The Mughal Peacock Throne
Tourists visiting the Taj Mahal have been shortchanged. What they get to see is not the most expensive creation of Mughal India. Something that cost twice as much and seven years to make is now only available in sketches and miniature paintings in the archives of our museums. We have all heard of Nadir Shah and his loot of the Peacock Throne in 1739. Yet our knowledge of the throne that cost Shah Jahan 10 million rupees and was commissioned on the first day of his rule remains vague.
K. R. N. Swamy, who writes on India’s heritage, says that while scores of books detail the history, workmanship and evaluation of the Taj Mahal, there is no single book devoted solely to the Peacock Throne in any of the famous repositories of world knowledge.
The value of history lies in its continuity. The history that we can see around us is important for two reasons: in terms of the vividness that it lends to our collection of memories and in terms of lending authenticity to what we have heard or read. However, for historians engaged in writing about something we all have something to say about, this is an overwhelming challenge.
For Swamy, the search for the elusive Mughal Peacock Throne was a challenge as demanding and as full of mystery as "the search for the holy grail". After five years of rigorous research in India and abroad, Swamy came up with the reference anthology book in 1993—Peacock Thrones of the World, a 372-page book with 23 Mughal miniatures.
And 10 years later, Swamy with the help of his journalist daughter, Meera Ravi, produced an abridged version of his earlier work for the general reader—28 pages with eight Mughal miniatures. Based on a detailed and extremely well researched original volume, the abridged version reads like a fairy tale. This is a book that narrates the story of a throne, its idea, its making, the jewels it was studded with, the place where it was kept and its importance to the one who sat on it.
Even as the editors give minute details of the throne (even the throne’s estimated cost in 2003), they manage to keep alive the romance of its imagined beauty. Eyewitness accounts of the throne’s grandeur by poets and writers lend a magical quality to the object of Swamy’s research.
The Peacock Throne was to witness the most turbulent period of the Mughal empire and Swamy tells this story with the finesse. We get a ringside view of the machinations minus the dryness that pervade an academic tome. Yet the sources are impeccable and translations scrupulous.
We read the racy script of Aurangzeb’s takeover and the clever escape of Shivaji. The next story has a familiar ring to it: incompetent sovereigns, scheming regents and scheming bellicose foreign raiders.
Nadir Shah rolled into India unopposed because he pretended to be chasing Afghan rebels across the border. We see large ill-trained armies outclassed on home turf by a smaller, much better trained army.
To the Afghans, the Peacock Throne was nothing but a spoil of war and that is how they treated it. Today, the world is deprived of the most expensive creation of a jewel ever undertaken.
The book ends with a large index of notes and references and bibliography. The Peacock Throne may have dwarfed the Taj in magnificence had not dwarves been ruling the country in the years that followed the Mughal period.