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Sunday, May 29, 2022

One diamond to rule the world

If Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah was an aesthete, Persian warlord Nadir Shah was a ruthless and efficient warrior. There could only be one outcome to a war between them.

Written by William Dalrymple And Anita Anand |
Updated: December 11, 2016 12:01:23 am
Game of thrones: Persian king Nader Shah on the Peacock Throne with members of the court, after his victory at the Battle of Karnal, created circa 1850. Game of thrones: Persian king Nader Shah on the Peacock Throne with members of the court, after his victory at the Battle of Karnal, created circa 1850.

In January 1739, the Mughal Empire was still the wealthiest state in Asia. Almost all of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan was ruled from the Peacock Throne — with the Koh-i-Noor still glittering from one of the peacocks on its roof. Although it had been in decline for half a century, and often wracked in internal conflict, the Mughal Empire still ruled most of the rich and fertile lands from Kabul to the Carnatic. Moreover, its decadent and sophisticated capital, Delhi, with two million inhabitants, larger than London and Paris combined, was still the most prosperous and magnificent city between Ottoman Istanbul and Imperial Edo (Tokyo). Ruling this vast empire was the effete Emperor Muhammad Shah — called Rangila, or Colourful, the Merry-Maker. He was an aesthete, much given to wearing ladies’ peshwaz (long outer garment) and shoes embroidered with pearls; he was also a discerning patron of music and painting.

It was Muhammad Shah who brought the sitar and the tabla out of the folk milieu and into his court. He also revived the Mughal miniature atelier and employed master artists such as Nidha Mal and Chitarman, whose greatest works show bucolic scenes of Mughal court life… In reaction to the harsh Islamic puritanism of Aurangzeb’s era, under Muhammad Shah (1702–48) Delhi saw an explosion of unrestrainedly sensual art, dance, music and literary experimentation…This was the age of the great courtesans, whose beauty and notorious coquettishness were celebrated across South Asia. Ad Begum would turn up stark naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice: “she decorates her legs with beautiful drawings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them; in place of the cuffs she draws flowers and petals in ink exactly as is found in the finest cloth of Rum”. Her great rival, Nur Bai, was so popular that every night the elephants of the great Mughal omrahs completely blocked the narrow lanes outside her house, yet even the most senior nobles had “to send a large sum of money to have her admit them…”

But … Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’ was certainly no warrior on the battlefield. He survived in power by the simple ruse of giving up any pretence of ruling: in the morning, he watched partridge and elephant fights; in the afternoon, he was entertained by jugglers, mime artists and conjurors. Politics he wisely left to his advisers and regents…

It was Muhammad Shah’s ill fate to have as his immediate western neighbour the aggressive Afshar Turkman Persian-speaking warlord Nader Shah. Nader was the son of a humble shepherd who had risen rapidly in the army thanks to his remarkable military talents. He was as tough, humourless, ruthless and efficient a figure as Muhammad Shah was lighthearted, artistic, chaotic yet refined…

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Unlike Muhammad Shah, Nader was clearly no great lover of the arts. He did, however, have a keen eye for jewels, and was determined to invade India with a view to replenishing his treasury’s stock of Indian gemstones — something with which he knew that Mughal Delhi was overflowing…

On 10 May 1738, Nader Shah began his march into northern Afghanistan…

Less than three months later, at Kurnal, one hundred miles north of Delhi, he defeated three merged Mughal armies — one from Delhi, a second from Avadh and a third from the Deccan — in all, around one million men, with a force of only 1,50,000 musketeers. From the beginning, it was clear that the Mughal army, though huge, was little more than an undisciplined rabble. The Dutch East India Company representative in Delhi reported the massive force gathering six miles outside the city, a sea of people “two miles wide by 15 miles long. If this army were trained after the European model,” he noted, “it could conquer the whole world. However, there is no order; each commander does as he pleases”…

A week later, as supplies began to run out in the encircled Mughal camp, Nader invited Muhammad Shah to pay a visit under a flag of truce. The emperor accepted, and foolishly crossed the battle lines with only a handful of attendants and bodyguards. Invited for negotiations, and magnificently entertained, Muhammad Shah Rangila then found that Nader simply refused to let him leave. His bodyguards were disarmed, and Nader placed his own troops to stand guard over the Great Mughal. The next day, Nader’s troops went to the Mughal camp, and brought over Muhammad Shah’s harem, his personal servants and his tents. Once they had gone over, the Persians escorted the leading Mughal nobles across the battlefield to join their emperor. By evening, they had begun removing the Mughal artillery as well. The next day, the remaining Mughal troops, now starving and leaderless, were told they could go home…

