Mountain of Light

  – or Molehill of Loot!

Long a simmering source of friction – and fiction! – between India and England has been the famous Koh-I-Noor (Mountain of Light) Diamond that since 1865 has adorned the (literal) British Crown. Koh-i-Noor_new When not worn as part of the regal headwear of Her Royal Majesty it is housed in the Crown Jewels collection at the Tower of London. Indeed, on more than one occasion during  visits to that city I’ve been one of a constant flow of visitors who has gawked at The Diamond, even though it is no longer its original blockbuster size. Back in 1947, when India gained its independence from Britain, it claimed that the Koh-I-Noor had been taken away illegally and that it should be given back to India. Then, when Queen Elizabeth II made a state visit to India marking the 50th anniversary of its independence in 1997, many Indians in India and Britain demanded the return of The Diamond. On 21 February 2013, while visiting India, David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, said inexplicably that it would be ‘illogical’ to return the diamond.

If we are talking here of logic, then what occurred in Oxford University just over 2 years later (this month in fact) seems to make it clearer by way of  the striking outcome at the Debating Society held in the Oxford Union: there the House decided overwhelmingly in favor of the proposition that The Diamond be returned to India as part of a larger reparation that Britain owed India for its 200 years of colonial rule. The ‘victor’ in the debate was current Indian Member of Parliament Dr. Shashi Tharoor, who courteously, but forcefully – and logically – made the argument for appropriate reparations by Britain before an attentive House. See this YouTube video featuring Dr. Shashi Tharoor at Oxford Debate in July 2015.

[A Little History Lesson: According to Edwin Streeter in his Great Diamonds of the World, the first authentic reference to the Koh-I-Noor is made in the memoirs of Babur, founder of the Mogul Empire, who conquered India in the 16th century. BaburAjpg His son, Humayun, found the diamond in the treasure house of Bikermajit, aka Bikramjit, the defeated Hindu Rajah of Gwalior. HumayunB Babur tells how the stone was once the property of Sultan Ala-ed-din, who ruled part of Hindustan from A.D. 1288 to 1321. The stone came into Ala-ed-din’s treasury in 1304, after he conquered the Rajah of Malwa, in whose family the gem had been an heirloom from “time out of mind.” The Emperor Babur delighted at getting his hands on the fabulous jewel: he had it evaluated by the most famous judge of diamonds in India who declared it to be so valuable that it was worth “half the daily expenditure of the whole world.” From then on the stone changed hands many times, but never for gold.

In 1739, by an artifice, it fell into the clutches of the Persian warlord Nadir Shah, who invaded India and defeated Mohammed Shah. Nadir Shah Nadir seized all the treasure in the Royal Palace at Delhi, but the great diamond he coveted was missing. In vain the Persian Prince hunted up and down the country for the missing gem. The conquered Mohammed Shah refused to disclose its hiding place. One night a woman from Mohammed Shah’s harem crept into Nadir’s tent and told him that the diamond was hidden in the folds of Mohammed Shah’s turban. Nadir was jubilant. He immediately organized a great durbar, to which he invited Mohammed Shah. Then he skillfully made use of an ancient Indian custom rarely omitted between princes of equal rank on State occasions: he asked Mohammed Shah to “exchange turbans” with him as a sign of friendship and respect. Mohammed, taken completely by surprise, had no alternative but to exchange his immaculate turban for the Persian’s greasy sheepskin headdress.

Immediately that Nadir had the turban in his hands, he ordered the festivities to cease, and rushed to his tent, where he ripped open the turban to pieces. The harem woman was right; the gem he coveted rolled out of the cloth on to the beaten earth floor of the tent. When he saw the stone glistening in the dim light, Nadir was so overcome that he fell on his knees, crying out “Koh-I-Noor!”

From then on the stone was known far and wide by that very name. However, the Koh-I-Noor didn’t bring Nadir any better luck than his predecessors had had. He was murdered. The next owner of Koh-I-Noor was Nadir’s feeble-minded son, Shah Rokh, who inherited it on his father’s death, along with the rest of the Royal treasure. Immediately disaster overtook him. A powerful prince, Mir Allim Khan, who wanted to get his hands on the diamond, went to war against him. After a terrible battle Rokh was defeated. But, although he had his eyes gouged out and boiling oil poured over his shaven head, and though he was beaten and starved almost to death, he refused to disclose where the gem was hidden. With incredible courage and cunning Rakh kept the jewel in his possession until he died in 1751, when he bequeathed it to Ahmed Shah, founder of the Durrani Afghan Empire.

The Diamond again changed hands several times in quick succession. Everyone who owned it found it brought violence and bloodshed with it. In 1813 Ranjit Singh, known as the Lion of the Punjab, had the stone set in a magnificent bracelet, which he wore on all public occasions. He was a tyrannical, brutal ruler, and when he was dying his councilors advised him to appease the gods by presenting the diamond to the famous shrine of Jaganath (origin of the Anglicized Juggernaut). The dying king is said to have agreed to this by nodding his head. His councilors rushed-off to the Royal Treasury to get the stone from its vault, but the Crown jeweler, suspecting some skullduggery, refused to give the jewel up without a written order from the King. But by the time the councilors got back to the King’s apartment he was dead. History doesn’t say what happened to the poor unfortunate jeweler.

From then on the jewel remained in the treasure chamber of the Royal Palace at Lahore until the British annexed the Punjab in 1849. They took over the Lahore Treasury, the contents of which went to the East India Company in payment of a debt owed to it by the Lahore Government. Almost immediately the Koh-I-Noor was sent to England under heavy guard, coinciding with the 250th anniversary of the East India Company. The Diamond was presented to Queen Victoria on July 3, 1850 as part of the terms that ended the Sikh War.

Queen VictoriaB

Prince Albert took a great interest in the stone, and personally supervised its re-cutting by a Mr. Voorsauger, employee of the famous Amsterdam firm of Costers. Voorsauger came especially to London to cut the stone. On July 6, 1852, the Prince Consort put the gem on the mill especially built for the job, and the Duke of Wellington started the machinery. Before the stone was recut it weighed 185 1/16 carats and was valued at £140,000. The cutting took 38 days of 12 working hours each, and cost £8,000. In the process the gem lost 80 carats in weight. When the job was finished Prince Albert publicly denounced the result. He claimed that the brilliant design chosen by the Queen’s advisers had caused a heavy loss in the stone’s weight without achieving any visible good results.

Be it noted that ever since the Koh-I-Noor came to Britain it has been owned and worn by women – never by men – perhaps merely by coincidence, perhaps partly in deference to the old legend of death and mayhem that only a woman can wear it with safety. Now, once again, India wants this Mountain of Light turned by detractors to a Molehill of Loot returned to its lawful ancestral bosom. ]

Main Reference Sources: Wikipedia, Edwin Streeter’s Great Diamonds of the World, Bamber Gascoigne’s The Great Moghuls, Zelie McLeod’s India’s Tragic Gem (May 4, 1947), Azim Mayadas’s Private Collection of Books and Paintings.

Copyright © 2015 Azim Lewis Mayadas

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