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The Jeweller of Agra

A Frenchman in Agra designed Emperor Jahangir's favourite throne and also worked as a martial engineer. He lived a luxe life and revelled in gifts from the emperor text and photos by Jonathan Gil Harris

travel Updated: Nov 21, 2011 11:38 IST

What most arrested my gaze at the Taj Mahal was not anything physically substantial: rather, it was an absence, a door surrounded by jali work through which I could see only darkness. 

For me, that absence hinted at something that has receded from historical visibility: the elusive identity of the firangi, the foreigner-turned-Indian, in whom the distinction between West and East was not as absolute as it is today.

The Agra of the twenty-first century is a dirty, provincial city of twisting alleyways, crumbling buildings, and excrement. Its former glory as capital of the Mughal Empire is still visible, however, in its many beautiful ruins and monuments - the Taj Mahal, of course, but also the sprawling red Agra Fort, Akbar's sublime tomb in Sikandra, and his extraordinary abandoned city in Fatehpur Sikri. For the thousands of Western tourists who flock to Agra every year, these sites might promise a thrilling encounter with the remains of an Oriental culture from which they are distant not just in space, but also in time. Yet the divide between Westerner and Indian in Agra has not always been so clear, as the story of Augustin Hiriart shows.

Four hundred years ago, Agra was considerably more culturally diverse than it is now. The Emperor's Omrah, or nobles, comprised not just Mughals, but also Persians and Turks. And from the time of Akbar, Agra also hosted a large firangi community. Akbar invited Portuguese Jesuits into the city, where they built a large church. And they were accompanied by traders, poor labourers, and soldiers of fortune from all over Europe. When the merchant William Finch visited Agra in 1611, he was greeted by an English mercenary, three French soldiers, a Dutch engineer, and a Venetian merchant.

The Mughals were keen to take advantage of the military and artisanal knowledge of their firangi guests. They employed Europeans as artillerymen in their armies. But they particularly valued European jewellers. The only firangi Jahangir mentions by name in his memoirs is a "European" jeweller who designed his favourite throne - a gold and silver seat ornamented with precious stones and supported by sculpted tigers. Jahangir gave the jeweller the name "Hunarmand", Persian for "skillful." Which is to say, this European was a firangi in the special sense I am trying to recover here: he was a foreigner who had become Indian, adopting not only an Indian name but also Indian practices - in this case, artisanal skill in designing and manufacturing the throne according to Mughal tastes. Jahangir demonstrated his gratitude to Hunarmand with numerous gifts designed to ease the jeweller's cross-cultural transition. He says he rewarded Hunarmand with 3,000 darb (1,500 rupees - a huge sum at the time), a horse and an elephant. We now know from a letter written and signed on the 20th of July, 1620, by one "Augustin Houaremand," that this Hunarmand was the French-Basque jeweller and engineer Augustin Hiriart.

Hiriart was born in Bordeaux, a city in south-west France, in about 1585. The details of his life prior to his arrival in India are scarce. One of the four surviving letters he sent from India to Europe indicates he lived in England for some years before deciding to travel east in approximately 1610. Hiriart journeyed through Persia with John Mildenhall, an English merchant who had visited India previously and had two children with an Indian woman. But Mildenhall fell mortally sick when he and Hiriart reached Lahore in 1613. The Englishman bequeathed the Frenchman his property on condition that Hiriart marry his half-Indian daughter, then aged ten. We don't know if Hiriart honoured Mildenhall's request after his death. He claims to have married the daughter of a Hindu woman who had performed sati at her husband's funeral. Hiriart had two children with her, though one died young.

After he came to Jahangir's attention, Hiriart/Hunarmand served in the Mughal court until the 1630s, reaping many rewards, including (by his own testimony) "a house valued at eight thousand livres" that was probably as grand as the Omrah mansions that overlooked the Yamuna river. Unlike most firangis in Agra at this time, then, Hunarmand lived a life of luxury. He boasted that he wore a hat with a "likeness in gold" of Jahangir, and that the emperor had gifted him tigers, leopards, and rhinoceroses. Not uncoincidentally, Hunarmand also became an early exponent of the Indian tradition of re-gifting: in one of his letters, he speaks of trying to fob off some of these feral "presents" onto an English ambassador, who unsurprisingly wasn't keen to take them.

His diet would also have consisted of the finest khana that Mughal cuisine could offer. It was partly to taste such khana that I decided to stay in the Oberoi Amarvilas luxury hotel near the Taj Mahal. Not only is the hotel distinguished by terraced lawns, fountains, reflecting pools and pavilions that recall the pleasure houses of the Omrah; its restaurant, Esphahan, also offers Mughlai dishes that descend directly from the great culinary innovations of the seventeenth century. Hunarmand may well have savoured something like the Esphahan's unspeakably tasty hariyali kebabs stuffed with apricots. Such a delicacy would have reminded Hunarmand, perhaps, of the gastronomic as much as geographical distance he had travelled from the city of his birth.

Jahangir employed Hunarmand not just as a jeweller but also as a martial engineer. He boasts in a letter to a French friend that he "got a great reputation for the military machines which I have made and which do for this country." This reputation served him well after Jahangir's death in 1627. When Shah Jahan succeeded to the throne, Hunarmand remained on the Mughal payroll, despite the new emperor's animosity to Christians. He may well have designed part or all of Shah Jahan's legendary Peacock Throne, or Takht-e Tâvus, which is supposed to have included the Koh-i-Noor diamond. In a letter he wrote on the 9th of March, 1632, Hunarmand says that he had just two years "making plans for a new throne ... the King had required that two hundred times a thousand livres should be spent on this throne in gold, diamonds, rubies, pearls and emeralds."

More fanciful is the speculation that Hunarmand was the chief architect of the Taj Mahal, a baseless claim that one still finds routinely repeated on many Indian websites. The canard was probably born of a condescending European conviction that such a beautiful building couldn't have been designed by a non-Westerner. Nevertheless, Hunarmand may have been commissioned to design the mausoleum's original silver doors. Apparently he received a commission to do similar metalwork in the Agra Fort, though he never completed it. In any case, Hunarmand's career illustrates how what we think of as Mughal art, architecture and culture was, at least in this instance, shaped also by firangi hands.

I journeyed to Agra hoping to find material traces of Hunarmand's life and handiwork during his two decades in Agra. Like the end of a rainbow, however, these traces always eluded me. The closest I got was in the Agra Catholic Cemetery, just behind the Bhagwan Talkies cinema near National Highway 2. There I found the grave of John Mildenhall, Hunarmand's travelling companion. A nineteenth-century visitor claims to have found in the same cemetery a tombstone bearing the inscription of one "Jane Hiriart" - Hunarmand's daughter, perhaps? - but it no longer exists. Indeed, everywhere I went in Agra, Hiriart/Hunarmand is conspicuous only as an absent presence. In Agra Fort, the stunning Diwan-i-Am - where the Peacock Throne and its predecessor would have sat - looked naked, begging me to fill it in my mind's eye with Hunarmand's lost handiwork. My visit to the Taj Mahal summed it all up: at the back door to the mausol

First Published: Nov 21, 2011 11:38 IST