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Mogul Emerald

Next time you feel like cursing the IRS, think about life under Mogul rule in India. Until these Moslem nomads, descendants of the Mongols, conquered a big chunk of that country’s northern part in 1526, it was customary for potentates to tax the country’s farmers, the main source of tax revenue, at around one-sixth of their output. However, by the time the Mogul empire encompassed two-thirds of India a century and a half later, the state’s take had jumped to as much as one-half.

Such levies fattened a lot of coffers, both those of the occupiers and those of cooperating native princedoms. In fact, when one Mogul emperor ordered an inventory taken of the royal treasury, his agents gave up the task as impossible after working night and day for five months!

By now you might have guessed that the Moguls were big spenders—if not history’s biggest, then certainly among the top 10. Typical of their spare-no-expense approach to living was the Taj Mahal, built by the most lavish of all Mogul emperors, Shah Jahan (1592-1666) between 1631 and 1653 as a tomb for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal (1592-1631).

Although Jahan’s father Jehangir (1569-1627) was a lover of opulence, his appetite for material splendor was no match for his son’s, especially in the realm of gems, the supreme acquisitive passion shared by the two. That’s saying a lot since, according to a 1622 account of Mogul court life by Edward Terry, an English chaplain, assigned the East India Company trade delegation to India in 1617, Jahangir was the “greatest and richest master of precious stones that inhabits the whole earth.”

By this standard the scion evidently possessed enough gems to be master of the galaxy. Unlike his father, an opium addict known to love fondling women as much as precious stones, Shah Jahan seems to have put aesthetic above carnal pleasures (at least until his mid-60s when excessive use of aphrodisiacs almost killed him and set the stage for usurpation of his throne). In his chronicle of travels through Mogul India in 1640, Sebastien Manrique, an Augustinian friar from Portugal, describes a banquet at which Jahan was so entranced by stones given him as a gift that nothing—not even two near-naked dancing girls sent in as an after-dinner finale—could catch his eye.

Like any connoisseur, Jahan played favorites among his gem interests, as did his son, Aurangzeb (1618-1707), who overthrew him in 1658. All of which brings us to the subject of emeralds, the gem used for a unique form of engraving, which provides one of the most lasting artistic and cultural legacies of the Mogul period.

The Green of Paradise

Throughout the Koran and other early Islamic literature, the color of paradise is likened to that of emeralds—a rich, verdant green. Given such spiritual associations, fine emerald was bound to be one of the most desirable trade commodities throughout the vast stretches of the Moslem world whenever it could be found (which, prior to 1520, was mostly Egypt). No place else were there more potential patrons for this beryl than in Mogul India where Moslem rulers reigned in luxury so prodigal that it has rarely been rivaled.

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Mogul Emerald