The Koh-i-Noor Diamond

Fiery diamond close-up
Diamond (stock photo). Andrew Brookes via Getty Images

It's only a hard lump of carbon, after all, yet the Koh-i-Noor diamond exerts a magnetic pull on those who behold it. Once the largest diamond in the world, it has passed from one famous ruling family to another as the tides of war and fortune have turned one way and another over the past 800 or more years. Today, it is held by the British, a spoil of their colonial wars, but the descendant states of all its previous owners claim this controversial stone as their own.

Origins of the Koh i Noor

Indian legend holds that the Koh-i-Noor's history stretches back an incredible 5,000 years, and that the gem has been part of royal hoards since around the year 3,000 BCE.  It seems more likely, however, that these legends conflate various royal gems from different millennia, and that the Koh-i-Noor itself was probably discovered in the 1200s CE.

Most scholars believe that the Koh-i-Noor was discovered during the reign of the Kakatiya Dynasty in the Deccan Plateau of southern India (1163 - 1323).  A precursor to the Vijayanagara Empire, Kakatiya ruled over much of present-day Andhra Pradesh, site of the Kollur Mine.  It was from this mine that the Koh-i-Noor, or "Mountain of Light," likely came.  

In 1310, the Khilji Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate invaded the Kakatiya kingdom, and demanded various items as "tribute" payments.  Kakatiya's doomed ruler Prataparudra was forced to send tribute north, including 100 elephants, 20,000 horses - and the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

 Thus, the Kakatiya lost their most stunning jewel after less than 100 years of ownership, in all likelihood, and their entire kingdom would fall just 13 years later.

The Khilji family did not enjoy this particular spoil of war for long, however.  In 1320, they were overthrown by the Tughluq clan, the third of five families that would rule the Delhi Sultanate.

Each of the succeeding Delhi Sultanate clans would possess the Koh-i-Noor, but none of them held power for long.

This account of the stone's origins and early history is the most widely accepted today, but there are other theories as well. The Mughal emperor Babur, for one, states in his memoir, the Baburnama, that during the 13th century the stone was the property of the Raja of Gwalior, who ruled a district of Madhya Pradesh in central India.  To this day, we are not entirely certain if the stone came from Andhra Pradesh, from Madhya Pradesh, or from Andhra Pradesh via Madhya Pradesh.

The Diamond of Babur

A prince from a Turco-Mongol family in what is now Uzbekistan, Babur defeated the Delhi Sultanate and conquered northern India in 1526.  He founded the great Mughal Dynasty, which ruled northern India until 1857.  Along with the Delhi Sultanate's lands, the magnificent diamond passed to him, and he modestly named it the "Diamond of Babur."  His family would keep the gem for just over two hundred rather tumultuous years.

The fifth Mughal emperor was Shah Jahan, justly famous for ordering the construction of the Taj Mahal.  Shah Jahan also had an elaborate jeweled gold throne built, called the Peacock Throne.

Crusted with countless diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and pearls, the throne contained a significant portion of the Mughal Empire's fabulous wealth.  Two golden peacocks adorned the throne; one peacock's eye was the Koh-i-Noor or Diamond of Babur; the other was the Akbar Shah Diamond.

Shah Jahan's son and successor, Aurangzeb (reigned 1661-1707), was persuaded during his reign to allow a Venetian carver called Hortenso Borgia to cut the Diamond of Babur.  Borgia made a complete hash of the job, reducing what had been the world's largest diamond from 793 carats to 186 carats. The finished product was quite irregular in shape and did not shine to anything like its full potential.  Furious, Aurangzeb fined the Venetian 10,000 rupees for spoiling the stone.

Aurangzeb was the last of the Great Mughals; his successors were lesser men, and Mughal power began its slow fade.

One weak emperor after another sit on the Peacock Throne for a month or a year before being assassinated or deposed. Mughal India and all of its wealth were vulnerable, including the Diamond of Babur, a tempting target for neighboring nations.

Persia Takes the Diamond

In 1739, the Shah of Persia, Nader Shah, invaded India and won a great victory over Mughal forces at the Battle of Karnal. He and his army then sacked Delhi, raiding the treasury and stealing the Peacock Throne.  Its not entirely clear where the Diamond of Babur was at the time, but it may have been in the Badshahi Mosque, where Aurangzeb had deposited it after Borgia cut it.

When the Shah saw the Diamond of Babur, he is supposed to have cried out, "Koh-i-Noor!" or "Mountain of Light!," giving the stone its current name.  In all, the Persians seized plunder estimated at the equivalent of 18.4 billions dollars US in today's money from India.  Of all the loot, Nader Shah seems to have loved the Koh-i-Noor the most.

Afghanistan Gets the Diamond

Like others before him, though, the Shah did not get to enjoy his diamond for long.  He was assassinated in 1747, and the Koh-i-Noor passed to one of his generals, Ahmad Shah Durrani.  The general would go on to conquer Afghanistan later that same year, founding the Durrani Dynasty and ruling as its first emir.

