Given the innumerable treasures adorning the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK, its most engaging part is Room 41 which contains the South Asia collection or the priceless treasures of an undivided India
Long gone are the heady days when the sun never set on the vast British Empire. The glory and agony of the Empire are now shrouded in the mists of time and the fading memories of a dying generation. And yet, should you wish to explore the treasures of the Empire, you will discover them housed in a beautiful building on Cromwell Road, in the fashionable Kensington area of London. The building, foundation stone for which was laid by Queen Victoria in 1899, is the world’s leading museum of art and design – the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum.
Despite umpteen visits to the V&A and given the innumerable treasures adorning its rooms, our first stop inside is always Room 41, which for me, contains perhaps the most engaging of all the exhibits. For here, you will find the South Asia collection – the priceless treasures of an undivided India. Brimming with pre-Mughal art, Mughal miniatures, weapons, embroidered Kashmiri shawls, court attire and many other precious and beautiful artefacts. The South Asia room has four items that are simply extraordinary.
Exhibited right in the centre of the room are two jade cups, both of which once touched the lips of two great Mughal emperors. One is the wine cup of the Emperor of the World – Shah Jahan, builder of that magnificent emblem of love, the Taj Mahal. Composed of white nephrite jade with the head of a ram serving as a handle and the base of a lotus flower surrounded by acanthus leaves, the cup is inscribed with Shah Jahan’s title, Sahib-i-Qiran Sani or the Second Lord of Conjunction. The first lord, it is assumed, was the powerful Timur, Shah Jahan’s illustrious ancestor. The Islamic year 1067 (corresponding to the Gregorian year 1657) is inscribed on the cup.
Nearby sits the elegant green jade wine cup of Emperor Jahangir – though perhaps not as intricate as Shah Jahan’s cup. The handle has a cockerel head on it and the gold Persian inscription embossed around it is truly inspiring, no matter how many times one reads it. I am drawn to the Persian quatrain each time I stand before the cup and am transported back in time to Jahangir’s royal court at Agra. The inscription extols the greatness of the emperor, proclaiming:
“Through the World-Conquering Shah, the world found order; /Our time became filled with light by the radiance of his justice; /From the reflection of his spinel-coloured wine may; /The jade cup be forever like a ruby”
The Islamic date on the cup corresponds to February 21 to August 6, 1633.
Wine was an essential ingredient of the Mughal court (hence the valuable jade cup). By the time of Jahangir’s reign, the use of opiates and alcohol was widespread. For all the magnificence of his court and his person, Jahangir would struggle with alcoholism most of his adult life, even losing two of his brothers to drink. So debilitating would its effects be on his body, that he would ultimately be forced to try to curtail his consumption with help from Empress Nur Jahan.
The Timurid fondness for jade meant that the precious stone played a prominent role in the lives of the Mughals, not least because they sought legitimacy of their rule through the Timurid connection. Shah Jahan’s exquisite jade ring is also exhibited in the same showcase as his wine cup. Jade was also used for utensils of food and drink due to its supposed anti-poison qualities. Poison, after all, happened to be the most popular means of exterminating one’s rivals at the royal court; whether it be Ibrahim Lodhi’s mother, Dilawar Begum’s attempt on the first Mughal Emperor Babar’s life or Aurangzeb’s poisoning of his nephew, Suleiman Mirza – his brother Dara Shikoh’s son.
A beautiful jade artefact belonging to Jahangir can still be found in India. In Delhi’s National Museum. Right at the centre of its Jade Collection, stands Emperor Jahangir’s hookah bearing a Quranic surah along with the emperor’s name and the date 1626. Some historians suggest that the hookah was invented by Hakim Abu’l-Fath Gillani, a physician at Emperor Akbar’s court. Worried about the debilitating effects of smoking amongst the Mughal noblemen at the court, he suggested passing the smoke through water to purify it, thus rendering it less harmful. The hookah then became a status symbol amongst the royalty and Jahangir’s ban on tobacco in 1618 was doomed to be short-lived as is only too evident from the date inscribed on his own elaborate jade hookah.
The romance of jade continues to capture the world even today. Only recently, in the Maharajas and Mughal Magnificence auction at Christie’s New York, Emperor Shah Jahan’s gold and jade dagger sold for $3.3 million, a record price for an Indian jade item.
