In Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, William Dalrymple and Anita Anand tell the tale of the colourful stone with an attempt to separate the history from the myth.
Given how much the Kohinoor is talked about, it is surprising that it has taken so long for the history of the gem to be written. That, however, may have been for the best, as the delay has led to Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond – a beautifully written, engrossing story about the undesirable fate of conquerors entranced by a small, lustrous ancient stone.
Originally the size of a hen’s egg and weighing 793 carats (158.6 grams), seducing the beholder and itself fated to become a layered emblem of the Empire, the diamond supposedly received its name from Nadir Shah. When he beheld the stone, he supposedly exclaimed, “Koh-i-noor!” meaning ‘mountain of light’ in Farsi.
This was hardly the only thing that Nadir Shah took with him after his brutal sack of Delhi in 1739, however, this gem was taken from the crown of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, and was literally the crown jewel.
One is immediately reminded of this couplet by Iqbal:
kar bulbul-o- taus ki taqleed se tauba
bulbul faqat awaz hai, taus faqat rang!
(Desist from imitating the nightingale and peacock
The nightingale is only voice, the second only colour.)
Muhammad Shah, after all, was known as ‘Rangiley’ (the colourful) and the word ‘taus’ can mean both peacock and throne. The grip that this colourful stone would have on many of those that sat on thrones is the story in this book by William Dalrymple, a pre-eminent modern writer on subcontinental history with several popular books to his credit, and Anita Anand, who has extensive television experience and has written a book on Sophia, the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who consolidated the Sikh empire in the northwest.
The history of the diamond is cloaked in legend and myth, and the authors have meticulously researched its probable history, corroborating their account via an impressive 39 pages of notes and indexed cross references. The tale, at times familiar, at other times dramatic and speculative, as the diamond changed hands over the centuries, is skillfully interwoven with history.
While much about the Kohinoor is uncertain, its theft proved to be a fatal act for those who appropriated it by force and claimed it as a personal possession. Nadir Shah became paranoid and insane. He saw enemies everywhere and had his own son put to death. Ahmad Shah Abdali developed a brain tumour and vile infections that led to his agonising end. Ranjit Singh’s empire disintegrated immediately after his death.
However, the next owners, linked via colonial symbiosis, were more durable. After the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1848-49, in which the British prevailed, the sinister jewel was acquired by the winners from Duleep Singh, the son of Ranjit Singh, through the canny scheming of Lord Metcalfe and Lord Dalhousie. Later, the jewel was formally presented to Empress Victoria herself. Pathos surrounds the fragile figure of the young prince, separated from his loving mother at the age of 11 and sent to live with English guardians.
In England, the diamond was soon put to uses other than being a personal adornment. It became an instrument for reinforcing the public image of Albert, the Prince Consort – a title not initially approved by the parliament – whose status was increasingly effaced by the formidable Queen. A grand exhibition was organised in May 1851 to celebrate Albert’s royal presence, and the Kohinoor was the star attraction at the spectacular venue.
Even The Times, usually a sober and weighty newspaper, was positively giddy:
“Never before was so vast a multitude gathered together within the memory of man. The struggles of great nations in battle, the levies of whole races, never called forth such an army as thronged the streets of London on the 1st of May…The blazing arch of lucid glass with the hot sun flaming on its polished ribs and sides shone like the Koh-i-noor itself.”
Unfortunately, the diamond proved recalcitrant and refused to shine. Gas lamps were lit to reflect, refract and diffract its luster; its booth and setting were reconfigured, but the proclaimed masterpiece was a huge disappointment. After this poor showing, Prince Albert, urged by the jewellers to the crown, tried to increase the gem’s luminosity by having it cut in the European way.
The Duke of Wellington was called upon to inaugurate the ceremonial first cutting of this pallid, obdurate stone. The Kohinoor was reduced to a little over half its previous size. Now a mere 93 metric carats with 33 facets on each side, it blazed obligingly. Thus, suitably refashioned, the exotic object now became the rage. Its blood-soaked history receded. Ships and stately houses were named after it. Engagement rings began to be set with diamonds, a trend that continues into the present.
Meanwhile, like the Kohinoor he once owned, Duleep Singh too had been re-cut and re-faceted by his experience of English living in Fatehgarh. Under severe conditioning, he converted to Christianity with the rather tepid agreement of the Company Bahadur. Lord Dalhousie arranged for Duleep Singh to visit Queen Victoria at the court in 1854. Apparently, the prince charmed everyone there with his impeccable manners and behaviour. He was particularly considerate to the youngest heir to the throne, a haemophiliac and the Queen was very touched by his warmth towards her delicate son.
One wonders if she felt guilty wearing the Kohinoor in Duleep Singh’s presence. Be that as it may, on this occasion an astonishing ritual of recursion was enacted wherein Duleep was himself presented with the diminished jewel and then,
Bowing before her, Duleep gently put the gem into Queen Victoria’s hand. “It is to me, ma’am, the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject, of myself tendering to my Sovereign – the Koh-i-noor.”
Following this, the Queen had the diamond set into her crown as the centrepiece, and showed it off in 1855 on her first official visit to France. Is it a coincidence that the Indian uprising of 1857 broke out soon thereafter?
Albert, who had the stone so viciously cut down to size, was himself cut down, suffering a long debilitating illness for over two years. In 1960, he almost died in a runaway horse carriage – before passing away at the age of 42.
After Albert’s early death, Victoria had the gem re-set in a brooch that adorned her widow’s garb when she went to the parliament. Apparently it both projected and protected the power of the sovereign. However, the bad luck and disaster associated with the Kohinoor caused her male heirs to avoid it. Most recently it was part of the late Queen Mother’s formal headdress and is now locked away with other imperial loot.
The story does not end here. Ever since independence, India has claimed the Kohinoor as its national property. Pakistan has aggressively laid a competing claim, based on the fact that Maharajah Ranjeet Singh’s court was based in Lahore. The government of Afghanistan, the territory of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali, has demanded that the jewel be returned to its home. Such un-lovelies as the Taliban have also staked their claim.
The Kohinoor is a stone. Brilliant, bedazzling, bewitching, but just a stone. Do we really want to draw its curse? It’s not as if we don’t have enough to worry about in the subcontinent at the present time.
Ateeq Ahmad is senior vice president, product and marketing analytics at ProProfs.com, and maintains a blog MammalsRUs. His grandfather served as a major in the Royal Medical Corps on the Burma front from 1940-45, during World War II.