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
Genghis Khan, rose to the Afsharid throne and proclaimed himself the Shah in 1736. His disagreement with Roshan Akhtar came after Nadir’s request for support in his wars against the Afghans was not acted upon to his satisfaction by Roshan. When Muhammed Shah Roshan demurred, Nader decided to attack Delhi, after subduing the Afghans. He defeated Roshan Shah at the Battle of Karnal on 13 February 1739 and later occupied Delhi. A rumor that Nadir Shah was murdered, destroyed the short period of peace as it infuriated the conqueror and in the resulting Persian carnage, thousands were massacred in Delhi and Agra. Roshan begged for mercy and as compensation handed over the keys to the Mughal treasury. Nadir's soldiers ransacked Delhi and left in May (59 days later) taking with them the Jewelled throne, the Kohinoor, the Darya ye Noor, thousands of elephants, horses and camels, all loaded with the booty they had collected (interestingly the long Persian column’s rear was frequently looted by others during the march). The plunder carted out from India was so rich and it is said that Nadir stopped taxation in Iran for a period of three years following his return.

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
palace at Teheran is not the original throne of the Moghul emperor, but was built for Fath Ali Shah, early in the nineteenth century, when he married a lady of a noble house of Isfahan, this information being received through correspondence with a former Grand Vizir and the Minister for Foreign Affairs.Curzon  adds, moreover, on the authority of Malcolm, that Nadir was so fond of the real Peacock Throne of India as to have an exact duplicate made of it, ornamented with gems from his own treasury, thus leaving two 'Peacock Thrones' to dispose of.

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..

Many of the stones and pearls, including the Koh-i-noor travelled on to various other harems and palaces, to lay on the crowns or bosoms of future kings and queens. As for the Mughal peacock throne, only the legend remains as well as the painting by Govardhan, done immediately after the throne was delivered (in fact he embedded some real miniature jewels in the painting to depict Shajehan’s jewelry ) which you see in this page. Many of the pearls remain in Iran in the Tehran central bank vaults as part of the Crown jewel collections.

Swami concludes - It was also unlikely to have been destroyed immediately and there are evidences to suggest that it was there at the time of Shahrokh Shah, a descendent of Nadir. There is also an account of how Behbud Khan, also known as Sayed Mohammad, "gleefully ascended the Peacock Throne while kettle drums sounded out enchanting omen". ...Although some Persian historians make a mention of the Peacock Throne even two decades later, it is known that only a few pieces could be rescued of this fabulous seat of state, later to be incorporated in the Persian Nadiri Peacock Throne kept in the Gulestan Palace in Teheran (1995).

Mysteries never cease – In the 20th century, first rumors and later, newspaper reports came out that the peacock throne was part of the  1782 shipwreck of the 800 ton British ship ‘Grosvenor’ off the South African coast. The ship had sailed out of Madras, and then Ceylon, later bound for Britain and as events would have it, ran into rocks on the Pondoland coast. The 42 meter East Indiaman sailed aground on the Wild Coast near Port St Johns mainly because of miscalculation. Most of the 123 survivors got ashore, but in the long and arduous trek only a handful survived to tell the story of the riches in the ship, including the Mughal peacock throne. Recovery of such riches had been difficult and among various ideas, they even came up with a plan to bore a hole from under the wreck. Money ran out 40’ before they could reach the wreck.

Was it a legend? Tony Carnie reporting in 2000 agrees – ‘But that's all it was, a legend. An extravagant falsehood invented to tantalize fortune-seekers to invest in the Grosvenor Bullion Syndicate Ltd in 1923, along with several other syndicates and salvage companies formed over the past several decades’.  Percival R. Kirby, who produced the most authoritative work on the Grosvenor, was very skeptical about the existence of the suspected treasure. In his book:  The true story of the Grosvenor East Indianian ” (1960) he states: `Undoubtedly the Grosvenor was a richly laden vessel, but the visions of bullion (if by that is meant hundreds of bars of gold and silver), and of scores of chests of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and the like … are but idle dreams’. Many books and novels were written around the Grosvenor mystery, and many more will be, but it was one big hoax. In 1923 Arthur Conan Doyle hinted that Sherlock Holmes or he himself would not mind taking up the Grosvenor case, if he had the time and even mentioned about it in his memoirs.

