In April 1526, Zahir-ud-din Babur, a dashing Turco-Mongol poet-prince from Ferghana in Central Asia, descended the Khyber Pass with a small army of handpicked followers. He brought with him some of the first cannon and muskets seen in northern India. With this new military technology, he defeated and killed the Delhi sultan Ibrahim Lodi, at the battle of Panipat; a year later, he crushed the Rajputs. He then established his capital at Agra, where he began to build a series of irrigated paradise gardens.
This was not Babur’s first conquest. He had spent much of his youth throneless, living with his companions day by day, rustling sheep and stealing food. Occasionally he would capture a town- he was fourteen years when he first took Samarkand and held it for four months. Generally he lived in a tent, a peripatetic existence that, although sanctioned by Timurid tradition, seemed to have little appeal to him. “It passed through my mind”, he wrote, “ that to wander from mountain to mountain, homeless and helpless, has little to recommend it”
Babur not only established the Mughal dynasty, which ruled northern India for 330 years, he also wrote one of the most fascinating diaries ever written by a great ruler: the Baburnama. In its pages, he opens his soul with a frankness and lack of inhibition similar to Pepys, comparing the fruits and animals of India and Afghanistan with as much inquisitiveness as he records his impressions of the differences between falling in love with men and with women, or the differing pleasures of opium and wine. Here he also makes reference to an extraordinary diamond that was among the wonderful richness of gems he had captured during his conquests.
As he noted in the Baburnama, when his son Humayun captured the family of Bikramjit, the rajah of Gwalior, who were in Agra at the time of Ibrahim Lodhi’s defeat, “they made him a voluntary offering of a mass of jewels and valuables, amongst which was the famous diamond which [Sultan] Ala’ ud-Din [Khilji] must have brought. Its reputation is that every appraiser has estimated its value at two and half days’ food for the whole world. Apparently it weighs 8 missals”.
Another contemporary source, a small treatise on precious stones dedicated to Babur and Humayun also refers to Babur’s diamond:
No private individual has ever seen such a diamond, or heard of it, nor is there any mention of it in any book.”
These two mentions are often assumed to be early references to the Koh-i-Noor. They may well be- or not: the description is too vague to be certain, and there were clearly several very large diamonds circulating in India at this time.
Either way, Babur’s diamond soon left India. Babur died in 1530, only four years after his arrival in India and before he could consolidate his new conquests. His dreamy and somewhat feckless son, Humayun, shared his father’s poetic and cultural interests, but he had none of his military genius. He continued to build gardens and spent his days rapt in the study of astrology and mysticism, but his father’s conquests crumbled and in 1540, after less than ten years on the throne, Humayun was forced into exile in Persia.
Throughout his diaries, Babur had shown a mixture of pride and extreme irritation with regard to his brave and intelligent but unfocused, unambiguous and perennially unpunctual son; even an undertaking as important as the invasion of India was delayed by several weeks by Humayun failing to present himself on time in Kabul. He eventually turned up, three weeks late, which meant the invasion had to take place in the heat of the summer. Both in his rule and during his exile, Humayun demonstrated the same dreamy and unreliable nature.
Having lost his kingdom, and abandoned even his wives and infant son Akbar in his flight from India, the one asset Humayun kept with him was his glittering booty of gems from Agra. Rumours of this spread, and while passing through Rajasthan, the fleeing emperor was approached by an envoy of Raja Malden of Jodhpur, “an officer in the guise of a merchant”, who asked to buy his most valuable diamond. Humayun would have none of it, sending word to “this purchaser that the likes of this valuable jewel cannot be bought. Either it will fall into his hands by means of glittering sword coupled with sovereign mind, or it will come about through the favour of exalted kings.”
