Ranjit Singh's Gilded Bezoar Stones

4 • Ranjit Singh's Gilded Bezoar Stones

India, early 19th century
Each 6 cm in diameter
With original case

For centuries bezoar stones were always within reach of the bejewelled hands of the rich and powerful, often mounted within custom-made cases and adorned in precious metal and stones. They were the subject of endless studies, treaties, poems and romances, took pride of place within curiosity cabinets across the world and traded for many times their weight in gold.

This is perhaps an unexpected fate for what is an unattractive and equally unappealing concretion made up of hair and other indigestible material found in the stomachs and intestines of ruminants such as goats, sheep or deer; but such was their reputation as an elixir of life. Primarily this reputation was built on their ability to nullify the effects of poison – particularly arsenic – though they were also believed to treat worms, dispel melancholia, preserve youth and even cure the plague. As a result, bezoars appeared in the inventories of monarchs from the Hapsburg Rudolph II to Queen Elizabeth I, and in the case of these two gilded stones – Ranjit Singh (1780–1839), founder of the Sikh Empire.

Portrait of Ranjit Singh, Maharaja of the Punjab (d.1839),
India, 1830 © British Library

Popularly referred to as the Lion of the Punjab in recognition of his prowess as a warrior, Ranjit Singh was much admired for his military guile, particularly against the invading Afghan armies; but also for the humane treatment of his adversaries and the cultural and religious tolerance he showed his conquered territories. His court was one of the most magnificent in India, here he sat on a golden throne, surrounding himself with beautiful and bejewelled people, artists and craftsmen who designed his gardens, built monuments and restored temples across an empire which enjoyed prosperity, reform and a cultural resurgence under his brilliant leadership. His collection of jewels was the envy of the world and included the Koh-i-Noor diamond; it is little surprise he chose to have his bezoar stones gilded to fit into such opulence.

Maharaja Duleep Singh (1838–1893)
Prince Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh (1866–1918)
Lady Anne Coventry (1874–1956)