In the early 16th century, descendent of the founder of the Timurid Empire (1370-1506), Baber (1483-1530) led his troops into northern India and established the Mughal Empire (1526-1857). One hundred years later, the Empire had achieved great power and influence. Rulers enthusiastically constructed magnificent stone buildings, and even recruited skilled European and Persian craftsmen to provide their services. Through exchange across cultural and political boundaries, a wide variety of arts and crafts flourished within Mughal Empire territory, with Mughal jades as one of the brightest star.
At the same time, far from the Mughal Empire in South Asia, East Asia was in the midst of an upheaval. The Manchu regime from the northeast spread southward and defeated the primarily Han Chinese Ming Dynasty to set up the Qing Empire. By 1759, Qing forces had conquered the eastern edge of Central Asia and the territory was incorporated into the empire under the name Xinjiang, meaning new territory. Thereafter, all kinds of goods from South and West Asia travelled through Kashgar and Yarkand in Xinjiang as tribute to Beijing. Exquisite jades from India and other areas became the preferred form of tribute for officials in Xinjiang and Uygur leaders to present to the emperor. So enchanted was he by Mughal jade, the Qianlong emperor often wrote poems praising their beauty and some jades were even inscribed with his poetry. In addition, other regional states on the Indian peninsula outside of the Mughal Empire also developed the art of jade carving. While influenced by Mughal culture, these jades differed somewhat in style from those produced within the Mughal Empire. Scholars termed these works Non-Mughal Indian jades, which were also swept along the wave east to the Qing Palace. This collection of jade objects was ultimately moved to Taiwan and became a treasured part of the National Palace Museum's collection.
Obsessed with jade from South Asia, the Qianlong emperor often referred to India as “Tianfang”（Hindustan） in his poetry, while he hailed the beautiful finished jade pieces as “heavenly craft”. To share these exquisite objects with the public, 142 pieces are currently being exhibited in the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum. Part One of the exhibition features jades used by the Mughal emperors and nobility in their daily lives, while Part Two explores the Qianlong emperor's aesthetic point of view through his poetry. Part Three utilizes Non-Mughal Indian jades to introduce the local characteristics of Indian regional states situated outside the empire, yet still influenced by Mughal culture. The Museum wishes to share with visitors the exquisite, classic beauty of the objects born of this cultural exchange.
1. Mughal Empire - A kaleidoscope of variety
—Jade objects in the lives of the emperors and nobility
India's own long tradition of stone carving was further influenced by Central Asian jade craftsmen. As the Mughal Empire flourished in the 17th century, the art of jade carving reached a new zenith.
According to scholars, the emperor recruited artisans from Persia and Europe and resulting jade carvings successfully blended local Indian culture with European, Central Asian steppe, and Chinese artistic elements to create a distinct style. Ornamental motifs were primarily drawn from nature and included flowers and leaves, gourds, and ram's heads. Although jade itself is a very hard and cold material, craftsmen employed multilayered carving in low relief to capture lifelike, organic forms from the natural world and depict the soft pliancy of leaves and flowers, the abundance of gourds, and the spirited, fiery nature of animals. Food-related utensils such as bowls, cups, plates, containers, and pots largely feature layered flowers and leaves carved in low relief.
Gold and gemstone inlays were a favorite of the Indian aristocracy, but the technique primarily appears on weapons and miscellaneous items for daily use such as knife and dagger handles, archer's thumb rings, gunpowder containers, betel nut boxes and support trays, along with bases and mouthpieces for water pipes.
2. Qing Empire – Qianlong's Treasures
—The Qianlong emperor's aesthetic viewpoint seen through his poetry
In the years between 1768 and 1794, the Qianlong emperor wrote an essay establishing the location of Hindustan and fifty-seven poems that include the word “Hindustan”. This part of the exhibit features a selection of 14 pieces of Mughal jade carved with Qianlong's poetry from the Museum's collection, which represent the emperor's appreciation for and interpretation of these jade pieces.
Using Qianlong's poetry to analyze the Qianlong emperor's assessment of Mughal jades, one can get a sense of his artistic taste. He favored works that are pristine, refined, elegant, and full of vitality. He cherished lustrous white jade and often praised the floral and leaf patterns decorating these objects as appearing multilayered, yet smooth to the touch. The emperor thought that Hindustan jades' skillful thinness, transparency, and lightness were a product of superior craftsmanship unachievable by Chinese artisans.
3. Indian Regional States – Art for Profit
—Non-Mughal Indian Jades
The Mughal Empire of South Asia was centered in northern India, and territories under its rule were in flux. Other areas of the Deccan Plateau on the subcontinent were occupied by local forces. At the height of the Mughal Empire in the 17th century, each of these regional Indian states may have set up their own jade workshops. Additionally, the sixth Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1658-1707) offered less support for jade arts than his predecessors and some scholars speculate that jade craftsman who were therefore unhappy travelled to nearby regional states, which spurred the rapid development of Non-Mughal Indian jades. Although they share many similarities with Mughal Jades, there are also obvious differences between the two styles. Non-Mughal Jades are smaller, the ornamentation is relatively dense and rigid, and carved patterns are not symmetrical and do not cover the entire surface of the object. From the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 19th century, after the Qing emperor's love of Mughal jades was widely known, Indian regional states ramped up production of jade objects for export, some of which featured a distinctly Chinese style.