Yet even his diamonds were all he had left, Humayun still showed a bewildering absent mindedness, if not outright negligence with regard to them. In July 1544, on his way to seek asylum at the court of the Safavid emperor Shah Tahmasp, Humayun was saved from potentially catastrophic inattention by the quick thinking of a boy named January. Jauhar himself wrote many years later:
It was customary with his Majesty always to carry his valuable diamonds and rubies in a purse in his pocket. But when he was performing his ablutions, he generally laid them on one side. This time he had done so, and promptly forgot them: it so happened that when the king was gone, and the humble servant Jauhar was about to remount his horse, he saw a green flowered purse lying on the ground, and a pen case by the side of it: he immediately took them up, and as soon as he had overtaken the King, presented them. When his Majesty saw these articles he was amazed and astonished, and said, “Oh my boy, you have done me the greatest possible favour; if these had been lost, I should have been subject to the meanness [rezalet] of this Persian monarch: in future please take care of them.”
In due course, the diamonds saved Humayun. Though the staunchly Shi’a Shah Tahmasp initially gave the Sunni Humayun a cool reception, he was thrilled by the diamonds Humayun presented him with at their meeting. Jauhar recounts:
We remained several days encamped on the hunting grounds, during which time his Majesty ordered his rubies and diamonds to be brought to him; and having selected the largest diamond, placed it in a mother of pearl box; then he added several other diamonds and rubies; and having placed them on a tray, he gave them in charge of Byram Beg to present to the Persian monarch with the message, “that they were brought from Hindustan purposely for his Majesty”. When Shah Tahmasp saw these precious stones he was astonished, and sent for his jewellers to value them. The jewellers declared that they were above all price; on which the Persian signified his acceptance.
When Humayun eventually returned to India, he did so at the head of a cohort of Shah Tahmasp’s cavalry which enabled him to recover the throne.
For reasons that remain unclear, however, shortly afterwards, in 1547, Shah Tahmasp sent Babur’s diamond to his Indian Shia ally, the sultan of Ahmadnagar, one of the rulers of the Deccan. According to Khur Shah, the ambassador of the rival Sultanate of Golconda to the Persian court, it is notorious that a connoisseur of jewels valued this diamond at two and half days’ sustenance of the whole world. Its weight is 6 ½ misqals [slightly lower estimate than that given by Babur himself]. But in the eyes of his Majesty the Shah, it was not of such great value. At last he sent that diamond along with his envoy Mihtar Jamal, as a present to Nizam Shah [of Ahmadnagar], the ruler of the Deccan. It seems, however, that while the envoy delivered the shah’s letter, he failed to deliver the diamond, and the shah subsequently tried – and failed – to have his absconding envoy arrested.
Babur’s diamond disappears from the record at this point, presumably locked in the treasury of some unknown merchant, noble or ruler in the Deccan: was it, for example, the exceptionally large diamond, “ the size of a small hen’s egg,” that Garcia da aorta heard had made its way to Vijaynagara? It is impossible to know; indeed it is unclear not only if this much admired and much travelled diamond of Babur is actually the Koh-i-Noor, but also if, when or how it may have re-entered the Mughal treasury.
What is certain is that if it did eventually return to Delhi, it did not do so for at least a generation. Abu’l Fazl, the friend and biographer of the greatest of the Mughal emperors, Akbar, in his 1596 account of the imperial treasury, writes explicitly that the largest diamond in the treasury at that time was a much smaller stone of 180 ratis(1 rati is 0.91 metric carats or 0.004 ounces)- around half the size of Babur’s diamond, which weighed around 320 ratis. It was not until much later that a massive diamond, of very similar weight to Babur’s, returned to Mughal hands.
The Mughals brought with them from Central Asia a very different set of ideas about gemstones to those then held in India. These ideas derived from the philosophy, aesthetics and literature of the Persianate world. Here it was not diamonds but “red stones of light” that were given pre-eminence. In Persian literature such stones were prized as symbols of the divine in metaphysics and of the highest reaches of the sublime in art, evoking the light of dusk – shafaq – that fills the sky immediately after the sun has set.
As Ferdowsi writes in his great Shah-Nama, or Book of Kings:
When the sun gave the world the colour of the spinel, Dark night set foot on the celestial vault.
