Museum Treasure: Jewellery from Tamil Nadu

Though I don’t wear much jewellery, especially gold, it doesn’t stop me from admiring it. I love to look and trace the stories conveyed through the jewellery designs with my personal choice veering towards traditional designs in jewellery. In fact, more traditional a piece, the more I like it and feel a connection to it.

So imagine my delight when I came across this jewellery collection showcased at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

South Indian Jewellery at the V&A The information plaque revealed that all the pieces exhibited in this showcase were acquired through private collectors. Made in various parts of Tamil Nadu, they ranged in age from mid-eighteenth to the early 20th century.

Lets see what each ornament has to say about itself:

  1. Rakudi or Hair Ornament (circa 1880): The centre of the rakudi depicts Lord Vishnu sitting on Sheshnag, whose multi-headed hood is fanned out and the circular design you can see are the coils of the great serpent himself. Can you believe that this rakudi only cost Rs.80/- to make? And that the V&A purchased this for an even princely sum of £9?

  2. Necklace (circa 1880): This necklace comprised small golden pendants strung on a thick black string. Each of the gold pendants was exquisite and no two designs were alike. Made in Madurai, this necklace was probably worn by a married woman.

  3. Kazhutturu or ceremonial marriage necklace (late 19th century): This necklace was probably made for a bride from the Nattukottai Chettiar community. The central pendant or the tali has images of Shiva and Parvati seated on Nandi. Made in Pudukottai, large golden tubular beads are strung along with the tali to complete the necklace. I really pity the bride who had to wear this necklace everyday. Just looking at it gave me a neck ache !

4. Vanki or Armlets (circa 1765): These ‘V’ shaped armlets have a lion faced design in the centre and delicately carved peacocks on the side. Unlike the necklaces, which were bulked up thanks to the black string, this pair of vanki, which were probably made in Thanjavur, looked solid and heavy on their own.

5. Pampadam or Earring (late 19th century): These were special and heavy earrings designed to elongate the earlobes of the wearer. Ouch !

6. Marriage of Shiva and Parvati (circa 1966): Strictly speaking, this relief carving on ivory is not a piece of jewellery. But since it is believed to be part of a panel of a jewellery box or casket, I think its inclusion in this list is justified. Made in Madurai, this finely detailed ivory carving depicts the marriage of Siva and Parvati, witnessed by Lakshmi and Vishnu and Siva’s ganas.

It is the marriage season in India right now and what better way to commemorate it than with a post on jewellery and that too traditional Indian jewellery. :-D

So tell me, which piece of jewellery did you like?

P.S. I apologise for the rather grainy photograph here, which does not show the details. You see, when I took the photograph I had no idea I would be writing about it one day.

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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28 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: Jewellery from Tamil Nadu

    • Thanks, RM. While I don’t mind earrings or bangles, I absolutely refuse to wear anything around my neck. Unless of course my mother goes into one of her hand wringing modes before we are to attend a wedding ;-)

      I like the vanki a lot for the delicate craftsmanship. As for no.2, I would love to convert each pendant into a jhumka :-D

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  1. I loved all of them.. my mom has a beautiful rakudi which i used to love wearing at one time…. as for no,2. my patti had a necklace almost similar, but the chain broke and unfortunately, we couldnt get it repaired properly, so i still have the pieces! no.3 is i guess something like the taali i wear anyways..and 4.. aah.. thats something i have wanted for a long time, but never got!! my sister has one now, since she is a bharatanatyam dancer, but i have lost the enthu of dressing up…5 looks so pretty.. i love ear rings, as you know :D as for 6, yes, i agree it is perfectly justified!! after all, at the marriage of shiva and parvati, it was parvati who wore all those beautiful lovely golden ornaments.. like the ones shown!!!

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    • I inherited my great-grandmother’s rakudi, which is really beautiful with a peacock design on it. I used to wear it when I had long hair, but now … :-( Each time I see it I feel like growing my hair.

      The earrings were made of solid gold but looked really wicked and heavy for the purpose was elongating the earlobes. What I really liked was the Vanki as the design was really delicate and beautiful. My grandmother used to have vanki, but it was nowhere as nice as the ones I saw at the museum !

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  2. Such a beautiful post. I wonder about the women who would have worn these interesting pieces of jewellery!

