18 January 2022

Jewelled treasures from the last Punjabi Maharajah & Maharani

The book "In Pursuit Of Empire: Treasures From The Toor Collection Of Sikh Art", 2018
was written by Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh

A pair of gold and seed pearl pendant earrings from the collect­ion of Maharani Jind Kaur (1817–1863) was sold at Bonhams in London in April 2018. The earrings were part of possib­ly the world's greatest treasury, that of the Sikh Emp­ire which was created by Jind Kaur's husband, The Lion of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839). Jind Kaur was Ranjit Singh's last wife, mother to Maharaja Duleep Singh.

The Punjab empire in the Maharaja’s time extended from the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas; his court was famous for its cultural and scientific achievements, and its riches. Punjab's Sikh ruling elite lavishly patronised artists and craftsmen, to create a stunning array of objects fit for Sikh royals, warriors and saints, and to reflect a vibrant new power on the world's stage. 

The Bonham earrings, whose estimated value was £20,000-30,000, sold for £182,000! See the gold pendant earrings, each crescentic and on gold loops, were finely decorated with granulation. The terminals had floral motifs, the lower edge with a band of suspension loops, each with a seed pearl and small gold leaf pendant. See From the Collection of the Court of Lahore.

Maharani Jind Kaur’s earrings Punjab, 1830-40
Gold, emeralds, diamonds, pearls and red spinel
Toor Collection

Sikh art coll­ector, Davinder Toor, explaining why he spent so much on the Maharani's jew­ellery, revealed his lasting pas­sion for Sikh art and history. The 2018 summer exhibition at the Brunei Gal­l­ery in Russell Square showed a glittering array of 100 works of art objects from leading private collect­ions and major in­stitutions, including stunning Punjabi jewellery. Plus a cannon of Maharaja Ranjit Singh which was used in Anglo-Sikh war, a receipt that marked transfer of Kohinoor diamond from Sikhs to the British, Jowahir Singh's sword (the Maharani’s brother), Maharaja Duleep Singh's clothing  and portraits of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. 

Objects from the Toor Collection have been exhibited at major global institutions, including the Kunsthalle Munich, Art Gallery of Ontario Toronto, Asian Art Museum San Francisco, and were featured in the book In Pursuit of Empire, 2018.

Now I need to ask how the Maharani Jind Kaur’s jewellery left the family and was sold off. Toor wrote that Jind Kaur was the most famous of the 20 wives of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, leader of the Sikh empire from 1801-39. They mar­r­ied in 1835 and gave birth to their only son Duleep Singh in 1838. When her husband died in 1839, Jind Kaur was the only wife not to commit sati on his funeral pyre. Their very young son was procl­aimed mah­ar­aja of the Sikh empire in 1843 and Jind Kaur became the child’s regent. 

gold pendant earrings, 6.5 cm. high
sold at Bonhams in 2018 for a record amount of money
Box says "From the Collection of the Court of Lahore".

After British victory in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-6), the East India Company invaded and annexed Punjab in 1849, despite arm­ed opposition organised and led by Jind Kaur. View­ed by the col­on­ial rulers as having a dangerous in­fl­uence over the affairs of state, the maharani was forcibly separated from her son and ban­ished to another part of British India. 600+ pieces of her jewellery were impounded by the British authorities in Var­an­asi.

By the mid-19th century, the Sikh kingdom had met its demise at the hands of the British Empire. After Punjab was annexed, Duleep Singh was taken by the British and in 1854 was sent into exile in England. He was not reunited with his mother Jind Kaur until 1861, but by then the last Pun­jabi queen of was unwell and virtually blind. The poor woman died in London in 1863 and her casket was shipped back to Bombay in 1864.

Having lost his battle against the India Office over the tricky issue of his financial allowances, the maharaja decided to auct­ion off some of the family’s possessions in order to raise a large amount of money to return to India.

Maharani Jind Kaur's earrings
Emeralds, diamonds, rubies, pearls and gold

The Lahore Treasury held the fabled Koh-i-Noor diamond and the Timur ruby, both of which were gifted to Queen Victoria by the the East India Company directors after Punjab was annexed. Of the hundreds of personal items of jewellery documented as having belonged to Jind Kaur, only four are known to exist today.

And see amazing Maharani earrings featured gold flower heads, set with emeralds in the centre and enclosed by lasque-cut diam­onds. The pierced bell drops featured emerald cabochons and more diamonds, with spinels terminating in multi-tiered pearl fringes with glass beads. 

Maharani Jind Kaur wearing many jewellery pieces
Portrait painted by George Richmond in 1862

See the film The Black Prince (2018) that told the story of Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire, and his struggle with Queen Victoria.


Wear a Mask said...

What happened to the 600 pieces of royal jewellery impounded/stolen by the British authorities? Presumably the stolen jewellery was just as stunning and expensive as those pieces in the Toor Collection.

Hels said...

Wear a Mask.. good idea :)

The two Anglo-Sikh Wars were military conflicts between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Co. in the 1840s. Nasty, colonial and profit-based, the East India Co. and the British nation did endless damage to India. Even if you think the Maharajahs were wrong for not sharing their wealth with their own Indian citizens, exiling the Punjab's Sikh ruling elite and stealing their treasures was totally immoral. I found only 3 treasures handed back to Maharani Jindan Kaur by the British authorities when she agreed to live in London with her son :(

Handmade in Israel said...

