- Dr Satish K Kapoor
Literally, the word Kohinoor (Koh-i-Noor, Koh-i-Nur) means “Mountain of light”. The expression was first used by the Persian emperor, Nadir Shah in 1739, for the most celebrated of Indian diamonds, traditionally identified with Syamantak mani (Syamantakara or sunstone), which is now part of the British regalia.
Throughout its chequered history, Kohinoor remained a symbol of royalty, of victory in diplomacy and war and of divine grace. Popularly called “the monarch of diamonds” its history is entwined with the history and mythology of the Indian subcontinent. It has adorned turbans, treasuries and holy places, generated intrigues, conflicts and tension, and provoked duels, murders and wars. Its mercurial character is legendary and it has passed from one ruler, dynasty or place to another, changing fortunes, proving ominous for some and auspicious for others.1
Legend and Folklore
Revered for centuries, Syamantak mani was first given by the sun god to the Yadav king, Satrajit, whose brother, Prasena, was devoured by a lion when he was wearing it. It was procured by Jambavan after killing the lion. Lord Krishna captured it from Jambavan and returned the precious jewel to Satrajit. Shatdhanava, another Yadava king, grabbed it after killing Satrajit. Lord Krishna and Balabhadra killed Shatadhanava but the gem could not be found as he had given it to Akrura and Kritavarman who took it away to Kashi( Varanasi). It was brought back by Akrura to Dwaraka during a famine.
Another account states that Lord Krishna received the precious gem in dowry from Satrajit when he married his daughter Satyabhama. He returned it to the sun god, who, in turn, gave it to Karna, his legendary son. From Karna it passed onto Arjuna after the former’s defeat during the Mahabharata war. Yudhishthira, eldest Pandava brother, wore it at the time of his coronation.
Still another myth says that Arjuna captured it after defeating Bhurishrava, ruler of Kashmir, and an ally of Duryodhana, leader of the Kauravas, and presented it to his elder brother Yudhishthira. Before proceeding to the forest, he gave it to Prikshat, Arjuna’s grandson, who passed it onto his son, Janmejaya.
From Pandavas, Kohinoor passed onto the Hindu rulers of Ujjain, one of whom Samprati, is said to be the grandson of king Ashoka( ruled c 272-232 BCE) of the Maurya dynasty. Later it came into the possession of the Shaka rulers of Ujjain from whom it was captured by Chandragupta Vikramaditya ( ruled c.380-413 CE), the third ruler of the line of the Imperial Guptas.
The whereabouts of the diamond are not traceable for a long period therafter. It is believed that the rulers of Malwa possessed it for many generations till Ala-ud-din Khalji ( ruled 1296-1316) got hold of it as a part of booty. The diamond is said to have been gouged out of an icon of Shiva where it symbolized the lord’s third eye, somewhere in Telangana. Afterwards, it passed onto the Hindu chieftains of Gwalior(Madhya Pradesh).
Humayun, son of Babar – first Mughal emperor – received it as a token of gratitude from the family of Raja Bikramjit of Gwalior who died along with Ibrahim Lodhi in the first battle of Panipat in 1526. Some scholars, however, contend that the diamond mentioned by Babar in his memoirs, the Tuzuk, is different from Kohinoor.
From Mughals to Afghans
The present Kohinoor diamond was discovered in the Kollur mine on the right bank of Krishna river in Andhra Pradesh, belonging to Mir Jumla Mir Mohammad Said, a Persian merchant adventurer and later Chief Minister of Sultan Abdullah Qutab Shah(1626-1672) of Golkonda. After Mir Jumla entered into the service of the Mughal emperor, Shahjahan( ruled 1628-58) he presented it to him. It then weighed 787 ½ carat but due to reckless cutting by Hortensio Borgio, a Venetian chiseller in service of the Mughal court, its weight was reduced to 280 carats, as noted by Jean Baptiste Tavernier(1605-1689), a contemporary French traveler. Kohinoor passed down the line of Mughal rulers until 1739 when it was extracted from Muhammad Shah(1719-1748) by Nadir Shah(1736-1747) through the “turban trick. It was then taken to Isfahan in Persia.
After Nadir Shah’s assassination in 1747 it was procured by his grandson , Shahrukh Mirza who presented it to Ahmad Shah Abdali, an Afghan chief of the Durrani clan,four years later. Zaman shah, king of Afghanistan(1793-1799) inherited the diamond from Ahmad Shah, his grandfather. After he was defeated and blinded by his half- brother, Shah Mahmud, it became the precious possession of another brother, Hazrat Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk, the Amir of Afghanistan from 1803-1809.
In Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s possession
From Shah Shuja, Kohinoor passed onto Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab on June 1, 1813, as the result of a political promise made by queen Wafa Begum(Shuja’s wife) to ensure her husband’s safety when he was held in captivity in Kashmir. Misr Makraj, treasurer to Duleep Singh, youngest son of Ranjit singh stated thus to the British:
“ For four or five years it was worn as an armlet, then fitted as a sirpesh for the turban, with a diamond drop of a tolah weight… attached to it. It was worn in this manner for about a year on three or four occasions, when it was again made up as an armlet, with a diamond on each side, as at present. It has now been used as an armlet for upwards of twenty years.”2
After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh on June 27,1839, the diamond remained in the Sikh treasury (toshakhana) despite the Last Will of the emperor, according to which it was to be gifted to the temple of Lord Jagannatha at Puri in the present day Odisha.3
Gifted or Grabbed ?
When Punjab was annexed on March 29, 1849, Kohinoor was taken to England as one of the spoils of the British Empire for presentation to Queen Victoria in 1850. It then weighed 186 carats. As the legendary gemstone did not catch sufficient attention at the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Queen through Prince Albert, ordered it to be cut to “a 106-carat European style oval brilliant.” 4
The recent observation of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India,
that the peerless diamond was voluntarily gifted by Duleep Singh, youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, to the British Raj, and that no claim can thus be made for getting it back , 5 is a travesty of facts, as can be seen from contemporary records and writings.
The following extract from the Life of Lord Lawrence as quoted by Lena Login in her work, Sir John Login and Duleep singh, dated July 4,1889, clearly proves the nefarious intention of the British government to grab Kohinoor and other precious items.
“Shortly before the decree of Annexation( of Punjab) went forth, Lord Dalhousie had written to Henry Lawrence to make every disposition for the safe custody of the state jewels, which were about to fall into the lap of the English.” 6
In a letter dated April 27, 1849, relating to the escapade of Maharani Jindan, mother and regent of Duleep Singh, Lord Dalhousie wrote, “I hope you have taken proper precautions in providing full security for the jewels and crown property at Lahore, whose removal would be a more serious affair than that of the Maharanee.” 7
Lady login continues: “Great care was therefore needful, especially as among the Punjab jewels was the matchless Koh-i-noor, the mountain of light, which it was intended should be expressly surrendered by the young Maharajah to the English queen.” 8
The Last Treaty of Lahore, granted and accepted on March 29,1849, was in line with the British policy of imperial expansion. Clause I and Clause III of the Treaty reveal that Duleep singh did not part with the peerless diamond of his own but was virtually ordered to do so :
I “His Highness the Maharajah Duleep singh shall resign for himself , his heirs, and his successors all right, title, and claim to the sovereignty of the Punjab or to any sovereign power whatever.”
III “The gem called the Koh-i-noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-moolk by Maharaja Runjeet singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.”9
The one-sided treaty was signed on the British side by Lord Dalhousie, H.M. Elliot and H.M. Lawrence, and on Indian side by Duleep Singh,Tej singh,Deena Nath, Nidhan Singh, Faqir Nur-ud-din,Gundur Singh and Lal Singh. It was ratified on April 5, 1849. 10
With the assistance of Misr Makraj, Login took hold of the Kohinoor along with other valuables, and followed his advice while showing it to visitors. “It was still set as an armlet,” with a diamond on each side of it. Misr is said to have stated that the diamond had led to many tragedies, “ having been fatal to so many members of his own family,” and that he himself felt endangered on that count. 11
The handing over of the diamond by Duleep singh to the Queen in Buckingham Palace, London, in 1854, with ‘a few gracious words’and with ‘pleasure’, was a contrived formality, a farce and a hoax, and cannot be interpreted to mean that the ‘gift’ was made from the heart. Moreover, the diamond was already in British possession. In a Memorandum prepared for Her Majesty by Sir John Login( Duleep Singh’s English guardian), it was stated that Duleep singh “submitted to the force of circumstances with very becoming dignity.” 12
It is evident that India does have a legitimate claim over the native diamond since after the Mughals, Afghans and others, the British had virtually grabbed it in the wake of the fall of the Sikh Empire, using the proverbial logic in the “wolf and lamb story” in which the former devours the latter on a false pretext. Those who argue that countries like Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan can equally lay claim on it due to its controversial history, should remember that the diamond has its historical origin in India, and is a chemistry in the blood and psyche of Indians who love mythological lore associated with it since the times of the Mahabharata or even before.
The present writer saw the glass replica Kohinoor diamond in 1974 in the Tower of London, when as a British Council Scholar, he was studying for the Master’s degree in History at School of Oriental and African studies, University of London. Despite emotional attachment with India’s diamond of rich antiquity, it did not physically impress when seen along other diamonds, both because of the diminutive size to which it had been reduced, as also because it is no more “technically extraordinary” as in the past.13
Dr Satish K Kapoor, a former British Council Scholar in History at School of Oriental and African studies, University of London, was Principal of Lyallpur Khalsa College, and Registrar, DAV University, Jalandhar.