Jewellery is as good an anthropological marker of an era as garments, modes of transport, utensils, architecture or art. Perhaps it is more pertinent because it reflects the economic realities of an age. Through metal, motif, design and size, it decodes ritual, religion and reality.

Alamkara, the jewellery gallery that reopened recently at the National Museum in New Delhi after an eight-year gap, could well be a commentary on the (privileged) life and times of India. This collection of 255-odd pieces dating back many millennia—roughly, from 2600-1900 BC to the 19th and 20th centuries—has details that may have slipped our notice in the pages of history. Curated by scholar and researcher Usha Balakrishnan, it includes jewels worn by kings and noble families as ritualistic, auspicious or healing symbols for men, women and children, precious boxes to store amulets, sindoor (vermilion) or valued possessions, even a cup and saucer in gemstones and enamelled gold.

The presentation starts with a small selection of ornaments—with two stunning necklaces and a unique ear plug—from the ancient civilizations of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. It then meanders through various ages and regions. There are turban ornaments and headpieces from north India, royal jewels from different dynasties, resplendent bangles in polki, emeralds and rubies from Rajasthan in the 19th and 20th centuries, golden girdles with floral motifs and peacocks, intricately carved belts, some large and heavy necklaces, south Indian talis (marriage pendants), hairpins, bajubandhs (armbands), and rare bracelets dating back to the first century from Takshashila, in today’s Bihar.

Head ornaments—chak and chakpul—from 19th century Himachal Pradesh.
Head ornaments—chak and chakpul—from 19th century Himachal Pradesh.

An enthusiast will notice how patterns have evolved over the ages, how the use of gemstones varied across regions, how Rajasthan’s enamel or the repoussé technique of south India (embossing on metals) narrate the story of India’s ethnic arts. Also, what ancient carnelian from Mohenjo Daro looks like!

There is no section on pearl jewellery but there is ample use of pearls in ornaments from Punjab, Rajasthan and 19th century Delhi. There are a few old pieces from Maharashtra but the Bengal school of gold carving, which remains a big influence on what Indians wear and value even today, is conspicuously under-represented. There is a dominance of ornaments from south India, including the famed temple jewellery. One of the pieces we loved is a Gourishankaram necklace, a Chettinad ornament from 20th century Tamil Nadu.

This gallery deserves a more consistent curatorial plan. In some sections, it is classified by era, in others by region, elsewhere by motifs (like flora and fauna), themes (like Navratna) or by classifications as diverse as marriage pendants and turban ornaments. There is no central holding theme. In any case, 255 pieces are too few to represent India through the ages, the ornaments of its rulers, or its dozens of ethnicities. The collection is neither deep nor wide enough to lend itself to a strong narrative.

The big takeaway was in the smaller details. For instance, the sheer variety of ornaments traditionally used to decorate head and hair. From turbans and headpieces for men, there were tikkas, jhumars (worn on one side of the forehead), tiara-like pieces, choti (plait) decorations, floral, moon and star hairpieces to be worn on both sides of the parting, as well as the Rajasthani borla (a round trinket worn on the forehead).

All in all, worth a visit.

Alamkara is a permanent exhibition at the National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi (Mondays closed). For details, call 23019272, or visit Nationalmuseumindia.gov.in

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