Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, or a queen’s favourite ornament, however, they bring less joy to kings; none more so than the fabled Koh-i-noor.
Tradition has it that it was discovered in the 13th century in a mine near Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. It is said to have originally been a spectacular 793-carat piece. Its appearance nonetheless, proved to be its misfortune. Successive rulers coveted it, fought over it, purloined it and then lost it.
Like a crystalline lump of ice, the Koh-i-noor diamond melted as it passed from hand to hand, until it was reduced in size, from its original 793 carats to 186 carats. This diminished bauble so tempted the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh, that he violated all norms of hospitality to extract it from his vulnerable guest; the dispossessed Afghan ruler, Shah Shuja, who had sought refuge with him.
Numerous stories abound of how the wily Afghan hid the stone in the folds of his massive turban, but was outwitted by his cannier Sikh host, who, acting on a tip, offered to exchange turbans with his guest. Other accounts talk of Ranjit Singh barricading the recalcitrant northerner in Mubarak Haveli (now owned by the Qizalbash family), inside Lahore’s Mochi Gate, and starving him until he disgorged the precious stone.
A recent case in India has brought the spotlight back on the Koh-i-noor diamond. What are its origins and how did it end up in British hands?
The most recent (if one describes the recollections of someone who died in 1852 as recent), and certainly the most authoritative, account of the transfer of the Koh-i-noor from Shah Shuja to Ranjit Singh has been left to us by Fakir Nuruddin, a trusted member of Ranjit Singh’s multi-religious court of Lahore.
Nuruddin, on Feb 10, 1850, wrote a monograph in Persian titled Tareekh-i-Koh-i-noor. It was in the form of a letter addressed to Major G.H. MacGregor, then deputy commissioner of Lahore. (The manuscript is now in the Punjab University Library, Shirani collection). Nuruddin included in his narrative two eyewitness accounts and also the doleful testimony of Wafa Begum, the widow of Shah Shuja.
Nuruddin quoted Wafa Begum’s response when asked what might be its value. “She replied, ‘If a strong man were to throw four stones — one north, one south, one east, one west, and a fifth stone up into the air, and if the space between them were to be filled with gold, all would not equal the value of the Koh-i-noor’.”
Understandably, when Ranjit Singh allowed his bauble, which he wore as an armband (bazuband), to be admired by visitors, his treasurer, Misr Beli Ram, kept the strings of the armband firmly within his grip.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the last male ruler to wear the Koh-i-noor on his person with impunity. Through his own exertions, he had achieved too much in his life to be daunted by superstition or forebodings of ill-luck. In June 1839, as he lay dying, he signalled to Kharak Singh, his heir apparent, to donate the diamond to the Jagannath temple at Puri. The horrified courtiers prevaricated, passing responsibility but not the diamond to each other. It remained in the Sikh toshakhana (treasure house).
Later, in 1841, his son, Maharaja Sher Singh, posed for the Hungarian painter, August Schoefft, wearing the diamond as his father had done, on his right arm. The diamond exacted its price and, in September 1843, Sher Singh was assassinated by Ajit Singh Sandhanwalia.
The stone was too large to be worn with authority for the juvenile, last Sikh ruler, Maharaja Duleep Singh. He was placed on the throne of Lahore at the age of five, saw the Sikh Khalsa defeated before he was eight, and was deposed by the British before he was 12. The victorious Lord Dalhousie exacted more than revenge from the Sikh Durbar for its jingoistic follies.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the last male ruler to wear the Koh-i-noor on his person, with impunity. Through his own exertions, he had achieved too much in his life to be daunted by superstition or forebodings of ill-luck.
In the terms granted, the hapless Maharaja who had no option but to accept them, Lord Dalhousie specified inter alia that Duleep Singh resign all claims to the Punjab, that all the property of the Sikh Durbar stood confiscated, that “the gem called the Koh-i-noor, which was taken from Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, shall be surrendered to the Queen of England”.
The diamond was taken to London and handed over to Queen Victoria. The stone was removed from its setting as a bazuband and sent by her husband, Prince Albert, to Amsterdam to be re-cut. The historic Koh-i-noor was reduced from 186 carats to a meaner 105.6 carats, and the Queen wore it first as a brooch and then as the centrepiece of a diamond circlet.
In 1854, the Koh-i-noor returned, albeit briefly, to Duleep Singh’s hands. While he was posing for his portrait by Franz Winterhalter, Queen Victoria had the stone retrieved from the Tower of London and shown to the ex-maharaja. He explained his inordinate keenness to hold the stone again by declaring: “Why, because I was but a child, an infant, when forced to surrender it by treaty; but now that I am a man, I should like to have it in my power to place it myself in her hand.”
Lady Login, the wife of Duleep Singh’s tutor and guardian, in her memoir Lady Login’s Recollections (1916) described what followed: “He moved deliberately to where Her Majesty was standing, and, with a deferential reverence, placed in her hand the famous diamond, with the words: ‘It is to me, Ma’am, the greatest pleasure to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject, of myself tendering to my Sovereign the Koh-i-noor.’ Whereupon, he quietly resumed his place on the dais, and the artist continued his work.”
Queen Victoria, being a queen regent, seemed to have escaped the Koh-i-noor’s curse. After her, the British Royalty took no risks tempting the diamond. In 1902, it was used by queen-consorts in their coronation crowns: in 1902, by Queen Alexandra (consort of King Edward VII), in 1911 by Queen Mary (wife of King George V), and in 1937 by Queen Elizabeth (wife of King George VI). The Koh-i-noor is on display, set in the latter’s crown, and the original bazuband can be seen in a side show-case; both are in the Jewel House, Tower of London.
So, who owns the Koh-i-noor? Is it part of the British Crown jewels? Technically, not. It was given to Queen Victoria by the East India Company and, therefore, is deemed to be the property of the British Crown (i.e. those assets owned by the Crown in his / her capacity as the monarch, as opposed to being the personal property of the king or queen).
If, by any remote quirk of constitutional legislation, it was agreed that, like Nazi confiscations, it should be returned to the last known owner, then who would that owner be? The heirs to the Sikh kingdom (if any can be found) from whom it was snatched in 1849? The Pakistan and Indian governments as successors in interest to the East India Company / British government? An Afghan government, as successors to Shah Shuja? The Iranian government as successors to Nadir Shah?
If the governments of India and Pakistan are serious about retrieving their share of the hoard kept so securely in the Tower of London, they should be asking for the Imperial Crown of India, made for use by King George V at the Delhi Durbar in 1911. (The British Crown regalia could not be taken out of the United Kingdom.) That crown had been paid for out of the revenues of India.
In 1947, when King George VI consulted the two new states — India and Pakistan — about the disposition of the Imperial crown of India, it was agreed by the new dominions that it should remain on display in the Tower of London, but should any state insist, then the crown would be dismantled, its stones sold and the proceeds divided between India and Pakistan. Neither of them has been able to decide on division of the Imperial Crown, no more than they have agreed on the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Should the Pakistan government pursue its demand for the Koh-i-noor? There are some who would advise against such persistence. History has proven that whoever holds the Koh-i-noor owns it. Possession is nine-tenths of brigandage.
In any case, who knows where that unique diamond would end up — in some Swiss bank’s safe deposit box, or in a numbered Panamanian vault?
The writer is an author
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 8th, 2016