“God created the Maharajas to provide a spectacle to humanity” wrote Rudyard Kipling. And what a spectacle were they! Even today, India is still known as the land of the maharajas. As well know as the maharajas were their fabled jewels, admired and gasped at throughout the world. Hyderabad, Baroda, Gwalior , Indore, Darbhanga, Kapurthala etc were known to have collections of best and finest jewellery found in India.
One such well known collection was that of the Holkars of Indore. In the late nineteenth century, following the fall of the Mughal empire , Holkars, originally Dhangars or goatherds, emerged as one of the most powerful families in India. In this period of chaos, Holkars carved for themselves a large fertile stretch in the heart of Malwa in Central India and set up their capital at Indore. Following a bitter and destructive war with the Scindias of Gwalior and the British, the Holkars settled to rule over their prosperous kingdom after the Treaty of Mahidpur in 1818. It was in these peacetime years, till 1947 that the fabled Holkar jewellery collection was assembled. Sadly, this collection like many others was lost in mists of time. And this is an attempt to bring it alive again.
Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar of Indore in his state regalia
It is impossible to estimate the value of the entire collection but it was vaguely estimated to be worth 40 million dollars in 1930’s and 1940’s. Its size can imagined from the fact that Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar purchased 1200 pieces of jewellery during his reign alone. Plus the assemblage of generations of conquests and plunder! His son, Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar was a great patron of French jewellers like Chaumet, Moubassin, Van Clef and Arpels etc and commissioned some spectacular pieces from them. The Holkar collection was so well known across the world that it was extensively written about, including in The Asia Magazine article in 1920 titled “Gems of Holkars”. This is one of the only descriptions of Holkar jewel collection available today. Some of the famous pieces in this collection included Indore Pears, Porter Rhodes and Jonker diamonds, the bejewelled peacock turban as well as several spectacular emerald and pearl necklaces like the Spanish Inquisition necklace among others.
The Indore Pears
The Indore Pears diamonds set as earrings
The most extraordinary and famous pieces in the Indore collection were two spectacular pear shaped diamonds of 46.95 carats and 46.70 carats each called the Indore Pears. The early history of these diamonds is unknown. They have believed to have originated from Golconda. There is a popular legend, that these were wedding gifts of Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar to this third wife, the American Millionaires’ Nancy Ann Miller who converted to Hinduism and became Sharmishthabai. The Indore Pears were set in the most spectacular art deco settings. Strangely, despite being associated with Indore and Holkars till this date, these diamonds were with Holkars for very short time. They were sold to Harry Winston in 1946 and at present are in the collection of the Arab jeweller Mouward.
Porter Rhodes and Jonker diamonds
Another diamond, called the Porter Rhodes was considered to be among the finest diamonds ever found till 1880s. It was found in the mines of Kimberley by a gentleman called Porter Rhodes and hence named after him. In 1937, it was sold to Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar. Unlike the Indore Pears, no photos or sketches exist of its presence in Indore. It remained there for a very short time too as Along with Indore Pears; this diamond too was sold to Harry Winston in 1946.
Emerald and Pearl Necklaces
Every Indian Maharaja worth his salt had a sizable pearl collection and Holkars were no exception to the rule. The pears of the maharajas were no ordinary pearls, but Basra pearls of the finest quality. Ann Morrow in her book, “Wicked Women of the Raj” mentions “ 9 strand pearl necklace, 7 strand pearl necklace and the 5 strand pearl necklace” belonging to the Holkars . Similarly, Asia Magazine in its 1920 article too mentions the “pearl scarf” of the Maharaja of Indore valued at a crore of 1920s rupees. Its value today would be impossible to guess.
Holkars also had some finely carved and exquisite emeralds. There are several emerald necklaces which appear in the photographs of Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar and Maharani Sanyogitaraje Holkar. Many of these emeralds were later auctioned by international auction houses for a huge sum as Holkar emeralds.
The Spanish inquisition necklace, the peacock turban and the carved ruby stick
The Spanish Inquisition necklace on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC
There were some fine jewels in the Holkar collection of which only fleeting references are found. The Spanish inquisition necklace is one such piece. Nothing is much known about the past of this beautiful necklace except that emeralds once belonged to the Spanish royal family. They were bought by Harry Winston from the Maharaja of Indore in 1940’s and donated to the Smithsonian Institution in New York. It is one of the most popular exhibits in the Smithsonian.
Another was the “Peacock Turban”. Indian Maharajas were not permitted arched crowns, which were considered to be the sole prerogative of the monarchs of England. To get around this, Maharajas asked various European houses to create “bejewelled turbans” as crowns. The “Peacock Turban” seems to be one such crown. It was a turban with an appearance of a peacock, made entirely of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires. Unfortunately, no photograph exists of this crown. Its only description is in the “Asia Magazine” article which refers to it as a “marvel of pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds”
A design for bejewelled walking stick made for Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar of Indore
Another priceless artefact was the bejewelled walking stick of the Holkars with its handle made of an elephant carved out of a single ruby! During the Delhi durbar in 1911, the Maharaja of Indore was seen carrying this walking stick which unfortunately broke under his weight. This is the last thing that is heard of it.
The dissipation of the treasure
The dissipation of this great jewel collection acquired by several generations of Holkars took place primarily three stages. First, when Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar was forced to abdicate due to the sensational Malabar Hill Murders. He left for France carrying with him a large chunk of Holkar jewellery with him to France including the Indore Pears. Second, in 1947, when Indore state merged with India. The Congress govt forced the Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar to submit a list of his jewellery and maintain them as “dynastic heirlooms”. However, he was given full rights over his personal jewellery.
A photograph of a model wearing emeralds belonging to Maharajas of Indore auctioned by Sotheby’s in Tokyo in 1990s
Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar died in 1961. It appears there was very little tax planning done, as the estate duty came to a whopping 1.14 crore in 1961 rupees or almost 100 crores today. This had to be paid in cash and forced Yeshwantrao’s successor, Maharani Ushadevi Holkar to liquidate most of the Holkar treasures to pay the taxman.
Third in 1990’s , when in a sensational jewellery heist, the thieves broke into the strongroom of Shiv Vilas Palace and made off with priceless jewellery belonging to Maharani Sharmisthabai Holkar, the widow of Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar . While many of the stolen jewels were later recovered from Bombay antique shops, they still remain mired in long drawn court battles. Thus, in these ways, collection of generations of Holkars has been scattered around the world and forgotten with time. Thankfully, it appears that the love for jewellery still runs in the Holkar family even today. The current scion, Prince Richard Holkar studied jewellery design and was a private jeweller for several years. Carrying on a great legacy of a great family!
By Akshay Chavan