The Story of the Peacock Throne
Shah Jehan’s Takht e Murassa
As stories start - Once upon a time, there lived a king in North India and he had a very long name – Zille-i-ilahi A'la Azad Abul Muzaffar Shahab ud-Din Mohammad Khurram. I guess people found it very difficult to call him thus and in any case it was not very wise to call him so, for it was considered not so respectful to call a king by his name, so they hit upon a simpler name, that being Shah Jahan or the king of the world (actually a smaller world forming parts of North India). As you may have read, he was also the son of the illustrious Jodabhai or Princes Manmathi and ruled over the Mughal Empire during 1628-1658, those three decades being a period of opulence in the Mughal domain. Kindred souls have called it the golden age and a period of excellence for Mughal architecture during which buildings like the Red fort, Juma Masjid, Taj Mahal as well as many splendid gardens were built. Shah Jahan as you can imagine, intended his capitals to rival both Istanbul and Isfahan (old Persian capital 200 miles south of Tehran) in all its wealth and cultural opulence. By 1631, Mumtaz, his beloved wife had passed on and when Shah Jahan became ill in 1658, Aurangzeb claimed the throne, moving the 66 year old Shah to house arrest under care of his daughter Jehan Ara. The story by now was a repeat of what Khurram or Shah Jahan himself had done to his father Jahangir in trying to usurp his throne.
Anyway during his time of glory, Shah Jahan, the shadow of god on earth (Zille –i-ilahi) decided to recreate a Solomonic throne, and spend the large fortune amassed in the treasury from the exploits of his forefathers. His argument was that such treasures must be exhibited in style and not locked up. Thus was manufactured an object which would as history would prove, never be listed under a humble title, called the Jeweled throne or Takht e Murassa, to rest his posterior and look even more regal (I would with hindsight feel that a normal sized man like Shahjahan would have looked puny sitting in such a 6’x4’ huge bedstead like elevated throne) and magnificent. He had to do that after climbing two feet of silver steps to sit upon it. The seat according to some historians even had some artificial birds which uttered the word Allah as the emperor took the throne. Interestingly it cost even more than the Taj Mahal, reputedly twice the cost (probably over a billion dollars today), to build! So to answer all those poets who said that he spent all his time and money building the world’s most expensive mausoleum for his wife can rethink taking in the fact that his personal vanity was easily worth twice that in his mind! The Taj Mahal took 16 years to complete and cost 50 lakh and remains to be seen. The Peacock Throne that Shah Jahan wanted was ordered on the very first day of his reign. It took a talented band of architects and craftsmen seven years and cost one crore!
So let us find out what this object was all about and what happened to it. Where is it now? England, under the African waters, spread about in bits and pieces around the Kurdish or Afghan areas or exhibited at the Topkapi palace in Istanbul? This is yet another story which takes us places, like that of the Kohinoor. But before all that we have to get back to the last days of the Mughal reign and also the days when the throne was first made, understanding what it was like.
As we find out, it was commissioned in 1628 and completed around 1634-1635. Shah Jehan sat on it for all of 23 years and got himself painted doing so by Govardhan, as we see below. The painting is one of the true pictorial descriptions we have and to corroborate it we have accounts visitors to the Mughal court, like the jeweler Tavernier. Let us look at what Tavernier visiting Aurangzeb, had to say in 1665 and imagine how the throne looked like. Note also that it was not called the peacock throne but was then called the Takht-i-murassa or the jeweled throne. The name peacock throne got stuck to it sometime in the 18th century and was actually built under the supervision of Bebadal Khan Saidi Gilani, the Daroba or superintendent of the goldsmiths. His payment or reward for the work was his weight in gold. Austin of Boudreaux is also listed as one of the other persons involved in the grand effort.
It should be stated that the Great Mogul has seven magnificent thrones, one wholly covered with diamonds, the others with rubies, emeralds, and pearls.
