Field Museum exhibit displays the finer things in life for rulers in a bygone era

Two or three feet inside the Field Museum's newest exhibit, you're fully struck by the opulence of the maharaja era in India.

There's gold, sapphire and other precious gems on the chauri, not to mention yak's hair.

The purpose? Every Indian king had to have the nicest fly swatter in town. A similar object was also used in ceremonial readings in the Sikh religion.

Next to it, a golden ankus.

"It's to poke elephants," says Aidan Patrick of Monroe, La., a teen visitor to the "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts" exhibit.

Patrick's succinct description is accurate. Rudyard Kipling wrote about Mowgli finding one in a "Jungle Book" story.

The exhibit (here's a link to the museum's website) covers an era from the decline of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century to the British East India Co., which wielded more power than most governments, to the Raj, or British government rule, to the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Warring among each other and often subjugated by the Mughals, descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongols, or the British commerce and government, the maharajas remained powerful in their small regions.

They sat on golden thrones and wore precious gems as big as your fist. The glories of the maharajas ("great king" in Sanskrit, akin to Latin "magnus rex") are on display at the Field Museum through Feb. 3.

You like diamonds? They were first recognized in India, where the Sanskrit words for diamond — vajra (thunderbolt) and indrayudha (Indra's weapon) — appear in writings 300 years before Christ was born.

"Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, shows the rulers of India and Pakistan in the glory days, which only ended with the nations' independence from Great Britain in 1947.

Decades before that, many adopted Western customs and costumes, wearing Cartier jewelry and being photographed by famous photographers like Man Ray and Cecil Beaton.

The images are bursting with life, such as "Jawan Singh of Mewar Hunting Boar," from about 1835. Women rulers, too, hunted and conquered.

"There are a lot of amazing objects, not only jewels but watercolors on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum," said Tom Skwerski, project manager for exhibitions at the Field Museum. "All these objects are depictions of lives of maharajas in daily life, including thrones, textiles and musical instruments."

The maharajas enjoyed wealth, but not always independence: The British East India Co. put its own men inside the royal court, as did future governments.

After the British forced out the Mughal Empire, they sought to find accommodation with the rulers of smaller kingdoms — by force if necessary.

Thus the matchlock and flintlock rifles, also made with gold, on display.

There are detailed paintings of royal processions, regalia worn by kings and queens, ceremonial daggers, swords and guns, hand-crafted instruments and board games.

The 20th-century Patiala necklace made by Cartier originally contained 2,930 diamonds, including the yellow 234.69-carat DeBeers diamond.

Many of the large diamonds were removed as the necklace moved to different owners around the world. Cartier has restored it with many of the original gems, but also zirconia and artificial rubies.

"What you are looking at is the top 10th of the 1 percenters, who lived in opulence that was astonishing to their subjects," Skwerski said.

Even watercolors had gold in them.

"They would decorate objects of daily life, such as a beautiful wine glass studded with rubies and sapphires," he said. "There are swords with precious stones on the scabbards. Nothing went unadorned."

The Field Museum is the last stop on the exhibition's world tour.

 

If you go

What: "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts"

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas, through Feb. 3

Where: The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

Tickets: Included in both Discovery and All-Access passes to the museum, which are $22-$29 for adults; $18-$24 for seniors and students with ID; $15-$20 for children 4-11 (may be purchased at fieldmuseum.org)

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