Art of Jewelry traversed from Ancient to Modern India

The history of jewelry in ancient India is rich and diverse, spanning thousands of years and reflecting the cultural, social, and religious practices of different civilizations. India has a long jewellery history, which has gone through various changes via cultural influence and politics for more than 5,000–8,000 years. Because India had an abundant supply of […]

The history of jewelry in ancient India is rich and diverse, spanning thousands of years and reflecting the cultural, social, and religious practices of different civilizations.

India has a long jewellery history, which has gone through various changes via cultural influence and politics for more than 5,000–8,000 years. Because India had an abundant supply of precious metals and gems, it prospered financially through export and exchange with other countries. While European traditions were heavily influenced by waxing and waning empires, India enjoyed a continuous development of art forms for some 5,000 years. One of the first to start jewellery making were the peoples of the Indus Valley civilization.

By 1500 BC, the peoples of the Indus Valley were creating gold earrings and necklaces, bead necklaces, and metallic bangles. Before 2100 BC, prior to the period when metals were widely used, the largest jewellery trade in the Indus Valley region was the bead trade. Beads in the Indus Valley were made using simple techniques. First, a bead maker would need a rough stone, which would be bought from an eastern stone trader. The stone would then be placed into a hot oven where it would be heated until it turned deep red, a colour highly prized by people of the Indus Valley. The red stone would then be chipped to the right size and a hole bored through it with primitive drills. The beads were then polished. Some beads were also painted with designs. This art form was often passed down through the family. Children of bead makers often learned how to work beads from a young age. Each stone had its own characteristics related to Hinduism.

Jewellery in the Indus Valley Civilization was worn predominantly by females, who wore numerous clay or shell bracelets on their wrists. They were often shaped like doughnuts and painted black. Over time, clay bangles were discarded for more durable ones. In present-day India, bangles are made out of metal or glass. Other pieces that women frequently wore were thin bands of gold that would be worn on the forehead, earrings, primitive brooches, chokers, and gold rings. Although women wore jewellery the most, some men in the Indus Valley wore beads. Small beads were often crafted to be placed in men and women’s hair. The beads were about one millimetre long.

A female skeleton (presently on display at the National Museum, New Delhi, India) wears a carlinean bangle (bracelet) on her left hand. Kada is a special kind of bracelet and is widely popular in Indian culture. They symbolize animals such as peacock, elephant, etc.
Here are some key aspects of jewelry in the Harappan culture:
Materials Used: Harappan jewelers worked with a variety of materials, including gold, silver, copper, and various semi-precious stones such as carnelian, agate, and steatite. Beads made from these materials were commonly used in jewelry. Ornament Types Harappan jewelry included a wide range of ornaments, such as necklaces, bracelets, bangles, earrings, finger rings, and anklets. Bead necklaces were particularly common, and beads were often made in different shapes and sizes.

Craftsmanship: The craftsmanship of Harappan jewelry was advanced for its time, featuring intricate designs and skilled metalworking techniques. Goldsmiths and silversmiths of the Harappan civilization were adept at crafting jewelry with precision.
Symbolism and Function: Jewelry in the Harappan culture likely held symbolic and functional significance. It is believed that certain types of jewelry might have been worn for religious or ritualistic purposes. The use of specific materials and symbols in jewelry may have denoted social status, affiliation, or roles within the community.
Distinctive Features: The use of cylindrical and tubular beads was a characteristic feature of Harappan jewelry. These beads were often made with great precision and uniformity. Some artifacts, such as small gold figures and objects, are believed to have been part of personal adornments.

Archaeological Discoveries: Archaeological sites like Mohenjo-daro and Harappa have yielded a significant number of jewelry artifacts. Excavations have uncovered beads, bangles, and other ornaments in various materials. The discovery of a male torso sculpture wearing a necklace suggests that men, as well as women, adorned themselves with jewelry.

Trade and Influences: The Harappan Civilization had extensive trade networks, and the materials used in their jewelry indicate connections with regions rich in metals and gemstones. There is evidence of cultural exchanges with Mesopotamia, and similarities in jewelry styles between the two regions suggest some degree of influence. According to Hindu belief, gold and silver are considered as sacred metals. Gold is symbolic of the warm sun, while silver suggests the cool moon. Both are the quintessential metals of Indian jewellery. Pure gold does not oxidise or corrode with time, which is why Hindu tradition associates gold with immortality. Gold imagery occurs frequently in ancient Indian literature. In the Vedic Hindu belief of cosmological creation, the source of physical and spiritual human life originated in and evolved from a golden womb (hiranyagarbha) or egg (hiranyanda), a metaphor of the sun, whose light rises from the primordial waters.