In 1919, a times London headline proclaimed a rumor that the Peacock throne of Delhi exhibited in the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, was up for sale as the Turkish government was near bankruptcy. Lord Curzon immediately wrote a rejoinder to the press that this throne had nothing to do with the original.

Nevertheless inconsistencies in the various accounts about what actually happened to the peacock throne during the last days of the Moghuls, keep people guessing and researching. Perhaps someday some more of those jewels as listed and detailed by Tavernier will be found in NE Iran, or perhaps in Tehran or Afghanistan. Still it will be difficult to find out what actually happened to the throne that cost twice the Taj Mahal. As for the people who sat on it, the curse of the throne ensured that almost all of them died violent or horrible deaths. It is like someone said, vanity kills!!

The Peacock Thrones of the world – KRN Swamy, Meera Ravi
From Constantinople to the home of Omar Khayyam - Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson
India: art and culture, 1300-1900 edited by Stuart Cary Welch
The Wars of Afghanistan: Peter Tomsen
Persia and the Persian question, Volume 1 - George Nathaniel Curzon Curzon
History of Persia – John Malcom
Narrative of a journey to Khorasan – JB Fraser

Check out Part 2 - The Peacock throne and the Grosvenor (Click on title)

The Half-naked Fakir and his Loin cloth

Mahatma Gandhi’s scanty dressing and its reaction in the West
“A proper dress keeps up decorum and shows our regard for others. If I had to go to a foreign land, I would by all means put away my loin-cloth in a trunk.” Can you guess who said this? None other than our own Mahatma Gandhi - But since 1924, after he originally wrote this, Gandhij changed his mind and went to Britain in a loin cloth. Care to find out why and how? Read on….
Appearances count – says the management guru. You must be properly attired and you should carry yourself well ,walking purposefully, upright – but not necessarily ramrod straight, and do not slouch. Another researcher admits that having a Mont Blanc in your pocket has been associated with a good possibility of getting an airline upgrade or getting off the waitlist. I have seen often that if you are tall, smart and somewhat fair, you can get away with a lot at certain places. If you are well dressed, then shift it yet another notch. Now with that background consider the situation presented by the half-naked Gandhiji to some of those snobby John bulls of the Blighty.
Interesting usage, for it was Churchill who coined it in 1930. In fact he said - "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhiji, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor."  So you can see that Winston Churchill was one who first referred to Mohandas Gandhiji in public as half -naked and a fakir, though not necessarily as a half-naked fakir. Gandhiji regarded the expression as a compliment. He felt unworthy of being called “a fakir and that (too) naked – a more difficult task.”
But why and how did Gandhiji change his mind and move from a ‘western style attired’ person to the dhoti clad person?  Why did he take to dropping off the appearances and wearing what for example was the attire of a warring Nair in medieval Malabar? Simply put, it was as he explained to a journalist from the News Chronicle: “In India several millions wear only a loin cloth. That is why I wear a loin cloth myself. They call me half-naked. I do it deliberately to identify myself with the poorest poor in India”. People who have studied him and his life have pretty good answers, though one or two of the pertinent catalysts have perhaps been missed out now and then.

Perhaps by definition, a loincloth is a one-piece garment – sometimes kept in place by a belt – which covers the genitals and, at least partially, the buttocks, so the dhoti fits into that description and can be called a loin cloth. But let it not be confused with underwear for some people have written that Gandhiji’s loin cloth is the most aired undergarment in history. Nevertheless, as Gandhiji clarified in his young India article, that he adopted a short version dhoti compared to the flowing dhoti since the latter could not be afforded by the poor. At that time many fakirs and Sufi pirs also wore such garb, so you can see where Churchill came from when he made his oft repeated comment. Somebody clarified in posterity – he was not one half naked, but more like 2/3rd.

