Museum Treasure: Ulugh Beg’s cup

What if I were to tell that there exists a cup so mystical and magical that it has the power of detecting poison. Would you believe me? No? I thought not, and honestly I wouldn’t believe it if someone had told me about this.

But nevertheless, such a cup did exist about six centuries ago in Central Asia. It was a time of great upheaval and power struggle in the region when old dynasties were giving way to the new. Often caught in the crossfire of the conflict between the East and the West, it was also a time of great suspicion, prejudice and uncertainties in this region. Such an atmosphere was perfect for beliefs in charms and talismans to take root and grow. And the belief in protection was vested in Jade, a compact, opaque gemstone ranging in color from dark green to almost white. According to Central Asian belief, jade could detect poison and could also protect one from illness, earthquakes and lightning. Soldiers from this region often decorated their swords, belts and saddles with jade.

So, to get back our the story of the cup with the power to detect poison… it is made of jade and once belonged to the mathematician, astronomer and prince of the Timurid Empire, Ulugh Beg. Today, that jade cup is an exhibit in the Islāmic Room of the British Museum in London.

Ulugh Beg’s Jade Cup

Ulugh Beg (died 1449) was Timur’s grandson and Babur’s uncle. He is known also to have had a passion for jade in keeping with his Central Asian heritage and the jade cup was his prized posession. The jade cup is oval in shape and can easily fit in one’s palm. More bowl-shaped than cup-shaped, it has an inscription in Arabic which declares “Ulugh Begh Kuragan” or Royal son-in-law Ulugh Beg. The jade cup has a handle that is carved like a dragon — at least that’s what the placard said, but to be honest I couldn’t really make out that detail. The cup is supposed to have been made in Samarkand with a handle that shows its connection to the East and an Arabic inscription connecting the Central Asian region to its Islāmic heritage in the West.

Ulugh Beg was a patron of culture and a pious Muslim. But he was also known to be quite liberal when it came to alcoholic drinks. I like to imagine him testing his drinks for poison in the jade cup first (it was believed that a poisoned drink would crack the jade) and then drinking it as he worked in his observatory in Samarkand. I can imagine him working late into the night revising and correcting astronomical charts and a faithful slave/servant refilling the jade cup at regular intervals. I can also imagine the cup giving him solace as he watched the empire slip from his grasp during the two years of his reign. Ulugh Beg’s jade cup is a silent and inanimate witness to those tumultuous times of the 15th century. It was probably Beg’s constant companion, considering that he believed in the powers of jade.

As I stare at the cup though the protective glass it is encased in, I wonder at the possibility of the cup spilling out the contents of the conversations overheard, plots hatched, scientific discussions participated in, etc. Or act like a pensieve for anyone willing to just dive in and get a glimpse of those tumultuous and exciting times.I wish…

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

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29 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: Ulugh Beg’s cup

  1. Thank you so much for sharing, Sudha. Was showing my son and reading it for him. He wished it was an Indian who made it :) Couldn’t believe the cup fits in the palm, was thinking it is a huge one. Your camera did a great job zooming it.

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    • You’re welcome, Latha. And as for your son’s comment kya kehna. The jade cup is about 7 incles long and just 2 inches high, so it is a very comfortable size for an adult to hold and of course drink as well :-)

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  2. lovely!!!!! its so amazing to see how you bring up something as simple as a cup in a museum and turn it into such a beautiful post..most of us might have simply passed it by in the museum… and love the idea of the cup acting as a pensieve.. now how wonderful would that be!!!

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    • This is really a beautiful cup, Anu and I was first attracted to it for the jade or rather the quality of jade. The history of the cup was revealed only later. There was a special programme on Iranian music in the Islamic Room that day and I didn’t really see much else. It was only one of my subsequent visits that I saw the cup properly and came to know about its history. Till today I’m wishing that it could act like a pensieve, if not literally spill out what all it has witnessed. If only …

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  3. Once again history brought to life through an inanimate object, Sudha! With you around I can hardly see the point in seeing these things myself :) I would probably have passed by these objects without even a cursory glance.

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    • :-) History is all around us, and I believe is something that we need to know to understand and appreciate our present better. And inanimate objects are perhaps unbiased.

      And this hold true for stuff at home. I have a 100-year-old lamp that belonged to my paati and has travelled with my grandparents to Pakistan during their stay there. It was one of the few things that they were able to bring back when they returned after partition. It has been witness to changes at home and outside too. And I always wonder what would happen if that lamp could talk. :-)

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    • The British have history from all over the world in their museums, Bikram. And there are times when I feel really angry at the “looting” that has happened particularly when I see artefacts from Greece and Egypt. But then all was fair in the name of colonisation then.

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      • Actually THANK GOD british took it , had it remained in india this would have all been in some politcians house ..

        At least we can see the history.. What we have done to our nation in the name of conservation and what not is for all to see..

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        • I have mixed feelings about this, Bikram. As a visitor to the museum, I am thrilled at the treasures that I can see and experience. As someone from a country that has been colonised, it is not such a nice feeling. I didn’t feel it so much when I saw the Indian section, but the Greek and Egyptian sections did make me angry. As for the Kohinoor Diamond, which becomes an emotional issue with most Indians, I feel let it stay where it is. We don’t need the bad luck associated with the Kohinoor, do we? :-)

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  4. A story beautifully told – all for a humble but beautiful jade cup. I, too, would have admired and appreciated the cup and then moved on to the other exhibits. Your narration has given the cup an exalted status that makes one wish to hold and appreciate the cup with reverence.

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  5. What is with your comment field? It is routinely eating up mine. And the idiot that I am, I forget to copy them before posting :(

    The jade cup seems to be a cool thing. I went through the Islamic section and saw it, but missed all the drama and happenings as you have imagined them. When one thinks of it, the cup indeed must have been witness to so many events and could act as a pensieve, indeed! It takes someone who loves these treasures to bring it alive to the readers. Do you have some such treasures in any museum in India? can you give me a tour?

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    • Most Indian museums treat their visitors with part disdain and part suspicion. Last year, I visited the on-site museum in Sarnath, easily one of the best museums I have seen in India. But photograpgy was not allowed and this is the case with most museums. That is the reason why I am unable to share any of our uncomparable treasures from museums in India. But things are changing and some museums have started allowing non-flash photography. And I am going to try with the museums in my own city first. :-)

      I have written to WP about the commenting glitches and am hopeful of getting a reply and getting this issue sorted out.

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    • Thank you so much, Puru. I had read about such cups in the Arabian Nights and like you thought they were made of porcelain infused with magic and mysticism. The jade cup was new for me and it was the quality of jade that attracted me in the first place – smooth, even and lovely shade of green. I read about the story only much later.

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    • And I wonder what my 9th standard history teacher would have to say to all this. She never liked my asking questions in class and always said that I had an unreal and unhealthy interest in history which did not befit a proper schoolgirl :-D

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  6. How beautifully you write, Sudha..I was transported to a different era and entered the body Ulugh Beg’s body as he sipped his drink from his jade cup, watching across his window at the stars dying in the dawn…love, love the last para. and love this line ” I can also imagine the cup giving him solace as he watched the empire slip from his grasp during the two years of his reign.”

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    • Thank you Bhavana. It’s my experience that, creative people do not really do well in realms of power and rule and are almost always poor administrators. And Ulugh Beg was perhaps one of them. We don’t know whether he wanted to be the emperor and probably had no choice in being his father’s successor. Whatever the reason, he could not stop the breakup of his empire, and it took years for his nephew Babur to establish control of the Timurid empire for sometime, only to lose it again.

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