New York’s Metropolitan Museum houses a pair of 2,000-year-old earrings from South India. About 3 inches wide and 1.5 inches in length, the earring seems small compared to the wide variety of monumental and magnificent objects from South Asia that surround them. Yet, for ear ornaments they are large – each one is about the size of a human fist. If we look at them closely, and consider their exquisite workmanship’s antiquity, their significance as historic objects dwarfs that of many others.

These earrings reflect a maximalist design vision. Shaped like curling vines and made with gold sheet and wire, they are lavishly encrusted with gold granules. On one side, each depicts an elephant and on the other, a winged lion. Elaborate floral patterns – plants, flowers, and tendrils – link the two animals that are reputed symbols of royalty. Moreover, so skillfully has the artist(s) from two millennia ago crafted these pieces, that it would be clear even to the most casual of jewellery aficionados that such objects would be hard to purchase at any price at a store today.

From a historian’s perspective, though, the most striking feature of these earrings is how the design motifs are so easily recognisable to Indian eyes. The elephant, lion and floral embellishments – creepers and vase containing three palmettes – are classical Indian patterns drawn from nature. These have remained a part of the subcontinent’s design landscape in architecture, textiles, and jewellery over centuries.

This apparent continuity, however, comes with a major drawback, some might even call it a curse, for those who are engaged in the study and teaching of Indian history. It fuels the inherent human inclination to imagine an unchanging, glorious past.

Credit: In public domain, via The Metropolitan Museum.

Tackling the gale-force of popular oversimplification is the professional historian’s Sisyphean battle. Dwelling exclusively on the durability of traditions, as is easy to do, diminishes our appreciation for the underlying complexities. The “familiar” gold earrings from the Metropolitan Museum are an apt illustration: even though the motifs on these ancient pieces are quintessentially of the subcontinent, the gold granulation is a technique that appears to have developed in Greece. From the 1st century Before Common Era to the 1st century Common Era – when these earrings attributed to Satavahana rulers were made – granulation was also in demand in Egypt, India, and other places that were linked by Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trade.

At the time of writing this column, the earrings had been moved from their usual place of display among miscellaneous South Asian objects to a special exhibition at the Museum on early Buddhist art in India. Consequently, they were located amidst statues and stone reliefs of prominent, lay Buddhist donors and patrons. These depictions of richly adorned men, women, and some divinities, provide a direct insight into how such earrings were worn in the time in which they were made. The images reveal that the wealthy and aristocratic during the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE, gender notwithstanding, had a preference for heavy ear ornaments that would have distended their earlobes.

Our gold earrings were perhaps even more special as they were meant for a “chakravartin” or “universal ruler”. So plentiful is the use of gold and so sumptuous the decoration that, as the Metropolitan Museum website notes, they would have “rested on the shoulders of the wearer”. Was this a way for ancient Indian elites to keep up with global fashion trends while combining them with local and culturally specific design elements?

Illustrations of stupas depicting Satavahana-era male and female figures wearing near-exact replicas of the earrings along with other ornaments, from a report by the Archaeological Survey of India on the excavations at Kanaganahalli (1st century before common era to 3rd century common era).

Consider the appearance and evolution of another, more well-known, jewelry-making technique of kundan. Kundan is a gem setting method in which gold is beaten into foil-like sheets until it reaches a hyper-purified form. The sheet is pressed down with specialised tools around the stone. It is then cut, shaped, and burnished into the form that the design calls for. Since this method does not require any soldering to join the metal, it allows the artist the freedom to set any kind of stone or other solid materials into the ornament.

Every part of the globe developed ways to create ornaments using different stone-setting techniques. However, kundan stands out for being a uniquely Indian one. Manuel Keene and Salam Kaoukji – curators at Kuwait’s al-Sabah Collection that holds a rich variety of rare kundan pieces, say that “there is no indication that this technique was ever practiced anywhere, except in India, despite its obvious advantages, and despite the fact that it’s a visual effect was much imitated in the surrounding regions”.

Kundan’s origins most likely go back to ancient times. But it was the Mughals – during their reign from 1526-1857 – who fell in love with it and promoted the style widely from the 16th century. In the Ain -i-Akbari, an account of Akbar’s administration – the Mughal emperor ruled from 1556 to 1605 – his chronicler, Abul Fazl, marveled at kundan in mythical terms. Kundan, he wrote, “is gold made so pure and ductile that the fable of the gold of Parviz which he could mould with his hand becomes credible”.

Museums in India and across the world that house Mughal-era artifacts almost always contain instances of kundan jewellery. These reflect its evolution and popularity over time like the 18th-century necklace with abstract and floral motifs, also at the Metropolitan Museum.

Eighteenth-century gold, enamel and silk necklace at the Metropolitan Museum.

Akbar’s reign saw yet another development in this jewellery crafting technique. This was the joining of kundan with meenakari or enameling. Meenakari is an art of decoration that combines gems, enamel pigments, and precious metals – an ideal companion for the easily malleable kundan. The term meenakari has its origins in the Persian word for paradise. As the fine colours and the intricate floral and plant motifs that decorate the finest of these pieces show, the designs fit with Islamic vision of Paradise as a beautiful celestial garden.

Enameling was an art unto itself. A wide variety of Mughal-era enameled objects like vases, cups, inkwells, and handles and scabbards for daggers and swords can be found in museums and private collections. But in jewellery-making, a lasting innovation was to embellish kundan pieces with meenakari on the reverse. This not only enhanced the ornament’s richness but also served the practical purpose of sealing in the precious stones more securely. In most cases the enameled portion would have rested on the wearer’s skin and hence was primarily intended for the wearer’s eye – the 18th-century neckpiece referred to earlier is a fine example.

