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Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond

Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond

by William Dalrymple, Anita Anand


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From the internationally acclaimed and bestselling historians William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, the first comprehensive and authoritative history of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, arguably the most celebrated jewel in the world.

On March 29, 1849, the ten-year-old leader of the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab was ushered into the magnificent Mirrored Hall at the center of the British fort in Lahore, India. There, in a formal Act of Submission, the frightened but dignified child handed over to the British East India Company swathes of the richest land in India and the single most valuable object in the subcontinent: the celebrated Koh-i-Noor diamond, otherwise known as the Mountain of Light. To celebrate the acquisition, the British East India Company commissioned a history of the diamond woven together from the gossip of the Delhi Bazaars. From that moment forward, the Koh-i-Noor became the most famous and mythological diamond in history, with thousands of people coming to see it at the 1851 Great Exhibition and still more thousands repeating the largely fictitious account of its passage through history.

Using original eyewitness accounts and chronicles never before translated into English, Dalrymple and Anand trace the true history of the diamond and disperse the myths and fantastic tales that have long surrounded this awe-inspiring jewel. The resulting history of south and central Asia tells a true tale of greed, conquest, murder, torture, colonialism, and appropriation that shaped a continent and the Koh-i-Noor itself.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635570762
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 09/12/2017
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 404,660
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

William Dalrymple wrote the highly acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu when he was just twenty-two. Since then, he has had seven more books published and won numerous awards for his writing, including the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award, the Duff Cooper Memorial Award, the Hemingway Prize and The Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage. He lives with his wife and three children on a farm outside Delhi.

Anita Anand has been a radio and television journalist for over twenty years. On BBC television she has presented, among other shows, The Daily Politics, Heaven and Earth Show and Newsnight. She is currently the presenter of Any Answers on BBC Radio 4. Her first book, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, received widespread critical acclaim. She lives in London with her husband and two children.

Read an Excerpt


On 29 March 1849, the ten-year-old maharaja of Punjab, Duleep Singh, was ushered into the Shish Mahal, the magnificent mirrored throne room at the centre of the great fort of Lahore.

The boy's father, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was long dead, and his mother, Rani Jindan, had been forcibly removed some time earlier and incarcerated in a palace outside the city. Now Duleep Singh found himself surrounded by a group of grave-looking men wearing red coats and plumed hats, who talked among themselves in an unfamiliar language. In the terrors of the minutes that followed – what he later remembered as 'the crimson day' – the frightened but dignified child finally yielded to months of British pressure. In a public ceremony in front of what was left of the nobility of his court, he signed a formal Act of Submission, so accepting the punitive Terms offered to him by the victorious Company. Within minutes, the flag of the Sikh kingdom was lowered and the British colours run up above the gatehouse of the fort.

The document signed by the ten-year-old maharaja handed over to a private corporation, the East India Company, great swathes of the richest land in India – land which until that moment had formed the independent Sikh kingdom of Punjab. At the same time Duleep Singh was induced to hand over to Queen Victoria the single most valuable object not just in Punjab but arguably in the entire subcontinent: the celebrated Koh-i-Noor, or Mountain of Light.

Article III of the document read simply: 'The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja ool-Moolk by Maharaja Runjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharaja of Lahore to the Queen of England.' When he heard that Duleep Singh had finally signed the document, the governor general, Lord Dalhousie, was triumphant. 'I had now "caught my hare",' he wrote. He later added: 'The Koh-i-Noor has become in the lapse of ages a sort of historical emblem of conquest in India. It has now found its proper resting place.'

The East India Company, the world's first really global multinational, had grown over the course of little more than a century from an operation employing only thirty-five permanent staff, headquartered in one small office in the City of London, into the most powerful and heavily militarised corporation in history: its army by 1800 was twice the size of that of Britain. It had had its eyes on both Punjab and the diamond for many years.

Its chance finally came in 1839, on the death of Ranjit Singh, when Punjab had quickly descended into anarchy. A violent power struggle, a suspected poisoning, several assassinations, a civil war and two British invasions later, the Company's army finally defeated the Sikhs first at the bloody battle of Chillianwala on 13 January 1849, and then again, conclusively, shortly afterwards, at Gujrat – both now in the Pakistani Punjab – on 21 February. On 12 March, the whole Sikh army laid down its arms. Veterans shed tears as they dropped their ancestral swords and matchlocks on to an enormous pile of weaponry. One grey-bearded old warrior saluted gravely and, folding his hands, exclaimed: 'Aaj Ranjit Singh mar gaya' (Today Ranjit Singh has truly died).

