A gowrishankaram necklace




India, Tamil Nadu


19th century


Casting, forging, repoussé, chasing, gem-setting


Gold, rubies, topazes, emeralds, rudraksha beads


Overall length 398 mm; pendant length 143 mm

The central element, the pendant and the clasp of the necklace are made of sheet gold carefully crafted using the repoussé technique (the Indian name is nakashu). The central element is designed as a stylized temple with three domes and three niches, which are surrounded by openwork foliage and small flower heads. The central niche contains the figure of Shiva Nataraja with two pairs of female deities on the sides. The massive pendant is a hollow amulet container decorated with relief lingams and various floral motifs to form several friezes. It has five spire-like projections at the top and bottom. Both the central element and the pendant are set with twelve cabochon rubies and two faceted white topazes in rosette-shaped gold mounts. In addition, the temple domes are surmounted with three emerald beads set with pins into gold cups. Like the central element, the clasp is formed as a stylized temple with five deities, but the central figure here is Kartikeya, the son of Shiva. Kartikeya is depicted with a peacock, which is his vehicle (vahana). The clasp and the central element are connected by two metallic braided cords on which rudraksha beads and gold disc spacers are alternately strung.

COMMENT. Gowrishankaram is a Hindu, or rather, a Shaivite ceremonial necklace, which is exclusive to the male members of the Nattukottai Chettiar community, as well as the Dikshitars (priests) of the famous Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram located in the present-day state of Tamil Nadu, South India. The Nattukottai Chettiars (or Nagarathars) is a prosperous Tamil mercantile community that follows the belief system of Shaivism. The term gowrishankaram is of Sanskrit origin. The word Gowri ("Light") is used as another name for Parvati, the consort of Shiva, while the Shankara ("Beneficent") is one of the names for Shiva. Each gowrishankaram is a visual embodiment of wealth, aesthetic taste and religious beliefs of Nattukottai Chettiars. The central element, pendant and clasp are made of pure gold and are elaborately decorated in relief with various Hindu symbols and deities. The main character is Shiva Nataraja, literally "Lord of the Dance", who performs the Tandava dance symbolizing the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction. The massive pendant is a hollow amulet container imitating the pyramidal shape of the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple. It is designed to store a special miniature lingam, the phallic symbol connected with Shiva. Another important part of the gowrishankaram is the cord with strung desiccated fruits of rudraksha, an evergreen blue cypress bearing the botanical name Elaeocarpus ganitrus. In Hinduism, wrinkled rudraksha beads symbolize the eyes or teardrops of Rudra, the most famous incarnation of Shiva.

The presented necklace has great historical and cultural value as an outstanding example of Indian jewelry art. Two similar necklaces can be seen in the Museum of World Cultures in Barcelona (inv. no. MEB CF 1970) and in the F. John Barlow collection in Appleton, USA (The F. John Barlow Mineral Collection / Managing Editor F. John Barlow; Associate Editors Robert W. Jones and Gene L. LaBerge. – Appleton, 1996. – P. 178). For other examples, see Christie’s: Art of the Islamic & Indian World Including Works from the Simon Digby Collection. Thursday 7 April 2011, London, St. James’s: [Auction Catalogue]. – London, 2011. – Lot 286; Mathur, A. A Jewelled Splendour: The Tradition of Indian Jewellery. – New Delhi, 2002. – P. 60-61; Sotheby’s: Arts of the Islamic World Including Fine Carpets and Textiles. London, 14 April 2010: [Auction Catalogue]. – London, 2010. – Lot 190; Untracht, O. Traditional Jewelry of India. – London, 2008. – P. 39, no. 46.