Garcia da Orta is explicit that diamonds were not regarded as the pre-eminent gemstone by the Mughals -something which came as an enormous surprise to Europeans. In his Colloquies, da aorta has his interlocutor, Dr Roanoke, remark that diamonds “are the king of stones, for [they have] eminence over pearls and emeralds and rubies, if we believe Pliny.” Da Orta , however, corrects him:” In this country . . . they think more of an emerald or of a ruby, which have more value if they are perfect, and size for size, than of a diamond. But as they do find other stones when perfect and of good water so large as diamonds, it happens that they often fetch a higher price. The value of stones is no more than the will of buyers and the need for them.”
Abu’l Fazl also gives pride of place to beautifully coloured and transparent red stones in his description of Akbar’s imperial treasuries T the end of the sixteenth century:”The amount of revenues is so great,” he writes, “and the business so multifarious, that twelve treasuries are necessary for storing the money, nine for the different kinds of cash payments, and three for pre ious stones, gold and inlaid jewellery.” Rubies and spinels, divided into twelve classes, comes first; diamonds – of which there are half the quantity of spinels and rubies – second, and these kept mixed up with emeralds or blue corundum (sapphires), which the Mughals knew as blue yaquts. Pearls are in the third treasury: “If I were to speak of the quantity and quality of precious stones” possessed by the emperor, he writes “it would take me an age.”
The Mughals, perhaps more than any other Islamic dynasty, made their love of the arts and their aesthetic principles a central part of their identity as rulers. They consciously used jewellery and jewelled objects as they used their architecture, art, poetry, historiography and the dazzling brilliance of their court ceremonial – to make visible and manifest their imperial ideal, to give it a properly imperial splendour, and even a sheen of divine legitimacy. As Abu’l Fazl put it, “Kings are fond of external splendour, because they consider it an image of the Divine glory.”
Moreover, the Mughals were not just enthusiasts of the arts; by the time Akbar’s reign was at its height, they also had unrivalled resources with which to patronize them. They ruled over five times the population commanded by their only rivals, the Ottomans – some 100 million subjects, by the early seventeenth century controlling almost all of present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as eastern Afghanistan. Their capitals were the mega cities of their day.
Jahangir’s passion for gems was one he shared with, and passed on to, his eldest son, Prince Khurram, the future Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666). To his father’s delight, Khurram became one of the greatest connoisseurs of precious stones of his time. Over and again, Jahangir. Moments with pride on his son’s eye for gems calling him “the star in the forehead of accomplished desires, and the brilliancy in the brow of prosperity.” He offers as an example of this an occasion when Jahangir had been given an especially fine pearl and wanted to find a pair for it. Prince Khurram took one look at the pearl and immediately remembered an exact match he had seen several years earlier, which lay “in an old turban jewel and was of a weight and shape equal to this pearl. They produced the old sarpech (turban ornament) containing a royal pearl and indeed it was of exactly the same quality, weight and shape, lustre and brilliance; one might say they had been shed from the same mould. Placing the two pearls alongside the ruby, I bound them on my arm.”
In due course Shah Jahan’s love of beautiful and precious objects outshone even that of his father, as visitors noted. According to Edward Terry, Sir Thomas Roe’s chaplain, Shah Jahan was “the greatest and ri heat master of precious stones that inhabits the whole earth.”
The Portuguese Friar Manrique reported that he was so fascinated by gems that even when there appeared before him after a banquet twelve dancing girls decked out in “lascivious and suggestive dress, immodest behaviour and posturing,” the Emperor hardly raised his eyes, but instead continued inspecting some fine jewels that had been brought to him by his brother-in-law, Asad Khan. It has recently emerged that after apparently damaging his eyes through excessive weeping over the death of. Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan even commissioned two pairs of bejewelled spectacles, one with lenses of diamonds, the other with lenses of emeralds.
