Sarah Maisey speaks to Bri­tish au­thor Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple about the real story of the in­fa­mous Koh-i-Noor di­a­mond

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Bri­tish au­thor Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple re­veals the real story of the in­fa­mous Koh-i-Noor

Di­a­monds hold a spe­cial place in our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion. They have been gi ed as love to­kens, taken as the spoils of war and utilised as em­blems of power, em­bed­ded into thrones, crowns and scep­tres. And of all di­a­monds, it is the Koh-i-Noor that is ar­guably the most in­trigu­ing. One of the largest and most im­pres­sive di­a­monds ever mined, the Koh-i-Noor orig­i­nated in an­cient In­dia, was gi ed by Ma­haraja Ran­jit Singh to Queen Vic­to­ria in 1849, and now forms part of the Bri­tish Crown Jew­els. Ex­cept that isn’t en­tirely true. What we think we know of the Koh-i-Noor has re­cently been re­vealed to be lit­tle more than em­bel­lished gos­sip, li ed from the bazaars of La­hore and re­told as fact by one Theo Met­calfe, who in the 1850s was tasked with trac­ing the ori­gins of the stone. Un­able to find any­thing of sub­stance, it seems the en­ter­pris­ing Mr Met­calfe sim­ply made it up, cre­at­ing a mud­dled and chaotic his­tory that sur­vives to this day. Add to that the fact that while the di­a­mond now re­sides in the United King­dom, four other na­tions lay claim to it, with In­dia, Pak­istan, Afghanistan, Iran and even the Tal­iban all call­ing for it to be re­turned to them and, there­fore, its right­ful home.

Pre­sum­ably frus­trated that some­thing so fa­mous could be so lit­tle un­der­stood, au­thors Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple and Anita Anand de­cided to join forces to un­cover the truth about the gem, pen­ning a bi­og­ra­phy en­ti­tled Koh-i-Noor: The His­tory of the World’s Most In­fa­mous Di­a­mond. “We both had the Koh-i Noor glit­ter­ing at the back of our pre­vi­ous books,” Dal­rym­ple ex­plains via tele­phone from his home in In­dia. “It had wound its way into both our writ­ing lives. I had writ­ten a book about Afghanistan called Re­turn of a King, where Shuja ul-Mulk loses the di­a­mond to Ma­haraja Ran­jit Singh. Anita came across it when she was writ­ing about the story of Sophia Duleep Singh, the daugh­ter of Duleep Singh, who was the last In­dian to pos­sess the stone,” he ex­plains.

Al­ready fa­mil­iar – at least in part – with its story, the duo was as­ton­ished to hear the at­tor­ney gen­eral of In­dia de­clare that the di­a­mond had been gi ed to the Bri­tish by Ran­jit Singh in 1849. Know­ing full well that the ma­haraja had died a decade ear­lier, and in fact it was his son, Duleep, who had handed the gem over, the pair re­alised they were in a po­si­tion to tell the true story of the most fa­mous gem in the world.

“For a writer, ev­ery time you dis­cover some fan­tas­tic story that is dif­fer­ent from the au­tho­rised ver­sion, you give a lit­tle whoop,” Dal­rym­ple says. “So that’s when we got to­gether and de­cided to write this.” The story they un­cov­ered is an as­ton­ish­ing Game

of Thrones- es­que yarn of in­trigue, be­trayal and bru­tal­ity. In its wake, the Koh-i-Noor has le a trail of de­struc­tion and sav­agery, with more than a few men (and even women) meet­ing un­pleas­ant ends – such as be­ing blinded with nee­dles, crushed by ma­sonry, stran­gled, stabbed, beaten with bricks and even mur­dered with molten gold – be­cause of their as­so­ci­a­tion with the gem. We might like to view our jew­els as be­nign and pretty, but the Koh-i-Noor is any­thing but. “It is very far from ro­man­tic,” laughs Dal­rym­ple, “and has le this in­cred­i­ble trail of blood and suf­fer­ing wher­ever it has gone. The in­ter­est­ing thing is see­ing how di­a­monds are viewed in dif­fer­ent cul­tures and at dif­fer­ent times. The idea that a di­a­mond is some­thing that you give on an en­gage­ment ring is very much of the late 19th-cen­tury and a Euro­pean in­ven­tion. Be­fore that, they meant very dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” he ex­plains.

