Maharajah's treasure discovered in India: but who shall have it?
The setting is hardly auspicious: a dilapidated red-brick building where ceiling fans slowly turn, evoking images of the British Raj, and a dark stairwell leads to a basement vault with years of dust in the corners.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet here, in the Toshakhana or state treasury in Srinagar, Kashmir, lies what is probably the largest treasure ever uncovered in the Indian subcontinent. It had been tucked away in the basement, largely forgotten, for nearly 40 years.
When it came to light last summer, the tale proved as fanciful as a Persian poet's pen. A far-off Himalayan kingdom. A whimsical retainer of the last maharajah to wear the Dogra crown. Six steel trunks of royal extravagance, evoking all of the frivolity, all of the pageantry, and also the greed, of the princely rulers of India, who signed instruments of accession to the union only when independence was gained.
Based on appraisals thus far, the extraordinary treasure is thought to be worth $30 million to $50 million. But nobody yet knows for certain the worth or the ownership of that legacy, bequeathed by the Dogra crown.
The son of the last maharajah has claimed it. So has the state government of Kashmir. The prime minister, Indira Gandhi, has opened an official inquiry, under India's Antiquities Act.
As I wove my way through bank customers - the Toshakhana is inside the Jammu and Kashmir Bank - a sweeper bending over her broom eyed me with curiosity. I was flanked by seven state government officials, on this harried pilgrimage from New Delhi to see the maharajah's jewels.
It was almost a ritual. The trunks were brought in by bearers who strained under their weight. We sat at a rectangular table, in the office of the Toshakhana's custodian, an affable Mr. Karr. He holds one set of keys to the vaulted basement. The other set remains with the enigmatic dewan, Iqbal Nath.
Mr. Nath is one of the last of Kashmir's royal retainers, who faithfully served the Dogra crown. He is officially retired. Yet, the dewan has refused to relinquish his passkey to the treasure trove. After all, for nearly 40 years he was the genie who silently came and went, inspecting the contents of the basement, but telling no one what the trunks contained. Even now, he refuses to say.
According to Nicolas Rayner of Sotheby's, the London-based auction house, the 435-piece collection probably represents the most complete maharajah's treasure extant on the Indian subcontinent.
The vast majority of the pieces are believed to date from 1900 to 1940, and from the rule of Pratap and Hari Singh. It was Hari who acceded to union of the state with India in 1947, following a Pakistani tribal raid.
He and his wife fled the mountain kingdom with what they could carry, along with the luggage of their retinue. He always meant to return to collect his treasure. But, while the rest of India's princely rulers sold their jewels abroad, Hari's legacy remained in the dusty basement, under the watchful eye of Iqbal Nath.
In July, Kashmir's chief minister, Farouq Abdullah, ordered the trunks opened , symbolically stripping the maharajah's seals away. A hush fell over incredulous state government officials. Somebody rushed to the window and hastily drew the drapes.
Months later, as I sat in the Toshakhana with the same officials, the same electricity filled the air. The first trunk was opened. There was an audible gasp.
Piled high inside the 36-by-18-inch steel footlocker were ceremonial horse harnesses, swords and girdles, crowns and necklaces, bracelets and woven, 24 -carat-gold belts.
Inside one box containing a two-foot-long diamond and emerald necklace was a yellowed slip of paper, on which someone had scrawled 400,000 rupees (about $40, 000) in what appears a shaky hand. The room is full of people, yet no one really knows the history, the worth, or the legacy of the maharajah's jewels.
''Other than its size, what makes the collection memorable?'' I later asked Sotheby's Mr. Rayner. He had done the first appraisal of the treasure during four exhausting days in July, working 16 hours a day.