With imaginative hyperbole, a 12th-century Indian poet described the interior of a temple: ‘People jostled against each other, and as they rubbed chests, sparkling jewels fell from their long pearl necklaces. The floor became studded with tiny stones, and as they tried to step over them so as not to hurt their feet, people seemed to break into dance with every single step’.
If a cartographer were to devise a spiritual map of India, it would indicate hundreds of thousands of major and minor Hindu temple complexes all over the country, though concentrated especially in the south. Within a wall is the main shrine, dedicated to a specific deity worshipped by the sect, as well as a small, dark inner sanctum, called the garbha graha ‘womb-chamber’. In addition to residences for the priestly community, temples of any size also have a treasury, in which all the objects of value are kept. Like royal treasuries, these are depositories of wealth in gold and gems, much of it in the form of jewellery that has been given over the centuries to deities by wealthy devotees. Some pieces are made for specific icons in the temple; others aesthetically or spiritually connected to a deity were made for mortal wearers, and then later perhaps donated to that god or goddess.
Ornament is life in India, minimalism an irrelevant concept, in the past at any rate. Except in extreme poverty, almost every woman wears jewellery, lots of it. Although Krishna and the rural villagers, with whom he lived, must presumably have worn the simplest jewellery, miniaturists depict them in pearls and gold to indicate their sacred status. Renunciation of adornment indicates a withdrawal from society, like the ascetic who lets go of worldly attachment; or a new widow, who if orthodox Hindu, literally breaks her glass bangles and adopts plain, white clothing.
The importance attached to pilgrimage in Hindu philosophy accounts for much of the jewelled wealth in temple treasuries. A pilgrim may visit one or several temples or sacred places, such as the Ganges at Varanasi, in order to achieve spiritual or practical results. Salvation is the goal – whether a more favourable rebirth or the eventual attainment of Nirvana – absorption with the Divine. Pilgrims solicit sacred intervention to solve business or relationship problems, relief from illness and much more. Many women pray for a baby, especially a male one.
Making a donation to a temple brings blessings and merit, as well as cultivating non-attachment to material possessions. Wealthy people give votive offerings of jewellery of precious metals and gemstones. At some temples poor women donate their precious hair, shaved off by barbers, which is then sold to the international wig-making industry. A devotional song to a goddess promising her a jewelled pendant for her forehead declares; ‘Those that spend all they can, to adorn the God of Gods with unsurpassed shining ornaments of gold and jewels gain a fruit so great that none but Vishnu even knows what it is’. Jewellery is intrinsic to a deity, an expression of its glory, and at a temple – the deity’s popularity.
Concomitantly the wealthiest temples are those that attract the most donations, so that material wealth is translated into divine power. Such gifts are often offered by older people who wish to enter a recognised final stage of life in which material possessions are renounced in favour of spiritual pursuits. They give precious metal jewellery and gemstones because they are believed to be ritually pure, an important concept in Hindu belief. Gold is believed to purify those it touches.
The most spectacular and valuable jewellery emerges from the treasury as festive ornaments on the icon for occasions like Diwali, or on the deity’s birthday. After use, they are replaced by more modest jewellery. Donated jewellery of lower value is usually dismantled, its gemstones – if any – are removed, and the metal given to a refiner to melt down into an ingot, as a further resource for the temple authorities, who may commission a goldsmith to create a splendid new ornament. When jewellery is damaged or broken, it is sold or given away, but because of its proximity to a deity, it gains a better price than its actual market value.
When a deity becomes manifest in the physical world in the form of an icon, it acquires physical needs, so temple priests perform a daily public ritual as if it were alive. It is bathed, clothed, fed, adorned with flower garlands and jewels appropriate for the occasion. In the past it was the king’s right to adorn the deity, linking state and temple. A 5th-century painters’ treatise prescribes: ‘Celestials should be always beaming in their countenance, adorned with crown, earrings, necklets, armlets and bracelets. They should wear auspicious flower garlands, large waist-cords, anklets and ornaments for the feet’. Decoration (alankaram) is part of worship. The anthropologist Anthony Good writes: ‘Etymologically, alankaram, conveys ideas of adequacy, and making ready; it is not mere decoration, but a means of imbuing the image with form and strength. Finery is thus an integral part of the deity, not an optional extra’. In addition, gold and jewels have affinities to the sun, moon and planets, and gems in particular focus celestial and planetary influences on the mortal realm.
From the priest’s point of view, temple jewellery embodies a religious theatricality that is designed to give a dazzling impression on the mind of an unsophisticated person, who only sees the jewelled icon from some distance, installed in the dark inner sanctum. But of course the gold and gems catch the light, so that the deity literally shines forth from the shrine. When the icon is taken out for special occasions, large crowds throng the temple, most seeing little more than the glitter of the icon above a sea of heads. However, wealthy donors can pay for private viewings, or darshan, in the inner sanctum, stemming from the Hindu concept of viewing or contemplating somebody or something sacred. Through darshan, the participator becomes receptive to the spiritual and/or material benefits emanating from the icon, the murti, or person (for instance, a living saint or guru). Naturally, the murti is adorned with a full set of high quality jewels, since if it is richly dressed, it is considered more potent.
In temples, jewels are meant to be worn by the icon, but people also carry the divine with them by wearing devotional jewellery depicting a deity like Lakshmi who brings abundance, or sacred symbols, in essence tiny shrines. Family shrines are also richly adorned, a prosperous family providing its diminutive murti with special miniature jewellery. Some jewels are inspired by architecture, such as the barrel-roofed temple gateway, and in south India, the finials on the gateway. Deities wear crowns imitating temple spires. In turn temple columns were often carved with jewel details, encircled with bracelet-like bands or a woman’s girdle.
Clearly the amount of jewellery and precious objects accumulated by a temple over the years could be immense. But in the past, temple treasures were the targets of warring rural kingdoms, foreign invaders, militant Muslims, and pillaged by thieves and vandals. So the entire contents of a treasury were often carried off. Happily, such raids no longer take place. Temples are once again repositories of great wealth and sacred potency.
BY JULIET HIGHET
A single-owner 28-piece collection of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century Indian temple jewellery is currently on offer at Bonhams through private treaty.