Few possessors of the Koh-i-Noor have led happy lives thus goes the legend till the most sought after diamond in history landed with the House of Windsor’s but that too after surviving brutal conquests, great political upheavals and despite total ignorance of its value to most people except a few knowledgeable protagonists in history. It would not have merited even a tiny mention by way of a barely registered footnote had it not been recovered by Shah Shuja’s men by chance from a mullah who had been using it as a paper weight quite oblivious to its real worth and reputation. The gripping story of Koh-i-Noor and its possessors is masterfully woven around Kings, Queens, Princes and Generals and ordinary unsung characters who held or coveted the gem by two of the finest historians of our times, William Dalrymple and Anita Anand.
Dalrymple, having the unique distinction of an historian extraordinaire and endowed with the gift of great story telling, charts the fabled diamond’s history from ancient times tracing its origins in the Indian subcontinent through Bhagvad Puranas and other Hindu scriptures, writings and traditions. Fresh from his fabulous and riveting history of First Anglo Afghan War, Return of a King, Dalrymple journeys through turbulent and yet fascinating times describing hair-raising incidents in the shape of a highly readable book taking the reader to the point in history when the one-eyed Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s “friendly” cajoling and threats compelled the exiled Sadozai prince of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, to hand over the diamond prompting the jubilant Ranjeet to shower two hundred thousand rupees along with a jageer and sacs full of jewels and rubies as a token of his appreciation: a tiny price indeed even though the Sikh Maharaja would have thought otherwise and must have contemplated outright appropriation from a king without a throne and in captivity in Lahore’s Mubarak Haveli.
In the aftermath of the Maharaja’s death and despite turbulence, political uncertainty and instability, Kohinoor, like the kingdom of Punjab, could only be coveted enviously from a distance by the East India Company: its ownership remained firmly in Sikh hands
The one-eyed Sikh whom the French traveler Victor Jacquemont termed as a grey mouse, had that rare quality of fascinating and enthralling his European guests with his antics and seemingly irrelevant and incessant questioning, a carefully thought out smokescreen to camouflage his state of mind. The British spy/traveler Alexander Burnes, while being feted and entertained by the Maharaja, as the anecdote goes, was given the honour of seeing the diamond as he tried Ranjeet’s home-made hell brew which the Maharaja recommended to his guest as a cure for his dysentery!
Earlier Nader Shah, the Persian invader who ordered a massacre which claimed 30,000 lives had plundered and emptied Delhi of its accumulated wealth of eight generations including the peacock throne in which was still embedded the Koh-i-Noor. The dark powers of the diamond, as the common belief went, engulfed the dour and humourless Persian King in the form of his murder at the hands of his own courtiers. His chief Afghan bodyguard Ahmad Khan Abdali became the next owner of the Koh-i-Noor.
Ahmad Shah founded the Durrani dynasty and the modern state of Afghanistan and had many successful conquests to his name initially but the diamond started to have its ugly spell over the Durrani King who suffered from some kind of tumor which ate away his nose eventually leading to his miserable death. At one stage his condition became so pitiable that maggots started falling from the wound into his mouth when he ate his meals.
Anita Anand – who having recently published the life story of Princess Sophia, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, has beautifully breathed life into the long forgotten protagonists of history in a skilful manner – charts the blood soaked history of the Punjab and its eventual annexation by the East India Company while following the fortunes of Koh-i-Noor (mountain of light), its handlers and possessors culminating in the diamond being successfully but secretly shipped out of the Punjab by the loyal and committed Lord Dalhousie to become the most prominent and envied part of the crown jewels, after having been in the possession of the Sikhs of the Punjab for thirty six years.
The scene was that of a dying, mute monarch who had been rendered incapacitated by three devastating strokes and who used to surround himself with pundits and loyal servants like Misr Beli Ram around his deathbed. Since no one could lip read or decipher the Sarkar’s gestures one hundred percent correctly, confusion surrounded what his instructions meant regarding the Kohinoor now that everyone knew that their beloved Maharaja’s time was up. While Ranjeet was giving away bags full of jewels and his other belongings in charity, the hangers on pundits were claiming the Maharaja had ordered the Kohinoor to be sent over to the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Orissa. They maintained that the Maharaja being mindful of the fabled origins of Kohinoor had decided as a mark of respect that the ancient Sayamantaka diamond had to be transported back to its legendary place of origin, Jagannath. Misr Beli Ram, the Chief Treasurer, on the other hand, held a firm belief that the gem belonged to the Sikh state and not to any person or temple, therefore, the question of it being instructed by the Maharaja to be given as an “offering” did not arise at all.
In the aftermath of the Maharaja’s death and despite turbulence, political uncertainty and instability, Kohinoor, like the kingdom of Punjab, could only be coveted enviously from a distance by the East India Company: its ownership remained firmly in Sikh hands. So much so that even during the cataclysm and turmoil in the wake of Kharak Singh and his son Nau Nihal Singh’s tragic deaths the British never contemplated waging a full scale war with a view to annexing the Punjab. Their carefully cultivated network of agents and spies helped weaken the Kingdom from within. The Sikh Army General Tej Singh, who was awarded a vast Jageer as a mark of appreciation for his treachery by the British, was instrumental in orchestrating a defeat of his own army in the First Anglo Sikh War along the Sutlej.
The British had had enough and were emboldened by victories at Chilianwala and Multan –albeit the former being highly costly and bloody — forced one legal document after another on the child Maharaja Duleep Singh effectively giving up sovereignty over Punjab and, equally importantly, handing over the Kohinoor in return for a pension of five lakh rupees per annum. The child Maharaja who had briefly ruled the Punjab from his mother Maharani Jindan Kaur’s lap was used to wearing the diamond strapped to his dola, the bicep like his father. In his innocence the six year old would ask his Scottish foster parents, John and Lena Login, to be given the Kohinoor so that he could wear it after it was decided to separate him from his troublesome mother, the sassy and feisty daughter of kennel keeper in-charge in the service of Ranjeet Singh, Manna Singh Aulakh; youngest of Ranjeet Sigh’s seventeen wives.
The diamond and Duleep Singh were both shipped to England where news of the biggest diamond in the world was greeted by the public at large with jubilation and some form of imperial triumph. Queen Victoria was taken with the young Maharaja partly due to the fact that he had been separated from his mother and partly because he was of the same age as her own son, Bertie, the Prince of Wales. A large number of Englishmen queued up to see the Koh-i-Noor at London’s Crystal Palace, some seemed impressed, some not so sure. The Dutch company commissioned by the Buckingham Palace for cutting it trimmed it to the size and shape the world sees it today on Queen Elizabeth’s crown. Many heads of state including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto have demanded that the Kohinoor be brought from Britain to their countries arguing that it was taken from the place which is a part of Pakistan now, Lahore. Britain, like it has rejected the demand to return the Parthenon marbles taken by Lord Elgin in the nineteenth century to Greece, has always termed such demands as “non-negotiable”.
As for the small matter of the curse of the Koh-i-Noor visiting the British monarch like it has happened to many rulers in the past, it is interesting to note that, according to some, the rule applies to male monarchs only, hence the longevity of the present British Queen’s reign. It will be a point of interest to many how the curse of the Koh-i-Noor casts its spell on the next at least two heirs to the throne who happen to be both male. But in the meantime, shine on you crazy diamond!