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Volume 49, Number 5September/October 1998

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City of Pearls

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by David Wells

Jahangir sits cross-legged at the low jeweler's table beside his father, Shaykh Mahboob, and I his older brothers Afsar and Sardar. He is bent over a 100-year-old bazuban, or hinged armlet, preparing to restring its border of Basra pearls and its frayed cotton tie. On one side of the bazuban sparkle 30 flat-cut diamonds in a 24-karat gold setting. On the other, red and green Rajasthani-style enameled flowers show signs of chipping and wear.

"This side should always be up, the other is too tired," Jahangir whispers to his father in their native Deccani Urdu, pointing to the diamonds.

"Even so," answers Mahboob, "the enamel is still beautiful. Give it a double-sided tie." That decided, Jahangir snips the old silk thread holding the pearls in their surround, slips them off, and picks them up again on his long stringing needle, carefully keeping them in the same order.

Mahboob meanwhile is sizing a mound of faceted rubies using a chani, a series of nested, graduated brass sieves. After separating the stones by diameter, he restrings them in diminishing order before tying off the ends with a tiny coil of silver wire that he slips over each silk thread's tip. He double over-hands the knot, held firm by the wire, with the sure dexterity of a surgeon—and many times a surgeon's aesthetic appreciation for the result.

The work day in Hyderabad's old city has just begun, but the restringing jobs of Mahboob and his sons are already backing up. Strewn on their table is a veritable pirate's chest of treasures: seven-stranded sat lada wedding necklaces, black and gold kalipul headsets worn by married women, and delicate jhomka earrings, each with six dangles of rice pearls. On the side, another pile waits from yesterday: karan phool ear and hair chains, pear-shaped jugni pendants, and egret-plumed kalgi forehead ornaments.

"A patvagaru's work is never done," says Mahboob, using the Urdu term for a master stringer of pearls and precious stones. "Gems may last forever, but cotton and silk threads do not." He has been stringing and restringing jewels for almost half a century, much of it in the employ of Vittal Das, a Gujarati dealer whose family for generations served Hyderabad's last dynastic rulers, the nizams, and their countless courtiers—ministers, nawabs (nobles), and jagirdars (revenue grantholders).

The storied wealth amassed under the 200-year reign of Hyderabad's nizams naturally called forth a precious-jewelry industry. From the year 1724, when the Mughal governor Asaf Jah titled himself Nizam al-Mulk and established his rule over central India's Deccan plateau, until 1948, when the Nizam VII Osman Ali Khan's authority was forcibly superseded by the Indian Army, untold quantities of gems and pearls passed through the Hyderabad's jewel shops on Patthargatti Road.

From his office next to Mahboob's table, Das explains how his family came to Hyderabad. "Two hundred years ago my forefathers fled the Mughals and sought calm and quiet in the south. Under the nizams there was always peace and always a strong demand for gems. I should know—I appraised the last nizam's personal collection. Even after years of sales and dispersal to relatives, the things I saw in that room could scarcely be believed."

Not 20 kilometers (12 mi) from where Das and Mahboob sit lie the ruins of Golconda Fort, whose nearby mines gave the world the Hope and Koh-i-nur diamonds, now in the Smithsonian Institution and the British coronation crown respectively. Diamonds aplenty there once were, but it is pearls that have, over time, left the boldest mark on Hyderabadi culture and trade, and today it is the city's pearl dealers who are champions of the jewelry market.

According to Sanskrit texts on gemology—a metaphysical genre known as ratnapariksa, or "appreciation of gems"—pearls join diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires as the five "god-given" stones, or maharatni. The millennia-old Vedic prayer of Atharvan invokes their special power: "Born of the wind and the air / Born of flashing lightning and starlight / May this shell and in it this pearl protect us from danger."

The 13th-century ratnapariksa of Thakkura Pheru, assaymaster of Sultan Alauddin Khalji of Delhi, who ruled from 1296 to 1315, describes in mythological language the fable of the demon Bala, who supposedly offered himself as a sacrifice to the Vedic god Indra. In reward, Indra transformed his teeth into pearls, his bones into diamonds, and his eyes into sapphires. The pearls were thought to grow in cloudbanks, cobra hoods, fish mouths, elephant temples, boar tusks, right-whorled conch shells, the nodes of bamboo stalks and oyster shells—but in each of these places but one they remained invisible to humans.

Sultan Alauddin himself was no stranger to pearls. The Khalji court poet Amir Khusrau described those plundered in the sultan's 1310 conquest of the Kakatiya Empire, which opened South India to six centuries of Muslim rule. "As for the pearls, you will not find the like of them even if you kept diving for all eternity. They gleam so bright that clouds must rain for many years before such pearls again reach the fastness of the sea."