It was not, however, just about beauty and luxury. Like the Mughals’ miniature-painting ateliers, under Shah Jahan the imperial jewellery workshops were expected to put their work to the service of imperial and dynastic propaganda. A newly discovered sardonyx hilted dagger that appeared recently on the London art market makes this particularly clear, giving a striking reflection of the imperial aspirations of Shah Jahan and his court: the cartouche reads unequivocally, “The dagger of the king of kings, the defender of religion and conqueror of the world. The Second Lord of Happy Conjunction, Shah Jahan, is like the new moon, it out of its shining triumphs, it makes the world shine eternally like the rays of the Sun.” To his subjects, Shah Jahan presented himself not just S the ruler; he wanted to be thought of as a centre of Divine Light, a sun king, in fact almost a sun god.
The largest diamond recorded as entering the Mughal treasury during the reign of Shah Jahan came as a gift from another of the great gem connoisseurs of the period. Mir Jumla was a Persian immigrant to the Deccan, who set himself as a merchant and gem dealer. According to the Venetian traveller Niccolao Manucci, “Mir Jumla initially went through the streets from door to door selling shoes; up fortune resolved to favour him, and little by little he rose to be a great merchant of much fame in the kingdom. Owing t9 his being very rich, with ships at sea, and also a man of much wisdom and very generous, he gained for himself many friends at court . . . [and soon] filled various honourable offices.”
He continued to rise – ultimately to the rank of prime minister of Golconda- by presenting to the king and other key nobles valuable gifts of gems, “jewels and diamonds which he extracted from the mines . . . During his government in the Karnatik, Mir Jumla gathered together the great treasures which then existed in that province, in the ancient temples of the Hindu idols. Besides these, others were discovered by his exertions in the said province, which for precious stones is very famous.”
The French diamond merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier (1605-89) gives a wonderfully revealing-if. Billing-portrait of Mir Jumla at the peak of his power. Tavernier went to present his salaams one evening, and found Mir Jumla sitting in his tent at the centre of the camp in the Deccan countryside.
According to the custom of the country, the Nawab [governor] had the intervals between his toes full of letters, and he also held many between the fingers of his left hand. He drew them sometimes from his feet, and sometimes from his hand, and he sent replies through his two secretaries, writing also some himself. Although the secretaries had finished the letters, he made them read them; and then he affixed his seal himself, giving some to foot messengers, some to horsemen.
While all this was going on, four criminals were brought to the door of his tent. Mir Jumla paid no attention to them for half an hour, but then had them marched in, “and after having questioned them, and made them confess with their own mouths, he remained nearly an hour without saying anything, continuing to write and make his secretaries write,” as a succession of officers from the army came to pay their respects. At this point, a meal was brought in, so he turned his attention to the four prisoners, calmly ordering one to have his hands and feet cut off and to be left in a field to bleed to death, another to have “his stomach slit open and thrown in a drain” and the remaining two to be beheaded. “While all this passed, dinner was served.”
Throughout the 1650s, the Mughals increasingly focused on seizing the different kingdoms of the Deccan, at least in part so that they could possess the territory which produced the gems that were so obsessed with. In the words of the Shah Jahan Nama, the official history of the reign, “,” At the same time, Mir Jumla fell out of favour with the sultan of Golconda, as rumours spread of his having had an affair with the queen mother. He therefore took the opportunity presented by Mughal attack to defect to the service of Shah Jahan.
He sealed the pact, on 7 July 1656, presenting Shah Jahan, within the newly inaugurated Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, with what Manucci describes as “a large uncut diamond which weighed 360 carats”, and what the Shah Jahan Nama calls “an offering of exquisite gems, amongst which was a huge diamond weighing 216 ratis.” Tavernier later called this stone “that celebrated diamond which generally has been deemed unparalleled in size and beauty.” He said it was presented uncut at 900 ratis, or 787 metric carats, and added that it had come from the mines of Kollur (today Karnataka).
