Mughal Splendor: Doris Duke’s Bedroom is Reopened as an Indian Art Showcase

Take a tour of Doris Duke's stunning Mughal Suite, previously off-limits to the public.


Editor Note’s: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawaii writer on arts, culture and food.


Photo: © 2014, Linny Morris, courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i


Press have been calling the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and the Honolulu Museum of Art for months eager for information about the highly anticipated opening of Shangri La’s Mughal Suite. Starting Oct. 11, the center for Islamic arts and cultures will include this showcase of Doris Duke’s Indian collections in its tours.

Previously off-limits to the public, this cornerstone bedroom-and-bathroom suite was Doris Duke’s personal quarters, which over her lifetime had evolved into a busy mélange of items from her collection. An extensive renovation, based on historical photographs of the room as it appeared in 1939, has returned it to the sleek Indian Art Deco retreat it once was.

It all goes back to Doris Duke’s life-changing, globe-trotting 1935 honeymoon with James Cromwell (best remembered by most local residents as the name of the surf/swim spot near the Black Point estate). While on their almost yearlong sojourn, Duke fell in love with India. During the couple's two months there, spent visiting Mughal landmarks such as the Taj Mahal in Agra and Red Fort in Delhi, Duke commissioned Delhi-based British architect Francis Blomfield to design a Mughal-inspired marble bathroom-and-dressing room enclave to be part of her house on her mother's Palm Beach estate. But the last leg of their trip changed that—they were so taken with Hawai‘i that a two-week stay turned into four months and plans to build a home. 

“Precisely at the time I fell in love with Hawai‘i and I decided I could never live anywhere else, a Mughal-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,” wrote Duke. 

There are many ways to approach a renovation—to what era does one remain true? 

“We laid out all the historical images of the bedroom suite in chronological order, carefully reviewed how they changed over time and then asked ourselves a few questions. What is the story in these rooms? Which era in the life of these rooms is most artistically significant?” explains Shangri La director Deborah Pope, who worked closely with curator Sharon Littlefield on the project, on how they made their choices. “It was pretty clear that the big story is that defining moment in India when Doris falls in love with Mughal architecture and commissions the suite from an architect in Delhi and craftsmen in Agra. The appearance of the suite in the 1930s is fresh, elegant, unencumbered—it has all the vibrancy of the young, newly inspired Doris Duke and the creative energy that made Shangri La.”


Photo: Lesa Griffith


Yesterday, a first group of Shangri La docents had a training session with Pope and Littlefield on how to incorporate the Mughal Suite into the existing tour. The group first stopped at the long, narrow Mughal Garden, based on classic Indian royal gardens, and Pope coached them on connecting the dots and making the Indian art and elements of Shangri La part of the Islamic art story. Then we moved on to the Mughal Suite—there was a chorus of “ohhhs” as we filed into the one-time bedroom, a shadowy space with glints of blue and emerald peeking through the carved marble jali, or perforated screens, of each floor-to-ceiling window. Where Duke’s bed headboard once stood is now a glass case filled with dazzling Indian jewelry studded with rubies and emeralds. Reproductions of miniatures Duke purchased on her honeymoon hang on the walls. 


Photo: © 2014, Linny Morris, courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i


From the bedroom you move into the dressing room—a kaleidoscopic space topped by a vaulted ceiling and covered in plasterwork inset with small mirrors, which was inspired by mirrored ceilings Duke saw in India and Iran. Each mirror was individually cut and set to fit within the starburst design by Hawai‘i craftsmen. It’s a disco-ball contrast after the seraglio serenity of the bedroom. Half of the dressing room now houses information about the retreat’s owner—you can watch footage of Duke touring the construction of Shangri La in 1937, her elegant head ringed by a haku lei, and see her in the 1950s, in a casual sundress, as she descends the stairs to the pool accompanied by one of her beloved German shepherds. Visitors can leaf through a re-created scrapbook of newspaper articles, receipts, tickets, and invitations chronicling the Cromwells’ honeymoon.


Photo: © Tim Street-Porter 2011


Then finally you reach Duke’s bathroom—a sanctuary of carved and inlaid marble panels made by craftsmen of the Indian Marble Works in Agra. Embedded in marble are pieces of lapis lazuli, jade, carnelian and other semi-precious stones forming 26 floral studies. They echo the historic marble work of 17th-century India while simultaneously reflecting the 1930s International Style’s sensuous lines and simple form. On a sultry Honolulu day, which feels increasingly the humid norm, the perpetually cool marble floor beckons you to get horizontal on it, and lay your sweaty cheek on the tiles. Try to resist.


Free kama‘aina Spotlight Tours October to December

To celebrate the opening of the Mughal Suite, Shangri La is offering free one-hour “Spotlight Tours” of this intimate heart of Duke’s home for Hawai‘i residents on Oct. 18 and 25, Nov. 8 and 15, and Dec. 21 and 27. You need to fill in a tour request form, which will be available one week before each tour date. Check back on this page for a link to the request form.


Regular tours

Tours are available Wednesday through Saturday, with tours beginning at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., unless otherwise specified. As of Oct. 11, the Mughal Suite will be included on the regularly scheduled guided tours of Shangri La. These tours are approximately one and a-half hours onsite. Tickets are $25, which includes van transportation as well as admission to the Honolulu Museum of Art’s permanent exhibitions. Discounted tickets are available for $20 to Hawai‘i residents with proof of local residency. 


Photo: Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i (Photo: David Franzen, 2014)


Just a reminder that Shangri La is owned and supported by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. The Honolulu Museum of Art administers the tours, which start at the museum. You’ll get to ride on the museum’s shuttle bus, which was just wrapped in a stunning design by our art director Jared Stone yesterday. Anyone who attempts to drive directly to Shangri La will be turned away.


Read more about the Mughal Suite’s conservation on the Shangri La blog. Book a regular tour online.


Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.