Inside India #4: The Peacock Throne – seat of Mughal Emperors

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

The Mughal emperors of India number among the wealthiest and most extravagant monarchs in history. Their legendary decadence and penchant for wild spending has left behind a rich legacy of historical treasures. 

Descended from the Turco-Mongol dynasties of Timur and Genghis Khan, the Mughals ruled the subcontinent from the early 1500s to the late 1850s, three centuries of all-but unchallenged dominance – until the advent of the British Raj. Invading from Afghanistan in the north, they brought Islam to India, expressed as Islamic poetry, gardens and architecture, the most famous example of which is, of course, the Taj Mahal.

The visionary behind the Taj, Emperor Shah Jahan, has long been serenaded by history for his magnificent architectural marker. What is less well known is that he also commissioned the Peacock Throne that served as the (literal) seat for Mughal emperors for over a century. The throne is regarded as both a great work of art and a testament to the skill of the master craftsmen of the time. 

Shah Jahan ruled during what is considered the Golden Age of the Mughal Empire – at one point it was estimated that the empire generated 25% of world GDP.Having established his capital at Shahjahanabad, in the ornately decorated Red Fort, Shah Jahan held daily court, giving audiences and receiving petitioners. The court was designed to be a mirror image of paradise on Earth, the beating heart of the empire. To grace his courtroom, Shah Jahan commissioned a throne to rival the legendary Throne of Solomon, a jewel-encrusted gold seat to be built on a pedestal, so that he might be raised above his courtiers. 

The throne took seven years to complete, a masterpiece of Mughal workmanship, at an eye-watering cost – it is estimated that it cost twice as much as the construction of the Taj Mahal. Among the hundreds of rubies, emeralds, pearls, diamonds, and other jewels embedded in the Peacock Throne was the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond, once the largest in the world, later brought to England and now resident in the Tower of London as part of the British Crown Jewels. 

The throne was ascended by silver steps and stood on golden feet set with jewels. It was backed by representations of two fanned peacocks’ tails – the peacocks from which it derives its name – gilded, enamelled, and inset with diamonds, rubies, and other stones.Muhammad Qudsi, the emperor’s favourite poet, was chosen to compose twenty verses and these too were inscribed on the seat in emerald and green enamel. 

The Peacock Throne was inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony on 22 March 1635, the seventh anniversary of Shah Jahan’s accession. Shah Jahan was succeeded by his son Aurangazeb who, in turn, was followed by a succession of Mughal emperors, all ruling from the Peacock Throne, until 1739, when Nader Shah of Persia sacked Delhi and stole the magnificent seat. 

Eight years later, Nader Shah’s bodyguards assassinated him, and Persia descended into chaos. 

Historians believe that the Peacock Throne was then dismantled and stripped for its precious jewels, but legends continue to circulate of the throne being smuggled away to a secret hiding place. 

If it does exist and is ever found it will mark one of the greatest historical finds of all.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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