Passage to India

Shangri La’s opulent Mughal Suite opens to the public this fall.

Shangri La—the image conjures up an earthly paradise, a mythical place of perfect living. Just as its name suggests, Doris Duke’s Shangri La, inspired by the aesthetics of design, is a secluded mansion that houses an extensive collection of Islamic art. It’s located at Black Point, surrounded by the ocean, Diamond Head and the majesty of Duke’s colorful imagination.

In 1925, when she was 12, Duke’s father, tobacco and energy tycoon James Buchanan died. She inherited $50 million, and the nickname, “The Richest Girl in the World.” Duke later married American diplomat James Cromwell, and the couple embarked on a 10-month, around-the-world honeymoon that included stops in the Middle East, India, Pakistan and Hawai‘i.

The couple fell in love with the islands, and their original plan to stay for several weeks lasted four months. Soon afterward, they built a home here. Deborah Pope, executive director of Shangri La, owned and managed by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, says that Duke had a small circle of local friends, mostly Native Hawaiians. These friends weren’t socialites. The latter is what she came to Hawai‘i to get away from. “Honolulu has made a hit with the Cromwells,” the then-Honolulu Advertiser reported, “because it has left them alone.”


In 1935, while traveling throughout India on their whirlwind honeymoon tour, the couple attended an audience with Gandhi. His interest in Indian crafts and artisans made an indelible impression. The encounter lasted less than an hour and then Gandhi returned to a convention of artisans held that day.

Inspired by the Taj Mahal and a meeting with Gandhi, Duke commissioned a Delhi architect to design a bathroom and bedroom suite incorporating inlaid panels and screens that imitated those at the Taj Mahal. This Mughal-inspired suite became the nucleus of Shangri La and coincided with the beginning of Duke’s Islamic art collecting.


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Entrance to the Mughal Suite at Shangri La, Honolulu (© 2014, Linny Morris, courtesy of the DDFIA, Honolulu, Hawai‘i)

In a 1947 article for Town & Country, Duke said, “The idea of building a Near Eastern house in Honolulu must seem fantastic to many. But precisely at the time, I fell in love with Hawai‘i and decided I could never live anywhere else, a Mogul-inspired bedroom and bathroom, planned for another house, was being completed for me in India so there was nothing to do but have it shipped to Hawai‘i and build a house around it.”

Defined by an inventive synthesis, Shangri La combined Islamic architectural details from buildings Duke saw on her travels with a simple, modernist design. Once described as a Spanish-Moorish-Persian-Indian complex, Duke seamlessly combined modern architecture, a tropical landscape and art from the Islamic world. The collections are diverse and encompass a broad time spectrum, from the pre-Islamic and Medieval periods through the mid-20th century, as well as a myriad of media, styles and techniques developed within the realm of Islamic art.

“We do not know what sparked Doris Duke’s interest in Islamic art,” curator Sharon Littlefield writes in her book, Doris Duke‘s Shangri La. “The startling juxtaposition of Islamic tile panels, glass vessels, metalwork and luxurious textiles with Hawai’i’s luscious flora at first seems to be an anomaly. Duke herself explained it as a coincidence, a sort of falling in love twice at once—with Hawai’i and with arts of the Middle East and India.”

Pope also shares her thoughts on Duke’s penchant for Mughal Indian art and architecture: “In my mind, it’s not one thing or another, it’s a constellation of those in which the art, the gardens, the water features all go together, and it’s that kind of relationship of things that becomes so important at Shangri La.

In 2002, a decade after her death, Duke’s Hawaiian home opened to the public. She entrusted its preservation and care to the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which owns and manages Shangri La and its collections. Today, Shangri La is nationally recognized for its high artistic value and as one of Hawai’i’s most architecturally significant homes.


When the Mughal Suite opens this October, the public will get an intimate glimpse into the artistic vision that became important, and essential, to the evolution of Shangri La.

“We’re delighted to unveil this glorious ensemble of rooms and to simultaneously showcase Duke’s Indian collections,” Pope says. “Duke traveled to India frequently throughout her adult life—it’s a region of the larger Muslim world that she loved and that is not shown elsewhere in the house.”

“The setting of the Mughal Suite interior— with its luminous marble screens, opulent textiles and alluring furnishings—provides an incomparable setting for the display of Duke’s beloved collection of precious Indian jewelry and decorative arts,” Littlefield says.

The Mughal Suite became the foundation of Duke’s Hawaiian home. In a letter to his mother, Cromwell wrote, “[Doris] … had fallen in love with the Taj Mahal and all the beautiful marble tile, with their lovely floral designs with some precious stones.” By the time the couple moved into the Mughal Suite in 1939, Shangri La featured Islamic art collections, including Indian, Moroccan and Iranian architectural elements, as well as works of art from Central Asia, Egypt, Iran and Syria, among other places.

Today, the Mughal Suite embraces Duke’s love for Mughal architecture and her desire for world-class aesthetics. The meticulous and embellished marble work includes seven large door jali (perforated marble screens) for the bedroom and four small window jalis and a dado (lower wall) with inlaid floral patterns for the bathroom.

What the Mughal Suite ultimately reveals is the private imagination of one of America’s most celebrated icons. Architectural drawings, photos and film segments chronicle the suite’s history and Duke’s two-month sojourn in India. Also displayed: Duke’s rarely viewed precious collection of gold, diamond, ruby and emerald Indian jewelry, as well as jewelry-encrusted jade vessels, rock crystal boxes, ivory figurines and enameled-gold decorative objects.

The Mughal Suite is a testament to Shangri La and Duke’s vision. Traditional Islamic art and architectural forms blend with a modernist sensibility, representing different cultures collected from distinct worlds shared in a beautiful Hawaiian home.

“Hawai’i has a fabulous and vibrant art and culture scene,” Pope says. “We have great museums, great artists, and it’s the culmination of all of us working together as artists and arts institutions that puts Hawai’i on the cultural map. We very much value Shangri La’s place and our partnerships in our community.”

Shangri La is accessible only by guided tour, which starts at the Honolulu Museum of Art. The Mughal Suite will be included in the tour starting in October. To book a tour, call 532-3853 or visit

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