    Personally, I loved the rakudi and the vanki. I liked the necklaces too, but they seem designed to break one’s neck. :(

    Are all of these in gold?

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    • Thank you, TGND.

      I wondered about these women too, and liked to imagine that they came from rich families where jewellery was not just for shringar, but also as status symbols. I imagined the women sitting together and discussing jewellery designs and haggling with the jeweller/asaari and slyly trying to find out what other women were ordering.

      The rakudi is beautiful, but I think the rakudi which I inherited from my paati is prettier :-) As for the jewellery they were all made of gold, solid gold and I could very well imagine a row of Indian women salivating over them !

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    • Yes, just imagining women wearing this jewellery and wearing them with their rustling silks and young brides almost keeling over with the weight of the gold on them was enough to send me to the particular time period !

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    • Yes, they are quite stunning, aren’t they?

      I’m not sure how much of a legitimate claim that India has on these artefacts as they have been all been purchased for with records and receipts and such. Besides, I am also of the opinion that till we learn to value, preserve and protect what we already have in our country, let us leave our artefacts where they are. It is impossible not to feel some amount of pride when non-Indians ooh and aah over artefacts from India :-)

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    • That they are, Rachna. What is interesting is that these designs survive even today, but in a different form. My grandmother’s rakudi, which I have inherited, is not as big as this one not does it have so much gold but traditional motifs are still in place. My friend’s sister’s tali is similar to No.3, only smaller in size !

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  3. I was wondering which museum in Tamil Nadu you had visited to write about these treasures but knew in a trice that it was in good old London ;) I had a chutti and rakodi set too but it was not a golden one. These obviously belong to the deep south where chunky gold jewellery are worn even today. One of my school friends got married when we were in the 11th standard in Tiruchi and she said that her necklace weighed 500 gms!!

    Did you know that the long earlobes that get stretched by the pampadams are considered a thing of beauty, much like the painfully elongated necks of some tribes in Burma?

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    • Most museums in India are pretty stuck up on photography and that is one of the reasons I have nothing to share from here. I have still not gotten over the indignation of not being allowed to photograph at the Sarnath Museum, which has the lion capital, our national emblem ! Our museums will allow raucous and callous tourist groups to walk through and not allow a serious lover of history to take photographs. They are really stuck up I tell you. But I see winds of change with some museums allowing photography in certain sections. So let’s see :-)

      I’m not surprised about the 500 gm necklace or the spondilytis she may have developed after wearing the necklace ! Most of the jewellery here were worn by Chettiar women, a community traditionally known for importance placed on gold ornaments. :-)

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  4. I wore a netthi chutti and a rakodi when I got married but it was on loan from the wedding planner and had to be returned. :( My whole facination with Bharatnatyam has been due to the jewellery. How else does one wear a netthi chutti, rakodi, Vankis or kaasamaalai in everyday life?

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    • Simple. You wear all this traditional jewellery on every festive occasion :-) And one of the reasons I didn’t take to dance was because of the jewellery. As I said, I love ornaments, but on others.

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  5. Trust my friend to write a lovely post on jewellery from Tamil Nadu. I like the rakudi and vanki very much. I know my grandmothers owned lovely hair pieces.
    As for the necklaces, I find them a bit too heavy. I am all for delicate jewellery.
    The ivory piece is really beautiful.

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  6. WOW! this is my first time here. Came from TGND’s blog. I love love going to museums for this reason. The jewellery, pottery, fabric, weapons – they say so much that history text books cannot. I loved this post.
    I loved no. 6 especially since iti s a panel of the jewellery box (probably, as you mentioned) and no. 2.
    It is amazing how some patterns and designs survive to this day and constitute traditional jewellery :) Also, I wonder who wore these? The common man? The royal families?

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    • Welcome here, Kismitoffeebar. And may I say what an intriguing name you have :-)

      Great to meet another museum lover, a species I believe is highly endangered. I love, love going to museums and and can spend hours poking into their collections and going back again to feast my eyes on some more. I don’t think anything goes out of fashion; it just comes back after some time. These days designs are, thankfully, not caste specific and if one like’s a design one can get it made. As for these particular designs in this post, they were worn by the Nattukottai Chettiar community women.

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