At the end of the same year, on a cold, bleak day in December, Dalhousie arrived in person in Lahore to take formal delivery of his prize from the hands of Duleep Singh's guardian, Dr John Spencer Login. The glittering white diamond remained in the Lahore Toshakhana, or Treasury, set still in the armlet that Maharaja Ranjit Singh had designed for it. To British eyes, used to modern European brilliant cuts of perfect symmetry, the strikingly irregular profile of the diamond made its shape seem distinctly odd: as its name, the Mountain of Light, suggested, it resembled a large hill or perhaps a huge iceberg rising steeply to a high, domed peak. Around the edge of this dome, the stone had been faceted into a simple Mughal rose-cut, leaving short but irregular crystal tails or azimuths sloping off, like saddles or declivities falling from a Himalayan snow-peak, gently on one side, but more steeply and cliff-like on the other. Login had found a way to compensate for this unexpected shape, and make the diamond glitter for his guests, by displaying it through a peephole, illuminated from below against a black velvet cloth, so enhancing its glitter. Dalhousie duly admired the stone, then took it from Login and placed it in a small, soft, kid-l eather bag that had been specially made for the purpose by Lady Dalhousie. The governor general wrote out a receipt, 'I have received this day the Koh-i-Noor diamond,' to which all present then added their personal seals.

Less than a week later, Dalhousie wrote to a junior assistant magistrate in Delhi, asking him to undertake some research on his glittering new acquisition. Theo Metcalfe was not the most diligent or scholarly of East India Company officials. A noisy, convivial figure, he loved dogs and horses and parties, and since his arrival in Delhi had quickly accumulated significant gambling debts. Theo always had a tendency to cut corners and get into what his father described as 'scrapes', but he had a genuine interest in gems. He also had immense charm, and Dalhousie liked the boy. He therefore chose Theo to carry out an important and somewhat delicate task.

The Koh-i-Noor may have been made of the earth's hardest substance, but it had already attracted an airily insubstantial fog of mythology around it, and Dalhousie wanted to establish the solid truth about its history before dispatching it to his queen. Theo was instructed 'to collect and to record as much accurate and interesting information regarding the Koh-i-Noor' as he could from the jewellers and courtiers in Delhi in order to reconstruct as far as possible its history 'while belonging to the Emperors of Delhi, and to transmit it, as soon as he has obtained it, to the Government of India'.

Theo went about his task with characteristically slapdash enthusiasm. But as the gem had been stolen away from Delhi during a Persian invasion a full 110 years earlier, his job was not easy. Even he had to admit that he had gathered little more than bazaar tittle-tattle: 'I cannot but regret that the results are so very meagre and imperfect,' he wrote in the preamble to his report. He nevertheless laid out in full his findings, making up in colour for what he lacked in accurate, substantiated research.

'First,' wrote Theo, 'according to the tradition of the eldest jewellers in the City of Delhee, as handed down from family to family, this diamond was extracted from the mine Koh-i-Noor, four days journey from Masulipatnam to the north west, on the banks of the Godavari, during the lifetime of the [irrestible Hindu cowherd-God] Krishna, who is supposed to have lived 5,000 years since ...'

Theo's report, which still exists in the vaults of the Indian National Archives, continued in this vein, sketching out for the first time what would become the accepted history of the Koh-i-Noor: a centuries-long chain of bloody conquests, and acts of pillage, looting and seizure. Theo's version of events has since been repeated in article after article, book after book, and still sits unchallenged on Wikipedia today.

Discovered in the deepest mists of antiquity, the great diamond was said to have been looted, probably from the eye of an idol in a temple in southern India, by marauding Turks. Soon, Theo's report continues, the 'jewel fell into the hands of the Emperors of the Ghoree dynasty, and from then successively of the [fourteenth-century] Tughluq, Syed and the Lodhi dynasties, and eventually descended to the family of Timur [the Mughals] and remained in their possession until the reign of Mohammud Shah, who wore it in his Turban'. Then, when the Mughal Empire crumbled under the invasion of the Persian warlord Nader Shah, 'the Emperor and he exchanged Turbans, and thus it became the property of the latter'. Theo went on to claim that it was named Koh-i-Noor by Nader Shah, and that it passed at his death to his chief Afghan bodyguard, Ahmad Khan Abdali. From there it spent nearly a hundred years in Afghan hands, before Ranjit Singh extracted it from a fleeing Afghan shah in 1813.

