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.

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.

''Its history,'' he answered. ''The fact that it was hidden away for so many years. The romantic nature of the country and period. This is, after all, Kashmir.''

Embellished in the romance of the period is the fact that a warrior-vassal from the Sikh court of Lahore bought Kashmir from the British in 1846. Gulab Singh thus became the first of four Dogra rulers, in a dynasty that flourished for 101 years.

In one of the rusted footlockers are a number of 18th century ceremonial robes with diamonds and pearls embossed on velvet. They were probably tied atop donkeys and mules and are believed to have accompanied Gulab Singh from Lahore.

There are also two exquisitely inlaid daggers - rubies, emeralds, and diamonds on an enamel base - which, according to Rayner, are among the most impressive items, and outstanding examples of Mogul work.

There are tens of thousands of diamonds - the largest single part of the collection. But the emeralds, most of which are from the Russian Urals, are vastly superior in weight.

There are none of the world-famous, deep blue sapphires native to Kashmir. They were exceedingly unlucky, or so the astrologers of the Dogra crown warned.

''The finest stone in the whole collection is an absolutely magnificent emerald, approaching 100 carats in weight, which is part of a ceremonial horse harness,'' Rayner said. ''It dates from the early 18th century, a semi-cut cabochon drop. It is absolutely magnificent.''

One wonders how many princely rulers would have so dressed a horse.

Dr. Karan Singh, the son of the last maharajah, says the treasure trove is indisputedly ''family heirlooms'' and surely belongs to him. Dr. Farouq Abdullah claims it for the people and for the state of Kashmir. Under the country's Antiquities Act, Mrs. Gandhi is doing all in her considerable power to prevent the jewels from being sold at auction.

No sooner had she dispatched waves of busy bureaucrats from her law and finance ministries to northern Kashmir, than the Sikhs - already involved in a veritable revolt in the Punjab - intoned that the treasure was their's.

No one is quite certain whose claims are legally just. For, even among India's extraordinary princely rulers, there is nothing approaching a precedent.

Karan Singh, a member of parliament, claims no knowledge of the treasure's worth. But he was incredulous that Sotheby's had dated most of it from only this century.

''But that's preposterous,'' Dr. Singh said. ''Pratap (his granduncle) did nothing but sleep and pray. And my father . . . where on earth did he get the money?

''I haven't seen the treasure in 45 years. But, please, tell me,'' a softness entered his voice, ''were there smooth, little gold animals, with little ruby eyes? I remember playing with them in childhood. And a child's jeweled-encrusted top? Yes, I do remember a marvelous spinning top.

''I'm probably the only former prince in India - though our state was among the largest and richest then - who doesn't have one heirloom. All of our property remained in the custody, and I repeat the custody, of the government of Kashmir.''

Legal briefs are being drawn, and there appears little doubt that a key witness will be the old retainer, dewan Iqbal Nath.

Mr. Nath does not like to be referred to as merely a custodian of the treasure's keys. After all, it was his ancestor, dewan Jawala Sahai who gave tens of thousands of dollars to the first of the Dogras, Gulab Singh, to buy Kashmir.

With that transaction, it became a prima facie rule that dewan Sahi's family would always serve in high positions in the court of the Dogra crown.

And the crown is here in all its splendor among the muslin-covered trunks. Its bejeweled turbans and hair ornaments, once wrapped in waist-length pigtails of the ladies of the court, evoke an enduring memory of a land of sandstone palaces, cool marble floors, gold and silver furniture on sprawling verandahs.

It is an era that existed only briefly in Indian history.

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