The Navaratna Gemstones

Decoding metaphor in traditional Indian jewelry

India is unique in its ability to boast of an unbroken heritage of jewelry design that spans at least five thousand years and a bewildering diversity of vegetable, mineral and animal resources crafted into a vast and complex assortment of forms. 
The country’s varied climatic zones provide a bounteous diversity of natural resources which have long been tapped for use in body decoration, even as early as the Stone Age when rudimentary tribal societies manipulated natural materials into ornaments. As formally structured, urbanized, social and religious systems developed in the period after 2000 BC, social hierarchies arose, and with them, jewellery made in particular forms, especially in much valued materials, became a means of differentiating the social status of individuals. 
The technology of metallurgy, invented in the Bronze Age, introduced new materials and formal possibilities to the art of jewelry making as well as a greater degree of specialization among its makers. As these urban societies consolidated their political power through conquest and domination of geographical areas possessing desirable resources, the subcontinent became peopled by a multiplicity of dynastic kingdoms and tribes.  Although the boundaries and titles of these kingdoms changed over time, throughout India’s history, conquering leaders concentrated the wealth they earned in the form of precious metals, fashioning them into luxurious objects that visibly expressed their power.

Simultaneously, however, there continued and evolved parallel, dynamic, rural jewelry traditions using humbler materials such as grass, bone, shell, wood, feathers, glass, ivory and lac, base metals, as well as using precious materials such as silver and gold. These indigenous traditions of jewelry making usually revolved around religious motivations – for example, the wearing of an amulet to propitiate an animistic spirit – or around marriage rituals wherein the bride is provided with a dowry whose composition and value varies as per the family’s circumstances.  Jewelry also served as a manifestation of group identity, its form and technique distinguishing members of a particular community from another.
The traditional jewelry of the subcontinent is not merely an expression of the universal human desire to adorn the visible body; neither is it restricted to a display of wealth and power. It is all these things. But it is also a highly evolved metaphorical language communicated from the wearer to the viewer through the use of forms and materials that have symbolic value, expressing popular theological or metaphysical beliefs. For instance, the cosmologically inspired circle, a form that often features in Indian jewelry, is often read as a reference to the cyclical pattern of movement in the universe, and by extension, in human life while the prolific fish is intended to symbolize fertility and regeneration. Likewise, each material used also tells a story – the seed symbolizes potential growth; the ammonite, an an iconic deity; and the tiger claw, bravery.
Perhaps the best example of the symbolism embedded in Indian jewelry traditions is the nava-ratna. In Sanskrit, ratna refers to a precious stone or object while nava refers to the number nine. The term navaratna thus refers to an ornament which contains nine precious stones , which usually comprise of the diamond, pearl, ruby, sapphire, emerald, topaz, cat’s eye, coral, and either the hyacinth or zircon. Each of these gemstones is believed to represent one of the navagrahas, the nine celestial deities of Hindu cosmology, namely the Sun (Surya), the moon (Chandra), the five planets – Mercury (Budha),  Venus (Shukra), Saturn (Shani), Mars (Mangala), Jupiter (Brhaspati) – and  two personifications of the Moon – the Ascending Node or Dragon’s Head (Rahu) and the Descending Node or Dragon’s Tail (Ketu). All nine celestial deities are represented anthropomorphically as male deities, each of which is associated with a particular color (varna), vehicle which he rides (vahana), and a food which he is offered during propitiatory rituals (naivedya).
Ancient Hindu astrologer’s believed in a heliocentric concept of the universe wherein the sun is viewed as the source of life and chief of the other heavenly bodies, over whom he rules, radiating his light and energy to all the spheres. Sunlight, when passed through a prism, is broken into the seven principal colors of the spectrum. Each prismatic color is associated with particular planets that are considered a concentration of the seven cosmic rays. Upon absorbing sunlight, each planet radiates to Earth its particular colored light ray. The transmission of these light rays through space, in tandem with the energy powers of heat, electricity, and magnetism, are believed to affect the lives of every living creature on Earth. Upon absorption, these rays and energies are diffused within the body and also appear outwardly as a radiating aura, a subtle energy flow that imparts its influence on anyone within range.
Of the navagrahas, the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus are believed to be beneficent and lucky bodies. Mercury by itself is deemed lucky but may be unlucky if placed in an unfavorable position in relation to the other planets. Others, including the Sun, Mars, Saturn and the two personifications of the Moon are maleficent and unlucky, and it is considered imperative that their influence be counteracted by proper propitiatory action. Furthermore, the conjunction of planets in specific spatial relationships in the universe at various times of the year can be malificient and it is thought that if the celestial deities are not pacified through appropriate and timely rituals and offerings, they shall become angry and cause all sorts of personal and communal difficulties. 
The nine gemstones associated with these celestial beings are thought to be repositories of their respective cosmic energies, and thereby serve as a sympathetic medium for their transmission to the wearer. The stored energy of each gemstone is constantly renewed by emissions from its corresponding celestial body, and the stone is thus invested permanently with great defensive and remedial powers. As regents of the sky and space, each celestial deity has been assigned the guardianship of a specific direction, which includes the centre, the four cardinal points, and the four intermediary compass points. A navaratna ornament therefore follows this cosmic grid or mandala, with each gemstone being placed in the position corresponding to its associated deity, thereby guarding its wearer against the approach of evil from all directions and serving as a locus into which the deity can descend when occasion demands his presence and protection. The arrangement of the navagrahas and the navaratna associated with them creates, in effect, a mandala or a metaphor of the universe and the ornament is also believed to serve a higher spiritual function, awakening the wearer’s consciousness of his/her identity and the play of cosmic forces on him/her.
The navaratna gemstones are used in rings, pendants, armbands, bangles, bracelets, rosaries, chokers and necklaces – although the arrangements of the gemstones in each ornament invariably follows the cosmological chart, the various forms of the ornaments necessitate various configurations of the gemstones. The most common arrangement is a literal translation of the cosmic grid, with three stones on each side and one in the centre, thus forming a square, a final, unequivocal form symbolic of the Absolute. Another common form used in navaratna ornaments, especially earrings, is the circle, symbolic of Infinity. The square and circular mandalas may be fused to form another configuration consisting of two overlapping squares, one bearing the gemstones marking the cardinal points and the other with the gemstones corresponding to the intermediary points, thus forming either an octagon or circle. When the stones are used in a choker-style neckband, they are, by necessity, placed in a long rectangle with the ruby at the centre and the eight other stones placed four on each side, the arrangement corresponding to the linear arrangement of the navagrahas at a temple. The same serial arrangement is followed in long garland-like necklaces, stiff bangles and flexible bracelets; however, in a long garland-like necklace, the arrangement is repeated on each side of a navaratna set pendant. When an extended linear arrangement is used, the major stones may be alternated with other stones, such as diamonds, turquoises or pearls. As these additional stones are merely space fillers, the navaratna stones are always placed so that they appear predominant. Tradition stipulates that each of them should be the same size so that all the deities represented in the navaratna are accorded equal importance. Furthermore, each stone should also be as nearly flawless as possible and of good color so as to ensure that the ornament has the greatest efficacy.
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