'The principal throne, which is placed in the hall of the first court, is nearly of the form and size of our camp beds; that is to say, it is about 6 feet long and 4 wide. Upon the four feet, which are very massive, and from 20 to 25 inches high, are fixed the four bars which support the base of the throne, and upon these bars are ranged twelve columns, which sustain the canopy on three sides, there not being any on that which faces the court. Both the feet and the bars, which are more than 18 inches long, are covered with gold inlaid and enriched with numerous diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. In the middle of each bar there is a large balass ruby, cut en cabuchon, with four emeralds round it, which form a square cross. Next in succession, from one side to the other along the length of the bars, there are similar crosses, arranged so that in one the ruby is in the middle of four emeralds, and in another the emerald is in the middle, and four balass rubies surround it. The emeralds are table-cut, and the intervals between the rubies and emeralds are covered with diamonds, the largest of which do not exceed 10 or 12 carats in weight, all being showy stones, but very flat. There are also in some parts pearls set in gold, and upon one of the longer sides of the throne there are four steps to ascend it.
Of the three cushions or pillows, which are upon the throne, that which is placed behind the King's back is large and round like one of our bolsters, and the two others that are placed at his sides are flat. There is to be seen, moreover, a sword suspended from this throne, a mace, a round Bhield, a bow and quiver with arrows; and all these weapons, as also the cushions and steps, both of this throne and the other six, are covered over with stones which match those with which each of the thrones is respectively enriched.
I counted the large balass rubies on the great throne, and there were about 108, all cabuchons, the least of which weighs 100 carats, but there are some which weigh apparently 200 or more. As for the emeralds, there are plenty of good colour, but they have many flaws; the largest may weigh 60 carats, and the least 30 carats. I counted about one hundred and sixteen (116); thus there are more emeralds than rubies.
The underside of the canopy is covered with diamonds and pearls, with a fringe of pearls all round, and above the canopy, which is a quadrangular-shaped dome, there is to be seen a peacock with elevated tail made of blue sapphires and other coloured stones, the body being of gold inlaid with precious stones, having a large ruby in front of the breast, from whence hangs a pear-shaped pearl of 50 carats or thereabouts, and of a somewhat yellow water. On both sides of the peacock there is a large bouquet of the same height as the bird, and consisting of many kinds of flowers made of gold inlaid with precious stones. On the side of the throne which is opposite the court there is to be seen a jewel consisting of a diamond of from 80 to 90 carats weight, with rubies and emeralds round it, and when the King is seated he has this jewel in full view. But that which in my opinion is the most costly thing about this magnificent throne is that the twelve columns supporting the canopy are surrounded with beautiful rows of pearls, which are round and of fine water, and weigh from 6 to 10 carats each. At 4 feet distance from the throne there are fixed, on either side, two umbrellas, the sticks of which, for 7 or 8 feet in height, are covered with diamonds, rubies, and pearls. These umbrellas are of red velvet, and are embroidered and fringed all around with pearls.
This is what I have been able to observe regarding this famous throne, commenced by Tamerlane and completed by Shah Jahan; and those who keep the accounts of the King's jewels, and of what this great work has cost, have assured me that it amounts to one hundred and seven thousand lakhs of rupees [sic] (i.e. 10,700,000,000) which amount to one hundred and sixty millions five hundred thousand livres of our money (i.e. 160,500,000).
Thevenot who also wrote about the throne discounts Tavernier’s comment about the building of the throne starting with Tamerlane. And enthusiasts will recall that there was considerable argument about the number of pillars the canopy had, 4, 8 or 12, the height of the throne and the number of peacocks.