Once retrieved from the fastness of the sea, pearls in those days reached India in two ways: from the Gulf of Mannar in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) via the south Indian city of Madurai, and from the Arabian Gulf via the port of Goa. The French jeweler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who made four sales trips to India in the late 17th century, preferred to do business in Goa—then controlled by the Portuguese—because it was a free market. Elsewhere, whoever ruled generally had first choice in the market and the last word on price.

Marco Polo described the situation he found in India 400 years earlier. "The best of the diamonds and other large gems, as well as the pearls, are all carried to the Great Khan and other Kings and Princes of those regions. In truth they possess all the great treasures of the world."

Then, the finest quality pearls were said to be Ceylonese; they were uniformly white, and they were rare. Ibn Battuta visited the island in 1344 and recounted a meeting with the king. "One day I went to him while there lay about a large number of pearls. His men were busy sorting and classifying the best. 'Have you seen any pearlfishing in the countries you come from?' he asked. 'Yes, on the islands of Gays and Kish [in the Arabian Gulf],' I said. Then he picked up a few and asked, 'Are their pearls like these?' 'They are inferior,' I replied. He was delighted and said, "These pearls are yours. Don't be shy, you can demand of me as many as you desire."

Today, Ceylonese pearls are unknown in Hyderabad, but the slightly yellowish ones from the Arabian Gulf, known as Basra pearls, are readily available both in newly restrung necklaces and in precious old settings. Dealer Madan Mohan, whose great-grandfather Raja Bhagwandas was the sixth nizam's jeweler, financier and friend, remembers as a child holding one in his hand the size of a chicken egg, weighing more than half a pound.

"The nizam would never string his pearls. He liked them undrilled so he could run his hands through them as if through grains of sand," recalls Mohan from his trove of family lore. Mohan keeps sketches his grandfather made of the nizam's prize jewels, and they show a galaxy of stones and settings, all made by his royal goldsmiths. A topaz kundun pendant with Mughal-cut emerald drops, hung from five strands of 10-millimeter (3/8") Basra pearls, dazzles the eye. That this piece was long ago broken up and reset seems an affront to the jeweler's art.

In Patthargatti's shops—some open to the hot city breeze, others crisply air-conditioned—the pearls most commonly sold today are the freshwater variety from China. Seventeen-year-old jewelsmith Muhammad Iftiqar sits streetside across from Mahboob's second-floor workshop stringing a jadavi lacha choker, an essential item in any woman's dowry. Its setting is gold-plated and the stones are colored glass; are the pearls genuine? "Absolutely," Iftiqar answers with an indignant look. "My customers could tell at a glance."

His stall's inventory is clearly aimed at a popular clientele, but even here a bride can be outfitted from head to toe. A complete wedding ensemble, called salafa, includes toe rings, anklets, bracelets, and armlets, as well as earrings, necklaces and forehead pendants. The price for all this: barely $100. And as an extra touch, Iftiqar also offers while-you-wait electroplating, which costs a mere 15 cents, and, he says, will turn base metal into gold—at least in appearance.

The afternoon clouds gather in anticipation of the monsoon, and when it begins to rain in earnest, Iftiqar simply pulls an awning over his head and keeps on stitching. He is reluctant to break his concentration, or give up his stunning view of the Charminar, the soaring, four-way arch surmounted by plump domes atop 58-meter (185') minarets, Hyderabad's urban centerpiece, built by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah at the turn of the 17th century.

Muhammad Quli was the fifth ruler in the dynasty founded in 1512 by Sultan Quli Qutb, a Turkoman adventurer who governed Golconda Fort on behalf of the crumbling Bahamani kingdom. The fort's water supply, and that of the royal residence inside it, had been slowly drying up. But the nearby Musi River flowed year-round, so in 1590 Muhammad laid out on its banks a new city, originally named Baghnagar, or place of gardens, in an unwalled grid plan.

First built to span the Musi was the Purana Pul bridge, and its 22 arches still stand strong today, despite many devastating floods over the centuries. A Persian poet used a local metaphor when he praised it as being "safe from high waters, like a pearl in its oyster." The Frenchman Tavernier, using his own standard, compared it favorably to the Pont Neuf in Paris.

From the river, a busy thoroughfare runs into the heart of the city and terminates at the Charminar. According to Muhammad Quli's court chronicler, "when the layout of the new city was complete, the sultan ordered 14,000 shops, schools, caravanserais, mosques, and baths to be built on both sides of the road."

That street today is known as Lad Bazaar, a place where women buy glass and lac bangles for 30 cents a dozen. Here all the wedding necessities are on sale: sandalwood paste, henna, kohl, peacock feathers, gold thread and attar. (See Aramco World, November/December 1997.) A local proverb says that no bride leaves her father's home without at least 10 trips to the Lad Bazaar.

