Relics of Royalty: Exploring India’s missing art since colonial times – III

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Tipu's Tiger in the V&A Museum, London

In a short, multi-part series, we explore some of the masterpieces of art that were spirited away by colonial powers from what stands as modern India — all of which have not been returned till date. In part III, we catch a glimpse of select royal relics, encapsulating the grandeur of yore, much of which was dismantled amid colonial rule and its spoils often carried overseas.
You can read parts I and II here and here, respectively.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s throne: A mighty pedestal

Currently: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s throne | Wikimedia

Known as the Sher-e-Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s golden throne is an iconic symbol of the powerful Sikh Empire. Goldsmith Hafez Muhammad Multani is said to have been commissioned to make the golden octagonal throne in 1818, possibly to mark the victory of the Maharaja over Multan. Designed to impress, the throne’s shape is inspired by the furniture in Mughal courts and is made of a wood and resin core, covered with richly decorated solid gold sheets or repoussé. It has eight legs and a raised, solid back, with supports on both sides that are hung with tassels, while the seat is decorated with gold and red cushions. Interestingly, the Maharaja did not sit on the throne very often, nor did he wear a crown — it was only used during state occasions. In fact, despite his wealth and fabulous collections of jewels, Ranjit Singh dressed simply and preferred to sit on a chair or in a cross-legged position on the floor, historians have noted.

The Maharaja died in 1839 — following the annexation of Punjab in 1849, then British governor general Lord James Dalhousie put an end to the Sikh Empire. At this time, he showed great interest in the possessions of the Maharaja in his Toshakhana or royal treasury. It is fabled that Dalhousie intended to keep the throne for himself, but eventually, the government demanded it. Today, since 1879, it is one of the foremost items on permanent display at the Victoria and Albert Museum collection in London.


Wine Cup of Shah Jahan: Confluence in jade

Currently: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The jade wine cup of Shah Jahan | Courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum

Dating back to 1657 CE, the wine cup of Shah Jahan (ruling from 1628 to 1658) is made of delicate jade, either imported from Central Asia or China. The white nephrite receptacle was specially designed and used for the Mughal emperor, who had a keen interest in arts and artistry. The 18.7×14-cm piece is said to have been acquired by one Colonel Charles Seton Guthrie after the 1857 revolt. It passed from several purchasers to Queen Maria of Yugoslavia. Finally, it was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum as late as 1962.

A pedestal bottom featuring acanthus leaves radiating out from a lotus flower holds a gourd-shaped cup in a paisley design, with a handle shaped naturalistically like the head of a ram, recurving towards the body. The cup is inscribed with his title, ‘Second Lord of the Conjunction’, following Persian royal titulature conventions. It specifically alludes to Timur, the central Asian ruler from whom the Mughals were descended. The artist who created the cup is unknown. The cup is dated 1067 of the Islamic calendar, and regnal year 31, which convert to 1657 CE. It has been noted as “an outstanding example of jade craftsmanship and is one of the most exquisite surviving objects from the court of the Mughal dynasty that ruled the Indian subcontinent from about 1526 to 1857”.

Interestingly, the different features of the cup reflect the variety of cultural and artistic influences that were welcomed at the Mughal court. “Persian in their cultural background and Indian by adoption, the Mughals were also open to new ideas from the West. Jesuits were welcome for their learning, as were ambassadors and merchants for exotic gifts and promises of trade, and craftsmen-adventurers for their skills and knowledge of unfamiliar technologies,” it has been reported. Along these lines, 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. The ideas of the pedestal support and the use of acanthus leaves are also European in origin. The amalgamation  of these aesthetic ideals reflects the artistic splendor of the dynasty.


The Wooden Tiger of Tipu Sultan: Roaring remnants of royalty

Currently: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tipu’s Tiger in the V&A Museum, London

Tipu’s Tiger was originally made for Tipu Sultan in the Kingdom of Mysore (today in the Indian state of Karnataka) around 1795. This 18th century automaton is essentially a mechanical toy for the amusement of the great ruler. It is popularly described as follows: “The carved and painted wood casing represents a tiger savaging a near life-size European man. Mechanisms inside the tiger and man’s bodies make one hand of the latter move, emit a wailing sound from his mouth and grunts from the tiger. A flap on the side of the tiger folds down to reveal the keyboard of a small pipe organ with 18 notes.”

Tipu Sultan used the tiger systematically as his emblem, employing tiger motifs on his weapons, on the uniforms of his soldiers, and on the decoration of his palaces. His throne rested upon a probably similar life-size wooden tiger, covered in gold. The dimensions of the object are 71.2 cm high and 172 cm long. Wikipedia authors detail that the painted wooden shell forming both figures likely draws upon South Indian traditions of Hindu religious sculpture. “There are many openings at the head end, formed to match the pattern of the inner part of the painted tiger stripes, which allow the sounds from the pipes within to be heard better, and the tiger is ‘obviously male’. The top part of the tiger’s body can be lifted off to inspect the mechanics by removing four screws. The construction of the human figure is similar but the wood is much thicker.” Interestingly, a crank handle powers different mechanisms inside the piece. A set of bellows expels air through a pipe inside the man’s throat, with its opening at his mouth. This produces a wailing sound of distress. A mechanical link causes the man’s left arm to rise and fall. This action alters the pitch of the ‘wail pipe’. Another mechanism inside the tiger’s head expels air through a single pipe with two tones. This produces a “regular grunting sound” simulating the roar of the tiger. Concealed behind a flap in the tiger’s flank is a small ivory keyboard of a two-stop pipe organ in the body, allowing tunes to be played.

The piece sustained some bomb damage in World War II while housed in England. It was first exhibited to the London public in 1808 in East India House, then the offices of the East India Company in London, and was later transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1880.

Interestingly, numerous items that are now housed in particularly British museums find origin in the troves belonging to Tipu Sultan, an audacious ruler who pushed back against the Company Raj and was actively vilified by them. These include jewellery, weaponry, and more, especially in the Seringapatam treasury.

This heavy oval ring with the name of the Hindu God Rama in raised Devnagari script is surrounded by chased floral buds to the octagonal base and ornate shoulders and hoop. It was reportedly taken from Tipu Sultan by later Duke of Wellington Arthur Wellesley at the battle of Seringapatam in 1799. It was sold at Christie’s in 2014 to an undisclosed bidder.


This gold ring set with a cabochon cut chysoberyl catseye is said to have come from the finger of Tipu Sultan after the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799. The ring was brought to England by one Arthur Henry Cole and ended up as the property of the Dowager Countess of Enniskillen and by descent through her husband’s family. It is now on display at British Museum.
Red silk tassels in pom pom shape, said to have come from Tipu Sultan’s turban. The upper parts of embossed gold bound with gold thread. They are traditionally said to have been taken from the turban of Tipu Sultan, purchased in 1936 from Miss Charlotte E. Cowie, who had received them in 1870 from her uncle, Alexander Cowie, then in India. Today, they are in the UK’s Royal Collection Trust.
This fabric and metal helmet is inscribed with texts from the Holy Qur’an describing the virtues of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed. The guard is decorated with tiger’s heads, the animal associated with Tipu Sultan. It is now at the National Army Museum, UK.