A Mughal Bowl in rock crystal
This limpid bowl, almost unbelievably pure in its translucence, would for most of us appear at first sight to be simply a piece of beautifully blown glass. In fact, it is made of rock crystal, a form of quartz, one of the hardest minerals known. It is difficult for us today, when we live surrounded by glass in all shapes and sizes, to realise how exceptionally complex and difficult the manufacture of such an object in rock crystal would have been. To grind, with diamond abrasives, a piece of raw quartz into the perfect shape of the bowl would probably have taken hundreds or even thousands of hours of work and would have been made even more difficult by the need to retain the two projecting handles.
The bowl is a characteristic product of the age of the Mughal emperors, the Muslim rulers of most of the Indian subcontinent by 1650-1700, the years when the bowl is most likely to have been made. Its quality would suggest that it might well have been made for a member of the court of Emperor Shah Jahan (ruled 1628-58) or his son Aurangzeb (ruled 1658-1707). The use of rock crystal is evidence of the Mughal taste for rare materials, while the handles, in the form of mulberries between leaves, also reflects the importance in Mughal art of stylised forms taken from nature. The original purpose of the bowl is not known, but some carved hardstone vessels were used as wine cups, notably Shah Jahan’s celebrated and exquisite winecup in white jade in the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The bowl clearly continued to be treasured by its owners. By 1811 it may have been in the North Indian city of Lucknow, when a domed cover and dish were made for it, in gold embellished with enamelled decoration. The enamelled pink and blue flowers against a white ground reflect the influence
of Persian art, while the highly sophisticated blue and green wavy bands
are thought to symbolise the special relationship between land and river in Lucknow, through which the river Gomti meanders for several miles. Quite exceptionally, the cover and dish are not only dated but also inscribed with the name of their then owner, Sarkar Imad ud daula Bahadur, about whom nothing is known. He probably commissioned the additional pieces in order to turn the rock crystal bowl into a container for paan, a preparation made from betel leaf, areca nut and cured tobacco, which is chewed by people living in South Asia to this day. Although this might sound like a rather mundane fate for the bowl, the paan bearer or aftabji was an important post for a member of the court of a ruler, and the postholder would certainly have been a high-ranking dignitary in the ruler’s close circle.
Jeremy Warren, Monday 14 and Tuesday 22 May at 1 pm, in the Sixteenth-Century Gallery.
Susan Stronge, Made for Mughal Emperors. Royal Treasures from Hindustan, London/New York 2010*
Mark Zebrowski, Gold, Silver and Bronze from Mughal India, London 1997