As India awaits Kohinoor return, here’s the diamond’s journey through dynasties

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The famed Kohinoor diamond was back in the limelight in July this year when the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, V.K. Singh said that the Indian government was engaged with relevant authorities abroad to explore ways to bring it back.

The Kohinoor diamond and other Indian antiquities that were taken away by the country’s colonial masters and invaders. The minister’s statement has brought focus back on Kohinoor, which has been one of the most celebrated diamonds in the world.

Since 1947, when India got independence, several attempts have been made to bring the priceless Kohinoor diamond back. Successive governments, parliamentarians, the Archaeological Survey of India and other public figures have tried in vain and their claims have been rejected by successive British governments till date.

The Kohinoor’s ownership has also been disputed by three other countries through which the diamond traversed changing hands and making history on its way; namely Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But the British government had vehemently refused to part with its “prized possession” citing that it was a gift to them by Maharaja Duleep Singh and that in these present times it was nearly impossible to decide which country was its owner as the Kohinoor diamond had passed through various dynasties.

Currently the Kohinoor is housed in the Jewel House of the Tower of London. Sitting against the purple velvet resting on the circlet of Queen Mother’s crown, this colourless diamond weighs 105.6 carats and measures 1 ½ inch in length and 1 inch in width; the size of a ping-pong ball.

Kohinoor was the Persian name given to this dazzling diamond by the Shah of Persia, Nadir Shah, and is translated as “Mountain of Light”. The diamond has had a long and turbulent history, having been acquired by different rulers of the Indian subcontinent.

With Sultans and Emperors eyeing to possess this precious diamond, the Kohinoor’s journey has been associated with greed, violence, deception, bloodshed and wars with many noblemen tortured, poisoned and killed for it.

Interestingly, the British monarchy permits only the Queens to wear the Kohinoor diamond; cautious of its history of misfortunes befalling the male owners.

Unfortunately, much of Kohinoor diamond’s deep history remains mired in legends, myths, inaccuracies and exaggerations. Most of these myths were propagated by the inaccurate report which was commissioned soon after the diamond’s possession by the British in 1849.

This report, which still exists in the vaults of National Archives of India, sketched the “accepted” truth about the Kohinoor but was based on “inaccuracies and Delhi-bazaar gossip”. Yet, this “unsubstantiated narrative” is taken as the standard reference whenever the history of Kohinoor is mentioned.

However, a recent book (2017) titled The History of World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand has debunked the common myths surrounding the Kohinoor and has attempted to portray a clearer historical version based on ancient Indian and Persian manuscripts.

Queen Mary’s Crown, which was worn at the Coronation on June 22, 1911. (Photo made at the Tower of London on Nov. 14, 1952, AP)
Queen Mary’s Crown, which was worn at the Coronation on June 22, 1911. (Photo made at the Tower of London on Nov. 14, 1952, AP)

Fact and fiction

But separating its facts from fiction has eluded many researchers for umpteen decades and still many facets of Kohinoor diamond remain unknown.

Kohinoor diamond has been widely assumed to have emerged out of the alluvial deposits somewhere within India; its exact location is still unclear. Different reports have accounted the “Babur’s Diamond” or “The Great Moghul Diamond” to be the roughs which gave birth to the Kohinoor.

But the first verifiable mention of the diamond appears in the Mughal Court Chronicler’s account of the Peacock Throne work commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1628.

This magnificent gemstone-encrusted throne containing the Kohinoor, along with other precious Mughal gems, was taken away with several other royal treasures by the Persian ruler, Nadir Shah in 1739, when he invaded Delhi.

After Nadir Shah’s assassination in 1774, the Kohinoor diamond fell into the hands of one of his army general, Ahmad Shah Abdali, who later became the Emir of Afghanistan and headed the Durrani dynasty there.

A descendant of his, Shah Shuja Durrani acquired the precious gemstone amid blood feuds and torture and bartered it for his life and security with the Sikh ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1813 who had it in his possession till his death in 1839.

In 1849, the Maharaja’s son, 10-year-old Duleep Singh was forced to hand over the Kohinoor along with Maharaja’s other assets to British’s Queen Victoria following Punjab’s annexation by the British East India Company.

In 1850, the Kohinoor was handed to Queen Victoria in a grand royal ceremony. Queen Victoria in 1851 showcased the legendary gem in the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” in which 25 different countries participated.

Imperial dominance

Here, the Kohinoor diamond served as the most visible symbol of Britain’s imperial dominance of the Indian subcontinent. In 1852, the Kohinoor was reshaped to enhance its brilliance by the famous Dutch diamond-cutter Voorzanger and it was cut down from 175 carats to 108.93 carats.

In 1853, it was mounted on a tiara for Queen Victoria prior to which it was worn by her as a brooch; though it was “presented” to her as an arm bracelet. In 1902, the Kohinoor was set in the coronation crown of Queen Alexandra; then mounted on to Queen Mary’s crown in 1911.

In 1937, it was added to the coronation crown of Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mother), mother of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. It remains in her crown to this day, having been subsequently reduced and re-cut to fit the successive Queens’ crowns. It was last publicly displayed on top of Queen Mother’s coffin at her funeral in 2002.

As the greatness and brilliance of the legendary Kohinoor diamond continues to be glimpsed upon by the visitors to the Tower of London, this “sparkle of beauty” has retained a fame and celebrity status unmatched by any of its much larger and more dazzling rivals and made it the focus of debate and dispute among its previous owners.

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