Born in 1869, the young Gandhiji wore a dhoti and a coat (Rifle brand material) over it like many other middle class Khatiawadi’s of Gujarat. Interestingly he did not favor the full suit as it represented a Christian European to him, at that time. But when he found himself destined for London (the center of civilization according to him) in 1888, to do his studies, he equipped himself with just those types of clothes and cut of his tuft of hair so as not to look a barbarian and to blend in, though remarking that the short coat was somewhat immodest. The days that followed taught the 19 year old how difficult it was going to be to get the acceptance which he so much desired. He tried various things, like learning to play the violin, dancing, French and elocution in addition to wearing the latest clothes, but the distances between him and the English gentleman never reduced.

In 1890, Sachidananda Sinha described Gandhiji walking down Piccadilly – wearing a silk top hat, starched Gladstonian collar, a flashy tie with all the colors of the rainbow under which he wore a fine silk striped shirt. To complete the ensemble, he wore a morning coat, a double breasted vest, dark striped trousers and patent leather boots with spats over them. In addition he had leather gloves and a silver mounted stick. As one said in those days, he was a nut, a masher and a blood – slang for a student more interested in fashion and frivolities than studies!! But as we see, it did not quite have the desired effect in projecting him to the top of the London pile.

These events dented his pride and remained in his mind for decades to follow. Nevertheless when he came back to India in 1891, he looked a pukka Englishman and he also persuaded his Rajkot family to dress alike. The only change was that he did not wear a hat, but a turban. In 193, he moved to Durban to practice law and while he saw most other people of Indian origin in Islamic attire or dhotis, he himself wore western garb to the disappointment of his brethren. But it was in court that he was asked by a magistrate to remove his turban. Gandhiji replaced it with a hat to avoid issues, though he wrote a letter of complaint in a paper.
This was the event that triggered a turning point in his life when it came to western clothes. In 1908 when he was arrested and put in jail with prison clothes stamped with N for native, Gandhiji was horrified, but submitted and protested by shaving and removing his hair. By 1910 the protest resulted in his changing from his smart and well pressed clothes to baggy lounge suits and sloppy shoes. These, under the influence of Ruskin’s ‘Unto the last’, then changed to trousers, loose cotton shirts and chappals. He continued to wear European style clothes until 1913 after which he wore Indian clothes (lungi/dhoti and kurta) for the first time mourning for the Indian coal miners in Africa who had been shot. It was the first time that he publically associated reduction of clothes to grief.
Arriving back in Bombay in 1915, Gandhiji was seen to wear Kathiawadi peasant clothes. Most Indian upper class politicians considered this English returned lawyer pretty odd, queer, and quixotic or cranky due to his clothes and appearance. He was soon to try out various types of gear such as dhoti’s, shawls, Kashmiri caps, sola topi’s , pyjamas and finally his version of the Kashmiri cap – the khadi folding Gandhiji cap. But the final frontier was the short dhoti or loin cloth and his previous veiled threats at adopting it were only made to get over a shortage of khadi woven dhotis. He did make mention of using the shorter dhoti a few times later, but never went that far fearing sharp reaction from the public.
The Swadeshi movement was on by now and Gandhijiji had hoped that Indian would soon embrace Khadi clothes, discard British clothing or material, but found that the poor laborer could hardly afford Khadi while at Madras while many others were quite happy and contended wearing European made clothes (This takes me to the beautiful scenes from RK Narayan’s ‘Swami and friends’ where Swami decides to burn his cap, exhorted by Gandhiji’s appeals to discard Lancashire cloth).
