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A Heart of Stone - Anita Anand on the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

Posted on 19th June 2017 by Peter Whitehead
From the Holy Mountain‘s William Dalrymple and journalist and broadcaster Anita Anand have joined forces to track the almost unbelievably violent history of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a stone that now currently nestles on the front of the Queen Mother’s Crown as part of the Crown Jewels. Setting the scene, Anand takes us back to where the story of this most notorious of gems began.
On 29 March 1849, the ten-year-old Maharajah of the Punjab was ushered into the magnificent Mirrored Hall at the centre of the great Fort in Lahore. There, in a public ceremony, the frightened child, who had been forcibly separated from his mother, handed over to the British East India Company arguably the single most valuable object in the subcontinent: the Koh-i Noor.

The diamond, which was the size and heft of a hen’s egg, was steeped in blood and intrigue. Men had gouged out eyes, hacked off genitals, poured molten lead on heads, poisoned, bludgeoned, stabbed and shot each other all in the hope of possessing the stone.

Now it sits, behind thick glass, in the Tower of London, as Indian, Pakistani, Afghan and Iranian tourists murmur unhappily as they pass by on the conveyer belt walkway.  All their governments, at one time or another, have tried to get it back. In Afganisthan’s case, even the Taliban have had a go.

Though it glitters innocently enough under the lights of the display, and its name translates from the Persian as “Mountain of Light,” the Koh-i-Noor has the darkest of pasts. From the moment it pushed its way up through a river bed in southern India, men have imbued it with supernatural power.

At first they conflated the diamond with the Syamantika , a gem, said in 5000 year old Hindu scripture to belong to Surya, the sun god. A plaything of the immortals, the Koh-i-Noor was believed to have the power to destroy unworthy men without mercy.

In the temporal record, the Koh-i-Noor makes its first official appearance much later. It first glints at us during the Mughal era. In the early 17th century Emperor Shah Jahan ordered the manufacture of the finest throne the world had ever seen. It cost three times as much as his other, arguably more famous commission, the Taj Mahal.

The Peacock Throne presented concentrated opulence on a scale never seen before. A sort of kiosk for a king, it comprised a seat, canopy and pillars, all encrusted with gold, diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds. It was designed to evoke the fabled Throne of Solomon, and crowning its glory, atop the canopy, were two gem laden peacocks, one of which had the Koh-i-Noor for a head.

With such wealth and might at their command, it seemed as if the Mughals would rule for a thousand years.  Yet just four generations later, the Empire was crumbling.
Nader Shah, arguably the most powerful leader in Persia’s history seized the diamond from the Mughals and dragged the peacock thrown and the accumulated wealth of 348 years of Mughal rule back to his homeland. He did not enjoy the Koh-i-Noor for very long.

Following a failed assassination attempt, Nader Shah grew increasingly violent, and ordered the blinding of his son and heir, who he suspected of being behind the failed ambush. From that point he descended into madness, committing ever more barbaric acts of cruelty against his own. Nader Shah was eventually himself beheaded by an assassin.

The diamond then passed into the hands of a former convict named Ahmed Khan Abdali, who used it as collateral to raise money to found his own Empire. Today we know Abdali’s land as Afghanistan.  The diamond brought him little joy. While he reigned, his face was slowly eaten away by what the Afghan sources call a ‘gangrenous ulcer’, possibly leprosy or some form of tumour.

Abdali wore a jewel encrusted mask to hide his affliction, while maggots dropped from his rotting flesh. It would not be the disease that killed him though. One of his own body guards, fearing he had lost his mind, ended his master’s reign.

A litany of bloody successions followed and the Koh-i-Noor passed or was snatched from one set of gore dipped hands to another. Men had their eyes put out with red hot needles to reveal its hiding place. Others, lucky enough to keep their eyes, were tortured in unspeakable ways or forced to watch their children tortured in front of them, all in an effort to reveal the whereabouts of the Koh-i-Noor.

The Sikhs had a particularly tempestuous time when they were custodians of the diamond. From the moment he took possession of it in 1813, Maharajah Ranjit Singh made the Koh-i-Noor the symbol of his reign. Though he would die peacefully in his sleep more than two decades later, those who came after were not so lucky. In the four years after his death, Ranjit Singh’s eldest son was poisoned to death, his grandson was crushed by falling masonry in a so called ‘accident’. His daughter in law was bludgeoned to death by her maids, another son was killed in a shooting ‘accident.’ One grandson and heir was born dead, and another hacked to death by sabres.

By 1843, the Kingdom was awash with blood, intrigue, and talk of Koh-I-Noor curses. 5 year old Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Ranjit Singh’s youngest queen, was the last Indian monarch to wear the Koh-i-Noor on his plump little arm.

He in turn would lose it to the British in 1849, forced to sign it over by treaty. The way in which he, as a minor, was isolated and bullied into doing so has left an open wound in the Indian psyche to this day. To Indians, the Koh-i-Noor represents the most rapacious aspects of colonial looting in the country. There is but little solace in the idea that the diamond took a dose of bad luck with it.

So here it now sits, in Great Britain, biding its time till the next coronation. But will King Charles and Queen Camilla want to take the risk?

Would you? 

Image: Nadir Shah on the Peacock Throne after his defeat of Muhammad Shah

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The first comprehensive and authoritative history of the Koh-i Noor, arguably the most celebrated and mythologised jewel in the world.

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