In the city of Jaipur, the capital of the Indian State of Rajasthan, lies the City Palace and its three enormous silver urns or jars. The silver jars were created over a two year period between 1894 and 1896 by two Jaipur silversmiths as one solid object using 14,000 silver coins. The pair of silver water jars do not have sections soldered together, but are one solid object made of sterling silver. The two jars weigh 345 kg (760.6 pounds, 11,092.01 ounces) each and stand at 1.6 metres (five feet and three inches) with a circumference of nearly 15 feet. The jars come with an interesting story weaving in geopolitics and local religious and cultural tradition. There were also once three jars, not two, until one was thrown into the ocean to appease the Indian God Varuna.
In 1901 Queen Victoria, of which the Victorian era is named and during which silversmithing of sterling silver items was all the rave, died and her son, King Edward VII was set to take over the British Empire. For his coronation he invited the most important Indian Maharajas, leaders of the largest and most powerful Indian States. Included on the list of Maharaja invitees was Madho Singh of Jaipur. A problem existed for the maharaja as orthodox Hindus were not allowed to cross the ocean to reach Europe. The maharaja, who was the head of the Hindu community in Jaipur, was told by his priests that he cannot be exempted from this religious belief and practice. At that time the British Empire ruled India so refusing to come to the new King’s coronation would have put a target on the maharaja’s back.
The maharaja called a group of senior religious advisors together who found an acceptable religious solution. The king could travel to England so long as he traveled in a ship in which no beef has ever been cooked or served, he took the figures of his family deity with him, he spread earth from Jaipur’s soil below the God’s throne and his bed everyday to replicate being on Indian soil, he ate only the prasad (religious offering) that was offered to his family deity during the prayer sessions, and that he drink nothing but Gangajal, the water from the Ganges River, during his three months away from India. The ship Olympia had just been completed and was acquired by the Maharaja, fulfilling the beef requirement which was a tall order for a European ship. The silver jars that had been previously constructed that sat in the Jaipur treasury were perfect for carrying the Gangajal as they each held 900 gallons of Gangajal water each, or 2,700 gallons of water total — estimated to be enough to sustain the maharaja during his journey.
The priests blessed the maharaja’s ship before it left Jaipur, loaded his baggage including the silver urns, and dropped valuables including pearls, diamonds and gold coins to appease Varuna, God of the Seas. The blessing did not work. A few days after leaving the shores of Bombay while the ship was traveling on the Red Sea it encountered heavy storms and the agitated Brahmin priests advised the maharaja to dump one of the three huge silver jars into the sea to calm Varuna down. This was done. The rest of the trip went smoothly, the new King came personally to visit the jars at the maharaja’s camp, and they returned safely to the Palace where they sit today and can be viewed. All but the third one of course, that lies at the bottom of the Red Sea.
Analysis: The importance of silver both culturally and religiously in one State within India is demonstrated in this story as well as the cultural connection between Indian and the British Empire being their shared value of silver as demonstrated by King Edward’s visit to see the silver urns. Knowing the Victorian era’s love for silver, bringing the silver jars was likely not only a way to adhere to religious requirements but also acted as a symbol of wealth and power to impress King Edward with both the wealth and craftsmanship of the Indian people. Silver and Gold remain very important in Indian culture and society which is why Indian purchases of the metals are watched closely by precious metals analysts.