Fancy a ruby-studded back scratcher?
From 2kg anklets to bejewelled tooth cleaners, Jaipur's new Amrapali Museum chronicles the country's relationship with gold and silver
Jaipur’s Amrapali Museum, which opened to the public last month, has no star exhibits or crowd-pullers to boast of, but still manages to spark intrigue. The 4,000 pieces of jewellery and personal objects are housed in a sprawling 6,500 sq. ft space, annexed to the company headquarters. These exhibits aren’t a throwback to historic, bloody battles or hushed royal scandals, instead they are firmly, and delightfully, quotidian.
For instance, a pair of gold toe rings studded with diamonds and rubies signals a privileged owner—wearing gold below the waist was considered an insult to goddess Lakshmi, and a right limited to royalty, or persons of eminence. A silver lingam necklace goes back to the Lingayat sect that exclusively worships Lord Shiva.
A detachable enamelled necklace, which can be fashioned as individual bracelets, encapsulates the Zoroastrian philosophy in its inlaid diamond topography, which reads “Humata, Hukhta, Huversta" (good thoughts, good words, good deeds). The cyclical nature of fashion is evinced through pairs of geometric 19th-century gold ear studs from Tamil Nadu that could easily belong in a contemporary designer’s lookbook.
Every exhibit in the two-storeyed museum comes from the personal collection of Amrapali founders Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera, sourced over 40 years. While Jaipur is integral to the company’s ethos, the exhibits at the museum are from different parts of the subcontinent, ranging from weighty, 2kg anklets from Bhuj to elaborate kurta buttons from Himachal Pradesh.
Each section spells out the multi-purpose role of gold and silver jewellery in India—ornamental, functional, carriers of divinity and securities against misfortune—worn by men, women, animals and gods. Unlike objects of historic interest like armours and chariots, which lose their practicality over time and make an easy move to museums, jewellery is a precious personal heirloom, treasured by each generation. This makes curating a jewellery museum a peculiar challenge. Arora explains: “Jewellery is a prized possession and nobody wants to part with it. It was also difficult for Rajesh and me to give so many pieces to the museum, but it is a way of giving back to society. My philosophy in life is learning, earning and returning."
The museum also alludes to the personal journey of its founders. In 1978, Arora and Ajmera were young college students who bonded over a shared passion for history and the arts, and decided to put in place the building blocks of what would eventually grow into a jewellery empire. During those initial years, the duo travelled deep into Indian villages to study and source tribal gold and silver jewellery, which would then be refashioned into Amrapali designs with the help of local craftsmen. “We witnessed how jewellery is influenced by the lifestyle and conditions of people in different areas," Arora says. “For instance, in rural Gujarat and Rajasthan, they prefer silver jewellery because the sun is very harsh. Gold is a warm metal and too bright for these areas. Chandi, derived from chandini, represents the moon. It’s soothing and pleasant to the eye." On one such trip, Arora purchased a pair of intricately crafted silver betel-leaf containers that caught his eye even though he was a novice, and he found it impossible to part with them. These are now encased as opening exhibits, earmarking the beginning of their journey as collectors.
While the top floor of the museum focuses on gold and silver jewellery, the basement holds a curious mix of personal objects, such as a swatch book from Varanasi that features now extinct fabrics, a silver chatelaine—a decorative clasp with a series of chains suspended, each mounted with useful household appendages—that makes an efficient on-the-go paan-maker, and bejewelled tooth cleaners. A ruby-studded back scratcher, a fine example of meenakari work, is also a weapon, with a tiny dagger concealed