KRN Swamy who spent a considerable time studying the throne explains better, quoting mainly the words of Abdul Hamid, Shah Jehan’s Annalist writing in 1634 - It was, accordingly, ordered that, in addition to the jewels in the imperial jewel house, rubies, garnets, diamonds, rich pearls and emeralds in all weighing 230 kg should be brought for the inspection of the Emperor and they should be handed over to Bebadal Khan, the superintendent of the goldsmith’s department. There was also to be given to him 1150 kg of pure gold... The throne was to be three yards in length, two-and-a-half in breadth and five in height and was to be set with the above mentioned jewels. The outside of the canopy was to be of enamel work with occasional gems, the inside was to be thickly set with rubies, garnets and other jewels, and it was to be supported by 12 emerald columns. On the top of each pillar there were to be two peacocks, thick-set with gems and between each two peacocks a tree set with rubies and diamonds, emeralds and pearls. The ascent was to consist of three steps set with jewels of fine water". Of the 11 jeweled recesses formed around it for cushions, the middle one was intended for the seat it for Emperor. Among the historical diamonds decorating it were the famous Kohinoor (186 carats), the Akbar Shah (95 carats), the Shah (88.77 carats), the Jehangir (83 carats) and the second largest spinel ruby in the world — the Timur ruby (283 carats). A-20 couplet poem by the Mughal poet-laureate Qudsi, praising the Emperor in emerald letters was embedded in the throne.
And so the throne remained in Delhi, a sign of the riches and power of the Mughals. Shahjehan would grace meetings sitting on it, not always but only when recommended by his astrologers. Mughal chronicler’s also mention that the throne was used only for ceremonial occasions like the Navroz-New Year and some other days. It also moved on such events between Delhi and Agra.
Shahjehan was soon toppled by his son Aurangzeb who labored on with the empire till 1707. The transfer of the throne to Aurangzeb was not without controversy for Shah Jahan took out two of the panels which contained the best diamonds and gave them to Aurangzeb only much later (As the stories go, Shah Jahan finally passed away while trying to perform better in the harem, on an overdose of aphrodisiacs). Aurangzeb’s son Bahadur Shah took over and was soon followed by Jahandar Shah and Azim us Shah. Farrukhsiyar came next, only to be acceded rapidly by Rafi ud Darjat and Nekusiyar. Then came Muhammad Ibrahim and finally a king with an even longer name, Shahanshah Nasir-ud-Din Muhammad Shah, Abu Al-Fatah Nasir-ud-Din Roshan Akhtar Muhammad Shah or Roshan Akhtar who took over in 1719. The year of our interest is 1739, after a period of calm in Delhi, turned out to be a year when the light or Roshni in Delhi was snuffed out by one Nadir Shah.
Nadir Shah aka the Napoleon of Persia or the second Alexander, a leader who wanted to be like the
The Mughals were battered, never to recover again and the fabulous throne went the way of the Kohinoor, to Persia. That was how the throne landed up in Tehran, as booty from Nader’s loot of Delhi. The marble base or the platform on which the throne stood remained in Delhi, where one can still see it.
The Mughal chronicler recorded otherwise - Muhammad Mushin Sadiki, In his Jauhar i Samsam (1789), stated that the throne was instead, presented to the Persian conqueror: 'His Majesty bestowed on Nadir Shah, with his own munificent hand, as a parting present, the Peacock Throne, in which was set a ruby upwards of a glrik: (three finger’s breadth) in width, and nearly two in length, which was commonly called Khiraj i alam or "tribute of the world."
Whatever happened to it in Persia? The cushions that warmed Shajehan’s bottom warmed those of Nadir for the next nine years. In fact using some of the looted jewels, he made a second throne, the Takht-i-naderi Let me now use the fine accounts of AVW Jackson who visited the Shah’s palace and look at the picture of the throne below, comparing it with the original.
The throne itself, which now graces the audience hall of the Persian ShahanShah, or 'King of Kings,' is a magnificent work of art, sumptuous in the extreme. It is a jeweled platform, sometimes compared to a 'field bed,' about four feet high and five by eight feet in area, resting on six massive legs with four additional supports, and mounted by a double step. A heavy railing, decorated with metal knobs and finials, emboxes the rug-bedecked seat, and rises at the rear to form an elevated back against which the Shah sits in Oriental fashion, supported by a bolster cushion and surrounded by pillows. The rich incrustation of jewels, the highly ornate character of the lacquer work, and the delicacy of the traceries and arabesque designs impart to the throne an exquisiteness of finish and beauty that is quite its own.
