The Dagger Of Shah Jahan Sells At Bonhams In London For £1.7m

. April 10, 2008

A dagger that once belonged to Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor, who built the Taj Mahal, as a memorial to his beloved wife, sold for £1,700,000 at Bonhams Indian and Islamic sale in London today, 10 April.

dagger.jpgThe elegant and understated personal dagger carried by Shah Jahan, (reigned 1627-1657), with its fine gold inscriptions and decoration, dated to 1629-30, was expected to attract bids of around £300,000 – 500,000. The whole collection finally sold for just under £3m.

The inscriptions in nasta’liq script on the blade include the Shah Jahan’s official titles, date and place of birth, and the honorific parasol (an ancient pan-Asian symbol of divinity of royalty); all state that it was the personal dagger of Shah Jahan.

The dagger was the most important item in a fantastic collection built by the late Jacques Desenfans, a Belgian driven by his passion for Islamic, Indian and South East Asian history and culture. He spent over 50 years amassing this hugely important collection, which includes arms and armour, early pottery and works of art. His collection was brought to public attention when the last Shah of Iran visited him personally at his home in 1969, when the collection was exhibited at Braine L’Alleud.

In an article titled ‘Dagger For The Heart’, written for Bonhams Magazine, by William Dalrymple, the internationally acclaimed writer, author of The Last Mughal, City of Djinns and White Mughals, says: “The Emperor’s love of beautiful and precious objects – damascened and gold-embellished blades, enamels and hammered metals, precious lapidary, inlaid hardstones and inscribed gems – was something many visitors commented on. According to Edward Terry, the chaplain to the British ambassador, Shah Jahan was “the greatest and richest master of precious stones that inhabits the whole earth.”

Claire Penhallurick, Head of Indian and Islamic Department at Bonhams said: “It was a great privilege to sell such an extraordinary Indian artefact which took pride of place in the breathtaking Jacques Desenfans Collection. Objects of this quality and importance come to the market very very rarely. We are delighted with the result.”

Shah Jahan lived from 1592-1666. This extraordinary dagger seems to be the second known personal dagger of Shah Jahan. Relatively few personal objects of Shah Jahan have survived. With its high quality and complete inscription, the present lot is an important addition to this small corpus and is the earliest dated piece. Shah Jahan was born Prince Khurram Shihab al-Din Muhammad in 1592 in Lahore, the third and favourite son of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, and was later titled Shah Jahan or King of the World in 1627. His reign was called the Golden Age of the Mughals and the empire experienced its greatest period of prosperity and stability. Under his rule, Mughal artistic and architectural achievements reached their zenith. He was a patron of the fine arts and continued to foster the Mughal tradition of painting, and was also a prolific builder with a highly refined aesthetic. Great monuments from his reign include the Taj Mahal and the Pearl Mosque at Agra, the Divan-e ‘Am, the Divan-e Khas, the Jami’ and Moti mosques and the Palace in Delhi, and the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. He also created the fabled Peacock Throne, or Takht-e Tawus, to celebrate his rule.

By Shah Jahan’s time weapons were no longer only for warfare: they had become great works of art in their own right, being decorated with enamels, precious metals and stones. Mughal princes, nobles and high officials were honoured regularly by the emperor with daggers, knives and swords, which were worn as symbols of a wearer’s status, as seen in the illustrated Padshah-nama in the Windsor Library. The most common types being the khatar or push-dagger and khanjar with its curved blade, similar to the present lot. An etiquette of weaponry also developed concerning whether it was permitted to wear a weapon or not. For example, it was considered inappropriate for the emperor or a prince to wear a dagger while visiting or receiving individual holy men, even though we are told Shah Jahan wore a dagger when honouring his religious orthodoxy, and his sons and courtiers were also fully armed.

The inscription on the blade is the most detailed of all the inscriptions found on any of the known group of Shah Jahan’s personal objects. It contains the Emperor’s name, his title, and the place and date of the dagger’s manufacture. The blade also depicts the parasol, an emblem found on blades from the imperial army and those of princes, which signified the dome of heaven, and which when carried above the head of a ruler symbolised his exalted state and his role between God and more ordinary mortals.

Born under the most auspicious astrological circumstances – the conjunction of the two planets Jupiter and Venus – he was known throughout his life as the Second Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction, the first having been his ancestor Timur, whom Shah Jahan was keen to emulate.

Based on the dates given, i.e. second regnal year 1039 (which covers the period between 29th August 1629 and 21st January 1630) and the fact that the blade was made in Akbarabad, it is possible to suggest the occasion for which it was made, namely of Shah Jahan’s 39th birthday, which fell on 3rd Jumadi II 1039 (17th January 1630). According to Muhammad Salih, after the Emperor’s weighing ceremony to commemorate this birthday, Shah Jahan and his court left Akbarabad (Agra), which was the imperial capital and they moved towards Burhanpur in the Deccan (Muhammad Salij Kanbu, Shah Jahan Nama, Lahore 1958, p. 279). They did not return to Akbarabad until 16th June 1632, the year after the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal.

The refinement of script and delicacy of the floral decoration in two-toned gold are of imperial quality, and it fair to assume that the blade was made at the royal workshop or karkhanas in Akbarabad. It was a tradition in the Mughal armoury to re-use blades and to fit them to other hilts, particularly such important pieces.

The hilt is made of sardonyx, a type of agate used for its decorative, multi-layered aesthetic. Sardonyx and other types of agate were popular in the Mughal court and it was often used in the production of cameos, for instance one depicting Shah Jahan and datable to the period 1630-40, sold through these rooms (Bonhams, Islamic and Indian Art, 1st May 2003, lot 380). In the tradition of the Mughal courts, Shah Jahan was trained in the art of hard stone carving and had a great appreciation of this medium.

The only other known personal dagger of Shah Jahan is in a private collection and has been exhibited several times. It has a jade hilt in the form of a human head, the blade inscribed sahib-qiran-e thani 2 and is attributable to the period 1620-30 (Robert Skelton et al., The Indian Heritage. Court Life and Arts under Mughal Rule, Exhibition Catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 21st April – 22nd August 1982, p. 128, no. 406).

Category: Auction News

Comments are closed.