Koh-i-Noor, currently the world’s ninth largest but most infamous diamond, originated in India and peregrinated to Persia, Afghanistan, back to India (Punjab), and finally Britain, where the Tower of London has housed it, as part of British crown jewels, for more than a century and a half. First displayed to the British public during the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, the Koh-i-Noor was last viewed publicly at the funeral of the Queen Mother in 2002 when her crown, with Koh-i-Noor as its centerpiece, was placed on her coffin.
The Queen Mother was the last royal to wear Koh-i-Noor at the coronation of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953. Earlier, she, as Queen consort of King George VI, wore it in her crown at each of her husband’s State Openings of Parliament as well as his coronation. Given its violent and gory history, the diamond is said to be cursed and has not been worn by a British monarch since Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. Queen Elizabeth II has refrained from wearing it even though the British believe that the Koh-i-Noor’s curse would only bring down a male monarch.
Throughout its history, the fabled diamond, which assumed a celebrity status as soon as it arrived in London in 1850, has inflamed passions, stirred up controversies and caused death and destruction. Five countries – Iran, Afghanistan (including even the Taliban!), Pakistan, Iran and Britain – have laid claim to it. As recently as last year, India’s Attorney General provoked controversy by stating that Punjab’s ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh had gifted the Koh-i-Noor to the British and that they had not taken it away to London by force.
Now this, of course, was a blatantly false statement as we know that historically the British took it from Ranjit’s 10-year-old son, Duleep Singh, in 1849 after defeating his forces in Anglo-Sikh wars and annexing Punjab; Ranjit had died ten years earlier. In fact the transfer of the Koh-i-Noor took place as per one of the clauses of the Treaty of Lahore signed by a frightened boy-king, who yielded to pressure, and the British officials who sent it to London to be presented to Queen Victoria as a war trophy.
To debunk such ridiculous statements (as made by Indian Attorney General) and bust many myths surrounding the diamond’s history and provenance, acclaimed historian William Dalrymple has teamed up with British journalist Anita Anand and both have co-written a compelling and entertaining history titled Kohinoor – The Story of The World’s Most Infamous Diamond.
The first reference to the Koh-i-Noor is to be found in Persia around 1750 after Nader Shah’s invasion of Mughal India
Scottish historian Dalrymple has lived in India off and on since 1989 and has written extensively about the country. Anita Anand is a London based radio and TV journalist who has authored a well-received biography of Sophia Duleep Singh- daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh.
Dalrymple sifts fact from fiction and rescues the diamond’s history from myths based on legends and lore. He shows that the first reference to the Koh-i-Noor is to be found in Persia around 1750 after Nader Shah’s invasion of Mughal India, followed by transportation of jewels and treasures, including the famous Peacock Throne, to Persia. It was Nader Shah who named it Koh-i-Noor or Mountain of Light. As for its provenance all that can be said with certainty is that it was part of Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela’s jewels and was removed to Persia by Nader Shah. Anything apart from this fact about its origin is just conjecture or based on myths.
Ahmed Shah Abdali was one of Nader Shah’s generals. On the night that the Persian ruler was assassinated by his guards in 1747, Koh-i-Noor fell into Abdali’s hands. He brought it to Kandahar and declared Afghanistan an independent country. Abdali attacked India ten times during the next twenty years, mostly to replenish his treasury periodically, and controlled provinces such as Kashmir, Punjab and Sindh. After Abdali’s death Koh-i-Noor was inherited by his son Taimur Shah but following his death, Afghanistan fell into a state of confusion and chaos due to a civil war between his 26 sons. Shah Shuja, one of Abdali’s grandsons who had been the Afghan king for a short while, took it to India in 1809 where his family sought refuge in Lahore at the court of the formidable Ranjit Singh, ruler of Punjab.
Ranjit Singh was approached by Wa’fa Begum, Shah Shuja’s wife, who promised him Koh-i-Noor in return for securing the release of Shah Shuja from Kashmir’s Afghan governor. Ranjit’s forces rescued Shuja from Kashmir’s governor but when he demanded the precious diamond, Shah Shuja resorted to delaying tactics which annoyed Ranjit – who forced him to handover Koh-i-Noor.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh has been described as the most extraordinary figure in the whole region and beyond, even by his British opponents. He turned the tide of history by putting an end to the centuries-old tradition of invasions from the north-western region of India. He established Punjab as an independent state and his secular empire lasted for fifty years. He ousted the Afghans from their erstwhile provinces and kept British forces at bay. Ranjit used to regularly wear the Koh-i-Noor as an armband and it was during one of their meetings with him that the British officials first saw his prized possession.
After Ranjit’s death in 1839, Punjab descended into chaos and carnage. In the next four years, Punjab lost three maharajas, one maharani, and a number of elites and aristocrats. In 1843, his youngest son Duleep Singh, a little boy, ascended the throne. Within five years and following two Anglo-Sikh wars, characterised by both treachery and bravery, he lost his kingdom and was exiled. Apparently, Ranjit in his last days, despite suffering from a stroke, had willed that Koh-i-Noor be gifted to a Hindu temple in Orissa but his instructions were disputed and disregarded by his courtiers. Ten years later, his son surrendered it to the British.
Duleep Singh grew up under the tutelage of British tutors, learned English, swapped his Persian verses for English verses, converted to Christianity and was, in 1854, sent to London where he became a fixture at Queen Victoria’s court. He was a personal favourite of Her Majesty, who became his children’s godmother. For most of the next thirty years, he led the life of an English country gentleman and rubbed shoulders with the creme de la creme of Victorian aristocracy. In his later years, he fell out with the British court after he read about his past and became very bitter. He left England and tried to sail to India but was stopped and returned from the Red Sea port of Aden. He moved to Paris, after reconverting to Sikhism in a hastily arranged ceremony in Aden. He even tried to solicit help from the Russian Tsar for his plans of invading Punjab – but the Tsar did not meet him. The exiled prince of Lahore, a very tragic figure, passed away as a penniless man in a Paris hotel in 1893 and was buried in the church next to his country home, Elveden Hall, in Suffolk.
Back in 1849 Duleep had been coerced to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the British Governor-General in India. Months after his arrival in London, one day when he was having his usual conversations with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, she showed him the famous diamond. Duleep took it towards the window and examined it intensely for more than half an hour without uttering a word. Her Majesty’s staff displayed anxiety as they thought he might throw it out of the window but Duleep came back to the queen and handed it back to her with the words: “It is to me, Madam, the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject, of myself tendering to my sovereign the Koh-i-Noor!”
It was the only time when Queen Victoria discussed Koh-i-Noor with Duleep and it was the last time he touched it. Queen Victoria, shortly after this hand-over by Duleep, wore it for the first time in public in Paris when she waltzed with French Emperor Napoleon III in 1855. The diamond was altered slightly to suit British royal tastes as well as to fit into the crown. After her death, only Queen Consorts have worn it and Koh-i-Noor has been in a sort of retirement – but there have been a number of pleas, including one from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1976, demanding the return of the diamond.
In an otherwise meticulously researched and well-crafted book, laced with interesting anecdotes, there is one mistake as it mentions nineteenth century British Prime Minister Robert Peel to have been in government for forty years – whereas it was nearly six years!
The reviewer tweets @AmmarAliQureshi and can be reached at email@example.com