History of Koh-i-noor highlights how many of its owners suffered in the most appalling ways

The story of Koh-i-Noor raises questions historical and contemporary. It is a lightning rod for attitudes towards colonialism.

Written by William Dalrymple , Anita Anand | Updated: December 10, 2016 10:29 am
kohinoor, kohinoor diamond, Koh-i-Noor, Koh-i-Noor diamond, Koh-i-Noor story, diamind, diamond mines, black diamond, supreme court,  Queen Victoria, east india company, Treaty of Lahore, ranjit singh, nadir shah, history of kohinoor, indian express news, india news, indian express opinion Today, the Koh-i-Noor is unquestionably the most famous jewel in the world. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Until the discovery of diamond mines in Brazil in 1725, with the sole exception of a few black diamond crystals found in the mountains of Borneo, all the world’s diamonds came from India. Ancient Indian diamonds were all alluvial. They were not mined so much as sieved and extracted as natural crystals from the soft sands and gravels of ancient river beds. Originally ejected from the host rocks — kimberlite and lamproite — by primeval volcanoes, they were swept up by water and transported along rivers, until at last they came to rest when the river died, millions of years ago. Most such alluvial diamonds are tiny, natural octahedral crystals. Very occasionally, however, a diamond as large as a hen’s egg would be found — one such was the Koh-i-Noor.

Today, the Koh-i-Noor is unquestionably the most famous jewel in the world. Yet, although the Koh-i-Noor may be made of the earth’s hardest substance, it has always attracted an airily insubstantial fog of mythology around it. It is surprisingly difficult to separate fact from fiction in its history. This showed very clearly in April this year when solicitor general Ranjit Kumar told the Indian Supreme Court that the Koh-i-Noor was given freely to the British in the mid-19th century by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and it had been “neither stolen, nor forcibly taken by British rulers”.

This was, by any standards, a strikingly unhistorical statement. In truth, Ranjit Singh jealously guarded both his kingdom and his state jewels, and spent much of his adult life successfully keeping both from the East India Company. Distinguished visitors were allowed to see the Maharaja wearing the great jewel on his arm, but when he died, he left the Koh-i-Noor in his will not to the Company, nor to the British, nor even to Queen Victoria — but to the Jagannath temple at Puri.

The British got their hands on the jewel only a decade later, after taking advantage of divisions among the Sikhs and the general anarchy which engulfed Punjab following Ranjit’s death. After the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1849, on March 29, the Kingdom of the Punjab was formally annexed by the Company. The Last Treaty of Lahore was signed, officially ceding the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Victoria, and the Maharaja’s other assets to the Company. By this time, the diamond had become much more than an object of desire. It had instead become a powerful symbol of sovereignty.

Trying to trace the history of the Koh-i-Noor before this point is, however, no easy task. Unambiguous early references to this most celebrated of gems are almost suspiciously thin on the ground. Indeed, there is simply no 100 per cent certain reference to the Koh-i-Noor in any Sultanate or Mughal source, despite a huge number of textual references to outsized diamonds appearing throughout Indian history, particularly towards the climax of Mughal rule. Some of these may well refer to the Koh-i-Noor, but it is impossible to be certain.

Frustrating as it is, we simply do not know for sure the origin of the Koh-i-Noor and have no hard information as to when, how or where it entered Mughal hands. We only know for sure how it left, seized by Nader Shah in 1739 as part of the Peacock Throne to which it was then attached. Joining it in exile were other fabulous Mughal gems. For the Koh-i-Noor, which weighed 190.3 metric carats when it arrived in Britain, had at least two comparable sisters in the Mughal treasury, the Darya-i-Noor, or Sea of Light, now in Teheran (today estimated at 175-195 metric carats), and the Great Mughal Diamond, believed by most modern gemologists to be the Orlov diamond (189.9 metric carats), today part of Catherine the Great’s imperial Russian sceptre in the Kremlin.

In our new book, Koh-i-Noor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, we have attempted to blow away the cobwebs of myth and tell the real history of the world’s most famous gem, using previously untranslated Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu sources. We have also had access to the high-tech discoveries of modern gemologists who used laser and X-ray scanning technology to reconstruct the diamond’s original form. As we discovered, if you remove the myths, you reveal a true history stranger, and more violent, than any fiction.

For the Koh-i-Noor is not only a story of greed, conquest, murder, blindings, seizure, colonialism and appropriation through an impressive slice of south and central Asian history. It is also a tale of changing fashions in jewellery and personal adornment, and a history of the role, alchemy and astrology of precious stones. It reveals previously unknown moments in the diamond’s history, such as the century when it was embedded in the spectacular Peacock Throne to the months the diamond spent hidden in a crack in the wall of a prison cell in a remote Afghan fort. The story sweeps from the years when it languished, unrecognised, on a mullah’s desk to when Ranjit Singh had the son of its previous owner, Shah Shuja, tortured in front of his father in order to pressure Shuja to hand over the stone.

Indeed, the history of the diamond highlights how many owners of the Koh-i-Noor — Shah Shuja among them — suffered in the most appalling ways. Its owners have variously been blinded, slow-poisoned, tortured to death, burned in oil, threatened with drowning, covered in molten lead, assassinated by their own families and bodyguards, lost their kingdoms and died in penury. Even inanimate objects associated with the gem seem to have been struck down; witness the cholera epidemic and storms which nearly sank the ship Medea as it carried the Koh-i-Noor to England, scything through passengers and crew.

Although it was never the largest Indian diamond, it retains a fame and celebrity unmatched by any of its larger or more perfect rivals. This has made it the focus of recent demands for compensation for colonial looting, and set in motion repeated attempts to have it returned to its various former homes.

The story of the Koh-i-Noor continues to raise important historical issues but contemporary ones too, being in many ways a lightning rod for attitudes towards colonialism. The diamond’s very presence in the Tower of London poses the question: What is the proper response to imperial looting? Do we simply shrug it off as part of the rough-and-tumble of history or should we attempt to right the wrongs of the past? Once worn on Ranjit Singh’s turban, Duleep Singh’s armband and Queen Victoria’s tiara, it is now locked in the Tower of London where it continues to arouse passions, as India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban all claim it as a national treasure and demand its return.

Like the legendary Syamantaka gem of the Puranas, with which many identified it, the Koh-i-Noor has lost none of its extraordinary ability to create discord all around it.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘A gem of a myth’)

Dalrymple is a historian and author. Anand is a radio and television journalist in Britain. They have co-authored ‘Koh-i-Noor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond’ (Juggernaut Books), launched on December 9

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