Throne of contention


Throne of contention
History Seater: The existing marble platform at the Diwan-i-Khas is roughly 4X4, which the Archaeological Survey of India claims supported the original Peacock Throne. There's no pietra dura work on either the platform or the pedestal.
The mystery of the Peacock Throne lingers on. This ornate seat once stood inside the magnificent Diwan-i-Khas in the 17th-century Red Fort, a testimony to the wealth and power of the Mughal Empire. It disappeared some 265 years ago, but an empty marble platform in the palace kept alive the mystique of this most expensive and beautiful throne ever made.

For more than a century, history books said the Peacock Throne stood over this platform, until Persian invader Nadir Shah took away the throne to Iran in 1739. Even the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in its description of the Diwan-i-Khas, says: "Over the marble pedestal in its centre stood the famous Peacock Throne..."
Peacock Throne, Golestan Palace, Iran

Replica in Golestan Palace.

Nasser ed-Din sitting on a replica of the Peacock Throne
ZOOM - Open a large version of this image

Nasser ed-Din sitting on a replica of the Peacock Throne.

Early 17th century: The Peacock Throne is built for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
1739: Delhi is captured by Nadir Shah, taking the Peacock Throne into his own possession.
1747: The throne is lost or destroyed in the chaos following the death of Nadir Shah.
1812: A new Peacock Throne is constructed for the coronation of Fath Ali.
1836: Another Peacock Throne is built for the coronation of Mohammed.   

Shah Jahan seated on The Peacock Throne

Shah Jahan seated on The Peacock Throne

Aurangzeb seated on The Peacock Throne, receives his son Prince Mu'azzam.

The Mughal style throne in the Topkapi palace treasury in Istanbul, gifted to Ottoman emperors by Nadir Shah and believed to be a part of the “Delhi loot”
But there are many reasons to doubt if the platform left behind really held the throne.

Sunday Times stumbled upon a 1908 article in The New York Times archives with the headline, 'Indian treasure for Metropolitan'. It talked about Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, the then curator of the Museum, purchasing one of the two surviving pedestals of the original marble platform. Clarke was quoted in the piece: "...It is lavished with the most wonderful carving and the curved surfaces are all inlaid with agates, lapis lazuli, jade and carnelian. The workmanship is so extremely difficult that the piece is almost unique...There is one of its mates in England, but it is marred and chipped, the soldiers having picked many stones from it."

After the British recaptured Delhi in September 1857 during the Revolt, they let loose a reign of terror. Vandalism and looting inside the Red Fort was extant; but order was restored after a while and Colonel Robert Tytler was put in charge of the fort. According to Sir Clarke, the original marble platform, which was studded with exquisite stones and was a marvel in inlaid marble, was destroyed and two of its pedestals lost; but Colonel Tytler and his wife Harriet, who would later document all heritage buildings in Delhi, rescued the other two pedestals of which one was in good condition. The couple retained the pedestals until Tytler's death. In 1892, Harriet sold one of the pedestals to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) for £20; and after her death, Sir Purdon Clarke purchased the other pedestal for the Metropolitan Museum.

When this reporter sent an email to the museum seeking details of the pedestal, he was asked why he wanted to know. When told it was for a newspaper report, the museum authorities, surprisingly, stopped responding. Five more emails elicited no response. The item is not listed in the museum's online catalogue, and a gallery search, too, threw up a blank. However, the pedestal's details were found in the museum's annual bulletin of 1908 where Clarke had described the item and its purchase history. There was also a black and white photograph of it, apart from the list of acquisitions made by the museum that year. Inquiries with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London revealed they still have the other pedestal.

Emperor Shah Jahan who ruled from 1628 to 1658 had commissioned the Peacock Throne. Bebadal Khan supervised the work and was given 1,150 kg of gold and 230 kg of jewels, which included the Koh-i-noor, Akbar Shah and Jahangir diamonds and the Timur ruby. The throne took seven years to complete, and Shah Jahan ascended it for the first time on March 12, 1635. French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier—who visited India first during Emperor Shah Jahan's reign and then again during Emperor Aurangzeb's reign—had the opportunity of observing the throne from close quarters. He described it in his Les Six Voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (Six Voyages of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier), and historians of the past and present have relied on this description. He said it was a rectangular throne, six feet long and four feet wide and resembled a 'field bed'. It had four sturdy legs about 20-25 inches in height and an arched canopy supported by 12 columns. He did not mention any platform. Neither did Mughal miniatures depict any platform.

The dimensions of the present platform are also at variance with the throne. Each of its sides is four feet. One can't imagine Shah Jahan, whose love for symmetry is well-known, settling for a 4X4 platform for a 6X4 throne. What's more, the Throne was highly ornate, while this platform has no pietra dura work on it or its four legs.

The last person who saw an intact Peacock Throne and drew a sketch of it was a European artist in the train of Nadir Shah. He recorded having seen a huge, heavy throne that resembled a small camp.

When shown this evidence, Dr K K Mohammed, former superintending archaeologist of Delhi ASI and the man who had discovered Akbar's Ibadatkhana at Fatehpur Sikri in 1984, said, "Most of the known depictions of the throne generally miss the 12 pillars, which Tavernier said were decorated with exquisite pearls and were the most expensive part of the throne. We don't know why this discrepancy occurs, but the Mughal emperor had six other thrones as well. I will have to admit that yours is a great find and nobody has ever questioned the authenticity of the existing marble platform. Your evidence is compelling too. Hopefully, it will trigger further research. Who knows history may have missed something and more research might help us piece together this most intriguing puzzle," he said.

Sunday Times wanted to know what modern builders think about this marble platform. We spoke to Achintya Bharadwaj, a civil engineer with a reputed firm specializing in infrastructure development. "Any structure will not have exactly vertical load distribution on the ground; in fact, the load distribution will be inclined at an angle with the vertical. The foundation or platform for any structure, therefore, usually has dimensions greater than the actual dimensions of the structure," he said.

The Mughal engineers must have known this.

The throne disappeared after Nadir Shah's assassination in 1747. It was either destroyed and its valuables looted, or dismantled and some of its parts used in the construction of a later throne, also called the Peacock Throne, which survives in Golestan Palace in Tehran. There are stories that the later Mughals used another throne, most probably a replica of the original. This, too, was destroyed.

So what is the present platform? A plausible explanation is given by Herbert Charles Fanshawe, who prepared a detailed account of Shahjahanabad, in his 1902 book, 'Delhi: Past and Present': "At the back of the Hall (Diwan-i-Khas) is a marble platform seat, used as a throne by the later powerless emperors of Delhi."

It's up to the ASI now to solve this mystery.