In the north-centre of the Indian peninsula is the state of Maharashtra that skirts a long coastline, stretches across the Deccan plateau taking many mountain ranges in its stride. It is perhaps, this physical geography that restricted recurrent early invasion into the region and nurtured a cultural identity in its people. This is manifest in Maharashtrian jewellery, which despite modern influences has restrained a continuation of traditional patterns.
Generally Maharashtrian families preferred pearl jewellery followed by gold and silver. Marathi literature and poetry have references to pearl jewellery. The reason for partiality towards pearls can be traced to the 17the and 18the centuries when the Marathas were involved with several military campaigns. As their army depended on its cavalry they sought fine horses from the Arabs; who in turn also brought along large quantities of the then readily available Basra pearls from the Middle East – which in due course were converted into jewellery.
Maharashtrian jewellery includes specific pieces for adorning women from head to toes. On the head, on either side of the central parting of the hair would be worn the Chandra – a moon shaped ornament and surya –a sun shaped ornament. Flower shaped ornaments were particularly favoured for decorating the hair, as strings of fragrant, real flowers were often affixed to plaits or chignons. For holding up a pony tail or plait would be a moud, while an agraphool could also be worn in the chignon. It is a round piece with a figure in the centre and petal shaped edges. It is often in two pieces and worn on either side of the chignon. There are also ornamental hairpins and for covering the entire plait is a nagveni.
The ear lobe has its share of ornaments. At the upper rim of the ear is worn the bugadi, a small jhumka like earring that is fitted on the inner side. Next are balis or rings and at the lower most portion is the bokra a small chandelier like ornament made of pearls resembling pearl jhumkas or the kudi a typical Maharashtrian earring that has a central pearl surrounded with seven pearls around it. This pattern of the kudi is also repeated in diamonds.
The nath is probably the most identifiable piece of Maharashtrian jewellery and is a relatively large piece. Worn on the left nostril, it almost touches the upper lip. There are two main types – one that forms a full circle around the nostril and the other (more common) is oval in shape with pearls and precious stones arranged in a rough semi-circle. This oval nath usually has one diamond, a couple of rubies or emeralds and the rest of the piece is filled with pearls. For everyday use a small chamki is often worn, which could be of single pearl, gold bead or single stone.
For the neck the most common ornaments are the chinchpeti – a collar of pearls and uncut diamonds that fitted the throat; the tanmani that has a long pendant of pearls, diamonds, rubies or emeralds held by strings of pearls, the chaplahaar is composed of four strings of gold and reaches up to the waist – it is the heaviest ornament and can weigh up to 20 tolas; the chandrahaar is composed of strings of circular rings linked to each other and the pochahar shaped as the name suggests like pieces of puffed rice are some of the popular pieces. The thushi, a necklace full of gold beads held together with a beautifully woven band of gold thread work is a very attractive ornament. The mangalsutra, a necklace made with black beads, with two gold vatis (resembling small hollow bowls), each fixed between two gold beads in the centre, indicate the marital status of a woman.
The Kolhapuri saz is a gold ornament with individual pieces with auspicious designs of the moon, fish, lotus arranged with gold beads; while the mohanmal is another gold ornament which has strings of small moulded embossed beads. These pieces are made by using the jeweller’s mould. Another technique of making ornaments is weaving of fine gold wires used for making goph, a neck cord of finely plaited gold wires. The wires are ties together at one end and then closely twined for a tightly woven look.
For the upper arm is the bazuband or armband called wahi made of precious stones and gold. Sometimes the armband is also shaped like a snake. One the wrist are a collection of bangles tode, the first bangles of the wrist are thick and twisted; the bangdi that is of zigzag pattern or with lattice-like work; the patalaya which is a plain strip with a design of gold or pearls; the java are marquise shaped pieces joined together with fine weaving at the back which make the piece flexible; and the gajra is packed with pearls. On the fingers are the pavitrak, an ornament with 3-4 rings which men also wore often on their sacred thread and the angthi a simple ring. A kamarpatra was a waistband generally worn by brides. It has precious stones in the centre and as girls were married at an early age they are for the small waisted. There are anklets as well as toe rings – the latter are either plain or shaped like fish.
The navarattan ornament was traditionally considered to be a protector of evil influences of the sun, moon and other planets. This colourful ornament included pieces made up of nine gems that were often worn to ward off evil astral influences. Earrings, finger rings, necklaces are set with these nine gems to bring good luck to the wearer.
As the Maratha power spread northwards in the 18th century, Maratha rulers became powerful in Gwalior, Baroda and Indore. Though there were influences in jewellery from the imperial Mughal capital at Delhi, pearl jewellery continued to be preferred by royals. Maharani Vijayraje Scindia (Dowager Maharani of Gwalior) in her autobiography writes.
“In our jamadarkhana there were boxes and boxes of pearls and some of the necklaces were so alike that only an expert could have told them apart… I would indicate what colours or stone I wanted to wear, and presently a venerable official from the jamadarkhana would turn up, followed by one or two servants carrying a selection of jewellery on silver trays covered with velvet cloths, so that I might choose whatever I fancied… ordinarily when I was not going anywhere special I wore one of those pearl necklaces with diamond or ruby earrings…”
Men from the royal families wore much jewellery as gathered from the description given of H.H. Madhavrao Scindia, by Maharani Vijayraje Scindia. Of his coronation she writes, “he was installed on the gadi or seat of his ancestors by a British official who placed a beautiful necklace of pearls around his neck.” Describing the ceremonial attire she remarks on how the ornaments themselves must have weighed several pounds and says, “the gems don’t really show up… the turban clasps and arm bands are all but embedded in gold. There is a collar around his neck containing perhaps a dozen strains and some of the pearls are as large as marbles. Around his waist there is a pearl and rubies that reaches well below his waist and resembles a garland of flowers…” Their jewellery vault was described by the then British Resident, Colonel Bannerman, “as Aladdin’s store… a collection of diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds that was the largest in the world!”