Be­fore Dal­rym­ple and Anand’s book, the es­tab­lished story of this gem sug­gested that it was ex­tracted from the great mines of Kol­lur, and first ap­peared as the Sya­man­taka di­a­mond, in the 5,000-year-old Hindu Bha­ga­vata and Vishnu Pu­rana scrip­tures, where Lord Kr­ishna bat­tles a bear named Jam­ba­van for more than 20 days. The re­al­ity that the au­thors un­earthed is a lit­tle less myth­i­cal.

“We weren’t able to find a sin­gle, clear, 100-per-centcer­tain ref­er­ence to the stone be­fore 1750,” Dal­rym­ple re­veals. “That was the big­gest sur­prise – that so much of the tale about this di­a­mond, which has been re­peated over and over again over the last cen­tury and a half, is com­pletely un­sub­stan­ti­ated.”

What the pair did find within the scrip­tures, how­ever, were warn­ings that di­a­monds are the bringers of death and avarice. “In early Hindu texts, you get the idea that di­a­monds can o en be things that cre­ate vi­o­lence around them. There are aus­pi­cious gems that bring good luck, but in Hin­duism, di­a­monds have al­ways brought blood­shed,” Dal­rym­ple ex­plains.

“What is fas­ci­nat­ing to see, is how that an­cient In­dian in­sight found its way into Vic­to­rian fic­tion with

The Moon­stone [Wilkie Collins’ fic­ti­tious tale from 1868, con­sid­ered the first de­tec­tive novel] and now has be­come a very mod­ern no­tion of the cursed di­a­mond. They were aware that a di­a­mond – some­thing hugely valu­able and at­trac­tive, but in­stantly trans­portable – was temp­ta­tion in por­ta­ble form.”

It is sur­pris­ing that some­thing so small and pretty can cre­ate so much dis­sen­sion

Un­til the 1700s, when di­a­monds were dis­cov­ered in Brazil, ev­ery di­a­mond in the world orig­i­nated in In­dia, with the ex­cep­tion of a few black di­a­monds found in Borneo. With so many gem­stones at its dis­posal, In­dia was home to the rich­est and most lav­ish royal courts, brim­ming with gold, jew­els and di­a­monds, caus­ing vis­i­tors to write home with lo y de­scrip­tions of the trea­sures they had seen.

In­evitably, such wealth brought un­wel­come at­ten­tion, and in 1526, Babur (a de­scen­dant of Genghis Khan) swept down from Tu­ran (now Uzbek­istan) and seized most of north­ern In­dia, es­tab­lish­ing a Mughal em­pire that would last for the next 200 years. While fond of jew­els, the new rulers brought with them a Per­sian pref­er­ence for ru­bies. “They thought that di­a­monds were slightly vanilla,” quips Dal­rym­ple. “There are all these leg­ends about the Koh-i-Noor ap­pear­ing in courts,” he con­tin­ues. “But ac­tu­ally, the first ref­er­ence we found of it is when the Per­sians pinched it from the Mughals in 1739.”

The the he is ref­er­enc­ing is when Nader Shah of Per­sia in­vaded north­ern In­dia, over­threw its ruler, Muham­mad Shah Rangila, and ran­sacked Delhi. As well as emp­ty­ing the famed Mughal cof­fers, Nader Shah helped him­self to the mag­nif­i­cent Pea­cock Throne, built by Shah Ja­han. Only when Nader had the throne dis­man­tled and sent back to what is mod­ern-day Iran, is any men­tion made of the two im­pres­sive gems that had topped it. Hav­ing taken to wear­ing gems on arm­bands as a sign of king­ship, Nader Shah wore the Timur ruby, and a large, un­cut di­a­mond that he is ru­moured to have named the Kohi-Noor, mean­ing “moun­tain of light” in Per­sian.