Shortly after Theo had delivered his report, the Koh-i-Noor was dispatched to England where Queen Victoria promptly lent it to the Great Exhibition of 1851. Long queues snaked through the Crystal Palace to see this celebrated imperial trophy locked away in its specially commissioned high-security glass safe, itself contained within a metal cage. Trumpeted by the British press and besieged by the British public, the Koh-i-Noor quickly became not only the most famous diamond in the world, but also the single most famous object of loot from India. It was a symbol of Victorian Britain's imperial domination of the world and its ability, for better or worse, to take from around the globe the most desirable objects and to display them in triumph, much as the Romans once had done with curiosities from their conquests 2,000 years earlier.

As the fame of the diamond grew, and as Theo's enjoyably lively but entirely unsubstantiated version of the stone's history circulated with it, the many other large Mughal diamonds which once rivalled the Koh-i-Noor came to be almost forgotten, and the Mountain of Light achieved a singular status as the greatest gem in the world. Only a few historians remembered that the Koh-i-Noor, which weighed 190.3 metric carats when it arrived in Britain, had had at least two comparable sisters, the Darya-i-Noor, or Sea of Light, now in Tehran (today estimated at 175 to 195 metric carats), and the Great Mughal Diamond, believed by most modern gemmologists to be the Orlov diamond (189.9 metric carats), today part of Catherine the Great's imperial Russian sceptre in the Kremlin.

In reality, it was only really in the early nineteenth century, when the Koh-i-Noor reached Punjab and the hands of Ranjit Singh, that the diamond began to achieve its pre-eminent fame and celebrity – so much so that by the end of Ranjit's reign pious Hindus were beginning to wonder if the Koh-i-Noor was actually the legendary Syamantaka gem mentioned in the Bhagavad Puranas tales of Krishna.

This growing fame was partly the result of Ranjit Singh's preference for diamonds over rubies – a taste Sikhs tended to share with most Hindus, but not with the Mughals or Persians, who preferred large, uncut, brightly coloured stones. Indeed in the Mughal treasury, the Koh-i-Noor seems to have been only one among a number of extraordinary highlights in the greatest gem collection ever assembled, the most prized items of which were not diamonds at all, but the Mughals' beloved red spinels from Badakhshan and, later, rubies from Burma.

The growing status of the Koh-i-Noor was also partly a consequence of the rapidly growing price of diamonds worldwide in the early and mid-nineteenth century. This followed the invention of the symmetrical and multi-faceted 'brilliant cut', which fully released the 'fire' inherent within every diamond, and which led in turn to the emerging fashion in middle-class Europe and America for diamond engagement rings – a taste which was eventually refracted back to India.

The final act in the Koh-i-Noor's rise to worldwide fame took place in the aftermath of the Great Exhibition and the press coverage it had engendered. Before long, huge, often cursed Indian diamonds began to make regular appearances in popular Victorian novels such as Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's Lothair, where the plot follows a bag of uncut diamonds acquired from a maharaja.

So it was that the Koh-i-Noor finally achieved in European exile a singular status it had never achieved before leaving Asia. Today, tourists who see it in the Tower of London are often surprised by its small size, especially when compared to the two much larger Cullinan diamonds kept in the same showcase: at present it is in fact only the ninetieth biggest diamond in the world.

Remarkably, however, the Koh-i-Noor retains its fame and status and is once again at the centre of international dissension, as the Indian government – among others - calls for the gem's return. Even then, Indian officials cannot seem to make up their mind about the Koh-i-Noor's perennially foggy history: in April 2016, the Indian solicitor general, Ranjit Kumar, told the Indian Supreme Court that the Koh-i-Noor had been given freely to the British in the mid-nineteenth century by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and had been 'neither stolen nor forcibly taken by British rulers'. This was by any standards a strikingly unhistorical statement – Ranjit Singh had been ten years dead in 1849, so could only have made this gift by Ouija board or astral projection - and the statement is all the odder given that its surrender to Lord Dalhousie in 1849 is about the one aspect of the diamond's history not in dispute. In the recent past, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and even the Taliban have also all laid claim to the gem and asked for its return.