22nd Sept 1921 Thyagaraja (now Meenakshi) college Maduari – Gandhiji decides to take the plunge and discard all his clothes except for the loin cloth, for a period of five weeks, the Swaraj deadline of 31st Oct, connecting it with leading by example and by calling it a sign of deep mourning. The morning meeting was called off as it was too noisy, and so that evening he gets his head shaved and the next day he sets out in his new attire which would become famous - a short dhoti four cubits long, to address the Madurai weavers (Rajaji and TSS Rajan try to dissuade him at the last minute but fail), deeply worried if his attire would be accepted by Indians. He also wanted to convey his demand for use of Swadeshi goods and to show the deep poverty in India caused by the British colonizer. Following the event, he writes letters to the Hindu, Bombay Chronicle and the Independent explaining his actions.
Let us now get to the scene where he re-clothes himself – On September 21, 1921, Mahatma Gandhi, who was staying at the residence of Ramji and Kalyanji on 251 A West Masi Street (now a Khadi kraft office), renounced his formal dress to identify himself with the common man. Another mention with a 1925 date can be seen in Congressman George Jospeh’s ( I mentioned him in the Syud Hossain article – Pothen Joseph’s brother) autobiography, where we understand that Gandhiji, staying as his guest,  asked him about the scantiness of public costumes of dhoti and turban (thorthu mundu) and was told that they lived in abject poverty. The dates are somewhat wrong; it appears he stayed with Joseph in 1919 or 1921. Hindu in their 2008 article clarifies that Gandhiji, during his second visit, stayed as Karumuttu Thiagarajar Chettiar’s guest at his residence, 175 A West Masi Street. Rajmohan Gandhi his son in his book states that the decision was taken not only because of the poverty of the wearer, but also to protest the arrest of Muhammed Ali and for the shorter dhothi to compete in price with imported clothes.
Sept – Dec 1931 - London – Round table conference
While many a mention can be found about the peculiar and non-conforming attire of this leader, none more than his 1931 London visit brought it to mainstream Western public notice. He had been to Britain on four previous occasions, dressed in western tradition, but not this time and it proved to be quite a spectacle.
Representing the Congress party, Gandhiji went to London to participate in the round- table conference. He travelled in his dhoti and shawl, refusing heavier clothes (even though many of them were smuggled in the ship SS Rajputana for emergencies by well-wishers – unknown to the irritated Gandhiji until much later). It is not my intention to write about the political angles and the conference, but the British press went after the loin cloth with glee and much fervor.
Saklatwala a British MP of Indian origin, had implored ‘For God’s sake Gandhiji, wear a pair of trousers’, appalled that the country of his own origin would be subjected to much ridicule by the event. Earlier another French journalist had asked Gandhiji if he would make the visit clad in the loincloth and Gandhiji said – ‘You in your country wear plus fours, I prefer minus fours’. As he walked around the slums of Londoan many a kid would shout ‘where are your trousers?’ Gandhiji would patiently reply to formal questions that he wore the dress of his principals, the millions of Indian poor. However Jad Adams in his book provides a quote that Gandhiji was prepared to add additional layers of clothing in Britain if the climate so demanded it. Much is also written about his meeting with King George V and how he had stated when asked about the inadequacy of his clothes, that that the king had enough clothes for both of them. He was termed a humbug by newspapers like the Truth, or even a simpleton. Silly stuff was reported – like the comments by an even sillier maid working in a house which Gandhiji was to visit, threatening to quit if Gandhiji did not wear proper clothes.
Gandhiji added to the press after explaining his reasons that conversely he did not see any European forsaking his dress when they came to the hot and humid India, wearing instead clothes immensely unsuitable for the climate there. He also stated that his dress was symbolic of the level to which the British had stripped his once prosperous country. American press responded stating that he was a dramatist. Nevertheless, he had stern views what women should or should not do - Interestingly he did attend a lunch reception with Lady Astor and seeing the low necked clothing of the ladies present stated that he was shocked by the shameless dress of the modern British women.
Visit to Vatican
