Mountain of Light

There is only one argument for letting the Kohinoor remain where it doesn’t belong, in the Tower of London: it is a shining example of colonial loot

Written by Shashi Tharoor | Published: January 7, 2017 12:39 am
book-759 Indeed, the fabled diamond provides an effective lens through which to describe a fascinating historical period.

Book Name– Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond

Author- William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

Publisher- Juggernaut

Pages- 239

Price- Rs 499

In this irresistible, short book, William Dalrymple, a British historian living in India, and Anita Anand, an Indian journalist working in Britain, have teamed up to the tell the fascinating story of the Kohinoor. They trace the “world’s most infamous diamond,” suffused with mystique and haunted by misfortune, from its mysterious origins to its more recent travels — from the Mughal courts to Nadir Shah’s Persia to Ahmed Shah Abdali’s Afghanistan to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s armband, to its final resting place on the Queen of England’s crown.

The story is told with great flair and fondness for detail, with fascinating and not very familiar anecdotes, including the time when John Lawrence, entrusted to deliver it to the Queen, mislaid it in a waistcoat pocket. Though each author has written a different half of the book, the narrative flows seamlessly and it is hard to tell from the prose when the authorial baton has been handed over from one writer to another. Descriptions are colourful and compelling. Characters from the jewel’s riveting journey are described and directly quoted. You will finish the book feeling that there is nothing more you need to know about the Kohinoor.

Indeed, the fabled diamond provides an effective lens through which to describe a fascinating historical period. While the authors explore the Kohinoor’s prehistory, they conclude, somewhat disappointingly, that none of the rumours about it — that it was plucked from the eye of a temple idol in Andhra Pradesh by the invading Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji, or that it is the very large jewel mentioned (without a name) in assorted texts up to and including Babur’s reign — can be conclusively verified. Nor is there any evidence that the Kohinoor is the same gem as the legendary Syamantaka, said to have been gifted to Lord Krishna by the sun god Surya. Definitive accounts of the Kohinoor, they tell us, begin only in the mid-18th century; from there, it dazzled chroniclers of Indian opulence till its surrender to the British under the “Treaty of Lahore” in 1849, when the ten-year-old youngest son of Ranjit Singh ceded it to a conniving Lord Dalhousie (along with Punjab and Kashmir) to be given to Queen Victoria as a symbol of her sovereignty over India.

Queen Victoria was, of course, delighted to have it, putting it on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where it attracted great attention. The Kohinoor is not the largest diamond in the world. It was said to weigh 793 carats or 158.6 grams, when it was first mined near Guntur by the Kakatiya dynasty in the thirteenth century, but has been whittled down to a little under 100 carats by its various owners, most dramatically by Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, and is today merely the 19th largest known diamond. But it possesses a renown that Dalrymple and Anand have explained and dramatised.

It was Nadir Shah himself, or so legend has it, who baptised the diamond the Kohinoor, or “Mountain of Light”, which explains why the name does not occur in earlier texts. Upon Nadir Shah’s death the diamond fell into the hands of one of his generals, Ahmed Shah Abdali , who became the Emir of Afghanistan and took on the name Durrani. His descendant Shah Shuja was its last Afghan owner. His wife Wa’fa Begum memorably and colourfully stated, “if a strong man were to throw four stones, one north, one south, one east, one west and a fifth stone up into the air, and if the space between them were to be filled with gold, it would not equal the value of the Kohinoor”. But she could not prevent the gem from being ceded in tribute to the powerful Sikh Maharaja of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, in 1809.

Ranjit Singh’s successors could not hold on to his kingdom and the Sikhs were defeated by the British in two wars, culminating in the annexation of the Sikh domains to the British empire in 1849. That was when the Kohinoor fell into British hands. The importance given to the Kohinoor by Queen Victoria and her successors, and the hype and publicity surrounding the diamond, made it into a symbol of what the British had so triumphantly taken from India. That has, of course, led many, this reviewer included, to turn it against the British themselves, and to seek its return as the stolen property it is. After all, if looted Nazi-era art can be (and now is being) returned to their rightful owners in various Western countries, why is the principle any different for the Indian treasures looted by the British?

Indians will not relinquish their moral claim to the world’s most fabled diamond, despite the current government’s preposterous submission to an Indian court that the diamond was paid as “compensation” for British expenses in defeating its owners, the Sikhs (omitting the fact that the child Sikh heir Maharaja Duleep Singh, who handed it over, simply had no choice in the matter). But the Kohinoor, which is part of the Crown Jewels displayed in the Tower of London, does pose special problems. While Indians consider their claim self-evident — the diamond, after all, has spent most of its existence on or under Indian soil — others have also asserted their claims. The Iranians say Nadir Shah stole it fair and square; the Afghans that they held it until being forced to surrender it to the Sikhs (the Taliban even lodged a claim with the British government). Zulfikar Ali Bhutto entered Pakistan in the Kohinoor sweepstakes, on the somewhat flimsy grounds that the capital of the Sikh empire, the undisputed last pre-British owners, was Lahore, now in Pakistan (The fact that hardly any Sikhs are left in Pakistan after decades of ethnic cleansing of minorities there tends to be glossed over in asserting this claim).

The existence of contending claims comes as a major relief to Britain as it seeks to fend off a blizzard of demands to undo the manifold injustices of two centuries or more of colonial exploitation of far-flung lands. From the Parthenon Marbles to the Kohinoor, the British expropriation of the jewels of other countries’ heritage is a particular point of contention. Giving in on any one item could, the British fear, open Pandora’s box. As former prime minister David Cameron conceded on a visit to India in July 2010, “If you say yes to one, you would suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I’m afraid to say it [the Kohinoor] is going to have to stay put.”

Still, flaunting the Kohinoor on the Queen Mother’s crown in the Tower of London is a powerful reminder of the injustices perpetrated by the former imperial power. Until it is returned — at least as a symbolic gesture of expiation — it will remain evidence of the loot, plunder and misappropriation that colonialism was really all about. Perhaps, that is the best argument for leaving the Kohinoor where it emphatically does not belong — in British hands.

Dalrymple and Anand have spun a rollicking good yarn out of all this. It doesn’t resolve any mysteries, nor does it take sides on the vexed issue of the Kohinoor’s rightful home, but for anyone interested in our country’s history over the last three centuries, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

 

Shashi Tharoor is an MP from the Congress party  

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