India has always been famous in the ancient world for its precious stones. Since early times, the rulers of India vied with one another in collecting jewels of great luster and brilliance. In fact, the number of jewels in a king’s possession measured the greatness of a monarch. These jewels were in the form of diamonds, diamond-studded ornaments, rubies and pearls. They were given as presents from the chieftains to the kings, who in turn passed it on to their queens or to another ruler as a gift. Sometimes, they were acquired through force as war booty. Often these precious stones made history and left behind them stories that live up to the present day, and to India belongs the proud privilege of producing the Koh-i-noor diamond.
The origin of the Koh-i-noor diamond remains a mystery. Indian legends say it came to Earth as a gift from the Sun God. Another record states that it was discovered in the bed of river Godavery, 3200 B.C., and was worn by Carna Rajan, of Anga, who was slain in one of the battles of the “great war”. Third legend had it that the Koh-i-noor diamond is actually a piece of another legendary and even older diamond, called the Great Moghul. The priceless and sought-after gem is said to have weighed 793 carat and has mysteriously disappeared in 1665, never to be seen again. History and legends mingle in this ancient tale.
It is believed that the first owner of the Koh-i-noor diamond was the Rajah of Malwa. It is known that when Ala-ud-din conquered Malwa, a magnificent diamond, “a jewel unparalleled in all the world”, was part of the loot, but it dropped out of sight for the next 200 years. It is also believed that it changed hands several times and was in possession of different rulers; but its history starts with the arrival of Babur the Mughal on the Indian scene.
By the year 1523 Babur had taken possession of Lahore and at that time, Ibrahim Lodhi ruled Delhi. The Sultans of Delhi had always treated their courtiers with respect, but Ibrahim Lodhi was distrustful and cruel with them. He humiliated them and had them locked up in dungeons at the smallest pretext, where they languished chained to the walls of their cells. It was hardly surprising that the chief supporters of his regime appealed to Babur for help and he gladly agreed.
On 12th of April 1526, the Mughal army reached Panipat and set camp on a vast plain. Babur had twelve thousand men under his command. Despite the fact that Lodhi’s army largely outnumbered the army of Babur and the Sultan of Delhi had 1000 elephants trained in combat, he lost the battle.
Babur received reports that the Fort of Agra housed an immense treasure, which included a diamond that defied all description. Its size, color, and brightness were beyond comparison. When Babur took the possession of the diamond, he valued it at the price of two days food for the whole world. The legend says that at this time its weight was about 789 carat, or nearly six troy ounces.
Babur ruled only for four years and died in 1530 after a brief illness. After his death the precious stone was passed on to his son Humayun and later on – to successive generations of Moghul rulers, including Shah Jehan, the builder of Taj Mahal, who has set the priceless gem in his famous Peacock throne as one of the peacock’s eyes.
After the death of Shah Jahan, the Koh-i-noor diamond passed into the hands of his son Aurangzeb. When in his possession, it was shown to Tavernier – an enterprising French traveller and connoisseur, who made a tour through the East in search of rare and wonderful gems. Tavernier made and left to the history the first sketch of the Koh-i-noor diamond. Although at this time considered the most prized of all the crown-jewels, it had been greatly reduced in weight and value by the lapidary, the Venetian Hortensio Borgio, to whom had been committed the labor of re-cutting it, and who, though devoting three and a half years to the work assigned to him, exercised so little judgment and skill in its execution, that when the stone left his hands it had been reduced to a weight of 280 carat, having a length of one and five-eighths inch, and a thickness of five-eighths of an inch. So enraged was Aurungzeb at the extravagance and stupidity of his lapidary, that he not only refused to compensate him for his labor, but confiscated all his worldly possessions, and even seriously considered the propriety of taking his head also.
Though so greatly reduced in size and value, the mysterious potency of its charms still remained, and the stone was still recognized for its beauty, an element of discord, more powerful for evil than was the mythical apple of Eris.
Aurangzeb’s death marked the beginning of the end of the Mughal Empire. His successors were weak and indolent kings who occupied the center stage for a short time only to fall into oblivion. Under their rule, the Mughal Empire was greatly reduced by rebellions and revolts. Power belonged to a select group of ministers who took advantage of the political instability around them and benefited politically and materially at the expense of the people and the Mughal Empire.
In 1719, Muhammad Shah was crowned the Emperor of Delhi, when he was barely seventeen years old. The new ruler loved ease, pleasures, and the joys of life. He cared little for the dangers within his court and to the Mughal Empire, which began slowly sinking into a state of decadence.
On the other side of the border, the fortunes of the Persian Empire were on the rise. Nadir Shah Afshar, a humble shepherd’s son, had deposed the ruling monarch and proclaimed himself as the King of Persia. Consolidating his power in Persia, he marched into Afghanistan conquering its cities and soon, he was on his way to Delhi. In 1739 a battle took place on the plains of Karanal, fifty kilometers away from Delhi, which ended in a total defeat of the Indian army.
Nadir Shah was amazed at the grandeur of the Mughal court and looked at every article in the palace with great curiosity. He was also pleased at the hospitality of Muhammad Shah, for he fed and feasted the conquerors on a lavish scale. A few days later, the residents of Delhi killed a few Persian soldiers and Nadir Shah ordered a general massacre of the local population. At least 20,000-perhaps as many as 150,000- people lost their lives and the city was pillaged. At the end, the slaughter ceased, but not before Muhammad Shah promised to pay him war reparations and presented him with all the jewels in the Royal Treasury, which also included the famous Peacock Throne, the pride of the Mughal Emperors.
