The Kohinoor's true (and bloody) history is traced by William Dalrymple, Anita Anand

William Dalrymple and Anita Anand spoke to Firstpost about how they uncovered the true history of the Kohinoor, the 'world's most infamous diamond'

Rohini Nair December 11, 2016 09:02:55 IST

Reading William Dalrymple and Anita Anand:’s new book, Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, I was tempted to draw the kind of charts that are now so in vogue due to the popularity of shows like Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead, where the body count of important characters runs into double digits. The kind of charts that trace every death that occurred across every season, categorised according to how each gruesome end came about.

If such a chart were indeed to be made, based on this history of the Kohinoor (also written as 'Koh-i-Noor'), it would have to account for several dead, maimed or maddened kings, slaughtered commoners, sacrificed queens, ruined lives, and devastated cities and provinces.

Dalrymple and Anand’s book is ostensibly about the Kohinoor of course, but it is also the story of a remarkable number of remarkable men (and some women) who died as a consequence of having, or wanting to have, possessed the jewel.

The Kohinoor’s true history is not the one that is popularly known; nor are the facts pertaining to it the ones you'll find on Wikipedia. Dalrymple and Anand set out to prove that most of what is on Wikipedia is incorrect — thanks to being based on the flawed account provided by a Theo Metcalfe, an Englishman tasked by Lord Dalhousie (who took the Kohinoor from its last Indian owner, the young Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab, and gave it to Queen Victoria) to find out everything he could about the famed jewel’s origins. Metcalfe — who began to trace the gem’s story in Delhi a whole 100 years after the Kohinoor had last been there, taken away by Nader Shah from the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’ — relied on ‘bazaar gossip’ rather than actual historical truths, and the account he came up with, was more colourful than correct.

As Dalrymple and Anand trace the Kohinoor’s back story spanning several centuries, what emerges is not just the tale of a very valuable gem: What emerges, is a narrative of greed, and of ambition. Of men who coveted, and of men who caved in. It is a story of abominable, at times stomach-churning violence (Shah Zaman Durrani was blinded with hot needles; Shah Rukh, the grandson of Nader Shah, had molten lead poured onto his head as a 'crown' in a Game of Thrones-like moment). Rarer, are instances that depict grace or loyalty, courage or the steadfast fulfillment of responsibility.

What was this gem that so many gave up so much to have — even if fleetingly?

Possibly derived from the Golconda mines, the Kohinoor — aka the 'Mountain of Light' — was a 190.3 metric carat stone. Its very early origins are difficult to establish — popular lore connects it to the Symantaka jewel mentioned in the Vishnu Purana (popular lore, as Dalrymple and Anand have reminded us in their book, cannot be relied on in the case of the Kohinoor). Kohinoor: The True Story posits that the jewel was possibly in Babur’s possession, from there passing to Humayun. Its first possibly verifiable appearance is as part of Shah Jahan’s peacock throne.

The Kohinoors true and bloody history is traced by William Dalrymple Anita Anand

(L) Victoria (1819-1901) Queen of England, wears a magnificent brooch in which is set the thousand-year-old Koh-i-noor diamond, which had been surrendered to her by the Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1849; (R) Cover of William Dalrymple and Anita Anand's new book on the Kohinoor. Images courtesy Juggernaut Books

The Kohinoor travelled a great deal — with Nader Shah (who took it from Muhammad Shah Rangila, after defeating him in battle and killing thousands of civilians in Delhi) to Persia (now Iran), with Ahmad Shah Durrani (who Nader entrusted the jewel to, in anticipation of the assassination that ended his life) back to Afghanistan, with Shah Shuja to Punjab (where Maharaja Ranjit Singh gained custody of the stone) and from Maharaja Duleep Singh (Ranjit Singh’s 10-year-old son and successor) to Queen Victoria in England, thanks to the machinations of Lord Dalhousie. Queen Victoria was the last ruling monarch to ever wear the Kohinoor.

It left a bloody trail, but that is not what gave the Kohinoor its fame in the modern world. While it had long been a symbol of power (every ruler would take up the gem for himself after vanquishing its previous owner), the Kohinoor gained its celebrity status thanks to The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Nearly 300 million visitors flocked to the grand ‘glasshouse’ in which the event was held; the Kohinoor — having recently reached England from India on the HMS Medea, a journey that left most of the crew dead due to cholera and the ship itself battered thanks to several storms — was the star attraction. The newspapers of the day published odes to the Kohinoor, but visitors to the Exhibition were less than impressed. The gem, in its original shape and size, did not glitter as European-cut diamonds did. Stung at the criticism, Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) ordered that it be cut to better catch the light. And so the Kohinoor was cut to size — reduced by more than half to about 90 metric carats.

Today, it lies glittering in its case at the Tower of London, beside the Cullinan Diamond and some other gems. It is only the 90th biggest stone in the world, but it is still at the centre of at least three governments’ attempts to take it from the English (India, Pakistan and Iran). Where the Kohinoor's final resting place will be is anyone's guess, but Dalrymple and Anand’s efforts have at least made the past of ‘the world's most infamous gem’ a lot less murky.


Watch this video interview in which William Dalrymple and Anita Anand speak exclusively with Firstpost about how they uncovered the story of the Kohinoor — he came across it while researching the Durrani dynasty for his book The Return of the King; she approached it from the point of view of Maharaja Duleep Singh’s descendant Princess Sophia. Together, they managed to piece together the little known true history of this stone, and gave the Kohinoor its due.

Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand is published by Juggernaut Books

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