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Doris Dukes Shangri La – Center for Islamic Arts and Culture

The collection at Shangri La consists of about 3,500 objects, within which are several distinct sub-collections that shed light on Islam, Islamic cultures and Islamic art, among other traditions. Below are links to several in-depth discussions of the history and significance of various collection highlights.

Enamels in context

Enameled objects made in 18th and 19th century Jaipur, a city in the western state of Rajasthan, India, are renowned for brilliant colors, fine details, and precious materials. These decorative objects were time-consuming and expensive to make, but for those able to view and hold them, a great delight. Enameling is the process of firing one or several layers of a vitreous (glass-like) paste onto a metal surface. Most metals can be used as a base for enameling. Cloisonné (filling thin metal bands with vitreous paste) is one type of enameling technique. Champleve (engraving metal and painting the paste on top) is another. Champleve is practiced in India and the technique by which most of the enamels in the Shangri La collection were made. Enameling is known to have been practiced in south Asia as early as the 17th century during the reign of the Mughal dynasty. It was not a native tradition, but probably brought by European artists. Artists employed at the Mughal court adopted the technique and set the standard for beauty and quality of enameling in south Asia. The art soon spread to other areas of northern India including Jaipur. By the 18th century, wealthy patrons increasingly purchased enameled objects and jewelry from talented artists and an industry was established. Enameling is still practiced in south Asia today.

Precious materials and production

Enameled objects may be small in scale, but the costly materials and labor that go into each piece and the resulting aesthetic are anything but trivial. As many as six craftsmen with differing skills may be involved in the production of an enameled object. A designer, goldsmith, engraver, enameler, stone polisher, and stone setter may all contribute their requisite skills, each working on a miniature scale. In south Asia, precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper are preferred for the foundation, with gold being especially popular in Jaipur because of the way it sets of the color red. Once the metal is shaped by the goldsmith, an engraver goes to work. A steady and precise hand is required, for the engraving stage is both practical and aesthetic. The variegated surface created by engraving helps hold the enamel in place and also intensifies the colors. After engraving, the enameler paints the vitreous paste, mixed with a mineral oxide for color, on the metal surface. Colors have different melting points and so are usually fired separately; the more colors, the more firings. The hardest enamel, white, requires a high firing temperature and so is fired first. Red, which has the lowest firing temperature, is last. The sequence is carefully planned to ensure that colors already successfully fused do not melt in subsequent firings. In Jaipur, red is the most coveted color and the most fugitive. Once past the enameling stage, the piece may be inset with stones such as diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. Gems are inset using an indigenous process known as kundan where gold strips are used to hold the stones in place.

Enamels at Shangri La

There are over 70 examples of decorative enamels in the collection, including figurines, boxes, weapons, cups and bowls. Most hail from south Asia, notably Jaipur, although enamels from Turkey and Iran are also represented. In addition, there are over 50 examples of enameled Indian jewelry. Doris Duke began collecting enameled objects and jewelry while in India on her honeymoon, and continued to collect both types while on travels and at auction well into the 1980s.

 An enameled box and lid, both inset with rubies. Photo: David Franzen
 If fired successfully, the luster of red is remarkable, partially translucent. Photo: David Franzen
An enameled cup with images of Hindu deities on the exterior. Photo: David Franzen

The story of Layla and Majnun

A leading medieval poet of Iran, Nizami of Ganje (1141-1209) is known especially for his romantic poem Layla and Majnun, which is part of his anthology of 5 tales called Khamsa (Five). Inspired by an Arab legend, Layla and Majnun is a tragic tale about unattainable love. It had been told and retold for centuries, and depicted in manuscripts and other media such as ceramics for nearly as long as the poem has been penned. Of different Arab tribes, Layla and Qays fall in love while at school. Their love is observed and they are soon prevented from seeing one another. In misery, Qays banishes himself to the desert to live among and be consoled by animals. He neglects to eat and becomes emaciated. Due to his eccentric behavior, he becomes known as Majnun (madman). Members of Majnun’s family, including his mother and uncle, visit him in the desert and try to persuade him to return to society. But he refuses and soon befriends an elderly Bedouin who promises to win him Layla’s hand through warfare. Layla’s tribe is defeated, but her father continues to refuse her marriage to Majnun because of his mad behavior, and she is married to another. After the death of Layla’s husband, the old Bedouin facilitates a meeting between Layla and Majnun, but they are never fully reconciled in life. Upon death, they are buried side by side. The story is often interpreted as an allegory of the soul’s yearning to be united with the divine.

