Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Mystery of the Peacock Throne


The platform which held the Peacock Throne, it was believed, was kept in the Red Fort. But a 1908 story in The New York Times seems to prove otherwise. PG Times probes




The mystery of the Peacock Throne lingers on. This ornate seat once stood inside the magnificent Diwan-i-Khas in 17th century Red Fort, a testimony to the wealth and power of the Mughal empire. It disappeared some 265 years back, but an empty marble platform there kept alive the mystique of this most expensive and beautiful throne ever made. 

    For more than a century, history books said the Peacock Throne stood over this platform, until Persian invader Nadir Shah took away the throne to Iran in 1739. Even the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in its description of the Diwan-i-Khas, says: “Over the marble 
pedestal in its centre stood the famous Peacock Throne...” 

    But there are many reasons to doubt if the platform left behind really held the throne. 

    PG Times stumbled upon a 1908 article in The New York Times archives with the headline ‘Indian treasure for Metropolitan’. It talked about Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, the then curator of the museum, purchasing one of the two surviving pedestals of the original marble platform. Clarke was quoted in the piece: “...It is lavished with the most wonderful carving and the curved surfaces are all inlaid with agates, lapis lazuli, jade and carnelian. The workmanship is so extremely difficult that the piece is almost unique...There is one of its mates in England, but it is marred and chipped, the soldiers having picked many stones from it.” 

    After the British recaptured Delhi in September 1857 during the Revolt, Colonel Robert Tytler was put in charge of the Fort. According to Clarke, the original marble platform was destroyed and two of its pedestals lost; but Tytler and his wife Harriet retained 
the other two pedestals of which one was in a good condition. In 1892, after Tytler died, Harriet sold one of the pedestals to the South Kensington Museum (now Victoria and Albert Museum) for £20. After her death, Clarke purchased the other pedestal for the Metropolitan Museum. 

    When an email was sent
 to the Museum seeking details of the pedestal, they asked why we wanted to know. When told it was for an article, the museum authorities, surprisingly, stopped responding. Five more emails elicited no response. The item is not listed in the museum’s online catalogue, and a gallery search, too, threw up a blank. However, the pedestal’s details were found in the museum’s annual bulletin of 1908 where Clarke had described the item and its purchase history. There was also a black and white photograph of it, apart from the list of acquisitions made by the museum that year. Inquiries with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London revealed they still have the other pedestal. 

    Emperor Shah Jahan who ruled from 
1628 to 1658 had commissioned the Peacock Throne. Bebadal Khan supervised the work and was given 1,150 kg of gold and 230 kg of jewels, which included the Koh-i-noor, Akbar Shah and Jahangir diamonds and the Timur ruby. It took seven years to complete. French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who had the opportunity of observing the throne from close quarters, has described it in his memoir Les Six Voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (‘The Six Voyages of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’) and historians have generally relied on this description. He said it was a rectangular throne, six feet long and four feet wide and resembled a ‘field bed’. It had four sturdy legs about 20-25 inches in height and an arched canopy supported by 12 columns. He did not mention any platform. Neither did Mughal miniatures depict any such stand. 

    The dimensions of the present platform are also at variance with the throne. Each of its sides is four feet. One can’t imagine Shah Jahan, whose love for symmetry is well-known, settling for a 4X4 platform for a 6X4 throne. What’s more, 
the throne was highly ornate, while this platform had no pietra dura work on it or its four legs. 

    When shown this evidence, Dr K K Mohammed, former superintending archaeologist of Delhi ASI and the man who had discovered Akbar’s Ibadatkhana at Fatehpur Sikri in 1984, said, “This is compelling. Hopefully, it will trigger further research.” 

    The throne disappeared after Nadir Shah’s assassination in 1747. It was either destroyed and its valuables looted, or dismantled and some of its parts used in the construction of a later throne, also called the Peacock Throne, which survives in Golestan Palace in Tehran. There are stories that the later Mughals used another throne, most probably a replica of the original. This, too, was destroyed. 

    So what is the present platform? A plausible explanation is given by Herbert Charles Fanshawe, who prepared a detailed account of Shahjahanabad, in his 1902 book ‘Delhi: Past and Present’: “At the back of the Hall (Diwan-i-Khas) is a marble platform seat, used as a throne by the later powerless emperors of Delhi.” 

    It’s up to the ASI now to solve this mystery. 

TREASURE TROVE Shah Jahan ascended the Peacock Throne on March 12, 1635 
The throne’s estimated cost today is more than Rs 5 billion 
The marble leg of the platform with the Met Museum in New York is 22.5 inches long and 11 inches wide 
Rumours were extant right up to the 2000s that the throne formed the cargo of an East Indiaman (ship of the Company) called Grosvenor that sank off the South African coast in Pondoland in August 1782

HISTORY SEATER: This platform in the Diwan-i-Khas, the ASI claims, supported the original throne; 


A sketch of the throne by an unidentifed European reproduced by historian Parasnis

A 1908 image of the bejewelled marble pedestal of the Peacock Throne that's there with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York