Height: 20.000 cm
Length: 48.500 cm
Width: 32.000 cm
Bequeathed by Lt. Thomas Wilkinson, through James Nairne
ME OA 1830.6-12.1
Carved jade terrapin
From Allahabad, India
17th century AD
Carved from a single piece of green jade
This large jade terrapin is carved from a single piece of green jade nephrite, and is a unique piece of sculpture. It was found at the bottom of a water cistern during engineering excavations in 1803 at Allahabad in Northern India, and brought to England by Lieutenant General Alexander Kyd of the Bengal Engineers.
Alexander Kyd was a relative of the Lt. General Robert Kyd who founded the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. It was bequeathed to the British Museum in 1830 by Thomas Wilkinson through James Nairne, a relative of the Kyd family.
The third Mughal emperor Akbar (reigned 1556-1605), built a new palace at the Hindu city of Prayag, which he then renamed Allahabad. In 1583 he appointed the city as his capital, though he never lived there. Instead, the city became the residence of the crown prince Selim, his son by a Hindu princess from the Kachwaha clan of the Rajputs, whom Akbar had married in 1562. Selim, later to become the emperor Jahangir (reigned 1605-27), was ambitious and impatient to inherit the throne, so he established a royal residence at Allahabad in rebellion against his father. The terrapin may date from this period, as a rare ornament for the garden pools at the prince's palace. Selim is known to have patronized jade carvers, and his fascination with natural phenomena is recorded. The carving, which may have taken more than a year, is extremely life-like, with the underbelly as carefully depicted as the rest. The head is slightly off-centre so that the reptile appears to be moving slowly forwards.
In 2006, while it was on a tour of six other museums around the United Kingdom, a naturalist identified the terrapin as a female of the species Kachuga dhongoka (common name; three-striped roof turtle or Indian dhongoka terrapin), native to the river Yamuna which meets the Ganges at Allahabad. When it first arrived in the British Museum, the terrapin was prized as an exceptionally large piece of jade from Central Asia, as well as for the high degree of realism captured by the carver’s skill, and it was exhibited in the Mineral Gallery. A stereoscopic photograph by Roger Fenton made in 1858 shows it displayed on top of a table. When the natural history collections moved to South Kensington in1880-83, the terrapin remained with the man-made artefacts at the British Museum.
Margaret Sax, Janet Ambers, Nigel Meeks and Sheila Canby, ‘The emperor’s terrapin’ in The British Museum Technical Research Bulletin, pp35-41, Volume 1 2007.
S. Cary Welch, India: art and culture, 1300-1 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985)