Illustrating poetry

For hundreds of years following Nizami’s authorship of Layla and Majnun, calligraphers and manuscript painters in Iran, central Asia, and elsewhere made innumerable, beautiful handmade manuscripts in which illustrations to the poems figure prominently. One such example is a 15th-century manuscript of the Khamsa in the collection at Shangri La. Four painted illustrations (at right) accompany the text, emphasizing key moments in the story. Miniature painters (as those who painted such small pictures are known) were particularly fond of depicting Majnun in the wilderness, and often he is seen with a duck on his head.

Hunting scene on a wood door.

The tradition of Persian painting is often associated with such manuscript illustrations, where texts, principally epic, mystical, and romantic poems, dictated the choice of subject matter for the painting. The visual imagery associated with these texts, like the poems themselves, became so popular and so wide spread that they began to take on a life of their own. Images alone could be found on non-textual media such as ceramics, wood, and textiles. In time, images on wood or ceramic did not actually derive from a particular text, but instead depicted in a general way ideas about court life expressed in poetry such as the hunt, equestrian acumen, and feasts.

Poetry and painting at Shangri La

In the Shangri La collection, images suggestive of romantic and epic poetry may be found on a variety of media including manuscripts, ceramic, and wood. Two ceramic pieces feature Majnun. Other media such as wood doors feature general scenes of court life which derivate from ideas of the hunt, music, and leisure expressed in Persian poetry but are not associated with any particular text.

 Layla and Majnun at school, from a 15th-century manuscript of Nizami's Khamsa. Photo: David Franzen
Majnun living in the wilderness. Photo: David Franzen
The battle of the tribes. Photo: David Franzen 
The death of Layla and Majnun. Photo: David Franzen


Suzanis are made throughout central Asia and vary in design, motif, and color in different areas of this vast geographical region. Suzanis are both a nomadic and urban tradition. Most of the suzanis in the Shangri La collection are thought to have been made in the urban region of Bukhara in the Republic of Uzbekistan. Suzan is the Persian word for needle and it is aptly applied to this textile tradition which showcases bold and colorful embroidery. Female family and friends of a young girl joined together to help her make textiles furnishings that would become part of her dowry and the décor of her home upon marriage. Suzanis may be used as walls hangings, bedding, table covers, and curtains among other décor and so come in different sizes and shapes. The resulting domestic aesthetic is one of colorful flowers and rhythmic patterns, an exuberance that is pleasing to the eyes and the soul. Uzbek homes, like many Islamic domiciles, present a simple, unadorned façade to passersby on the street. Inside, however, the home is as ornate as a family can afford. Wealthier homes may have a garden courtyard full of flowers, or brightly-painted ceilings and columns in the interior rooms. But all homes have floral suzanis to enliven domestic spaces. In a family’s reception room, the finest suzanis are hung on walls to delight and impress guests. In the family’s private rooms, small suzanis are used as blankets and wedding-bed sheets. Traditionally, suzanis were both women’s art and a domestic art. Under Soviet rule, an industry was born whereby men working in factories churned out suzanis using chain stitch sewing machines. Today, in independent Uzbekistan, suzani-making is a highly successful cottage industry that supports both male and female artisans. These modern artisans are returning to traditional methods including hand-dyeing threads and hand embroidery.

Making a suzani

Each suzani is unique in design. To be a suzani designer was, and continues to be, the prerogative of specialists. Traditionally, the skill passed from mother to daughter and certain families became renowned within their communities for their patterns and symbols. Though the end product is distinctive, most suzani designs derive from the same compositional scheme; a central field surrounded by borders on all four sides. This scheme has a long tradition in the arts of central Asia, and in Islamic art in general. Traditionally, suzanis were made entirely by hand and could take around 18 months to complete. Cotton was the most common ground cloth, woven into long strips about 12” wide. Anywhere from three to six strips were tacked together to create a large piece of cloth. Using black ink, a designer would draw, often freehand, a pattern on the cloth. Once the color scheme was agreed upon, the stripes were separated so that different women could work on the embroidery simultaneously. When the embroidery was complete, the strips were sewn together again. Sometimes the embroidered motifs and colors did not align precisely when the strips were rejoined. Such inconsistencies were not flaws, but simply by-products of the process. Suzanis are particularly valued for the fineness of their embroidery and the skillful use of contrasting colors that result in bold, vibrant designs. Variations of chain stitch and couching are the most common stitches. By changing the direction of the stitch, changing stitch length and color, a woman gave texture and energy to a motif.


Flowers and leaves are the most common motifs found in suzani designs, not surprising in a region where agriculture is the major economy and many homes have courtyard gardens. Some flowers such as tulips, irises, and carnations, are discernable while other flowers are abstract. Many people believe the floral motifs, as well as paisley and pomegranate motifs, are symbols of fertility and prosperity. Motifs such as chili peppers, lamps, and the distinctive central Asian kitchen knife are thought to have protective powers. It is not always easy to identify what motif the designer intended, for many motifs are quite abstract. If not the motifs individually, than certainly the suzani as a whole, likely conveyed prosperity, health, fertility and protection upon the bridal couple.