In Lad, faded shop signs tell the tale of commerce past and present: "Md. Haydar, cane merchant since 1885"; "Md. Sikandar, purveyor of fine fruit by special appointment HM Nizam"; "Jameel bin Jameel, dealer in lungis" and "Noori Bangles, specialist in jadavi lacha, rani har, karan phool, and chand bali ."

Another French traveler, Jean de Thevenot, visited Hyderabad in 1666, where he found "many rich merchants, bankers, jewelers, and vast numbers of very skillful artisans." He describes in particular one fine piece worn in the sultan's turban, "a jewel almost [a foot] long, said to be of inestimable value. It is a rose of great diamonds which has at its end a lovely long pearl shaped like a pear, and makes an exceeding rare show."

Even the warlike Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who successfully laid siege to Hyderabad in 1687, found parallels between Hyderabad's gardens and its gemworks. His chronicler, Muhammad Saqi, wrote of the city, "It gives solace to the human heart and body.... The flowers of this land may be compared with the glitter and color of its emeralds and rubies."

Emeralds and rubies aside, however, Hyderabad does seem an odd city to be at the top of the pearl trade. The ocean is some 325 kilometers (200 mi) distant, and, commercially speaking, the city is a relative backwater compared to booming Bombay and Bangalore. (See Aramco World, November/December 1997.) Aleem Uddin, owner of Watan Jewellry, says without hesitation that Hyderabad's commercial position is due to "the high quality and low cost of labor." A visit to his processing center confirms that behind almost every door in Patthargatti there are pearl sorters, drillers and stringers, each with hundreds of years of family experience.

Aleem buys his Chinese pearls in bulk, and his first task is to sort them. Young female sorters sit around a table draped in red cloth, a color that allows them to best discern the tonal nuances of each pearl's outer layer of nacre, called its "orient." A two-kilogram (4½-lb) mound of pearls is in the middle of the cloth. The women sort in iterative steps, first separating by color—pink, peach, white and gray—and then by shade—light pink from dark pink, milk white from cream white, and so on.

Because demand is highest for the white pearls commonly used in mixed gem settings, entire lots are often bleached in boiling water for up to five days, depending on the intended shade. Pearls may also be brightened in a bath of hydrogen peroxide, which does not change their color.

Yet the sorting is not yet finished, for the pearls must also be separated by shape. They may be symmetrical—round, flat or "button" (one flat side)—or assymetrical, with shapes called flower, potato, rice, seed or baroque. The only way to be sure of a pearl's true shape is to roll it between finger and thumb or finger and tabletop, to feel as well as to see it. While pearls may look nearly uniform in a mass, what were once subtle differences of color and shape become quite ugly when the pearls are strung singly, one beside another, on a necklace. Perfect matching is necessary.

The art of drilling pearls is second only to diamond cutting among the exacting, unforgiving steps toward the creation of a fine jewel. By skewing the way it hangs on a string, just a small slip of the drill can disqualify even the most lustrous specimen from ever adorning a neck or an ear.

For that reason, Randrala Manshi uses a hand-powered bow drill, and takes great care in his work on a matched set of top-quality two-millimeter (¼") pearls. He examines each one carefully to select the best pathway for drilling a hole whose diameter measures 0.3 millimeters (1/64"), fixes one in the wooden vise on his workbench, and sharpens the iron bit's flat edge.

With his right hand he loops the bowstring sideways around the pencil-thin shaft that he holds upright in his left hand, and then he places the bit in position. Slowly he saws the bow back and forth, gently allowing the bit to penetrate the nacre without pressure. Keeping a steady rhythm, on every third stroke he dips his little finger into a water dish and flicks a drop onto the pearl. By wetting the dust that mounds around the hole, he avoids binding up the bit before it exits cleanly from the bottom of the pearl.

Pearls of such small size take no more than a minute to pierce, but Manshi's concentration remains intense until the entire set has been finished. As he works, the soft and liquid sounds of the sorters' shop-talk in Telugu fade away: They know that a drillmaster, or barnalgaru, is at work.

To increase output, Watan has recently switched to electric drilling for low-end stock, and already 20-year-old Muhammad Shafiq has learned to run the motorized press like a seasoned machinist. His workroom sounds and smells like a dentist's office, with the same high whine of a drill and the same acrid odor of burnt calcium—pearl dust, in this case, rather than tooth enamel.

Since before anyone can remember, this pearl dust has been popular among Hyderabadis as a medicine, called moti podi. Professor Hakeem Syed Mahmood Najmi is a follower of the yunani system of pharmacology, developed by the ancient Greeks and then translated and expanded by the Arabs in the Middle Ages. (See Aramco World, May/June 1997.)