Zaman Shah Durrani, the third Durrani king, was overthrown and imprisoned in 1801 by his younger brother, Shah Shuja.  Shah Shuja was infuriated when he inspected his brother's treasury, and realized that the Durranis' most prized possession, the Koh-i-Noor, was missing.  Zaman had taken the stone to prison with him, and hollowed out a hiding place for it in the wall of his cell.  Shah Shuja offered him his freedom in return for the stone, and Zaman Shah took the deal.

This magnificent stone first came to British attention in 1808, when Mountstuart Elphinstone visited the court of Shah Shujah Durrani in Peshawar.  The British were in Afghanistan to negotiate an alliance against Russia, as part of the "Great Game."  Shah Shujah wore the Koh-i-Noor embedded in a bracelet during the negotiations, and Sir Herbert Edwardes noted that, "It seemed as if the Koh-i-noor carried with it the sovereignty of Hindostan," because whichever family that possessed it so often prevailed in battle.

I would argue that in fact, causation flowed in the opposite direction - whoever was winning the most battles usually nabbed the diamond.  It would not be long before yet another ruler would take the Koh-i-Noor for his own.

The Sikhs Grab the Diamond

In 1809, Shah Shujah Durrani got overthrown in turn by another brother, Mahmud Shah Durrani.  Shah Shujah had to flee into exile in India, but he managed to escape with the Koh-i-Noor.  He ended up a prisoner of the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh, known as the Lion of the Punjab.  Singh ruled from the city of Lahore, in what is now Pakistan.

Ranjit Singh soon learned that his royal prisoner had the diamond. Shah Shujah was stubborn, and did not want to relinquish his treasure.  However, by 1814, he felt that the time was ripe for him to escape from the Sikh kingdom, raise an army, and try to retake the Afghan throne.  He agreed to give Ranjit Singh the Koh-i-Noor in return for his freedom.

Britain Seizes the Mountain of Light

After Ranjit Singh's death in 1839, the Koh-i-Noor was passed from one person to another in his family for about a decade. It ended up as the property of the child king Maharaja Dulip Singh.  In 1849, the British East India Company prevailed in the Second Angol-Sikh War and seized control of the Punjab from the young king, handing all political power to the British Resident.  

In the Last Treaty of Lahore (1849), it specifies that the Koh-i-Noor Diamond is to be presented to Queen Victoria, not as a gift from the East India Company, but as a spoil of war.  The British also took 13-year-old Dulip Singh to Britain, where he was raised as a ward of Queen Victoria.  He reportedly once asked to have the diamond returned, but received no answer from the Queen.

The Koh-i-Noor was a star attraction of London's Great Exhibition in 1851.  Despite the fact that its display case prevented any light from striking its facets, so it essentially looked like a lump of dull glass, thousands of people waited patiently for a chance to gaze at the diamond each day.  The stone received such poor reviews that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, decided to have it recut in 1852.  

The British government appointed Dutch master diamond-cutter, Levie Benjamin Voorzanger, to recut the famous stone.  Once again, the cutter drastically reduced the size of the stone, this time from 186 carats to 105.6 carats.  Voorzanger had not planned to cut away so much of the diamond, but discovered flaws that needed to be excised in order to achieve maximum sparkle.  

Prior to Victoria's death, the diamond was her personal property; after her lifetime, it became part of the Crown Jewels.  Victoria wore it in a brooch, but later queens wore it as the front piece of their crowns.  The British superstitiously believed that the Koh-i-Noor brought bad fortune to any male who possessed it (given its history), so only female royals have worn it.  It was set into the coronation crown of Queen Alexandra in 1902, then was moved into Queen Mary's crown in 1911.  In 1937, it was added to the coronation crown of Elizabeth, the mother of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.  It remains in the Queen Mother's crown to this day, and was on display during her funeral in 2002.

Modern-Day Ownership Dispute

Today, the Koh-i-Noor diamond is still a spoil of Britain's colonial wars.  It rests in the Tower of London along with the other Crown Jewels.  

As soon as India gained its independence in 1947, the new government made its first request for the return of the Koh-i-Noor. It renewed its request in 1953, when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. India's parliament once again asked for the gem in 2000. Britain has refused to consider India's claims.

In 1976, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto asked that Britain return the diamond to Pakistan, since it had been taken from the Maharaja of Lahore.  This prompted Iran to assert its own claim.  In 2000, Afghanistan's Taliban regime noted that the gem had come from Afghanistan to British India, and asked to have it returned to them instead of Iran, India, or Pakistan.

Britain responds that because so many other nations have claimed the Koh-i-Noor, none of them have a better claim to it than Britain's.  However, it seems pretty clear to me that the stone originated in India, spent most of its history in India, and really should belong to that nation.