Wine cup of Shah Jahan, 1657

The Cup

Wine cup made for the Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658), India, white nephrite jade. Museum no. IS.12-1962

Wine cup made for the Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658), India, white nephrite jade. Museum no. IS.12-1962

When the Museum acquired Shah Jahan's jade cup in 1962 it was not known that it had been shown with the V&A's Indian Collections over a century ago as part of the collection loaned by Col. C. S. Guthrie. Since then, however, the cup has gained world renown as an outstanding example of jade craftsmanship from any civilisation and it is certainly one of the most exquisite surviving objects from the court of India's most famous dynasty.

The milky white jade itself is of seductive appearance and owes its sensuous effect to the subtle modelling of the thin lobed walls. These echo the shape of a fresh gourd but are transformed into a free asymmetrical form that tapers to a handle shaped as the head of a wild goat. This expressive head derives a mysterious ambiguity from the contrast between its realistic detail and the unreality of its opalescent surface. The ambiguity is heightened by its strange fusion with the vegetal elements of the design.

To complete the cup there is a low pedestal of fleshy lotus petals, from which acanthus leaves radiate in low relief. If the surface of the stone, as lustrous as pearl, deceives the eye with an illusion of wax-like softness, one must remember that jade is in fact too hard to be scratched by steel. Thus the tactile impression that so insistently demands the attentions of the hand results as much from the craftsman's skill as from the precious but intransigent material at his disposal.

Wine cup made for the Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658), India, white nephrite jade. Museum no. IS.12-1962

Wine cup made for the Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658), India, white nephrite jade. Museum no. IS.12-1962

Wine cup made for the Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658), India, white nephrite jade. Museum no. IS.12-1962

Wine cup made for the Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658), India, white nephrite jade. Museum no. IS.12-1962

 

How the Cup was made

A modern 'hakak' sawing a piece of rock crystal by the traditional method.

A modern 'hakak' sawing a piece of rock crystal by the traditional method.

The hardstone carvers of Northern India are known by the Arabic name 'hakak' and it is still possible to find them today in cities such as Agra and Benares, where they make a living manufacturing spectacles, mortars, amulets and other objects of agate, crystal and jade. Apart from the recent introduction of electric motors and belt-driven tools, their technological equipment and methods have not changed significantly since very early times.

When the lump of nephrite rock from the rivers of Khotan came into the unknown craftsman's hands he first strapped it to a short wooden post and then sat in front of it for days on end cutting it to its approximate shape with a bow saw. The blade of the saw was a steel wire, to which he continually applied a moist abrasive powder, such as corundum, with his free hand. Gradually the action of this powder, carried backwards and forwards on the wire, wore through the stone. The result of this sawing had little resemblance to the object which we now see; so the laborious task entered a new phase as he shaped the jade further with drills and grinding wheels operated with the aid of a bow.

A mid-nineteenth 'hakak' polishing hardstones on a bow lathe.

A mid-nineteenth 'hakak' polishing hardstones on a bow lathe.

For drills he used simple wooden spindles with chips of diamond held in a metal tip. The jade was held between his toes and he simply pressed the spindle down on to it and rotated the drill by moving his bow backwards and forwards. His grinding wheels were fixed to spindles held in a simple wooden lathe, or even between two short posts cemented into the floor of the workshop. Again the bow was used with one hand while the other held the jade against the rotating wheel. Small cutting wheels were either made of lac mixed with grinding powder or of metal, to which the moist powder was continually applied. Finally, when the cup had attained the desired form, it was polished with wooden wheels and powders of diminishing coarseness. During the long months of patient toil, the 'hakak' had ample opportunity to refine his vision of the completed work and, although other cups exist of similar general form, no other Mughal jade is known which realises its maker's intentions to such perfection.

The Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction

Portrait of The Emperor Shah Jahan (1627-58), 1630. Museum no. IM.17-1925

Portrait of The Emperor Shah Jahan (1627-58), 1630. Museum no. IM.17-1925

Shah Jahan was descended from the Amir Timur, a ruthless Central Asian conqueror, who swept across the Middle East and India during the fourteenth century. Timur's fame was such that far away in England he was celebrated in Marlowe's play 'Tamburlaine', two centuries after his lifetime, and he still formed a favourite subject for opera in Handel's day and of Pollock's Toy Theatre as late as the nineteenth century. Timur attributed his success to the good fortune of birth under two favourable planets and claimed the title `Lord of the (auspicious) Conjunction'. His descendant, Shah Jahan, proud of his lineage and power, liked to be known as `The Second Lord of the Conjunction' and we find this title engraved in a small cartouche on the side of his jade cup, together with the date 1067 of the Muslim era (1657 AD) and the regnal year 31. This was, therefore, the date at the very end of Shah Jahan's reign when the jade cup entered the imperial treasury.

Jade in India

Before the Mughals came to India, this mineral was unknown there. The dynasty's founder, Babur, referred to its magical properties in his diary but Shah Jahan's father, Jahangir, was the first of these rulers to patronise jade carving. Like his European contemporaries, Jahangir was a keen collector of curiosities and works of art. He was particularly interested in objects associated with his ancestors and managed to acquire several jade vessels made for Timur's astronomer grandson, Ulugh Beg, the ruler of Samarqand, who provided a jade cenotaph for Timur's tomb in that city.

During Ulugh Beg's lifetime, there were several important embassies with exchanges of gifts between the Timurids and the Ming rulers of China, who had lost the province of Khotan to their Western neighbours. Once they controlled the jade supply from the rivers of Khotan, the Timurids started their own school of jade carving, which rapidly abandoned Chinese prototypes in favour of designs based on Islamic forms and motifs. Ulugh Beg's most celebrated jade jug, later owned by Jahangir and Shah Jahan, was copied from a well-known type of Islamic metal object and in turn provided the model for similar jade vessels made for the Ottoman rulers of Turkey and the Safavids of Persia.

Under Jahangir and his predecessors many Persian and Turkistani scholars, artists and craftsmen were induced to settle at the Mughal court and introduce their skills to the newly-founded empire. The first jades made for Jahangir show very strong Persian influence but hardstone carving applied to other minerals such as rock crystal was already familiar in India and an indigenous school of jade carving soon developed and conformed to the aesthetic canons of Mughal patronage.

The character of Mughal art

The Mughals had arrived in India only three decades after Vasco da Gama had rounded the Cape. If the legend of the `Great Mogul' had fascinated Europe, the Mughals were no less interested in the unfamiliar world of the `Franks'. Persian in their cultural background and Indian by adoption, the Mughals were also open to new ideas from the West. Jesuits at the Mughal court, entertaining futile notions of converting an Empire, were welcomed for their learning; ambassadors and merchants for their exotic gifts and promises of trade.

Craftsmen-adventurers were especially welcomed for their skills and knowledge of unfamiliar technologies. Goldsmiths and lapidaries were among the most welcome of these newcomers and they introduced some of the same artistic currency which still adorns the treasuries of Florence, Vienna, Munich, Paris and Madrid. Some of the hardstone carvings of Milan, or of Prague under Rudolph II, exhibit a Mannerist tendency towards asymmetry recalling that of Shah Jahan's cup. There are similar fantastic junctures between zoomorphic and vegetal elements of design in the Mannerist hardstone carvings. The ideas of the pedestal support and the use of acanthus leaves are also European in origin and parallel such elements in the decoration of Mughal architecture during Shah Jahan's reign.

By contrast, the use of a gourd form for the body of the cup is Chinese in inspiration, while the lotus petals and sensitivity of animal portraiture are characteristic features of Hindu art. Yet for all its eclecticism, with features from China, Iran, Europe and, of course, India itself, the art of the Mughals achieved a brilliant unity. This unity is perfectly exemplified in the jade cup which entered Shah Jahan's treasury in the last year of his reign and now provides such strong visual support to the legend of the dynasty's splendour.

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