A week later, surrounded by elite Persian Qizilbash troops in their distinctive red headdresses, the two rulers marched towards Delhi side by side, and entered the city together. They made the journey seated on elephant back, in an elevated howdah. Muhammad Shah entered the citadel of Shahjahanabad in pin-drop silence on 20 March; the conqueror, mounted on a grey charger, followed on the 21st, the day of Nau Roz, with great fanfare. Nader Shah took over Shah Jahan’s personal apartments, leaving the emperor to move into the women’s quarters…

Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, Juggernaut, 264 pages, Rs 499 Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, Juggernaut, 264 pages, Rs 499

The following day was one of the most tragic in the history of the Mughal capital. With over 40,000 of Nader’s soldiers now billeted in the city, many of them in people’s homes, grain prices shot up. When Nader Shah’s soldiers went to negotiate with the grain merchants at Paharganj, near the present-day railway station, the merchants refused to budge and a scuffle broke out. Shortly thereafter, a rumour spread that Nader Shah had been killed by a female palace guard. Suddenly, the mob began to attack Persian soldiers wherever they found them; by midday, 900 Persians had been killed. Nader Shah responded by ordering a massacre of the civilian population. He left the Red Fort at sunrise the next day to supervise this in person. Dressed in full battle armour, he rode out to the golden mosque of Roshan ud-Daula, half a mile down the Chandni Chowk from the Red Fort, to oversee the retribution from the vantage point of its elevated terrace. The slaughter began promptly at 9 am; the worst killings took place around the Red Fort in the Chandni Chowk, the Dariba and the Jama Masjid, where all the richest shops and the jewellers’ quarters were located. “The soldiers commenced killing, moving from house to house, slaughtering and plundering the people’s property, and carrying away their wives and daughters,” remembered the historian Ghulam Hussain Khan…

In all, some 30,000 citizens of Delhi were slaughtered: “The Persians laid violent hands on everything and everybody; cloth, jewels, dishes of gold and silver were acceptable spoil”…

…Nizam ul-Mulk [ruler of the Deccan] appealed to Sa’adat Khan to ask Nader to put an end to the violence. Sa’adat Khan [the Nawab of Avadh] ordered him out. That evening, Sa’adat Khan committed suicide by taking poison, horrified at the disaster he had helped unleash. The Nizam then went bareheaded, with his hands tied with his turban, and begged Nader on his knees to spare the inhabitants, and instead to take revenge on him. Nader Shah sheathed his sword and ordered his troops to stop the killing;… He did so, however, on the condition that the Nizam would give him 100 crore rupees before he left Delhi…

In the days that followed, the Nizam found himself in the unhappy position of having to loot his own capital city to pay the promised indemnity. Delhi was divided into five blocks and vast sums demanded of each: “Now commenced the work of spoliation,” wrote [the Delhi poet and historian] Anand Ram Mukhlis, “watered by the tears of the people… Not only was their money taken, but whole families were ruined. Many swallowed poison, and others ended their days with the stab of a knife… In short, the accumulated wealth of 348 years changed masters in a moment.” The Persians could not believe the riches that were offered to them over the next few days. They had simply never seen anything like it. Nader’s court historian, Mirza Mahdi Astarabadi, was wide-eyed: “Within a very few days, the officials entrusted with sequestration of the royal treasuries and workshops finished their appointed tasks,” he wrote. “There appeared oceans of pearls & coral, and mines full of gems, gold and silver vessels, cups and other items encrusted with precious jewels and and other luxurious objects in such vast quantities that accountants and scribes even in their wildest dreams would be unable to encompass them in their accounts and records.”

Astarabadi wrote: “Among the sequestered objects was the Peacock Throne whose imperial jewels were unrivalled even by the treasures of ancient kings: in the time of earlier Emperors of India, two crores worth of jewels were used as encrustation to inlay this throne: the rarest spinels and rubies, the most brilliant diamonds, without parallel in any of the treasure of past or present kings, were transferred to Nader Shah’s government treasury.”

On 16 May, after fifty-seven catastrophic days in Delhi, Nader Shah finally left the city, carrying with him the accumulated wealth of eight generations of imperial Mughal conquest. Th e greatest of all his winnings was the Peacock Throne, in which was still embedded both the Koh-i-Noor and the Timur ruby.

Excerpted with permission of Juggernaut Books from Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, available in bookstores and on

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