Centuries later, many Victorians commentators identified this diamond both with Babur’s diamond which had disappeared into the Deccan a hundred years earlier, and with the Koh-i-Noor, which had by then come to be seen as the greatest of all Indian diamonds. Yet there is no suggestion in any of these texts that Mir Jumla was claiming to return to the Mughals their greatest family diamond, which had been to them since the time of Humayun-a claim he certainly would have made if this were true, given how much he wished to ingratiate himself with his new patrons.
Instead, it sounds as if this huge diamond-which Tavernier explicitly says was presented uncut, and for which our three different sources give widely different but very high weights-was a new discovery, and an unprecedented addition to the Mughal treasury.
In 1628, at the height of his power, Shah Jahan brought the Mughal love affair with precious stones to its climax when he commissioned the most spectacular jewelled object ever made: the Peacock Throne.
Initially, it seems that the commission for a massive solid gold throne “covered with diamonds, rubies, pearls and emeralds” was given to a French jeweller at the Mughal court named Augustine Hiriart. Although the Mughals liked their diamonds cut differently from their contemporaries in the West-preferring to keep and celebrate the natural weight and shape of a stone rather than cutting to produce the smaller but more symmetrically cut gems favoured in Europe- at this stage in the seventeenth century European jewellers had established a slight technological edge on their Mughal rivals. There are references to emperors and other Indian rulers sending gems via the Jesuits to be cut in Goa, or even in the European merchant colony at Aleppo. Hiriart was by no means the only Western jeweller to have found work at the Mughal court: an Englishman named Peter Mutton was also taken into the imperial karkhana (atelier).
Shortly afterwards, however, Hiriart left Mughal service and headed off to Goa, so it was Sa’ida-yi-Gilani, an Iranian poet and calligrapher-turned goldsmith and jewel-master, who started work on the commission afresh. The finished Peacock Throne was finally inaugurated at New Year 1635, on the emperor’s return from his holidays in Kashmir.
The Jewelled Throne-as It was initially known-was an object of the greatest magnificence, designed to resemble and evoke the fabled throne of Solomon. The Mughals had long surrounded themselves with the aura of the ancient kings-both historical and mythical-of the Middle East and Iran whom they had read about in the Quran and in epic poems like the Shahnama. Drawing on these examples, the Mughals claimed that their divinely illuminated kingship and their just rule would bring to the world a golden age of prosperity and peace. For Shah Jahan in particular, Solomon, the exemplary Quranic ruler and prophet king, was both a role model and a figure of identification, and he had himself celebrated by his poets as a second Solomon; Murtaza Mahal, meanwhile, was praised as the new Queen of Sheba.
Accordingly, the Jewelled Throne was made so that anyone who knew their Quran would immediately see it as an echo of Solomon’s throne. It had four columns which carried a baldacchino (ceremonial canopy), on which were depicted flowering trees and peacocks in gemstones. The columns had the form of tapering balusters, which the Mughals called cypress shaped, and were covered with green enamel or emeralds, to augment their treelike character. Above this were perched either one or, in most accounts, two freestanding figures of peacocks, a reference to the seat of Solomon which according to both Jewish and Islamic texts was decorated with jewelled trees and birds.
The best contemporary account we have of the throne is by the official court chronicler, Ahmad Shah Lahore, in the Padshahnama:
In the course of years many valuable gems had come into the Imperial jewel-house, each of which might serve as an ear-drop for Venus, or would adorn the girdle of the Sun. Upon the accession of the Emperor, it occurred to his mind that, in the opinion of far-seeing men, the acquisition of such rare jewels and the keeping of such wonderful brilliants can only render one service, that of adorning the throne o& empire. They ought therefore to be put to such a use that beholders might share in and benefit by their splendour, and that Majesty might shine with increased brilliancy.
Lahori recounts how in addition to the jewels already stored in the imperial jewel-house, “rubies, garnets, diamonds, rich pearls and emeralds, to the value of 200 lakhs of rupees, should be brought for the inspection of the Emperor, and that they, with some exquisite jewels of great weight, exceeding 50,000 misskals, having been carefully selected, should be handed over to Bebadal Khan [Sa’ida-yi Gilani’s later title], the superintendent of the goldsmith’s department.”