Lord Curzon has brought forward strong arguments to show that this seat of sovereignty in the
Curzon made a few errors in his statement, that of the number of legs. He had mentioned seven. Also by the time he saw it, the canopy was gone, but Jackson a Persian teacher himself, made sure that it was possible to remove such legs from the throne. The version he saw, original or duplicate had sockets where such legs, 12 of them may have been or could be inserted. Jackson also studied the inscriptions on the Tehran throne and found nothing that would match it to a Mughal inscription (his analysis is pretty detailed, but done during a second visit to Tehran). So the throne at the Tehran palace and Istanbul have little to do with the original but perhaps were modeled based on the original or even have parts of it. It is in this period that the name peacock throne stuck.
As fate would have it, Nadir Shah who spent the rest of his time battling Turks, his own family led by his nephew Ali Quili and other perceived enemies, was butchered in cold blood by his own guards in June 1747 at Fathabad near Khorasan located North East of Iran following a period of intense mental illness and cruelty. He was there to battle some Afghans and Kurds and had set up a military camp in Mashhad and headed to Khabhushan. Meanwhile his Qizlbash Azeri guards were planning to topple him (as Nadir started trusting the Afghan Afridi’s) and Salah Bey Khan their leader, also his main bodyguard, delivered the death blow while Nadir was sleeping in his tent at Fathabad. Ahmad Khan and his Afghan mercenaries as well as the Kurds plundered the camp at this opportune diversion, making away with the jewels including the Kohinoor to Khandahar. Ahmad khan became Ahmad Shah Durrani, the Afghan leader later (remember our discussion about the rice man, a descendant of his?).
According to Mortimer Durand’s biographical novel on Nadir, the only person who came to Nadir’s help at the end and remained faithful to him till death was Meera bai or Sitara, his Rajput wife or consort picked up during his carnage in Delhi….but then, that is another story.
Fraser provides more details - An old Koord, speaking to me (1822) of the change which in his memory had taken place in the habits of his nation, observed……….“Money and jewels were unknown among us until the days of Nadir: when that king was murdered, and his camp plundered, the peacock throne and the tent of pearls fell into our hands, and were torn in pieces and divided on the spot, although our chiefs themselves little knew their value; many of us threw away the pearls as useless, and our soldiers, ignorant of the value of gold, offered their yellow money in exchange for a lesser quantity of silver or copper. ”
Jackson continues - In this way, if we can trust the Kurd, Lord Curzon believes that 'the real Peacock Throne, or one of the two,' in Nadir Shah's possession disappeared from the scene. The other (as Curzon was informed by his correspondents), whether the facsimile or 'the original throne of Nadir Shah (i.e. the survivor of the two facsimiles), was discovered in a broken-down and piecemeal condition by Agha Mohammed Shah, who extracted it along with many other of the conqueror's jewels by brutal torture from Nadir’s blind grandson, Shah Rukh, at Meshed, and then had the recovered portions of it made up into the throne of modem shape and style, which now stands at the end of the new museum in the palace at Teheran. In this chair, therefore, are to be found the sole surviving remnants of the Great Moghul's Peacock Throne."
But researchers also opine that it is unlikely that Nadir Shah would have carried the enormous throne to a military camp where he had spent a few days before he died. That it was present at the military camp where his main bodyguard Salah Bey killed him while Nadir was sleeping is clear from the testimony of the old Kurdish villager. That the Kurds looted the military camp is also clear since the villager mentions ripping off the pearls from the canopy (tent of pearls). But it is also known that the Afghans and perhaps even the Kurds ransacked the Mashhad home of Nadir later, so they probably found the thrones there..