The Entrapment of Gods

Rashmi Rajgopal of Saffronart tries figuring out what kept the Gods anchored to earth all along.

Mumbai: It’s that day of the week again when you need to pay a visit to your benefactors, Lord Balaji et al.  But today is different: you have a special wish in mind. Your attire is as attention-grabbing as an S.O.S. alert fired from a sinking ship, but that’s the whole point of all the jewellery. You reach your local temple and notice all the dazzling jewellery anchoring the Gods to Earth. Then, out of nowhere, insecurity collides with full force into you. You stare at your feet, suddenly reminded of your mortality and puny insignificance. You gaze dismally at the idols you came to pray to. Their divine magnificence would any day outdo your attire.  Then you forget why you came to the temple in the first place…

“Wish you looked as good as us, eh? No amount of penance will grant you that,” smirks Lord Balaji with Sridevi (l) and Bhudevi (r). Image Credit: http://blogs.houseofgems.com/index.php/2012/11/the-legendary-temple-jewelry-of-india/

“Wish you looked as good as us, eh? No amount of penance will grant you that,” smirks Lord Balaji with Sridevi (l) and Bhudevi (r). Image Credit: http://blogs.houseofgems.com/index.php/2012/11/the-legendary-temple-jewelry-of-india/

Sadly for you (and luckily for the Gods), temple jewellery is made solely to adorn our anthropomorphic idols. Specifications are based on the Gods in question, their roles, the manifestation of their powers in ornamental form etc. When the fad began centuries ago, donors generously flooded temples with customised jewellery for Gods. Temple jewellery varied according to the donor’s social, economic and religious standing (Nigam, M.L., Indian Jewellery, 63). Oh, and secularism scored big time.  Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan, the Nizam of Hyderabad (Ibid, 65) and other Muslim rulers of the south also lavished these temples with jewellery.

You’re scratching your head, wondering what all this signifies. Deity jewellery symbolises all the heavenly resplendence our earthly minds cannot possibly fathom. It’s painfully obvious that we can never match up to the Gods, hence the distinction. This is all rad, you say, but bear in mind this feat was no assembly-line production. Which is where dedicated goldsmiths and craftsmen feature. Adhering to a rigid set of requirements calls for a back-up of centuries-old family tradition, skill, patience and monetary investment. If you set out looking for skilled artisans, you’re most likely to find them toiling away in Nagercoil and Malaypore in Tamil Nadu, South India. Ah, but I see you lunge for Doc Brown’s DeLorean. Going back in time, you’d want to check out the special workshops of Mysore King Krishnaraja Wodeyar III.

Why are you specifically referring to South India, you ask me. Not because I’m a South Indian, I tell you, slightly offended. Well-preserved specimens are more probable to be found down south compared to the north, which has been subject to invasion over the years. Speaking of the north, there are extant specimens in the Srinathji temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan (Krishnan, U. R., & Ramamrutham, B., Indian Jewellery – Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India, 196). Which brings me to part two…

Just when you thought Lord Balaji had the last laugh,  the Enamel and Pearl Srinathji Necklace (Lot 23) shows up. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=9157

Just when you thought Lord Balaji had the last laugh,
the Enamel and Pearl Srinathji Necklace (Lot 23) shows up. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=9157

The necklace you see here depicts Srinathji, an avatar of Krishna. This is also temple jewellery, and here it becomes crucial to distinguish between the ornamental and the religious. This isn’t for your aesthetic pleasure, oh no. Temple dancers, priests and royalty began wearing temple jewellery metaphorising the overwhelming power I spoke of earlier. Then devotees jumped on the bandwagon. And you’re thinking it would be a good idea to take a cue from all this. What’s the cue? Saffronart.

“You know you want me,” says the Gowrishankaram (lot 82). Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=9216

“You know you want me,” says the Gowrishankaram (lot 82). Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=9216

Here’s the perfect example of having entrapped Lord Shiva in gold: the Gowrishankaram pendant (Lot 82). You’re relieved to see him in his calmer self, seated with Parvati on his bull, Nandi. You begin thinking you may want to bid for this piece. That’s not all. The lower compartment is an urn to store vibhuti¸ or sacred ash, to mimic Shiva’s ritual of smearing himself with it (Untracht, O., Traditional Jewelery of India, 39). Yes yes, temple jewellery is metaphor-obsessed. Just go for it.

These pieces feature in the Autumn Auction of Fine Jewels and Silver on October 23-24,2013.

To view the online catalogue, please click here.

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