The outside of the canopy was to be of enamel work studded with gems, the inside was to be thickly set with rubies, garners, and other jewels, and it was to be supported by emerald columns. On the top of each pillar there were to be two peacocks thick set with gems, and between each of the two peacocks a tree set with rubies and diamonds, emeralds and pearls. The A’s ent was to consist of three steps, set with jewels of fine water. This Throne was completed in the course of seven years at a cost of 100 lakhs of rupees.
Given Mughal tastes, it is not surprising that the one stone that Lahore singled out for mention was not a diamond but a ruby:
Among the jewels set in this recess was a ruby worth a lake of rupees, which Shah ‘Abbas, the king of Iran, had presented to the Late Emperor Jahangir, who sent it to his present Majesty, the Sahib Kiran-i-sank, when he accomplished the conquest of the Dakhin. On it were engraved the names of Sahib kiran (Timur), Mir Shah Ruth, and Mirza Ulugh Beg. When in course of time it came into possession of Shah ‘Abbas, his name was added; and when Jahangir obtained it, he added the name of himself and of his father. Now it received the addition of the name of his most gracious Majesty Shah Jahan.
The ruby would under various names-the Timur Ruby, the Ayn al-Hur, Eye of the Houri, and the Fakhraj-shadow of the Koh-I-Noor and share it’s fate for the next two centuries. Only very much later, with changing tastes in the early nineteenth century, did the diamond come to be seen as more beautiful and significant than the ruby.
Shah Jahan’s reign came to a dramatically premature end in 1658. Late in 1657 the Emperor suffered a stroke, and his son Dara Shukoh took over effective governance. Initially believing their father to be dead, the four royal princes began military manoeuvres that led Aurangzeb, eventually, to stage a skilful coup d’état, deposing his father and imprisoning him in the Red Fort of Agra, in a set of apartments looking out over the Taj.
Aurangzeb had headed north from the Deccan with a battle-hardened army, and defeated his rival brother Dara Shukoh at Samugarh, a few miles from Agra. In 1659, he had had his brother murdered a few days after capturing him. According to Manucci, he then sent his father a reconciliation present. When the old man opened it, it was found to contain the head of Dara.
It was shortly after this that we get one last glimpse of the Mughal treasury in all its glory before the empire collapsed and the Koh-i-Noor left India. In 1665 Jean Baptiste Tavernier was given by Aurangzeb (1618-1707) the unprecedented honour of being shown the highlights of the Mughal treasury. Encouraged by Louis XIV, Tavernier had made five previous journeys to India between 1630 and 1668, with a view to understanding more about diamonds, which he calls “the most precious of all stones, and the article of trade to which I am most devoted. In order to acquire a thorough knowledge o& it, I resolved to visit all the mines and one of the two rivers where diamonds are found.”
In his earlier journeys, Tavernier had brought back enough diamonds to win a baronetcy from Louis but it was only on his final trip that Aurangzeb gave his permission for Tavernier to see his private collection. “On the first day of November 1665,” he wrote, “I went to the palace to take leave of the Emperor, but he said that he did not wish me to depart without having seen the jewels and witnessing the splendour of his fete.”
Shortly afterwards, Tavernier was summoned to the palace, where he did obeisance to the emperor, and was then ushered into a small apartment within sight of the Diwan-i-Khas.
I found in this apartment Akil Khan, chief of the jewel treasury, who, when he saw us, commanded four of the imperial eunuchs to bring jewels, which were carried in two large wooden trays lacquered with god leaf, and covered with small cloths made expressly for the purpose- one of red and the other of green brocaded velvet. After these trays were uncovered, and all the pieces had been counted three times over, a list was prepared by the three scribes who were present. For the indians do everything with great composure, and when they see anyone acting in a hurry or irritated, they stare at him in silence and laugh at him for being a fool.
