Baroda Pearl Carpet
The Pearl Carpet of Baroda is an extraordinary work of art that is a true testament to the wealth, sophistication, and grandeur of the legendary courts of the maharajas as well as an extant example of the fabled riches of India.
Embroidered with as many as one and a half million of the fabled 'Basra' pearls, which were harvested in the southern Gulf region and along the coasts of Qatar and Bahrain, and embellished with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies, this piece has been known throughout the past 150 years as the Pearl Carpet of Baroda. Named after its patron, the lot offered here was commissioned circa 1865 by Gaekwar Khande Rao, the Maharaja of Baroda (r.1856 1870); reputedly originally intended as a gift for the tomb of Mohammed at Medina, it is one of the most iconic masterpieces of Indian craftsmanship known today. Instantly legendary, this work of art is mentioned by foreign travellers as early as 1880. The exquisite execution, the remarkable state of preservation, the unquestionable rarity, and the highly unusual combination of form and material make this piece undeniably one of the most remarkable objects ever created.
From the earliest mentions of The Pearl Carpet of Baroda, it has impressed writers as an extraordinary work of art. Most literature states that this remarkable work was commissioned by the then Maharaja of Baroda, Khande Rao, in 1865 with the intention that it be given to adorn the tomb of Mohammed at Medina.
In 1880, Birdwood wrote: "But the most wonderful piece of embroidery ever known was the chaddar or veil made by order of Kunde Rao, the late Gaekwar of Baroda, for the tomb of Mahommed at Medina. It was composed entirely of inwrought pearls and precious stones, disposed in an arabesque pattern, and is said to have cost a crore (10 million) rupees. Although the richest stones were worked into it, the effect was most harmonious. When spread out in the sun it seemed suffused with a general iridescent pearly bloom, as grateful to the eyes as were the exquisite forms of its arabesques."
This legendary carpet would be mentioned whenever a Maharaja of Baroda was the subject of an article, for example that of Michael White, writing in the New York Times, 1906, "How Maharaja Gaekwar Became Ruler of Baroda," he states that:
"Maharaja Gaekwar possesses the most costly piece of jewelry in the world. In dazzling magnificence, it never has been, or is ever likely to be, excelled. This treasure is in the form of a shawl or cloak of woven pearls, edged with a deep border of arabesque designs of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires."
The Pearl Carpet of Baroda reflects the confluence of many Indian decorative traditions in addition to being one of the most luxuriant works of art ever created. But it's allure lies not only in the richness of the materials from which it was made.
"However unbridled the opulence of its million pearls of excellent quality, of its fine diamonds, rubies, and emeralds beyond count, the design is suitably restrained and dignified, a classic arabesque descended from the Mughal tradition and probably inspired by the legendary jewelled covering ordered by Shah Jahan to adorn the cenotaph of Mumtaz-Mahal in the Taj Mahal. If one approaches with an eye only for worldly delight, or even amusement, one soon backs off, sensing the degree of underlying seriousness and religious devotion."
It seems very likely that this carpet was commissioned in imitation of the Mughal bejewelled coverlet woven for the tomb of Mumtaz-Mahal at the Taj Mahal.
This carpet and a round one of similar work were exhibited at the Delhi Exhibition of Indian Art, 1902-3. In his book entitled Indian Art at Delhi, Sir George Watt notes:
"Perhaps if any one article could be singled out as more freely discussed at the Exhibition than any other, it would be the Pearl carpet of Baroda.!
The field is in seed pearls, the arabesque design in blue and red being worked out in English glass beads with medallions and rosettes of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, freely dispersed. To place on the four corners of the carpet were constructed four large weights in solid gold thickly set with diamonds. One of these weights will be seen hard by the carpet. Needless to add, this superb gift never went to Mecca.
From this we learn that the 'carpet' offered here is one of a suite that originally consisted of four rectangular pieces, a circular piece and four finials. All of these together may have formed a ornament that would be carried in the procession between Mecca and Medina with it then being given to the treasury of the mosque. As Bernier wrote, Khande Rao would also be following a Mughal tradition in this generous donation, possibly with the desire to relate his own sophistication and wealth to those of the Mughal emperors.
While Kande Rao was himself a Hindu, several writers suggest that he ordered the suite to be given to a mosque in a show of his respect and admiration for Islam, notes that the Maharajah died before the gift could be sent to Medina and his successors did not feel compelled to carry out his wishes. Maharaja Gaekwar Khande Rao died in 1870 implying the carpet had been completed by then. He died of natural causes, having survived an attempt made on his life by his brother Mulhar Rao who had tried to kill him with a concoction of crushed diamonds.
