Letter to two cosmic serpents

Gold and shellac earrings, 19th century, Tamil Nadu, South India

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Ladies or Gentlemen,

I’m not sure... Just as I am not sure that either of you is really a serpent, cosmic or otherwise. The few – rare – so-called ‘ethnic’ jewellery experts in India have never been sure themselves. I suspect they have fallen back on this explanation for want of something better. Because, in fact, they do not know what you represent. And because ‘Cosmic Serpent’ is much more seductive and mysterious than ‘Sorry, we have no idea what this is’. Some, just as lost, have suggested that you represent a stylised bird. Which one and representing what? Mysterious. Why not after all? But I must confess that I, too, like the idea of he serpent. Reviewed and corrected by Brancusi. Because you are incredibly modern and geometrically shaped. Like an abstract sculpture. So there, I’ve decided, I’ll go with the serpent... You are precious and rare ornaments. Earrings, actually. Much lighter than one would think you to be. For if you are made of the metals of gods (and goddesses) worn in South India by all women, the most modest servants to the princesses of the great warrior dynasties, the components that you are made of are hollow, filled with shellac and covered in thick, hammered gold leaves. In Tamil Nadu, whence you originate, you are called pampadam. A fine name for a very strange ornament. Worn less and less and therefore made less and less. Hence your rarity. Distinctive of women of the Kondayan Kottai Maravar community, one of the main castes of the south. They usually wear them with up to nine other heavy gold earrings, thus stretching and extending their earlobes as far as their shoulders. Strangely similar to the distant Dayaks of Borneo. One can understand that young women of today, even in this very traditional community, are reluctant to wear such bulky ornaments. In the era of the internet and of Miss Indias crowned Miss World, one must admit that thinly stretched earlobes somehow lack swag. Yet here you are, draped in mystery and beauty, collectibles, preciously preserved by lovers of ancient and exotic jewellery. Deprived of your primary function of protecting and distinguishing a caste. Set for ever more in velvet boxes to be admired by museum visitors.

 With, my dear and mysterious Pampadam Serpent Birds, my most admiring greetings and best wishes in your new incarnation.

collection privée S.L.Mehr