Among the stones Tavernier was shown that day was the enormous gem he calls the Great Mughal Diamond and which he says was the gem given to Shah Jahan by Mir Jumla: “The first piece that Akil Khan (Chief Keeper of the King’s jewels) placed in my hands was the great diamond, which is rose cut, round a very high on one side. On the lower edge there is a slight crack, and a little flaw in it. Its water is fine, and weighs 286[metric]carats.” He also mentions that the stone had been badly cut since Mir Jumla gifted it, and that thanks to the incompetence of the man responsible, Hortensio Borgio, the stone had lost much of its original astonishing size. Tavernier also saw two other great diamonds, one of which was a flat, pink stone in a table cut, which he calls the Great Table Diamond, and which from his drawing is clearly the major portion of the Darya-i-Noor, now in Tehran.
Was the Great Mughal Diamond the Koh-i-Noor? In the nineteenth century it was assumed it must be, but most modern scholars are now convinced that the Great Mughal is actually the Orlov , which with its higher, more rounded dome looks much more like Tavernier’s sketch of the Great Mughal. Moreover, the Orlov and the Great Mughal have the same type of cut, and the same pattern of facets. None of the other stones seen by Tavernier looks at all like the Koh-i-Noor either.
How is it possible that Tavernier failed to see the Koh-i-Noor when the emperor explicitly gave permission for him to see his greatest gems? There are two possibilities. One is the Koh-i-Noor was at this stage still in the collection of Shah Jahan, who in 1665 remained under house arrest in his apartments in the Red Fort of Agra. It is known from several sources, including Manucci and the Shah Jahan Nama, that the deposed emperor had not handed over all his personal diamond collection to his usurping son; indeed Aurangzeb got his hands on Shah Japan’s favourite gems only after his death.
But more probably, if Marvi’s eyewitness account of Nader Shah’s seizure of the Peacock Throne in 1750 is to be believed, the Koh-i-Noor was not in the imperial treasury because it was already lodged beyond Tavernier’s close inspection, glittering on top of the Peacock Throne, attached to the head of one of the peacocks which surmounted it. Tavernier certainly saw the Peacock Throne from a distance, and he describes the diamonds which covered it, but it seems he did not get close enough to see the stupendous size of the gems on its roof.
Was the Koh-i-Noor Babur’s diamond? The weights are approximately right, and it looks on balance the most plausible and certainly the most seductive theory as to the origins of the Koh-i-Noor. However, given the absence of a full description of Babur’s diamond, or an account of the gem’s passage from the Deccan back into the Mughal treasury, until further evidence is uncovered in some forgotten Persian source, the mystery remains unsolved.Frustrating as it is, we simply do not know for sure the origin of the Koh-i-Noor and have no hard information about when, how or where it entered Mughal hands. We only know for sure it left.
COURTESY of : KOH-I-NOOR BY WILLIAM DALRYMPLE AND ANITA ANAND, BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING USA , 2017
Kohinoor is a large, colourless diamond from the era of Wodiyar Kings of Mysore in Karnataka, India, possibly in the 13th century. According to legend, it first weighed 793 carats (158.6 g) uncut, although the earliest well-attested weight is 186 carats (37.2 g). The stone changed hands several times between various factions in Asia until ending up in the possession of Queen Victoria after the British conquest of the Punjab in 1849.
In 1852, Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, was unhappy with its dull and irregular appearance, and he ordered it cut down from 186 carats (37.2 g) by Coster Diamonds. It emerged 42 percent lighter as a dazzling oval-cut brilliant-weighing 105.6 carats (21.12 g) and measuring 3.6 cm x 3.2 cm x 1.3 cm. By modern standards, the cut is far from perfect, in that the culet is unusually broad, giving the impression of a black hole when the stone is viewed head-on; it is nevertheless regarded by gemmologists as being full of life. As the diamond’s history involves a great deal of fighting between men, the Koh-i-Noor acquired a reputation within the British royal family for bringing bad luck to any man who wears it. Since arriving in the country, it has only ever been worn by female members of the family.
