Among the many precious and semi-precious stones that are used in jewellery, lapis lazuli has a long and fascinating history. It is still used to make jewellery and its use in ancient times as a pigment for painting has given it a special place in the history of craftsmanship.
Landlocked and mountainous, present-day Afghanistan has for millennia witnessed the flow of men, merchandise and culture. Enclosed by and in proximity of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian sub-continent and China, trade and travel routes invariably passed through the region. Yet, it was no passive passage through: for Badakhshan in Northeastern Afghanistan was home to lapis lazuli. For over five thousand years this beautiful blue stone has been mined in these remote reaches, and exported to faraway lands. Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who spent a year in Badakhshan in about 1272, observed, “There are mountains in which are found veins of lapis lazuli, the stone which yields the azure color ultramarine, here the finest in the world.” Today, even as Afghanistan continues to supply the world’s finest lapis in exquisite shades of deep, navy and violet-blue with muted gold specks, archaeological excavations in different countries going back to the third millennium B.C. have revealed finds of a spectrum of ornaments and artifacts studded with Afghan lapis!
The word lapis is derived from the Arabic word al-lazward for sky-blue. Since ancient times, its rich blue color with pyrite flecks has reminded people of the night sky studded with shining stars. Color preferences of lapis are subjective: some prefer the slightly violet color, others a brilliant-deep blue; some specially look for gold specks. Lapis is popularly crafted for jewelry including necklaces, pendants, rings, and earrings; in creating mosaics; in crafting figurines and objects. In certain charts it is stated as the birthstone of those born in December.
With the main and best source of lapis being Afghanistan (it is also found in Chile and Russia) lapis has been widely exported from the region since the third millennium B.C. Occurring in an inhospitable terrain, lapis mines are reached after an arduous trek and extracted through a labour intensive process. On account of the difficulties in transporting lapis over vast distances, carried by men or through animal caravans, through millennia only the finest lapis has been exported.
Finds of lapis beads as well as inlays of lapis in ornaments and artifacts such as funerary articles, tell us of the value that people in ancient times placed on the gemstone. Antiquities of Egypt and Mesopotamia (synonymous with present-day Iraq) dated to the second and third millennium B.C. contain lapis from Afghanistan. Lapis was also much sought after in India; beads of lapis were worn in India, and also exported from India to Rome in the early centuries of the Christian era. Their attractive color made them much sought after for fashioning ornaments, and excavations in India have revealed finds of lapis beads as well as faience beads glazed with lapis.
The brilliant blue colour derived from lapis coupled with the virtues of the colour itself, led to the use of lapis as a pigment in painting. In ancient Egypt and cultures in the Middle East, blue has traditionally been associated with royalty and nobility and was hence used for royal ornaments as well as the throne. Lapis was believed by some to be symbolic of truth, to usher in good fortune and to ward off the evil eye.
In Iran during the Sassanian period, turquoise and lapis lazuli marked the hierarchy of nobility: the seniormost nobles wore turquoise, and lapis was worn by the next rank of nobles.
The tradition of creating manuscripts and miniature painting in the Middle East and India flourished with the discovery of lapis as a source of pigment as did wall paintings in India. Lapis was finely powdered, sieved, additives mixed in, the mixture strained and after a complex and meticulous process that stretched over several days, the color - Called ultramarine- was extracted. The paintings of at the Ajanta Caves, a World Heritage site as designated by UNESCO, dated to the fifth and sixth centuries have pigments from natural sources. Lapis was used for ultramarine, and till today the color is bright and fresh. As black is regarded as an inauspicious color in India; lapis provided the perfect background color for wall paintings and subjects painted against the brilliant lapis-blue ground color strikingly contrasted and stood out against it. In miniature paintings too, there was a shift in color preference from red to the brilliant blue that became the background for manuscripts with very dramatic results. Wealthy patrons commissioned works with a lavish use of gold and blue, which resulted in rich and expensive manuscripts being transcribed and painted.
In India, lapis was used in pietra dura inlay work. The work is best seen at the Taj Mahal (built 1631-1653), which is one of the seven modern wonders of the world and a World Heritage site as designated by UNESCO. While the Taj is stunning for its perfect symmetry and garden setting, its surface ornamentation that includes pietra dura completes its beauty. Lapis for the pietra dura work on the Taj Mahal was sourced from Badakhshan.
Lapis from Afghanistan continues to make its away to India. Traditionally Tibetans believed mixing their herbal medicines in a lapis bowl would enhance the effectiveness of the medicines on account of the therapeutic attributes of the stone. Similarly, they also keep smooth, round lapis spheres that are used during meditation for faith in their healing powers. Thus, the inherent beauty of lapis and beliefs indelibly linked with it has ensured an enduring penchant for it through millennia.
Photograph by Satyajit S. Gill