The girl walks into the strongroom vault and bursts into spontaneous, wondrous laughter. But it is the boy with her who breathlessly articulates the awe they are experiencing: “Such big diamonds.” They were visitors at the Jewels of India: The Nizam’s Jewellery Collection exhibit at the National Museum in Delhi and there is nothing extraordinary about their reaction. With diamonds from Golconda mines, rubies and spinels from Myanmar, emeralds from Colombia and Basra pearls, is one of the most spectacular arrays of jewels one can lay eyes on. And this is without taking into account the Jacob Diamond, weighing in at 184.50 carats and ranked fifth in the world in size. It is in fact bigger than the Koh-i-noor, which weighs 105.60 carats.
This is the third time that the Nizam’s jewels have been exhibited following their purchase by the Government of India in 1995 for a relatively paltry sum of Rs 210 crore. In reality, the collection was believed to have been valued at anywhere between Rs 1,800 and 2,000 crore, though it’s virtually impossible to attach a price tag on history and legacy. Even the story of how India came to buy the jewellery, which had been allocated by Mir Osman Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam, into two trusts – The Nizam’s Jewellery Trust set up in 1951 and The Nizam’s Supplemental Jewellery Trust set up in 1952 – is not without its shares of twists and turns. The jewels were meant to be sold in the events of the death of Khan and his son, Azam Jah.
Khan died in 1967 and his son in 1970. Accounts vary as to how the Government of India got involved in the process of acquiring the jewels in both these trusts. One version states that the descendants of the Nizams had organised an auction which the Centre stopped while another version claims that the trustees and descendants approached the government themselves, offering the jewels for sale. Either way, the process for this started in 1972 and culminated in 1995, after several court cases and delays. Eventually, the jewels, which comprised 325 pieces and were stored in three trunks inside a vault of a private bank in Mumbai, were taken over by the government of India, which promptly put them in another vault, this time in the RBI.
The first exhibition was in 2001 when they were showcased at the National Museum. The second was in 2007. At the inaugural event, the jewels were on display for two months. This time, the exhibition, which started two weeks ago, is on till May 5. Set along the perimeter of the room, the exhibition consists of a fabulous display of turban ornaments, necklaces, armbands, bracelets, earrings and anklets apart from 22 unset emeralds. The Jacob Diamond is in a revolving case at the centre, and such is its allure that even those who are chasing from one display case to another slow down when approaching it. The exhibition is accompanied with prints of archival photographs from the Chowmahalla Palace of the Nizam family members wearing the jewellery. Interestingly, Mir Osman Khan was rumoured to be a miser, preferring to wear old clothes.
“The Nizam’s collection is the single most important assortment of Indian jewellery that we have in India today,” says Dr Usha Balakrishnan, art historian and author of the book, Jewels of the Nizams. Balakrishnan was in fact asked to document the jewels by the government before they were exhibited in 2001, though she was given only four days to do so. “I still don’t have words to describe what it was like to see and handle the collection,” she says. “India has a 5,000- year tradition of jewellery, but little of it has survived due to various factors.”
The Nizam’s collection was built over the two-hundred-year rule of the dynasty which was established by Mir Qamaruddin (Asaf Jah I) in 1713 when he was appointed the viceroy of the Deccan. At its peak, it encompassed the entire plateau south of the river Tapti, extending all the way to Madurai and Trichinopoly. As the Mughal Empire declined, the Nizams took their place in the patronage of fine gems and jewellery. The Golconda mines which gave the world some of its finest diamonds – from the Hope to the Dresden Green diamond – were also under the Nizams. The mines yielded Type II A diamonds, considered one of the purest forms. Even today, a Golconda diamond fetches record prices at auctions. Hence, it is rather curious then that the biggest diamond in the Nizam collection, the Jacob, was actually mined in South Africa. The dynasty continued with an old injunction that stipulated that the ruler had to be offered the best of the mined gems. “Everyone talks about the value of the collection but the truth is that it is priceless. Each of these jewels was crafted in India by an Indian craftsman. In fact, there is no other parallel in the world for this kind of hand craftsmanship,” says Balakrishnan.
Today, in order to see the finest collection of Indian jewels, one has to travel out of the country. Be it the Al Sabah collection in Kuwait, Al Thani of Qatar or the Indian exhibit at Victoria and Albert Museum, most of India’s best pieces are not in the country any more. In a 2015 interview, Hamad bin Abdullah Thani, owner of the Al Thani selection, had spoken about the Nizam’s collection. “No one can see it. The pieces are in the central bank. What is the point if they are not shown to the public?” He went on to make a point also made by Balakrishnan, that if the crown jewels can be on display in the Tower of London and if Russian treasures can be exhibited in the Kremlin museums, why should Indians be deprived of this cultural heritage? “For centuries the balance of trade was in our favour because of the luxuries we possessed: textiles, pepper and diamonds. It is our greatest soft power and needs to be on permanent display,” says Balakrishan. In 2001, when the jewels were exhibited, it had led to sales (tickets and brochures including), of Rs 53,62,735. If the exhibition would have been on continuous display since it was acquired, it would have paid its cost several times over by now. This remains a topic for the future, however. In the meantime, if you are in Delhi, head to the National Museum for an afternoon of gem gazing.
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