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William Dalrymple and Anita Anand sign their book Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond before presenting it to Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz on Thursday.— Photo by Tanveer Shahzad
William Dalrymple and Anita Anand sign their book Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond before presenting it to Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz on Thursday.— Photo by Tanveer Shahzad

ISLAMABAD: Symbols were a recurring theme at the launch of William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s book, Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond.

The diamond, arguably the best known and most controversial gem in the world, was repeatedly referred to as a ‘symbol for power’, whether it was the power of the Sikh empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh or that of the British Raj.

This was something Mr Dalrymple touched on indirectly when he recounted the time the Kohinoor spent in the hands of the Mughals. Emperor Shahjahan, he noted, was a gem connoisseur and enthusiast and saw precious stones as objects of propaganda that would “increase the glory and magnificence” of the royal dynasty.

Mr Dalrymple explained that a lot of the diamond’s history could be traced back to a single, unverified document from the mid-1800s and that none of the information in the document could be verified.


William Dalrymple, Anita Anand trace history of world’s most controversial gem


This untrue history of the Kohinoor, which Mr Dalrymple described at the beginning of the launch as “bull”, weaves religious mythology, literary tropes and South Asian history. But the history of the diamond as told by Mr Dalrymple and Ms Anand is no less interesting, particularly when it comes to the ‘curse of the diamond’.

During the first half of the book launch, which was held at the National Library, Mr Dalrymple traced the history of the Kohinoor from where it would have been found, to the Mughals, Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah Durrani and Shuja Shah Durrani.

In the second half, Ms Anand spoke about the Sikh empire and the string of misfortunes that befell its leaders, and the Kohinoor’s journey to Britain.

The history of the Kohinoor allowed Mr Dalrymple and Ms Anand to use the object to follow the history of South Asia; from Nadir Shah’s invasion of Delhi to the founding of modern day Afghanistan and the colonisation of India.

The violence that follows the Kohinoor is also accompanied by dark humour – after the diamond arrived in Britain, Ms Anand said, Queen Victoria was attacked by an assassin using a cane, and when it was eventually viewed by the public at Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition, the diamond was largely met with indifference and derision.

The Kohinoor diamond has been claimed by five parties other than Britain: Pakistan, India, Iran, Afghanistan and even Mullah Omar on behalf of the Afghan Taliban. During a Q&A session following their talk, Ms Anand and Mr Dalrymple were asked about the ownership claims under international law.

“Returning looted goods only goes back to the 20th century, so while it was mandatory for the Nazis to return stolen Jewish art, under international law it is not mandatory for the British to return the Kohinoor,” Mr Dalrymple said.

“Morally, of course it is much more complicated... There’s no question that it came out of southern Indian soil...but, there are at least four very strong claims,” he said, adding that there was nothing in international law to force the British to return the diamond.

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2017