Najmi buys pearl dust from the drillers for $3.00 a kilogram ($1.36/lb), reduces it to a talc-fine powder in mortar and pestle, and mixes it in a three-percent concentration with lime paste and oil. "Intestinal fevers, cardiac distress, nerves—all these ailments respond to the pearl," explains the white-haired professor. "We used to grind down whole pearls, but that has become too expensive."

Yunani medicine is just one example of the heterogeneous cultural treasure that history's waves have washed into Hyderabad. With the coming of Islam to the Deccan in the 14th century, the court languages of Urdu and Persian joined the Dravidian tongues of the Hindu peasantry. Added to those are the more recent arrivals, Hindi and English, and what results today is a rich polyglot heard on every street corner.

The last 50 years have brought extensive demographic changes to Hyderabad. The Urdu-speaking Muslim inhabitants—once the overwhelming urban majority—have been overwhelmed in turn by Hindi-speaking migrants from the north and by Telugu-speaking villagers from the surrounding state of Andhra Pradesh, many of whom have now found jobs in the lower levels of the pearl trade.

What had been near-universal literacy in Urdu was set back when the local university adopted English as its language of instruction and primary schools stopped recruiting Urdu-qualified teachers. The very survival of Urdu in the Deccan was in doubt until recently, when a multifaceted recovery effort began to bear fruit.

Professor Ghyas Mateen, general secretary of the Hyderabad Literary Forum, describes how literary Urdu is now enjoying a minor revival. "A week without a mushaira, an evening poetry recital, is rare. Only in poems do you hear what makes Deccani Urdu so special—how it so perfectly captures our everyday world and our everyday words, which are all mixed up with Marathi and Telugu."

Children on summer vacation can now take a crash reading and writing course taught by Urdu Bachau Tahriq, the Save Urdu Movement. A new Urdu-medium university has recently been founded and a 15-volume Urdu encyclopedia, with many entries by Hyderabadi scholars, has just been published.

The seventh nizam of Hyderabad founded the Asafia Library earlier this century, which holds a vast collection of Arabic and Persian manuscripts, as well as Osmania University, which—as India's prewar center of Urdu higher education—graduated many notable figures of India's freedom struggle and at least one prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao.

In 1927 the nizam founded Islamic Culture, still one of the world's most respected Islamic-studies journals, and named as its first editor Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, best known in western countries for his translation The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. Sayyid Abdul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), the subcontinent's leading Islamic modernist thinker, spent his formative years in this intellectual milieu.

Mawdudi founded the grassroots Muslim organization Jamaat-e-Islami, whose Hyderabad chapter recently published a new translation of the Qur'an in Telugu. "We felt we needed a better way to explain our beliefs," says Anil Sohail, of the missionary group's student wing. "Much of our teaching work is done in the villages, where naturally neither Urdu nor English is of any help to us."

Even the city's architecture is culturally cross-referenced. The magnificently domed Quli Qutb Shah tombs owe an obvious debt to the monumental towers of south India's Hindu temples. A German-born architect of the British Raj named Vincent Esch added his own eclectic touch to the city skyline by topping the High Court Building, the City College, and the Osmania General Hospital with a near-riot of squat cupolas and jali screens.

Back in the heart of Lad Bazaar, just off an alleyway called Moti Ghali, or Pearl Lane, Mir Vizarat Ali Pasha goes about the day with little concern for his city's grander works. His organization, the Toor Baitul Maal, provides interest-free loans to indigent women. All he asks in return is that they pay small monthly fees and provide as collateral a mere 20 grams (3/4oz) of gold.

Many of Vizarat Ali's 12,000 borrowers will never own much more than their gold bangles. They will almost certainly never wear the kind of jewels that Jahangir has just set about repairing in his father's shop—the four strands of pearls interspersed with emerald beads. The piece has been copied in the favored style of the nizams and nawabs of Hyderabad, who can be seen wearing such regalia in the oil portraits that hang in the city museum.

Fraying the end of his needle's thin cotton leader to make a strong splice onto the necklace's shortest silk string, Jahangir transfers the last set of pearls and beads from one side to the other. He holds up all the untied ends with both hands to check for symmetry as the four strands drop concentrically in a collar against the throat. Hanging together, the emeralds create vivid green diagonals across the milk-white field of pearls.

"Good," he tells his father, "I think our customer will be pleased."

"Of course," says Shaykh Mahboob. "This is the way it has always been done."

Writer and filmmaker Louis Werner lives in New York. His most recent film, A Sheepherder's Homecoming, will be screened for the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia in December.

This article appeared on pages 10-19 of the September/October 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1998 images.