De­spite his new-found wealth, Nader Shah was un­able to en­joy it for very long, and in June 1749, he was mur­dered by his own troops. In a bid to un­cover the where­abouts of the Koh-i-Noor, his grand­son Shah Rukh was grue­somely tor­tured and had molten gold poured over his head. In fact, the stones had al­ready le Iran for Afghanistan, smug­gled over the bor­der by Ah­mad Shah Dur­rani, who was named the amir in 1747. While suc­cess­ful in hold­ing onto the di­a­mond, he was even­tu­ally killed in 1772, by a tu­mour that de­voured his face. In 1801, his grand­son, Shah Za­man, was over­thrown as the ruler, and when he re­fused to hand over the in­fa­mous Koh-i- Noor, he was blinded with hot nee­dles.

In 1803, Za­man’s brother Shah Shuja was named amir, but just six years later, he ran afoul of his coun­try­men when he signed a pact with the Bri­tish. Forced to flee to In­dia, he turned to the ma­haraja of Pun­jab, Ran­jit Singh, for pro­tec­tion, who asked for the Koh-i-Noor in ex­change for guar­an­tee­ing Shah Shuja’s life. “This is a di­a­mond that has changed hands vi­o­lently time a er time a er time, wreak­ing blood­shed, re­venge and hor­ror wher­ever it goes,” Dal­rym­ple says. “It is the blood­i­est tale and it is sur­pris­ing that some­thing so small and pretty can cre­ate so much dis­sen­sion.”

A strong and re­spected leader, Ran­jit Singh was known for in­clu­sive poli­cies and so­cial re­form, and a mil­i­tary prow­ess that earned him the nick­name “The Lion of Pun­jab”. Her­alded as the man who brought the di­a­mond back to In­dia, his hold on power was un­shake­able. How­ever, by the mid-1800s, In­dia was faced with a new en­emy: the Bri­tish Em­pire.

Al­though Ran­jit Singh was able to hold the colonis­ers at bay, his death in 1839 trig­gered a pe­riod of in­sta­bil­ity that saw four suc­ces­sive sons take

the throne, only to be mur­dered shortly therea er. Sta­bil­ity of sorts was re­stored in 1843, when the ruler’s only sur­viv­ing son, the in­fant Duleep, was named as ma­haraja, but by this time, the East In­dia Com­pany had ex­ploited the tur­moil to ma­noeu­vre its way to promi­nence. Duleep’s youth was used as an ex­cuse to force him into sign­ing the Treaty of La­hore in 1846, which placed the lit­tle king un­der Bri­tish pro­tec­tion.

Two years later, the gover­nor gen­eral of the East In­dia Com­pany, James Dal­housie, ma­nip­u­lated the start of the Sec­ond An­glo-Sikh War, which, when it ended, saw Duleep’s king­dom de­stroyed and an­nexed to the Bri­tish. Alone and help­less, the 10-year-old ruler was stripped of his wealth, his lands and his power, and as a fi­nal hu­mil­i­a­tion, made to hand over the Koh-i-Noor to the East In­dia Com­pany.

In an ironic twist, the com­pany watched in hor­ror as Dal­housie pre­sented it as a gi to Queen Vic­to­ria, earn­ing him­self a lord­ship. Now un­der Bri­tish rule, the stone trav­elled to Eng­land to be dis­played at

The Great Ex­hi­bi­tion in Lon­don in 1851. Ea­ger to see the fa­mous gem, six mil­lion peo­ple, one-third of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion, queued up for a glimpse.

