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ON THE COVER C’est si bon! Halau Mele chanter Marques Hanalei Marzan with Paris’ most famous landmark—la Tour Eiffel—in the background. Photo by Kevin German
Vol.17, no.6
December 2014 / January 2015

 

Chamber of Mirrors and Moonlight 
Written By: Paul Wood
Photographs By: Linny Morris 

Imagine a bedroom carved from pure moonlight, a cocoon of translucent stone. As the sun rises outside one wall, moves through the day, then descends behind the facing wall, its brilliance is tempered by white marble screens perforated with myriad five-sided patterns that soften the light. Sea winds trail coolly through the room bearing the sounds of surf and birdcalls. 

To enter this room—the first room in the Mughal Suite at Shangri La—you walk through a massive fifteenth-century wooden door from Spain and pass a mural of Moorish tile on your left and a lush tropical garden on your right. As you step into the interior of the suite—its large, lavish bedroom—the Mughal influence is evoked, most beautifully by seven exquisite marble screens, or jalis, set into the walls of the suite. Jalis like these adorned the great palaces and tombs of India, including the greatest of them all, the Taj Mahal, the sensuous tomb created in the 1600s by Mughal ruler Shah Jahan. But in this room there is a wonderful trick that distinguishes these jalis from their Mughal counterparts: They slide. Even though each stands over seven feet tall and weighs five hundred pounds, all slide easily into recessed wall pockets. When they are closed sunlight filters in gently; when they are open the bedroom is exposed to the brilliance of the sun, the gardens and the ocean beyond.

The dressing room adjoining the bedroom is all whiteness and mirrors. There are mirrors on every side, stretching from the white marble floor to the domed ceiling. That ceiling, decked out in dozens of tiny diamond-shaped mirrors, was inspired not by Mughal architecture but by the shrine of Imam Reza in Iran. The room beyond—the third and last room of the Mughal Suite—wears its beauty in a more refined way. The bathroom is a masterpiece in white marble. It has a white sunken marble tub, carved white marble jalis for windows and twenty-six marble panels that have been inlaid with semiprecious stones—lapis lazuli, carnelian, malachite, jasper—to create exquisite depictions of flowering plants, among them poppies, lilies, clematis and tulips. The panels are modeled directly after panels in the Taj Mahal and Delhi’s Red Fort. Both the panels and the jalis were in fact created in 1935 in the home of the Taj Mahal—the city of Agra—and shipped to O‘ahu, to a site just east of Diamond Head. There they were installed as part of a fourteen-thousand-square-foot modernist-style house built against the sea cliff. Once assembled, the Mughal Suite became the most private of places for a young woman with a great need for privacy. But now, for the first time since it was created, the Mughal Suite—the inner sanctum of Doris Duke—is open to the public. 

Since its inception as a museum the late Doris Duke’s home at Black Point—housing one of the largest private collections of Islamic art in the United States—has not offered public access to the Mughal Suite. Its long-awaited opening completes the transformation of Shangri La from Duke’s private sanctuary to a community treasure. “This is the last artistically significant piece in the house, and it is the space that people have been clamoring for,” says Deborah Pope, who has been the executive director of Shangri La since 2000. Duke died at 80 in 1993, leaving instructions that her Honolulu home be opened to the public for tours and educational programs. To this end the Duke Foundation of Islamic Art was established. For the past fourteen years Pope and her team have been hosting resident scholars and artists, presenting programs and conserving the house and its Islamic artifacts. 

It’s odd, in one sense, that the Mughal Suite is the last element of the house to be opened, for it was the first to be conceived. In fact, Duke arranged for the construction of the bedroom complex before she had ever been to Hawai‘i. She was 22 when she married, and she commissioned the bedroom suite while on her honeymoon. By then she’d been gossip fodder for years, “the richest girl in the world.” When she was 12 her elderly father died, splitting his fortune between his university—the eponymous Duke University—and his only child. James Buchanan “Buck” Duke had accumulated wealth by introducing pre-rolled cigarettes to the world and compounded his fortune through hydroelectric power and money management. Doris was a girl who moved among the privileged, people whose personal art collections would eventually go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She bred new varieties of orchids. She played jazz piano and sang in a gospel choir. She spoke fluent French and worked for a while in Europe as a foreign correspondent.

It was 1935 when she married James Crowell, who at 37 was fifteen years her senior. Their nine-month honeymoon took the couple to South Asia, where they visited Gandhi at his ashram and heard him preach about the importance of native craft traditions in fostering dignity among India’s peasants. Soon after, Duke visited the Taj Mahal and fell in love with its beauty. She sought out a British architect named Francis Blomfield to design the Mughal Suite. It was to be fashioned with the same traditional skills that Gandhi had extolled. Pope notes that many of the Indian craftsmen who worked on the suite would have been descended from generations of stone artists. “Their skill and artistry,” she says of the men, “is amazing.” 


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