739.