Figuratively speaking: Capturing the Essence of Indian Jewellery

Unmaking Things

The abundance of nineteenth century Indian jewellery in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum today has led to studies of how it would have been worn, by whom, where and in what form. Research on gold jewellery from India, in particular, has revealed a great deal about the cultural context of its use in the Mughal courts.The collection of silver jewellery, the jewellery that was worn by the majority of Indians, has been covered less extensively. Analysing the profusion of silver jewellery in nineteenth century India, tracing its various forms and types, would be one way of unravelling its history. However, as we will see, its essence is best captured by considering it beyond the literal.

The sensorial qualities of a piece of silver jewellery in nineteenth century India are essential to its history. The language used to refer to silver is a direct reference to its physical charm: the term for silver (chandi in Hindi) is closely related to the words for the moon (chand) and indeed moonlight (chandrika). Moreover, these terms all derive from the same Sanskrit word chandra, meaning ‘glittering’ or ‘shining’.2 In light of its aesthetic appeal, reflected in its terminology, it is unsurprising that silver was used as a substance from which jewellery was fashioned.

The physical experience of silver jewellery should also be contemplated. Its shiny surface would have stood out against the traditionally colourful dress worn by Indian women and reflected off the mirror work commonly found on women’s clothing.3 The physical weight of silver jewellery would have marked its heavy presence by encumbering its wearer’s movements. At the same time, its adornment of the body of a married woman would have heightened the presence of her body in the company of her husband. In this way, the encounter with a piece of silver jewellery through bodily sensation forms part of a Hindu tradition with a rich sensorial dimension, from the rubbing of oil or power on an idol, to the participation in prayer through chanting and listening, and through such rituals, the fulfilment of the senses.4

The significance of a piece of jewellery worn by a Hindu woman was inextricably linked with her religion. The connotations of Indian jewellery have extended beyond the secular in the manner in which it was appropriated as a symbol in Hindu literature. When the lovers at the centre of the Ramayana, Ram and Sita, depart to commence their fourteen-year banishment, the best-known versions depict Sita adorned in her finest attire and sent away with sufficient ornaments from the king’s treasury to last her entire exile. Subsequently, when the main antagonist in the tale, Ravana, captures Sita, the breaking of her jewellery is clearly symbolic of her struggle, only to later signify her fortune when Ram follows the trail of abandoned jewellery to finally secure her safety. 5

The power of ornamentation in the context of Hinduism is further brought to life through an understanding of darshan, a notion central to the rituals of Hindu worship. Darshan refers to the devotee’s connection with the divine by forming a reciprocal visual connection with the deity at the temple.6 The portrayal of Hindu deities in idealised physical forms and adorned with jewellery, as well as the adornment of the devotee, takes on a nuanced meaning when we consider the visual element involved in Hindu worship; a meaning that is tantamount to more than mere beatification, and asserts the role of Indian jewellery as a mediator between the devotee and the divine.

Although the sacred and secular realms in Indian culture were not easily divisible, the cultural implications of silver jewellery extended beyond religion. Bracelets and bangles, for example, appear in romantic, sensuous and suggestive contexts throughout the history of Indian literature. Although the sources that follow do not refer specifically to silver, being regional poems or derivations of folklore, they would have been familiar to the people beyond India’s urban centres, who would have worn silver jewellery rather than gold.

In the following lines from a Prakit poem, bangles are used as a metaphor for love:

Why do the bangles
on the wrists
of every woman grow larger
when their lovers
leave home? 7

In another stanza, this time from a Tamil poem, the bracelets and anklets of a girl and a boy respectively are referred to as a means to identify them in relation to one other:

A man who wears a hero’s anklet
keeps her safe as she hurries
through scant, dry lands […]
Where does she find the strength, this girl, soft as a sprout,
with her tiny, curving bracelets? 8

Indian jewellery was and remains closely associated with marriage, too. The Hindi word suhag, the auspicious state of wifehood, or marital happiness, denotes the physical markers with which a woman adorns herself when she is married. This includes jewellery and the vermillion worn in the parting of the hair. In the sections of the Ramayana described earlier, the use of jewellery in the description of Sita extolls her state of suhag as the new bride of Lord Rama.9 Silver jewellery was worn widely by Indian brides, since while gold was a desirable material, it was in reality a luxury only the minority could afford. 10

From aesthetic qualities associated with the brilliant moon to sensorial characteristics, from religious connotations to those of love and marriage, the silver jewellery of India demonstrates the metaphorical meanings of objects to be intrinsic to their historical contextualisation. Georg Simmel once described jewellery, albeit from a Western purview, as, ‘a synthesis of the individual’s having and being: it […] transforms mere possession into the sensuous and emphatic perceivability of the individual himself.’11 This conflation between possession on the one hand and the experience of being on the other seems to manifest itself sharply when we approach the silver jewellery of nineteenth century India with a figurative, rather than literal, perspective.


1. For example, Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer, eds. Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts. (London, Victoria & Albert Museum: 2009)

2. The Hindi word chandi, meaning ‘silver’, is a derivation of the word chandrika, which translates as ‘moonlight’. R. C. Pathak (ed.),Bhargava’s Standard Illustrated Dictionary of the English Language (Anglo-Hindi Edition) (Varanasi: Bhargava Book Depot, 1982), P.525; R. S. McGregor (ed.) The Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p.309.

3. For example in, Nasreen Askari and Rosemary Crill, Colour of the Indus: Costume and Textile Traditions of Pakistan (London, 1997)

4. Heather Elgood, Hinduism and the Religious Arts, (London: Cassell, 2000), p.11-12

5. Ramesh Menon, The Ramayana (New York, North Point, 2001), pp. 201, 206 and 234

6. Diana Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (Chambersburg, Pa.: Anima Books, 1981)

7. Gathasaptasti, 5.53, cited in, Martha Ann Selby, Grow Long, Blessed Night: Love Poems From Classical India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.43

8. Kuruntokai 356, cited in Martha Ann Selby, Grow Long, Blessed Night: Love Poems From Classical India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.194-5.

9. Rajesh Memon, The Ramayana (New York: North Point, 2001) pp. 201, 206 and 234.

10. Thomas Holbein Hendley, ‘Indian Jewellery’, in The Journal of Indian Art and Industry, vol. 12, nos 95-107, July 1906-1909, (London: 1909) p.5

11. Georg Simmel, ‘Adornment’ from Sociology (1908), in The Rise of Fashion – A reader, ed. Daniel L. Purdy, pp.79-84 (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p.81

Suggested reading:

Jutta Jain-Neubauer, Chandrika: Silver Ornaments of India (Shisha and Timeless Books: New Delhi, 2001).

Oppi Untracht, Traditional Jewellery of India (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008)

Vidya Dehejia, The Body Adorned – Dissolving Boundaries Between Sacred and Profane in India’s Art (Columbia University Press: New York, 2009

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