Suzanis at Shangri La

During her own honeymoon in 1935, Doris Duke purchased nine suzanis in India. They are among the earliest purchases she made as a collector of Islamic art. In fact, she purchased these textiles even before she conceived of building Shangri La. However, they became integral to her sense of display for they are seen throughout the estate. Over the years, her passion for this textile tradition grew; she acquired six more suzanis.

  • See more suzanis in the Shangri La collection
  • Learn about the conservation of suzanis at Shangri La
  • Find out about the suzani exhibit at the East-West Center in Honolulu
An early 20th century suzani from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Photo: Ann Svenson Perlman
A late 19th century suzani from the Bukhara region, Uzbekistan. Photo: Ann Svenson Perlman
An early 20th century suzani from the Bukhara region, Uzbekistan. Photo: Ann Svenson Perlman

The Mughal Dynasty of South Asia

In mid-17th century South Asia, the taste for naturalistic floral sprays reached an apogee of artistic expression. During the reign of the Mughal dynasty (1526-1857), the aesthetic style pervaded the arts of the subcontinent. Its influence has been strong every since; it continues to be prevalent in South Asian design today and has had an impact on aesthetic traditions of the West and China as examples from the Shangri La collection illustrate. In 1526, Babur, an emigrant prince from Central Asia, established the Mughal dynasty in South Asia. By 1600, the dynasty was both economically and politically prosperous, ruling a large geographic area divided today into Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Northern India. During their 330 year reign, the Mughals gained an international reputation for their wealth, tolerance, and intellectual and artistic pursuits. Their influence survives to the present in the word “mogul,” which then as now denotes a lifestyle of power and luxury. One of Babur’s first acts was to establish a garden, a practice his successors continued with increasing grandeur. Among the most visited Mughal gardens is the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum built in a garden complex by the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1635. This great love for gardens pervades the art and architecture of the Mughal dynasty in the form of floral imagery.

The Mughal Aesthetic

In the 16th century, Mughal design drew heavily on South Asian and Persian designs. In India, forms from nature have been carved in stone and wood for millennia. From Iran, came the taste for circuitous, interwoven arabesque spirals and the idealized natural world of Persian manuscript paintings. In the early-17th century, Mughal design shifted away from idealized Persian floral motifs to naturalistic ones, most likely as a result of traveling European merchants and Jesuit missionaries. These visitors brought with them books, tapestries, and paintings which were of great curiosity to the Mughal court. In particular, botanical books featuring highly detailed, block-printed images of plants are thought to have intrigued Mughal artists. The naturalism articulated in the European botanical studies was adapted by Mughal designers to suit local tastes and from this blending of cultures a brilliant artistic tradition was born. During the reign of Shah Jahan, flowers became a primary design element moving out of the border and into the central field of paintings, carpets and textiles. Two types of floral compositions predominate. First are arts that feature floral sprays, readily identifiable as iris, roses, lilies, and peonies among other varietals. Second is the trellis pattern, within which a blossom is featured. Both design types are visible in arts from the Shangri La collection.

Mughal Flowers at Shangri La

Beautifully illustrating the Mughal floral aesthetic are two 17th-century carpets in the Shangri La collection. In addition to being historically significant markers of an aesthetic tradition, the carpets stand alone as important works of art due to their unusual shape and pairing. Each carpet has an arched interior with pointed ends. When paired, the carpets form a bold field of flowers with an interior void wherein a person, most likely a royal personage, could have sat in splendor.

Doris Duke was passionate about Mughal flowers, commissioning from artists in India a bedroom and bathroom suite which would later become the impetus for building Shangri La. At left is a detail of the semi-precious stone inlay that is part of Duke’s suite. Later, in the 1960s, Duke created the Mughal Garden using traditional plantings such as citrus and cypress trees. And she collected arts made during the Mughal dynasty, as well as those of subsequent eras and far flung regions that embody the beauty of the Mughal aesthetic. See examples of Mughal flowers in the Shangri La collection. Learn more about the Fields of Flowers exhibit at the East-West Center in Honolulu, HI.

Pair of 17th-century carpets made in South Asia in the Mughal style, as seen in the Playhouse at Shangri La. Photo: David Franzen
Detail of flower sprays on a 17th-century carpet. Photo: David Franzen
Detail of a trellis-and-blossom design on a 19th-century wine cup made in Northern India. Photo: David Franzen
Detail of an 18th-century Chinese dish with floral motifs in the Mughal style. Photo: David Franzen

via Collection Highlights – Doris Dukes Shangri La.

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