How­ever, as with much of the his­tory of the stone, things did not go quite as planned. Used to see­ing di­a­monds cut and shaped to re­flect light, the crowd was dis­ap­pointed by the large but dull-look­ing un­cut stone. De­spite at­tempts to make it sparkle, the di­a­mond, al­though weigh­ing an im­pres­sive 190.3 carats, was de­clared to be no more im­pres­sive than a lump of glass. In des­per­a­tion, Prince Al­bert or­dered the stone to be re­cut. He com­mis­sioned Coster Di­a­monds to take on the task, which in turn brought in Dutch ex­perts Le­vie Ben­jamin Voorzanger and J A Feder. As­sured that de­spite an in­ter­nal flaw, none of its im­pres­sive size would be lost, the prince gave as­sent for work to com­mence. How­ever, when fin­ished eight weeks later, at a cost equiv­a­lent to £1 mil­lion (Dh5.2m), the Koh-i-Noor was al­most un­recog­nis­able. Al­though cut into a daz­zling oval, it had been slashed to al­most half its size, to a mere 93 met­ric carats. No trace has been found of the re­moved pieces. Queen Vic­to­ria took to wear­ing the newly cut gem as a brooch, mak­ing her the last rul­ing monarch to wear it.

To­day, the Koh-i-Noor sits in the crown of the Queen Mother, as part of the front cross. It last made a pub­lic ap­pear­ance in April 2002, when the crown was placed on top of the Queen Mother’s cof­fin at her fu­neral.

I ask Dal­rym­ple what he thinks when he sees the stone to­day, be­hind bul­let­proof glass in the Tower of Lon­don. “I look at it and think: ‘You lit­tle devil, you,’” he laughs. “It is dif­fi­cult to see it sit­ting pretty, know­ing the num­ber of peo­ple that were tor­tured. When you know the his­tory and you look at it, you think: ‘How can a small piece of car­bon have such a fan­tas­ti­cally ex­plo­sive ef­fect on the hu­man psy­che?’”

To­day, de­spite be­ing only the 90th largest in the world, the Koh-i-Noor is ar­guably the most fa­mous di­a­mond in ex­is­tence. It has been the sub­ject of nu­mer­ous pe­ti­tions for its re­turn. One of the first acts of a newly in­de­pen­dent In­dia was to re­quest that the di­a­mond be given back, a de­mand that was re­peated when Queen El­iz­a­beth II took the throne. In 1976, Zul­fikar Ali Bhutto re­quested that the stone be re­turned to Pak­istan, while In­dia tried again in 1990 and 2000, the same year that the Tal­iban en­tered their own re­quest. In 2015, bar­ris­ter Jawaid Iqbal Jaf­frey de­manded its re­turn to La­hore. All re­quests have been res­o­lutely de­nied. It seems, for now at least, the famed di­a­mond is stay­ing ex­actly where it is.

“It’s a very dif­fi­cult thing to say what is the Koh-iNoor’s right­ful place,” con­cedes Dal­rym­ple. “That is some­thing we have very much avoided do­ing in the book, be­cause this is a di­a­mond that has passed through the hands of who­ever has been most pow­er­ful at that time. There are cur­rently five coun­tries that claim it, so its peace­ful mo­ment on its vel­vet cush­ion might not be there for much longer. The Koh-i-Noor has never been a quiet stone, and I think it has no in­ten­tion of be­ing so now.”

CROWN­ING GLORY The Koh-i-Noor is cur­rently placed in the Tower of Lon­don

SPOILS OF WAR Le , Per­sian ruler Nader Shah ob­tained the Koh-i-Noor when he laid claim to Shah Ja­han’s fa­mous Pea­cock Throne

PROUD OWN­ERS The amir of Afghanistan, Ah­mad Shah Dur­rani, le , and ruler of Pun­jab, Ran­jit Singh, be­low, held on to the di­a­mond un­til their deaths

SET IN STONE Be­low far le , the Koh-i-Noor made an ap­pear­ance at the corona­tion of King Ge­orge VI, in the crown worn by his wife, El­iz­a­beth, in 1937

Ma­haraja Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Ran­jit Singh, was forced to hand over the Koh-i-Noor to the East In­dia Com­pany PUP­PET KING

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