On his way home he stopped in Rome and spent some time with Premier Mussolini, but because of his scanty costume was not allowed an interview with the Pope Pius XI. That by itself is an interesting story and details are not easily forthcoming, with newspaper reports stating that the Pope cancelled the meeting due to other pressing engagements and that he did not want to indelicately ask the little mystic to change his clothes for the meeting( Milwaukee sentinel 12/13/31) . The Vatican had apparently replied that the pope would not have a meeting on Sunday as it was his day of silence. The Daily Chronicle also states that while the pope was anxious to meet him, was worried more that he might face criticism if he did so! The Rudolph essays indicate that Gandhiji made the request twice.
However Gandhiji who stated -  Jesus  preached not a new religion but a new life, was also the man whom the same Pope Pius XI called "a man of providence", so why did he not meet him? It appears that there were complaints about Gandhiji’s attitude to the Catholic church and was more in support of the Protestant and less so for Catholics (also Gandhiji’s 1931 church declaration) according to Chandra Malampalli. Another reason was Gandhiji’s snubbing of Archbishop Paneerselvam, the Catholic representative at the round table.And thus we note that Mr. Winston Churchill and Pius XI were perhaps the only persons, in the annals of history, who refused a conversation with Gandhiji.
I cannot help adding this quote about the very same Churchill, considered by many a great leader,  who as we read here also got the loin cloth famous - Mehdi Hasan writing about Churchill in the Guardian - Here is a man, after all, who opposed votes for women and independence for India; who described Mahatma Gandhiji as a "half-naked fakir" and Hindus as a "foul race"; laid the foundations for apartheid in South Africa; supported the compulsory sterilisation and segregation of the "feeble-minded" and the "insane"; accused Jews of being behind a "worldwide [Communist] conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation"; and, anticipating the crimes of Saddam Hussein more than 60 years later, said he didn't understand the "squeamishness about the use of gas .I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes [in Iraq]."
The loin cloth stories did not stop there or until 1947. Gandhiji’s wedding gift for Prince Philip’s royal wedding in 1947 is even more interesting as he presented him (on Mountbatten’s recommendation) with what is termed as ‘fringed lacework cloth made of yarn spun by the donor on his own spinning wheel’. The royal family was reviewing the presents later and Queen Mary was horrified when she saw it, mistaking it for Gandhiji’s loin cloth, not knowing it was Khadi!! She stated to her lady (Pamela Hicks, Mountbatten’s daughter, confirms this event in her telegraph article) in waiting – ‘Such an indelicate gift, what a horrible thing’!! Prince Philip stated that it was not and that Gandhiji was a great man, but Queen Mary had by then moved to stony silence…It is not known what happened to the fringed lacework cloth, and if it remains in the Royal family that now has been found to have even more Indian connections. Wonder what Q Mary would have had to say about these recent events!
Gandhiji is a very interesting person and his actual self is covered in many layers, much like the many layers of western clothing that he loved and hated. Most knew him from what is written for public consumption, though there was a simple and at the same time complex persona under these layers. Early in his political career he realized that he had only himself, mass appeal and little else to work out his agenda. Each of his moves were therefore meticulously thought out and planned. They were not just passionate and impulsive actions. The act of wearing a loin cloth was also one such and aptly carried his ideology in the most humble fashion, to the confused, bemused and controlling west. And as we saw, they understood, all too soon!!
Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India - Emma Tarlo (Chapter 3), my main source
Madras Miscellany - Muthiah S
Mahatama Gandhiji  - Sankar Ghose
Gandhiji Versus the Empire - Haridas T. Muzumdar
Routledge Handbook of Indian Politics edited by Atul Kohli, Prerna Singh
Prince Philip: The Turbulent Early Life of the Man Who Married Queen Elizabeth II - Philip Eade
Gandhiji: The Man, His People, and the Empire - Rajmohan Gandhiji
Gandhiji: The True Man behind Modern India - Jad Adams
Christians and Public Life in Colonial South India, 1863-1937:  Chandra Mallampalli