The Candid Eye

November 1, 2009

The fabulous wealth of Pre-British India

Filed under: Hinduism,India,Indian History — thecandideye @ 6:00 AM
Tags: , , , , ,

Before the British came, India was a rich country and the fame of its wealth attracted both travelers and invaders. Minerals and Metals in Pre-Modern India by A.K. Biswas (2001) does give us a dazzling glimpse of this wealth, especially of the gemstones. The riches of India were mind-boggling indeed and Biswas tries to give a fair idea of its wealth. The British claimed that they came to ‘civilise’ India, but the reality was that they came to plunder its fabulous wealth and resources.

The wealth of nations in the past, in the absence of the modern day convertible currency, was generally evaluated in terms of the minerals and metals a kingdom controlled. The stories of the richness of India in the past had reached far and wide and were so alluring that as soon as explorer expeditions were undertaken in the medieval times, their main aim was to discover a route to India. The fantastic stories about the wealth of India in the past are so mystifying that ancient India was often referred to as the Golden Bird. Arun Kumar Biswas who had earlier done the book on Minerals and Metals in Ancient Indiahere takes a look at the gem-minerals in the pre-modern India. Gems are precious stones occurring along with other minerals below the surface of the earth.

Biswas looks into the gems in the pre-modern India mainly under the following heads:

(a) travelers’ accounts of Indian gems;

(b) the gem treasury of the Moguls;

(c) some specific gem minerals such as pearl, coral, ruby and sapphire, etc.;

(d) and the Indian diamond mines in the premodern era.

 

Ancient India - Maurya's kingdom

Ancient India - Maurya's kingdom

Travelers’ Accounts of Indian Gems

At the outset we are informed that India’s traditions in ancient and medieval gems are authenticated not so much by archaeological evidence as by the travelers’ accounts. There are numerous and rich accounts in this regard, some of which Biswas says were collected by Valentine Ball. As far back as AD 77, we are told, Pliny in his Historis Naturalis had given extraordinary information regarding precious stones and metals around the world, a large proportion of them being of Indian origin. He referred to Indian adamas (diamond), smaragdus (emerald), beryl, opal, etc. In AD 140-60 Ptolemy too referred to diamond mining on the Adamas

River. Besides others, the account of Hazrat Amir Khusrau, the famed poet who accompanied Malik Naib, Alauddin Khalji’s army general in AD 1310-1312 military expedition to south India,describes the colossal treasure of gold, emerald and other gems which had been collected during the earlier’ periods of ancient India. Khusrau, after the capture of the fort of Warangal says,The boxes carried by the elephants were full of valuables and gems, the excellence of which drove the onlookers mad. Every emerald (zabarzad) sparkled in the light of the sun. . . . The corundum/sapphire (yaqat) dazzled the eye in the sun. The cat’s eye (ainul hirrat) and the cock’s eye (ainul dzk) were so brilliant.

The lustre of the rubies illuminated the darkness of the night. The emeralds had a fineness of water that could eclipse the lawn of paradise. The diamonds (ilmas) would have penetrated into an iron heart like an arrow of steel. The other stones were such that the sun blushed to look at them. As for the pearls, you would not find the like of them,even if you kept diving into the sea through all eternity. The gold was like the full moon of the twelfth night; it seemed that in order to ripen it, the alchemist sun, had lighted its fire, and the morning had blown its breath,for years. . . .

The Ariz-Mumalik (gemmologist) divided the jewels into ‘genus’ and ‘species’, ‘class’ after ‘class’, and had everything written down. . . . Among them was a jewel (Koh-i-Nur ?), unparalleled in the whole world.The sack of the golden temple of Barmatpur was similarly described by Khusrau. He wrote:Its roofs and walls were inlaid with sparkling rubies and emeralds, and after gazing at them, red and yellow spots came before the spectator’s eye. . . . The heads of the idol-worshippers came dancing from their necks.The golden bricks rolled down and brought with them the plaster of sandalwood; the yellow gold became red with blood, and the white sandal turned scarlet. The foundations of the temple, which were mines of gold, were dug up, and its jeweled walls, which were mines of precious stones, pulled down. . . . There were five hundred mans of precious stones.

Read the full report here.

 

 

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