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The Rediff Special/ M D Riti

A royal dazzles the world with his gems, rubies

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Do you know that the world's largest rubies, sapphires and other invaluable gems are all available directly on the Internet?

You can buy the Raviratna, world's largest star ruby cut like a cabochon on top, for a billion US dollars. Or it's smaller cousin, the Rajarathna, the largest star stone in the world, weighing 2475 carat, for 500 million US dollars.

If you cannot afford either, you might consider buying the Neelanjali, a double star sapphire weighing 1370 carat displaying twelve star lines, on offer for 200 million US dollars. Or may be a Burma ruby of four or five caras, available at 75,000 US dollars per carat.

The money, rest assured, would be well spent. For, not only would you enjoy the privilege of owning precious stones, all of which have Guinness Book listings, you would have the added benefit of possessing a piece of Indian history.

These priceless gems belong to retired lawyer G Vidyaraj, a direct descendant of the great Vijayanagar Empire of Hampi in Karnataka. And he claims that the gems are a part of the great royal heirloom.

But why is Vidyaraj desperately trying to hawk his collection now?

Because he has no means to safeguard it. Moreover, he sees no reason why he and his family should not enjoy some of the material benefits that selling them might bring.

The Vijayanagar empire was spread over much of south India between 11th and 16th centuries. The most famous of its kings was Krishna Deva Raya (1509-30), who imported velvets and damasks from Aden and China, horses from Arabia and elephants from Ceylon. Vidyaraj's gems must have been court jewels or the spoils of a war. The history of these stones, as narrated by Vidyaraj, is fascinating.

"Vijayanagar was once a world-renowned centre for the trade of precious gems and jewellery," he says. "Traders from far flung corners of the world embarked upon hazardous and lengthy journeys to reach Vijayanagar in search of magnificent and unusual stones. With them they brought emeralds from South America, rubies from Burma and pearls from the Persian Gulf. The monarchs of Vijayanagar were benevolent rulers, and had an excellent feel for art and literature. They owned some of the world's most precious gems and extravagant jewellery.

"Some of the world's more celebrated stones, mostly diamonds, like the Kohinoor, the Orlov, the Hope and the Pitt, are believed to have originated from the Vijayanagar dynasty. This great kingdom fell after the Talikota war of 1565, and my ancestors fled from Vijayanagar to the erstwhile state of Mysore. They acquired a large expanse of land in Gejjaraguppe village near Bangalore and settled down.

''Being the worshippers of Shiva, they had brought with them several tiny sacred objects supposed to be lingams or symbols of Shiva. These objects were called saligramas."

By the time Vidyaraj grew up, the saligramas had become a part of his father's large collection of idols. They were kept in their village home.

Vidyaraj, as a young man, broke from family tradition, decided that he did not want to be a farmer, and came to Bangalore to study law. After graduating, he began practising in Bangalore.

Many years later, Vidyaraj's father died and bequeathed the family heirloom to him. Vidyaraj simply brought them to his first floor apartment in Basavanagudi, and locked them carefully in cupboards.

This, however, made his religious-minded wife Indumathi very uneasy, and she began insisting that he would learn the special rites involved in worshipping the saligramas.

An uninterested Vidyaraj decided it would be much simpler to donate them to a temple. But as luck would have it, he found this very difficult to execute as there was lot of paperwork involved.

While he was pondering over the next step, Vidyaraj decided it was time to leave blind belief aside and investigate exactly what the saligramas were made of.

Always a rationalist at heart, he suspected that there might be something interesting hidden behind the centuries of grime and soot. "I thought they might be lumps of mineral, and that I might be able to extract some gold or iron from them, that's all," he said.

So he sent off his family and domestic staff out on a holiday afternoon, and attacked one of the sacrosanct objects with soap and brush.

What emerged appeared, even to Vidyaraj's untrained eye, to be a precious stone. Ever the cautious lawyer, Vidyaraj locked the stones away again and began reading books on gemmology in his spare time. As his knowledge of precious stones improved, he took the smallest of the stones out, and began taking it around to various gem cutters in the city. He would ask one to clean it, another to cut it, a third to start making facets and so on.

Those days of amateurism did cost him a lot. He now admits that more than half of 1125 carat star ruby, the Vidyaraj, was lost while cutting it. Now it weighs just 650 carat.

Interestingly, this particular stone, which has Guinness Book listing, does not feature on his website. Does that imply that its already been sold? How many of his gems has Vidyaraj sold so far and has he been able to set up his four children overseas with the proceeds? These are the questions that his friends and relatives continue to ask. But Vidyaraj is simply not telling.

Almost a decade ago, Vidyaraj first revealed the existence of a gigantic ruby that he named the Indumathi after his wife. It was a double star 215-carat ruby with two stars of six lines each. This became the largest known ruby in the world, replacing the Rosser Reeves ruby, which is on display at the Smithsonian Insititute in Washington DC.

Before this piece could make it to the Guinness Book, it was surpassed by another even bigger ruby that Vidyaraj named after himself. The Vidyaraj is 3.6 cm high and 4.1 cm wide.

And just when the world thought it had seen it all, Vidyaraj made public another stone, that he called the Rajaratna, at the end of 1986. It weighed 2805 carats in its rough form, and lost only 330 carats in cutting. His new revelation took the gem world by storm.

The media then started watching Vidyaraj, who was by then something of a celebrity, closely. How many more mineral wonders did he have up his sleeve, they wondered?

Vidyaraj certainly did not disappoint them. Exactly two years later, he gave the world one more valuable jewel, the Neelanjali, which weighed 2470 carat in its rough form, and 1370 carat after cutting.

The Neelanjali is now in the Guinness Book as the largest double sapphire in the world. It replaced in the world records a sapphire that adorns a stone bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Kazanjian Foundation in Los Angeles.

Now, he has revealed the existence of two more stones. One he describes as the "world's largest uncut ruby," a translucent pomegranate red stone of Burmese origin weighing a staggering 45,000 carats, and quotes a negotiable price in US dollars. The other is, of course, the of 3553 carat Ravirathna star ruby, for which he wants the astronomical price of one billion dollars. This deep red Burmese ruby displays an animated star of six red rays.

There are also several other smaller stones, like a 16.5 carat Burma ruby in pomegranate colour, a 11.2 carat spinal ruby, a 7.5 carat almondine garnet, three smaller pieces of Alexandrite with excellent colour change. Then, there is a 79-carat antique Burmese pigeon blood colour ruby which has a well-formed cat's eye.

While other of the world's most precious stones, like the giant Star of Africa diamond, Queen Elizabeth's crown jewel, are kept safely in places like the high-tech vault in the Tower of London, Vidyaraj's huge precious stone collection is stored in undisclosed bank vaults dotted around the globe.

Quite understandably, although he is trying to sell his gems on the Web, he is not willing to do business with all and sundry, but expects good references from potential buyers.

"We want to sell these pieces of Rubies either through auction or by private sale," he says. Over the years, security both for himself and his stones has become a major concern, as Vidyaraj has been hounded by crank calls, kidnap threats and even extortionists. He has had police protection on and off.

Understandably, he asked not to use photographs of him or his family as he would like to be able to visit his precious stones every now and then, without being publicly recognised or identified.

No journalist has actually seen these stones. However, pictures of them are readily available, as are certificates from renowned gemmologists, who testify to their existence and value.

One wonders whether the Internet will finally help Vidyaraj to offload the heirloom that he has been struggling for years to sell. And whether their sale would really benefit this ageing, ailing man, who has taken such immense pains to bring them out of hiding and give them to the world.

The Rediff Specials

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