The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 13, 2003

Treasures the mughal emperors owned
K. R. N. Swamy

A 17th-century Mughal miniature Koran cover encrusted with precious stones
A 17th-century Mughal miniature Koran cover encrusted with precious stones

THE word ‘Mughal’ has become a synonym for wealth and opulence. As such, it is interesting to consider as to how rich the Mughal emperors of India were, in modern money terms or the purchasing power of the rupee in 2002. A statement that the Taj Mahal cost Emperor Shahjahan Rs 5 million in the 17th century has no relevance in today’s rupee value, as one cannot get even a medium-sized flat in Bombay for that amount. Based on the Bank of England records, we find that the purchasing power of a Shahjahani rupee in AD 1640 was 500 times that of the rupee in 2002!. Or the Taj Mahal’s construction cost today would be Rs 2500 million. As such, one should multiply the below-mentioned figures by 500 to get an idea of the wealth involved.

The Mughal emperor’s wealth was said to be greater than that of his nearest rivals, the emperors of Persia and France both put together. In those days, the income of the empire was taken as the income of the emperor and we find that in A.D. 1648, during the reign of Shahjahan, the annual income of the Mughal empire was Rs 21 crore — equivalent to Rs 10,500 crore today. He had the first choice of the old world’s richest diamond mines, the famous Golconda mines and only his rejections were allowed to circulate in the market.

Fortunately, his predecessor, Emperor Jehangir, has left the authoritative account of the treasury and thanks to the researches of late Professor Abdul Aziz, we find the list exciting enough. There were bullion in the treasury amounting to seven tonnes of gold and 1,116 tonnes of silver. Among the precious stones there were eighty pounds (more than five millions carats) of uncut diamonds, hundred pound each of rubies and emeralds and six hundred pounds of pearls, ‘Of the other less important varieties there was infinite’.


Shahjahan’s fabulous jewels, his gold and plate were carefully catalogued and kept in charge of the Master of the Treasury. A string of pearls, or a casket of jewels, all were stamped with the imperial seal; and the Master of the Treasury was personally responsible for their safety. All possible care was taken, that these precious stones were properly graded according to the exacting imperial specifications. For example, the diamonds were divided into 12 categories, while the pearls were of 16 varying grades. But then, there had to be a place to keep all this hoard and in 1628, the Emperor was told by the Master of the Treasury that it was choked with jewels and that something had to be done to relieve the congestion in the strongroom. To continue the words of the historian, "it was decided to build the fabulous Peacock Throne and accordingly ordered that rubies, garnets, rich pearls, diamonds and emeralds he brought and they with exquisite jewels, of great weight (each of these worth to be an earring of Venus and to be kept in a belt for the Sun) exceeding quarter ton in weight and one and quarter tons of purest gold be handed over the Superintendent of the Goldsmith’s Department". The throne was completed after seven years of unceasing labour by the best craftsmen of the empire and was valued at 10 million rupees or Rs 500 crore today.

Secondly, unlike the illustrious forbears, the Emperor Akbar and Emperor Jehangir, Shahjahan had no scruples regarding the sanctity of Hindu temples. As an ardent Muslim, the Emperor was committed to a policy of converting the infidels. Once the temples were pulled down, the treasures in them, often, the accumulation of centuries, were credited to the imperial coffers. Besides this, there was a pernicious, but politically judicious custom in the Mughal empire of the day, according to which the Emperor ’ the properties of all the nobles, when they died.

As with all Oriental emperors, it was a law that whenever a merchant had something new or novel to sell, it had to be first offered to the Emperor, who decided as to whether it was a worth, acquiring. There were expert jewellers in court employ to appraise the value of these baubles and these often required huge bribes to make a favourable valuation. The worst defect of this law was that once the Emperor allowed the goods to pass through his court, no other noble worth the name would buy the remnants, as in his opinion they would be below par. The French jeweller Travernier complains in his memoirs, that after landing in Surat, he had to proceed to Delhi, the imperial capital, before making a single sale, so that his imported jewellery could be first seen by the Emperor.

The Emperor, as can be expected, did not keep all the treasures in one location. They were divided into varying proportions and were kept in royal fortresses in different parts of the empire. There were seven of these treasure forts, besides the Capital of Delhi. They were Gwalior, Mewar, Ranthambor, Lahore, Asirgarh, Rohtasgarh and Agra. Lahore Fort contained the maximum quantity of bullion, while Agra, as the Emperor’s favourite citadel, contained most of the jewels. MF