Amid the verdant vineyards of Chexbres, near the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, is Hotel Le Baron Tavernier. Housed in a typical Swiss country chalet, its quaint environs are a world away from the Indian subcontinent. But it has a compellingly close connection to early modern Indian history.
The hotel is named after Baron Jean Baptiste Tavernier of Aubonne, the famed 17th-century French traveller and expert gem trader, and is located in what used to be his fiefdom. Tavernier was among the many merchant travellers who bridged the gap between the Orient and the Occident.
Undertaking extensive and often dangerous journeys to the great empires of the East, Tavernier traversed much of Safavid Iran and Mughal India, serving as an integral cog in early modern global trade. His sense of enterprise, combined with his keen eye for gemstones, brought him in close proximity to many pivotal personalities, events, and objects of the time— including becoming the conveyor of one the most famous diamonds in history.
Tavernier made his first journey to the East in 1631, at the age of 26, accompanying two French clergymen on their travels to the Levant and Persia. Making their way through Constantinople (now Istanbul), Tavernier got as far as Isfahan in Iran. He returned to Europe in 1633 or ’34, having spent about three years travelling and trading in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Over the next 30 years, Tavernier would make five more such excursions — via land and sea — going as far east as Vietnam.
Much of what we know about his journeys come from his own accounts, published in 1676 as two books, Six Voyages and Travels in India. Both sold widely and by the middle of the 18th century had already gone through 21 editions in French as well as other languages (they are still in print today).
Tavernier was a discerning writer who kept meticulous notes – but arranged them by theme rather than chronologically. It is believed he did this in order to minimise repetition, but for those of us looking back on his travels nearly 400 years on, it means we often don’t know exactly when he was in the places he mentions. What we do know is that in 1640, on his second journey, he made his way to India.
The Land of Plenty
Travelling overland to Persia, and then via ship across the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea, Tavernier arrived in Surat— a route he would repeat in all his successive journeys. Arriving in the middle of March 1640, Tavernier was at once smitten by this new land.
Apparently, he did not think too highly of Surat itself, considering it to be a city of “indifferent bigness, defended by a pitiful fortress”, but as he explored the great plains of Hindustan, he became fascinated. Over five visits to India, he would travel through most of the Mughal Empire, visiting Agra, Golconda, Patna, Goa, Dhaka and Machilipatnam, among other cities.
The sheer abundance he encountered — of quotidian and extraordinary fare —deeply enamoured him, and is something he wrote of repeatedly in his travelogues. Tavernier noted how “even in the smallest villages, rice, flour, butter, milk, beans and other vegetables, sugar and sweetmeats, dry and liquid, can be procured in abundance”. Most supreme for Tavernier, however, was the court of the Great Moghuls. He attended court in Agra during the reigns of Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58) as well as Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), and is believed to have been granted an audience with both emperors. His keen observations of life in court provide a fascinating view of the Mughal Empire.
Tavernier describes the many customs — often very elaborate — that were followed by the Mughal Emperors. The weighing of the Emperor against an equivalent amount of jewellery on his birthday; the 80-elephant processions in which Shah Jahan proceeded on every mosque visit; Aurangzeb’s fortnightly hunts that featured thousands of men, even if you counted just the beaters. All this was otherworldly and intriguing for Tavernier.
What instilled the most awe in him, naturally, were the jewelled riches of the Mughals. In his travelogues, he takes great pains to describe each of the seven imperial thrones. Chief among them was the Peacock Throne, on which Tavernier said he counted nearly 108 rubies (none below 100 carats), 160 emeralds (none below 30 carats), and a great number of diamonds and pearls. Atop the canopy of the throne, sat the jewelled peacock, “consisting all of sapphires…the body is of beaten gold, encased with several jewels; and a great ruby upon its breast, at which hangs a pearl, that weighs fifty carats”.
Tavernier was in India at the time of the disputed interregnum between Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, and describes in great detail the fratricidal war of succession that was unfolding before him. Having come from Europe, where primogeniture or the rule of the first-born child was the norm, the idea that all male relatives could lay claim to a throne baffled him. Tavernier’s graphic account of the nearly senile Shah Jahan bellowing curses upon his son Aurangzeb, after being imprisoned by the latter, is just one of the many episodes he recounts, as these famed figures revealed their very human vulnerabilities.