I can't imagine wearing earrings that cost so much, not that it will ever be a problem ;-)
In answer to your question on my blog, I know the son of a friend of mine is doing theatre studies at Tel Aviv University (TAU). I am sure other places offer it too. My boys are both in the army. We are not up to university yet!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - beautiful craftmanship ... the history is another story ... I'd like to see the film 'as an easy overview' ... I'm sure not accurate by any means, but gives oversight and an idea. Thanks for letting us know about Kaur and her son. Cheers Hilary

Fun60 said...

I didn't know about the Brunei Gallery in London so must keep an eye out for other exhibitions there. It is a very sorry tale you tell of the British destruction of the Sikh empire. I had also forgotten the tradition of sati.

Hels said...


Understood, yes. I wear earrings all the time, made of plain gold or silver, with _no_ precious stones and no decorative filigree work. But I was fascinated by this collection because it told the story of a] the role of Sikh art in the life of the Maharajah & Maharani and b] Britain annexing the Punjab, and Jind Kaur trying to defend the lands.

Re theatre studies at Tel Aviv University, my grandson doesn't know what he wants to do after finishing high school, but I was thinking perhaps a more creative degree might suit him better than eg accountancy or dentistry. But noone listens to their grandmother.

Hels said...


the film is worth seeing because it is not a Hollywoodisation of a sad but true story. The struggle to get his lands back from the British colonial power is tricky for a non-Punjabi to understand, but I suppose that is true for all historical studies.

Hels said...


I didn't know about the Brunei Gallery in London either. All my information came from a couple of art catalogues and from "In Pursuit Of Empire: Treasures From The Toor Collection Of Sikh Art"

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde minha querida amiga. Que maravilha de matéria e excelente aula de história. Uma excelente terça-feira.

Hels said...


I think you would enjoy the film The Black Prince (2018). Thank you, YouTube :)

Pipistrello said...

These earrings are exquisite pieces of art in themselves and do rather get lost in the dazzle of exuberant layering you see depicted in images of the Indian ruling class.

The portrait is dated a year before her death and was presumably painted near enough to that time and she is rather dripping in her jewellery, so her son must have taken receipt of a fair swag of the treasures after all.

The Maharani's story is fascinating in so many ways, not the least of which is that I hadn't realised sati was optional!

Hels said...


When the Maharaja died in 1839, I am not sure whether he expected all 20 of his wives to kill themselves, but Jind Kaur had just given birth to her son. Sati was a strong custom, not a law, but even so, the Maharani had to be a very confident woman. Jind Kaur went further! On behalf of her baby son, she took control of the government and the army, working energetically against British rule. No wonder the British quickly launched a campaign to make her look like a uncontrollable harlot.

Andrew said...

The Bonham earrings estimated value must have been made by a Melbourne real estate agent.
The British came and conquered, and then extracted wealth, not dissimilar to here.
I was surprised to recently learn that not all of India became a British possession.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Did you see these diamond and emerald (the lenses, not the decoration!) Mughal eyeglasses that recently came up for sale?



Despite their uniqueness, I think that Sotheby's was overly-optimistic in its estimate, but perhaps they will come up again or reach a private sale. Although they were mostly selling the lenses, I think they would have been more successful if the frames were original.

About your grandson, perhaps he can combine his advice and become a creative accountant, a field that is in very high demand (as long as you don't get caught).

Hels said...


When the British East India Co was coming to the end of its rule, causing a mutiny of sepoy troops, the British had to decide on how to govern India.

Parliament passed the Government of India Act, transferring British power over India from the private company to the crown. A British minister presided over the India Office in London and was advised by a Council of India in _foreign affairs_ in _all of India_.

However control in _internal affairs and religious belief_ supposedly remained under each individual Indian prince.

Hels said...


Your source suggested that each pair of Mughal spectacles with 19th century diamond-mounted frames was worth 1.5-2.5 million GBP. I think the diamonds are gorgeous, but who would parade precious stones on their faces with very little security. If I was the Maharani, I would be reluctant to wear diamonds like those, unless their was a guard on each side for EVERY minute of the day and night.

Re vocational advice for high school students, I feel sorry for those children who can't/don't want to meet their parents' dreams of high status professions. Some teens would be perfectly happy becoming musicians, plumbers, chefs or even sailors.

Hels said...


*cough* there was a guard

Parnassus said...

Hi again, I was of course joking about the career advice, but you are entirely correct. I know so many people, first and second hand (myself included) who left higher paying jobs such as stockbrokers and even lawyers or doctors, for lesser-paying jobs that were more enjoyable and more fulfilling. Many became teachers, farmers, stay-at-home parents, etc. Many moved to other countries--sometimes our lives need shaking up a bit. --Jim

Pipistrello said...

Jim, Chromotherapy really does divide the masses :)

Parnassus said...

Pipistrello, It takes "looking at the world through rose-colored glasses" to a whole new level! --JIm

Britta said...

Dear Helen, such beautiful pieces of jewel - and such a sad story of their owner. The poor wife - I think she missed her son more than her jewels, and how cruel the fate of many people in history.
Thank you for the tip to watch out in Munich for a part of the treasure - I will put down a note (though at the moment Munich is a hotspot of C, thus I will wait a little more to visit that beautiful city).

Hels said...


Davinder Toor lectures on the arts of the royal Sikh courts for the Victoria & Albert's Arts of Asia course and was featured on the BBC's Lost Treasures of the Sikh Kingdom 2014. Faberge objects have been exhibited at Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung Munich, and other great galleries, in 1986-7, 2018 and other times. But I don't know anything about proposed future exhibitions.

My solution, if exhibitions don't come to Australia, is to get the museum catalogues sent in the mail :)