One hundred and seventy years after it was written, Theo's anecdotal version of the Koh-i-Noor's trajectory, based on Delhi bazaar gossip, has never been fully reassessed or properly challenged. Instead, the exact opposite has happened: as the other great Mughal diamonds have come to be forgotten by all except specialists, all mentions of extraordinary Indian diamonds in sources such as the Memoirs of the Mughal emperor Babur or the Travels of the French jeweller Tavernier have retrospectively come to be assumed to be references to the Koh-i-Noor. At each stage its mythology has grown ever more remarkable, ever more mythic – and ever more shakily fictitious.

Yet anyone who tries to establish the facts of the gem's history will find that unambiguous references to this most celebrated of gems are still, as Theo Metcalfe put it, 'very meagre and imperfect' – indeed they are almost suspiciously thin on the ground. For there is simply no certain reference to the Koh-i-Noor in any Sultanate or Mughal source, despite a huge number of textual references to outsized and immensely valuable diamonds appearing throughout Indian history, particularly towards the climax of Mughal rule. Some of these may well refer to the Koh-i-Noor but, lacking sufficiently detailed descriptions, it is impossible to be certain.

In fact, there are actually no clear and unambiguous mentions of the Koh-i-Noor in any historical document before the Persian historian Muhammad Kazim Marvi makes what seems to be the first extant, solid, named reference to the stone in his history of Nader Shah's invasion of India in 1739. This was written as late as the final years of the 1740s, a decade or so after the gem had been taken away from India. Significantly, Marvi's is the only contemporary chronicle, among a dozen or so detailed accounts left by Persian, Indian, French and Dutch eyewitnesses, specifically to mention the great diamond, and to do so by name, although most give detailed lists and breakdowns of Nader Shah's bejewelled loot.

Moreover, far from being a loose, singular gem that the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila could secrete within his turban, and which Nader Shah could craftily acquire by a turban swap – one of Theo's unsourced stories that is still repeated – according to Marvi's eyewitness account the emperor could not have hidden the gem because it was at that point a centrepiece of the most magnificent and expensive piece of furniture ever made: the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's Peacock Throne. The Koh-i-Noor, he writes from personal observation, in the first named reference to the stone - until now untranslated into English - was placed on the roof of this extraordinary throne which cost twice as much as the Taj Mahal to build. Marvi writes:

An octagon, shaped like a European hat, with cir- cular brim, had its sides and canopy gilded and studded with jewels. On top of this was placed a peacock made of emeralds and rubies; on to its head was attached a diamond the size of a hen's egg, known as the Koh-i-Noor – the Mountain of Light, whose price no one but God Himself could know! The wings were studded with jewels; many pearls, each the size of a pigeon's egg, were strung on wire and attached to the pillars supporting the throne. Everything appertaining to this throne was adorned with gold and jewels ... and the ground was covered with a pearl-edged braid ... This throne and its railing were all in pieces, dismantled for transportation, and would be reassembled in order . The present writer saw this throne when the victorious armies had left Delhi and proceeded to the capital Herat, when it was, by royal command, propped up within Nader's royal tent, along with two other rare gifts: a diamond known as the Darya-i-Noor, the Sea of Light, and a ruby known as the 'Ayn al-Hur, the Eye of the Huri.


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Copyright © 2017 William Dalrymple and Anita Anand.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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Table of Contents

Map ix

Introduction 1

Part 1 The Jewel in the Throne

1 The Indian Prehistory of the Koh-i-Noor 19

2 The Mughals and the Koh-i-Noor 35

3 Nader Shah: The Koh-i-Noor Goes to Iran 63

4 The Durranis: The Koh-i-Noor in Afghanistan 93

5 Ranjit Singh: The Koh-i-Noor in Lahore 119

Part 2 The Jewel in the Crown

6 City of Ash 139

7 The Boy King 163

8 Passage to England 195

9 The Great Exhibition 219

10 The First Cut 229

11 Queen Victoria's 'Loyal Subject' 243

12 The Jewel and the Crown 249

13 'We Must Take Back the Koh-i-Noor' 269

Notes 285

Bibliography 303

Acknowledgements 319

Index 323

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