But the Koh-i-noor diamond was nowhere to be seen. Muhammad Shah carried it with him hidden in the folds of his turban, a secret known only to a selected few, including a eunuch in the harem of the Emperor. Hoping to win the favor of Nadir Shah, the disloyal eunuch whispered the emperor’s secret into his ears, and Nadir Shah in turn, devised a plan to deprive Muhammad Shah of his prized possession. The day was drawing near for him to leave for Persia and Nadir Shah ordered a grand durbar to be held where he would hand over the control of the Mughal Empire back to Muhammad Shah.
On 1 May 1739, during the ceremony, he reminded Muhammad Shah of the ancient tradition of exchanging turbans between kings as a sign of friendship and fraternal ties. Nadir Shah gave little room for pause between word and action and removed the turban from his head and placed it on the head of Muhammad Shah, leaving the latter with no choice but to reciprocate the gesture. Muhammad Shah went through the ceremony with such poise that it left Nadir Shah baffled. Was the Koh-i-noor really hidden under the folds of his turban, as the eunuch had revealed, or it was a hoax?
After the ceremony, Nadir Shah hurried into his apartments and eagerly undid the folds of his turban, where he found the hidden diamond. Wonderstruck at its size, beauty, and brilliance, he exclaimed: “Koh-i-noor,” which in Persian means “mountain of light,” and the gem of fortune came to be known by this name thereafter. After returning to Persia, Nadir Shah kept the diamond near himself, within easy reach.
Nadir Shah was assassinated soon after and the diamond fell into the hands of Ahmad Shah Abdali, one of his ablest generals, who later became the King of Afghanistan. After his death in 1772, the Koh-i-noor diamond passed into the hands of his successors. In the battle for succession that followed, the Koh-i-noor ended in possession of one of his sons Shah Shuja Mirza. In the changing fortunes of war, Shuja Mirza was defeated and made prisoner by the allies of his brother, Mahmud Shah. However, before being captured, he managed to send his family to Punjab to seek refuge with Maharaja Ranjit Singh (known also as ‘Ranjeet the Lion’). Wafa Begum, Shuja Mirza’s wife, carried the Koh-i-noor diamond with her to Lahore.
Wafa Begum became greatly distressed when she heard the dreadful news of her husband. She sent envoys to Ranjit Singh and implored him to use his influence to get her husband released and in return for his help promised him the Koh-i-noor diamond. Ranjit Singh marched against the Afghans and got Shah Shuja released. After securing the Koh-i-noor diamond, Ranjit Singh had the prized jewel fitted in his turban. Later he had it sewn into an armlet, which he wore on all the important state occasions, where it remained for twenty years.
Before Ranjit Singh died in 1839, his priests tried to get him to donate the diamond to the Temple of Jaggannath. Apparently he agreed, but by this time he was unable to speak and the keeper of the royal treasure refused to release the stone, on the grounds that he has not received such orders.
In 1849, Dalip Singh surrendered the Koh-i-noor diamond to the British under the terms of a treaty, at the end of the Second Anglo-Sikh War. The treaty specified that: “The gem called Koh-I-noor, which was taken from Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk by Maharajah Ranjit Singh shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.”
John Lawrence, the colonial administrator, put it in his waistcoat pocket and forgot about it. When asked for the prize, Lawrence had no idea where it was. Racing home, he asked his servant- who said, yes, he had found a small box, containing a piece of glass in his master’s waistcoat!
After gaining the famous diamond, the Governor General, Lord Dalhousie immediately sent the Koh-i-noor to England after taking every care to ensure its safe passage over the land and the sea-routes. On 6 April 1850 the Koh-i-noor left the shores of India on board of the HMS Medea. So shrouded in mystery was its departure that even the Captain of the Medea did not know the precious cargo his ship carried. On 3rd July, the Koh-i-noor was formally handed over to Queen Victoria by the officials of the East India Company in a private ceremony held in Buckingham Palace. The Koh-i-noor was removed from its mount and its weight, as calculated by the Queen’s jeweler, was about 186 carats. It seems that the gem has been re-cut one more time before arriving to England and after Tavernier made the famous sketch of it.
When it was exhibited at the Crystal Palace, however, the public, used to “brilliant cuts” was disappointed by its “moghul – style” cut. The Queen along with others in the court decided that the brilliance of the diamond would be enhanced if it were refashioned into a brilliant cut. The re-cutting of the Koh-i-noor took a mere 38 days and cost of £8000; the final result was an oval brilliant weighing 108.93 carat. Despite the efforts, the results were most unfortunate, for it reduced the diamond drastically in weight, depriving it of all its historical and mineralogical value. The Koh-i-noor diamond, however, lost none of its original mystique.
In 1992 a new HM Stationary Office publication on the British Crown Jewels and regalia gave the revised weight of 105.602 carat for the Koh-i-noor and not the 108.93-carat figure previously published. The stone was found to measure 36.00 × 31.90 × 13.04 mm and it is set in the Maltese Cross at the front of the crown made for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
Today, the Koh-i-noor is kept with other precious objects of the British Crown in a round display case in the basement of the “Jewel House,” of the Tower of London, far away from playing any role in intrigues, assassinations, battles, fratricidal wars and lust as it had happened with its possessors in the past. It only casts its brilliance on the millions of tourists who, for the most part, are unaware of its long history in shaping the destinies of men.