Curse of the jewel in the Crown
Koh-I-Noor William Dalrymple and Anita Anand Bloomsbury £16.99
At 91, Elizabeth II has yet to wear the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the most famous of Britain’s Crown Jewels. Readers of Koh
I-Noor will appreciate why. Instead, the glittering oval jewel dazzles visitors to the Tower of London, the centre of a Maltese cross in the queen consort’s crown last worn by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and last seen in public on top of her coffin at her funeral in 2002.
It is not because the Queen owns larger diamonds – the stones called Cullinan I and II, or, indeed, the Timur Ruby of 352 carats, described as the ‘Tribute to the World’ – that she avoids this legendary gewgaw.
The Koh-i-Noor’s history is chequered. Its story is one of greed, usurpation, treachery and bloodshed on an eye-watering scale, and any number of former owners have come to regard possession of the stone more as a curse than a blessing.
In addition, the jewel arouses powerful nationalist emotions, with the governments of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as the Taliban, all demanding its return in recent years.
Acclaimed historian of Indian history William Dalrymple has written a joint account with Anita Anand of what remains, a century and a half after its acquisition by Queen Victoria following the annexation of the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab by the British East India Company in 1849, the most famous gemstone in the world.
Dalrymple tracks its tortuous journey across the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan to its arrival in the Punjabi treasury; Anand tells the subsequent story of British ownership. Their two narratives are neatly spliced and stylistically harmonious.
Throughout the stone’s history, cruelty and dishonesty have played their part. The current belief that only a woman can safely wear the jewel is one of a handful of superstitions clinging to it: former owners have considered it a guarantee of good fortune and, usually unwisely, proof of their own unassailable power. In the
18th century, the Koh-i-Noor was among jewels belonging to India’s Mughal emperors, a collection so vast that it required 700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses to transport it. No other stone in that immense jewel box possessed the allure of the huge diamond that was then twice its present size (cutting in 1852 gave the diamond its current sparkle but reduced it from 190.3 carats to 105). Its first owners associated it with the Syamantaka, ‘the prince of gemstones’, the mighty jewel traditionally worn by the sun god Surya. Ever after, the Koh-i-Noor has retained associations with divine or superhuman power.
As Dalrymple’s blood-drenched narrative shows, its material and spiritual lustre have repeatedly inspired men and women to desperate and determined acts. And today, like many spoils of Empire, the stone arouses fierce debate. The brightest jewel in the Crown, it is also the most infamous.
The Queen Mother wearing the crown (without its arches) featuring the Kohi-Noor, with Prince Charles, 1953. Left: the Queen Mother’s Crown on top of her coffin, 2002
The Koh-i-Noor sits in a Maltese cross at the front of the Queen Mother’s Crown