Friday, June 26, 2015

Thévenot in India

Mirror ring with inlaid foiled glass
late 18th to early 19th c Rajasthan India.
This is the third and final installment of a series that has followed seventeenth century French tourist Jean de Thévenot from Europe to the Levant and then into Syria. We have specifically looked into his diary with an eye toward passages that mention glass or glassmaking. While our intrepid traveler had no special connection to this art, he did possess a keen, inquisitive mind; collectively, his observations about glass give us a glimpse into the state of affairs in the Middle and Far East in the mid 1600s.

We left off with Thévenot as he headed up the Tigris River toward Baghdad, in the autumn of 1663. While he was anxious to see Mughal India, actually getting there presented some difficulty due to hostilities between the Dutch, British and Portuguese, which extended to their trade operations around the world. After a first attempt was aborted, he made a strategic retreat to Isfahan and bided some time with shorter excursions from there. Finally, in the autumn of 1665 he booked passage on the originally English ship “Hopewell” recently purchased by an Armenian trader and captained by an Italian. [1] The ship departed from Basra and made port at Surat, India in January of 1666.

The city of Agra is in the Northwestern part of India, a thousand kilometers from Surat and the coast; it is known most famously as the home the Taj Mahal. When Thévenot passed through, he noted of the women “They wear a great many [rings], and as they love to see themselves, they have always one with a looking-glass set in it, instead of a stone, which is an inch in diameter.” [2]

These rings, set with a mirror, are known as “arsi” and can still be found in some areas around the country. Indeed, Sharma and Seth note in their 1997 book on contemporary regional costumes and ornaments that mirror rings were popular in the northern most reaches of India. In the western Himalayas at Chamba and as throughout India, they are still worn today. “Arsi or arsu means a mirror. An ornament with this name is a ring fitted with a round mirror or a looking-glass. It is usually worn on the thumb of the right hand. With the help of arsi, the hill woman can look at herself in the mirror and feel assured of her beauty in such places like fairs and festivals. Thus she can stealthily have a glance in the mirror whenever she desires, even in the company of males without feeling awkward.” [3]

Another reference states that in the seventeenth century arsi rings were worn by both men as well as women, but I have been unable to confirm this. In any event, they appear to have been wildly popular. On an earlier expedition through Aleppo, Syria, Thévenot observed “five or six hundred cases of [mirrored] glass” being shipped down the Euphrates River. When he expressed surprise at the rough handling, he was told “that it mattered not, though it were all broken into pieces, because the Indian men and women buy it only to have little pieces set in rings, which serve them for looking-glasses to see themselves in.” [4]

Thévenot’s first landing was in Surat on the west coast of India, about 300km north of Mumbai. In 1688, Captain Alexander Hamilton landed at the same port and recorded, “The [Muslim] women wear gold rings on their fingers, and sometimes one on their thumbs, with a small looking-glass set in it.” [5] Other travelers also noticed the rings:  In the 1660’s Frenchman Souchu de Rennefort observed similarly, “They wear also many [rings] on their fingers, and among the rest, one with a small looking-glass in it, which serves them to contemplate themselves.” [6]

The earliest account I have been able to find recounts not a glass mirror but one of metal. On 25 September 1637, ambassadors from the Danish duke of Holstein were visiting the King of Persia and were entertained by six dancing women from India. The women were accompanied by their husbands who played musical instruments. “Some of them had bracelets of pearl, others of silver, but they had all rings on their fingers, and among the rest, they had upon the thumb, upon which in the place where the stone should be, there was a piece of steel, about the bigness of a crown-piece of silver, and so well polished that it served them for a looking-glass.” [7]

As these accounts suggest, vanity may well have been the motivation for the popularity of the arsi rings, but it is worth noting that mirrors did play a role in some religious practices. Wikipedia states, “The Nizhal Thangals and Pathis have, in their sanctuary, a mirror to reflect the images [of] worshippers. […] The mirror's placement symbolizes that God is inside oneself and it is of no use to seek God elsewhere.” [8] In some Muslim weddings of Southern India, a traditional ritual is called ‘Arsi-Mushaf’ or “the mirror ring and the Quran,” in which the newly betrothed observe each other through a mirror.

Thévenot stayed in India for over a year and crossed the country to its East Coast. Finally, he returned to Surat, sailed to Persia and traveled north back to Shiraz. He spent the summer of 1667 at Isfahan, after suffering an accidental gunshot wound. In the autumn, he started north for Tabriz, but died on the way at Meyaneh on 28 November 1667.

[1] Armenians in Asian Trade in the Early Modern Era, ed. Sushil; Kevonian Chaudhury (Keram). (France: Les Editions de la MSH, 2008) p. 106.
[2]Jean de Thévenot: The Travels Of Monsieur De Thévenot Into The Levant: In Three ..., Volume 3
 (London: Archibald Lovell Faithorne, 1687)v. 3,  p. 38.
[3] Kamal Prashad Sharma, Surinder Mohan Seth: Costumes and Ornaments of Chamba (New Delhi: Indus Publishing,1997), p.113
[4] Jean de Thévenot: “The Travels of Monsieur Thévenot Into The Levant” (London: H. Clark, 1687), v.2, p.40.
[5] Alexander Hamilton, A New Account of the East Indies: Giving an Exact and Copious ..., Volume 1(London: C. Hitch; and A. Millar, 1744) v. 1, p. 165
[6] Gabriel Dellon, Jodocus Crull, Souchu de Rennefort: A voyage to the East-Indies: giving an account of the isles of Madagascar (London: D. Browne, 1698) p. 25
[7] Adam Olearius, John Davies, Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo: The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors from the Duke of Holstein, to the ... (London: Thomas Dring, and John Starkey, 1662), p.277
[8] Wikipedia:

No comments:

Post a Comment