Laws for Jewellery in Old Times
Jewellery had great status with India’s royalty; it was so powerful that they established laws, limiting wearing of jewellery to royalty. Only royalty and a few others to whom they granted permission could wear gold ornaments on their feet. This would normally be considered breaking the appreciation of the sacred metals. Even though the majority of the Indian population wore jewellery, Maharajas and people related to royalty had a deeper connection with jewellery. The Maharaja’s role was so important that the Hindu philosophers identified him as central to the smooth working of the world. He was considered as a divine being, a deity in human form, whose duty was to uphold and protect dharma, the moral order of the universe.

Navaratna (nine gems) is a powerful jewel frequently worn by a Maharaja (Emperor). It is an amulet, which comprises diamond, pearl, ruby, sapphire, emerald, topaz, cat’s eye, coral, and hyacinth (red zircon). Each of these stones is associated with a celestial deity, represented the totality of the Hindu universe when all nine gems are together. The diamond is the most powerful gem among the nine stones. There were various cuts for the gemstone. Indian Kings bought gemstones privately from the sellers. Maharaja and other royal family members value gem as Hindu God. They exchanged gems with people to whom they were very close, especially the royal family members and other intimate allies.

India was the first country to mine diamonds, with some mines dating back to 296 BC. India traded the diamonds, realising their valuable qualities. Historically, diamonds have been given to retain or regain a lover’s or ruler’s lost favour, as symbols of tribute, or as an expression of fidelity in exchange for concessions and protection. Mughal emperors and Kings used the diamonds as a means of assuring their immortality by having their names and worldly titles inscribed upon them. Moreover, it has played and continues to play a pivotal role in Indian social, political, economic, and religious event, as it often has done elsewhere. In Indian history, diamonds have been used to acquire military equipment, finance wars, foment revolutions, and tempt defections. They have contributed to the abdication or the decapitation of potentates. They have been used to murder a representative of the dominating power by lacing his food with crushed diamond. Indian diamonds have been used as security to finance large loans needed to buttress politically or economically tottering regimes. Victorious military heroes have been honoured by rewards of diamonds and also have been used as ransom payment for release from imprisonment or abduction.

Today, many jewellery designs and traditions are used, and jewellery is commonplace in Indian ceremonies and weddings. For many Indians, especially those who follow the Hindu or Jain faiths, bridal jewellery is known as streedhan and functions as personal wealth for the bride only, as a sort of financial security. For this reason, this jewellery, especially in the sacred metals of gold and silver, has large cultural significance for Indian brides. Jewellery is worn on the arms and hands, ears, neck, hair, head, feet, toes and waist to bless the bride with prosperity.

Significance of Jewelry in an Indian woman’s Life
The significance of jewelry in the life of women in India is evident from the jewelry gifts they receive from their own birth to the birth of their babies.  Some ornaments like mangalsutra, nose ring and toe ring are considered to be integral parts of the makeup of a married Indian woman. Since ancient times, the tradition of gifting jewelry items has continued. The only difference is in the designs of the contemporary jewelry which has become modern in design to cater to the needs of the twenty first century women.
Indian jewellery had witnessed several changes with every invasion and despite these influences; Indian jewelry maintained its distinct identity, blending foreign styles with indigenous craftsmanship to create a unique fusion.

Influence of invaders on Indian traditional jewellery
Mughal Influence: Mughal invaders brought intricate designs, incorporating Persian and Central Asian influences into Indian jewelry. Techniques like enameling and gemstone inlays became prominent.
Indo-Greek Influence: The interaction with Indo-Greek invaders led to the use of Hellenistic designs and techniques, such as filigree work and the inclusion of coins in jewelry.
British Colonial Era: The British influence during the colonial period shifted preferences towards more delicate and minimalistic styles. Victorian-era trends, such as lockets and cameos, found a place in Indian jewelry.
Islamic Influence: Islamic invaders introduced geometric patterns, calligraphy, and arabesque designs, influencing the design elements of Indian jewelry, especially in regions with a significant Muslim population.
Portuguese Influence: Portuguese explorers influenced Goan jewelry, introducing elements like floral motifs and incorporating Christian symbols into traditional designs.