Eighteenth-century gold, enamel and silk necklace at the Metropolitan Museum.

Although the marriage of the two styles may have begun in the early 16th century, it was under Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan (1592-1666) – the great aesthete under whom the Taj Mahal was built – that it truly flourished. Its most striking instance is not a piece of jewellery but the famed Peacock Throne, a jewel-encrusted object that was created instead to adorn the Mughal emperor’s power and sovereignty.

The Mughal paintings that survive are a glimpse into how the emperors and the nobility – men and women alike – had an interest in and appreciation for jewellery and gems. These images show that the Mughal elite had a preference for pearls as well as a variety of other richly colored gemstones including rubies, garnets, spinels, and jades. The fact that the Mughals oversaw an era of thriving global trade propelled this exchange. While the emperors were particular about acquiring the best of the precious stones that made their way to the port of Surat for themselves, the quantity of the trade in these items suggests that the rulers were not their only consumers. Gem historian Jack Ogden says that “Indians were buying precious objects and gems from Europeans some three centuries before Cartier and other houses started looking east”.

As is well-known, the subcontinent was an enduring source for all manners of luxury and quotidian goods to various corners of the world, including Europe. If Indian consumers were buying richly coloured gems, diamonds from Indian mines flooded the western markets for generations. Ogden says that much of this trade was conducted by Indians – Gujaratis, primarily – and by other non-Europeans like Arab, Jewish and Armenian traders. All these groups participated in long-established complex commercial networks across the Indian Ocean. But few tangible records of their work and views survive today.

From left: Details from a painting of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan exquisitely dressed and richly adorned with jewels. Shah Jahan admiring jewels with his favorite son. Holding a tray of emeralds and rubies, the father contemplates a ruby in his right hand, while the child grasps a peacock fan and a turban ornament. A painting of Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara, adorned in jewels. Credit: in public domain, via The Metropolitan Museum and British Library.

What remains are observations of the European traders and travellers who began making inroads into the pre-existing networks of trade from the 15th-century onwards. Many of them, like the 17th-century French gem merchant Jean-Baptist Tavernier (1605-1689), even managed to gain direct access to royal patrons in India and in Europe.

Tavernier – known to have done business with some of the world’s most powerful kings and aristocrats during his time, including Aurangzeb, Louis XIV, and Ferdinando II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany – made six trips to India from 1630 and 1668. Although he wrote about a variety of gems in the account of his travels, diamonds were his foremost interest: “the article of trade to which I am most devoted,” he wrote. Consequently, Tavernier traveled to several mines in the kingdoms of Bijapur, Golconda, and Bengal where this “most precious of all stones” was to be found. His account – albeit a European view – is a vivid picture of the diamond trade in India, mining towns, diamond polishing techniques, business practices, and even the tedious labour of extracting the precious stone from rocky and dusty mines.

That the Satavahana or the Mughal rulers were prominent patrons of jewellery is not surprising. Luxurious ornaments have forever been integral to the display of aristocratic wealth and power. This was highlighted even during the coronation of King Charles III in May. The British royals chose to openly exhibit their regalia adorned with gems from former colonies, even in the wake of global criticism.

What stands out in South Asia is the crucial practical and symbolic role jewellery, along with precious metals and gemstones plays in the lives of the everyday public. Ornaments are essential to a variety of lifecycle rituals and cultural traditions in the subcontinent. They are also central to Indian notions of beauty – classical literature is replete with descriptions of ornaments adorning female and male bodies, not to mention Bollywood’s myriad jhumkas, choodis, or jhanjharias. They are often even crucial to the story’s plot – a signet ring plays a key role in Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala) or a pair of anklets filled with jewels help Kannagi, the heroine of the Tamil epic Silappathikaram (The Jewelled Anklet), to prove her unjustly executed husband’s innocence. The most popular personal names – Sona, Ratan, Heera, Moti, Neelam, Muthu, Firouz, Sadaf, Gehna, Mala, Payal or Nupur, to highlight just a few – make it clear how society in the subcontinent values gems and jewellery across religious and regional lines.

In this detail from a painting, Jahangir presents Shah Jahan with a turban ornament in the Hall of Public Audience at Malwa, in Mandu, in 1617. Credit: in public domain, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While throughout the globe, humans have been drawn to ornamentation from the earliest times, “in India, ornament or alamkara takes on a more crucial significance”, points out art historian Vidya Dehejia. Ornament, Dehejia says, “is auspicious, ornament is protective; ornament makes the body complete, whole, beautiful, desirable. In India, to be without ornament is to provoke the forces of inauspiciousness, to court danger, even to create danger”. Jewellery in India is much more than the intrinsic value it holds, perhaps more so than in any other part of the world.

Between the opulent 2,000-year-old gold earrings and the million variations of earring-designs that exist today lies something greater than the mere history of Indian jewellery: it is the incredible story of cross-cultural exchanges, multitudes of influences, and adoptions and adaptations that have shaped India’s present. The end result is so diverse and unique that it challenges commonly accepted notions: what exactly is traditional or modern? What part of something is indigenous or foreign or even Hindu, Muslim or Christian?

In these polarised times, the very concept of composite Indian culture is constantly under attack. Amidst this campaign, much remains to be done in terms of rigorous archival research, the cornerstone of the work of professional historians. Nevertheless, it is equally worth deploying the often-overlooked arsenal of everyday material culture in the public debates. After all, the syncretism evident in the historical records is also all around us – in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the jewels with which we choose to adorn ourselves.

Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.