Another was Aurangzeb’s reaction to the death of Dara Shikoh, his elder brother and main rival for the Mughal throne. It was Aurangzeb who sentenced Dara Shikoh to death, after defeating him in battle. But when he was presented with his severed head as evidence of his command being carried out, Aurangzeb fell to his knees weeping. Grief-stricken, he ordered the remains of his brother to be buried in Humayun’s Tomb.
When Aurangzeb finally ascended the throne, Tavernier describes the lavish coronation he staged, stretching over months. He makes special mention of the variety of ambassadors and other plenipotentiaries who arrived to pay their respects and establish ties with the new emperor. These included representatives from Tartar kingdoms in Uzbekistan, the Ethiopian Empire and the Sharif of Mecca. More presciently, Tavernier noted the attendance of the factory chiefs of the Dutch and British East India Companies, who needed to ensure warm ties with the Mughal court in order to trade. In the coming decades, they would play an emergent role in the downfall of the Mughal Empire, and alter the politics of the subcontinent at large. For now though, Tavernier was witnessing one of the grandest empires of the time at its apotheosis.
Apart from the larger historical events, Tavernier also took note of the more trivial but intriguing rumours and stories that emerged from the Mughal harem. Tales of poisonings by rival mistresses, the murder of illicit lovers, and the intense political conspiracies to gain imperial favour allowed the traveller to paint a rich caricature of the lives of the Mughals at the height of the Empire. He surveyed the Mughal court at its very finest from a point of view few others could ever access.
Tavernier, however, was ultimately a merchant and had to profit from these long trips. Over his many journey’s to India, he became extremely well-versed with one commodity that would ensure handsome rewards: diamonds. Until the mid-18th century, the mines of Golconda in the Deccan were the sole source of diamonds in the world. Stones originating here were highly prized, and the word ‘Golconda’ was synonymous with extreme extravagance even in the great courts of Europe.
Tavernier visited the mines himself, in order to purchase gemstones of the finest quality. It was on one of his final visits to the famed Kollur Mine, right on the banks of River Krishna, that Tavernier acquired a diamond like no other. Though only 112 carats (Tavernier saw numerous diamonds above 500 carats, he records), it had perfect clarity, a rare pristine blue tint, and was “the size of a grown man’s fist”. The Tavernier Blue, as it came to be known, sealed the merchant traveller’s place in history.
Upon returning to France in 1668, he was received in court by Louis XIV. The king bought a number of diamonds from him, including the Tavernier Blue, paying a staggering total of 3 million French livres. In addition to this vast sum, a patent of nobility was granted to Tavernier, making him Baron of Aubonne (then part of the Kingdom of France) and vesting with him the lands that came with the baronetcy.
The Tavernier Blue turned out to be the finest gemstone in the French Treasury, and was cut and placed in the insignia set of the French Crown Jewels. It was not to remain for very long. During the French Revolution (1787-99), it was stolen, along with the rest of the crown jewels, and would reappear in London — recut and now known as the Hope Diamond.
After passing through numerous hands, famed American gem merchant Harry Winston finally donated it to the Natural History museum in Washington DC in 1958, where it resides today. Its rich provenance is not without its own ‘diamond curse’ adage, and a number of its owners fell upon hard times after acquiring it.
As for Tavernier, after spending over 40 years travelling and trading in kingdoms so distant from his own roots, he retired to his baronetcy on the shores of Lake Geneva. He at once began working on his travelogues, and much to our benefit, spent considerable time recounting all that he had seen and experienced. Rather ironically, it has been his literary works, rather than the scores of gemstones he bartered and esteemed so highly, whose value has stood the test of time, becoming vital resources for scholars of Mughal India.
Tavernier’s own story ends tragically, in dwindled prosperity and a violent death. Having squandered his riches on a number of questionable business ventures by 1689, Tavernier — now 84 — decided to once again set out towards Persia, via Moscow, on a trading expedition. He would never complete it. He died somewhere near Smolensk, allegedly torn apart by a pack of wolves. The curse, perhaps, of the rare blue diamond he was the first to trade.
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