The romance of jade continues to capture the world even today. Only recently, in the Maharajas and Mughal Magnificence auction at Christie’s New York, Emperor Shah Jahan’s gold and jade dagger sold for $3.3 million, a record price for an Indian jade item. I saw myself taking part in the auction, dressed up to the nines in my Armani suit, losing out to another gentleman by only a few hundred pounds. Alas, it was only a dream for there I was in my threadbare pyjamas, staring at the picture of the dagger in the newspaper report I was reading.
Right across from the wine cups, on the other side of the partition, are two equally mesmerising relics of history. To the right sits the golden throne of the Lion of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. One can almost picture the diminutive maharaja, his face marred by smallpox and blind in one eye, seated on his throne at the Lahore Darbar wielding total authority. The last occupant of the throne was his young son, Maharaja Duleep Singh. Deposed at the tender age of eight after the 1849 British annexation of the Punjab, Duleep Singh’s treasury was auctioned off in Lahore and he was made to present the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria. The throne was, however, shipped to England for display in the museum of the East India Company. Unlike European furniture of the same period, which was merely gilded to give the appearance of gold, the throne is actually covered by thick, heavily decorated sheets of gold. Its maker, as reported by the treasurer of the Lahore Darbar to Dr John Spenser Login (Maharaja Duleep Singh’s guardian) was a certain goldsmith by the name of Hafiz Muhammad Multani, now all but lost to history.
While on every visit, I wish the throne was back in Lahore, once the glorious capital of the Sikh empire, the dilapidated condition of many of our historical monuments here and our supreme indifference to our heritage makes me realise that my desire is unrealistic.
The neglected condition of the Maharaja’s birthplace and summer house in Gujranwala; the run-down tomb of his beloved Muslim wife Gulbahar Begum, once the centrepiece of a significant garden, now tucked away in an obscure corner of Miani Sahib graveyard; and perhaps, most poignant of all, the fate of Princess Bamba Sutherland, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s granddaughter, the last princess of the Punjab. She lived in obscurity at104 A Model Town, her ‘Gulzar’ in Lahore, departing for her final resting place at Jail Road Christian graveyard with little official recognition or acknowledgement of her royal legacy.
Last but not the least is one of the main highlights of the V&A. If you happen to Google the must-see exhibits in the museum, you are likely to find it at the top of most lists: Tipoos’ Tiger. Yes, the Sultan of Mysore had a wicked sense of humour for he had a wooden tiger built for his amusement and much to the supposed chagrin of the British, it was depicted snarling and grasping the neck of a red coat. It had an organ fitted inside which enabled the soldier to squeal in pain and move his arms up and down whenever the lever was turned. After Tipu Sultan’s death in the battle at Seringapatam in 1799, his treasury was divided amongst the soldiers according to rank, but the tiger was shipped to the UK, destined for the East India Company museum. The image of the Tiger was in fact the insignia of the Sultan of Mysore and is depicted on many items of the period from Mysore, including coins and fabric. Besides the tiger, the sultan’s robe, pistol and watch are also on display in the same showcase.
History was to repeat itself and the great Tiger of Mysore, who gave his life for freedom, would be resurrected in 1944 in the shape of his great great granddaughter, Noorunnissa Inayat Khan or Babauli as she was known to her family. Strangely enough, she too would be betrayed, like her erstwhile ancestor. Working during WWII with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), her training as wireless operator and excellent French landed her the job of Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent-code name Madeline. She was soon helping the French Resistance as a wireless operator in Nazi-occupied Paris, perhaps one of the most dangerous jobs in France. Betrayed for 100,000 francs, she was caught by the Nazis and interrogated and tortured for many months. Unable to extract a single piece of information from her, including her real identity, the Nazis executed her in the early hours of the morning of September 13, 1944, at the Dachau concentration camp. She died proclaiming “Liberte”. Posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French in 1946, she was awarded the George Cross by the UK three years later. In 2014, the Royal Mail issued her stamp as part of its Remarkable Lives series. A stroll to Bloomsbury will take you to her statue in the park once frequented by her. Only recently, a blue plaque has been inaugurated at 4 Taviton Street where she lived in Britain.
The South Asian collection may be close to my heart but the V&A truly is a treasure chest. Having savoured the priceless South Asian delights of Room 41, I move on to sample other treasures including John Constable’s paintings, Raphael’s Cartoons, the Cast Gallery of Italian masterpieces and of course the mouth-watering cakes served at the V&A café.
While our last stop is the always the V&A shop – thanks to my better half’s love of collecting souvenirs for which we will shortly be requiring a new display cabinet, – our first will always be Room 41.
The writer is a development professional and an avid traveller. He blogs at www.travelpangs.com and can be reached at [email protected]