It has also been suggested that it may have been his brother who was responsible for commissioning the pearl carpet for a local temple and which he then decided to keep. This is the only mention of the carpet having been ordered by anyone other than Khande Rao. Both maharajas were known for their love of luxury but Khande Rao was particularly passionate about jewels, as evidenced by his 1867 purchase of the "Star of the South" one of the largest diamonds in the world.
The diamond, the surviving rectangular carpet and the circular canopy remained in the Gaekwar family collection, and were amongst the pieces in her personal collection which Maharani Sita Devi, wife of the then maharajah, Gaekwar Pratapsingh Rao, brought with her when she moved to Monaco in 1946. The carpet was in the possession of Seethadevi Holding until 1988.
The tradition of gift-giving and the love for precious gems, coupled with a solid financial background, enabled maharajas and local lords to offer the most lavish gifts, often trying to outshine each other. During his journey to India, the British traveller John Hawkins noted that during a court visit pearls, coral, and amber were given to courtiers and holy men.
He also witnessed the ritual of ceremonial giving when observing the emperor handing out gold and silver to the poor, while guests from europe recalled the precious royal gifts amassed at the mosques of the empire.
In such a generous culture the most unusual and lavish objects were executed by court craftsmen in order to express the sophistication of the patron and to impress and dazzle not only the receiver of the gift but also those witnessing the presentation. With its overwhelming beauty and astonishing value, the Pearl Carpet of Baroda was a perfect object for such purpose.
Bejewelled textiles embellished with metallic thread and precious and semi-precious gems were not unknown in the eastern world. Weavings decorated in such manner were kept in very high regard not only in India but also in Safavid Persia and Ottoman Turkey.
The earliest known bejewelled carpets, adorned with pearls, jewels, and gold, date from the Sassanian period (226-636) in Persia. According to Pope, the rugs in Khusraw II's (590-628) throne room in the palace at Ctesiphon were "said to have been made of gold-woven fabrics with pearls embroidered on them."
Later, fables from The Thousand and One Nights also mention carpets decorated with pearls, rubies, and turquoise, not unlike the weaving in the portrait by Bellini, from the times of the Abassid Caliphate (750-1258).
The Pearl Carpet of Baroda is an exceptional 19th century revival of this ancient form.
The design of the carpet appears to hearken back to Mughal tradition with the vinery forming three arches, each above a large diamond-filled roundel and topped with an elegant palmette. An example of an antecedent design can be found in a pair of Mughal saphs with three arches and palmette finials in the Keir collection.
The elaborate swirling vinery and dense floral elements more closely resemble the 18th century millefleurs designs of the very finely woven pashmina shawls and rugs of Northern India.
Besides being a magnificent manifestation of the taste and power of the maharajas, the Pearl Carpet of Baroda is also a reminder of the flourishing pearl-trade between the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf . For over two millennia, pearl fishing was a steady source of income for the people living in the area surrounding the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The first-century geographer Isidorus Characenus noted in his work entitled Journey Around Parthia that the majority of the inhabitants of the city of Charax Spasinou, capital of the Kingdom of Characene, then part of the Parthian Empire, supported themselves by diving for pearls.
Throughout the following centuries, locals from the Gulf region traded extensively with merchants from all around Asia and Europe, with their most reliable buyers coming from India. By the seventeenth century, most of the pearls harvested in the southern Gulf region and along the Arabian coast eventually ended up in the treasuries of the Indian elite who, as great lovers of gems and pearls, used them to adorn their lavish jewellery, decorative art objects, and textiles. The pearl trade dominated the Gulf's economy and reached its golden age in the mid-nineteenth century. Some of the highest quality pearls were discovered at this time and were then sold in Basra, centre of the trade, mostly to Indian merchants
Due to the excellence and abundance of the pieces exported from Basra, pearls from the Gulf region were known as 'Basra pearls' throughout the world. Between the 1850s and the early twentieth century, the vast majority of the pearls utilized by Indian jewellers were 'Basra pearls.' The Pearl Carpet of Baroda is the apotheosis of the Indian love of these pearls, its scintillating surface composed of countless 'Basra pearls.' To execute such a unique and precious object Khande Rao chose the best raw materials to match the unparalleled craftsmanship of artists he commissioned to execute this extraordinary work of art. Completely covering such a large surface with the most valued type of pearls, a meticulous work that took years to complete, clearly indicates that the Maharaja of Baroda only accepted the very best in design, craftsmanship and material.
The carpet was offered on auction at Doha - 19 March 2009 by Sothebys and sold for $5,458,500
Sources, picture:Sothebys; Kunz
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