Today, the diamond is set in the front of the Queen Mother’s Crown, part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom, and is seen by millions of visitors to the Tower of London each year. The governments of India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have all claimed ownership of the Koh-i-Noor and demanded its return at various times in recent decades. The British government insists the gem was obtained legally under the terms of the Treaty of India.
Origin and early history
It is widely believed to have come from the KGF Mine in the Kolar District of present-day Karnataka India, during the reign of the Wodiyars rulers. It is however impossible to know where it was found. In the early 14th century, Alauddin Khalji, second ruler of the Turkic Khalji dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, and his army began looting the kingdoms of southern India. Malik Kafur, Khalji’s general, made a successful raid on Warangal in 1310, when he possibly acquired the diamond.
It remained in the Khalji dynasty and later passed to the succeeding dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, until it came into the possession of Babur, a Turco-Mongol warlord, who invaded India and established the Mughal Empire in 1526. He called the stone the “Diamond of Babur” at the time, although it had been called by other names before it came into his possession. Both Babur and his son and successor, Humayun, mentioned the origins of this diamond in their memoirs, thought by many historians to be the earliest reliable reference to the Koh-i-Noor.
Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, had the stone placed into his ornate Peacock Throne. In 1658, his son and successor, Aurangzeb, confined the ailing emperor at nearby Agra Fort. While in the possession of Aurangzeb, it was allegedly cut by Hortenso Borgia, a Venetian lapidary, so clumsily that he reduced the weight of the stone from 793 carats (158.6 g) to 186 carats (37.2 g). For this carelessness, Borgia was reprimanded and fined 10,000 rupees. According to recent research the story of Borgia cutting the diamond is not correct, and most probably mixed up with the Orlov, part of Catherine the Great’s imperial Russian sceptre in the Kremlin.
Acquisition by Nader Shah
Following the 1739 invasion of Delhi by Nader Shah, the Afsharid Shah of Persia, the treasury of the Mughal Empire was looted by his army in an organised and thorough acquisition of the Mughal nobility’s wealth. Along with a host of valuable items, including the Daria-i-Noor, as well as the Peacock Throne, the Shah also carried away the Koh-i-Noor. He allegedly exclaimed Koh-i-Noor! (meaning “mountain of light”) when he finally managed to obtain the famous stone, and that is how the stone got its name.
The first valuation of the Koh-i-Noor is given in the legend that one of Nader Shah’s consorts apparently said, “If a strong man were to throw four stones, one north, one south, one east, one west, and a fifth stone up into the air, and if the space between them were to be filled with gold, all would not equal the value of the Koh-i-Noor”
It is estimated that the total worth of the treasures plundered came to 700 million rupees. This was roughly equivalent to £87.5 million sterling at the time, or approximately £12.8 billion in 2016’s money. The riches gained by the Afsharid Empire from the Indian campaign were so monumental that Nader Shah made a proclamation alleviating all subjects of the Empire from taxes for a total of three years.
After the assassination of Nader Shah in 1747 and the collapse of his empire, the stone came into the hands of one of his generals, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who later became the Emir of Afghanistan. One of Ahmed’s descendants, Shah Shujah Durrani, wore a bracelet containing the Koh-i-Noor on the occasion of Mountstuart Elphinstone‘s visit to Peshawar in 1808.
A year later, Shujah formed an alliance with the United Kingdom to help defend against a possible invasion of Afghanistan by Russia. He was quickly overthrown by his predecessor, Mahmud Shah, but managed to flee with the diamond. He went to Lahore, where the founder of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, in return for his hospitality, insisted upon the gem being given to him, and he took possession of it in 1813.
Acquisition by the British
Its new owner, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, willed the diamond to the East India Company administered Hindu temple of Jagannath in Puri, in modern-day Odisha, India. However, after his death in 1839, his will was not executed. On 29 March 1849, following the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the Kingdom of Punjab was formally annexed to Company rule, and the Last Treaty of Lahore was signed, officially ceding the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Victoria and the Maharaja’s other assets to the company.
Article III of the treaty read:
The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-moolk by Maharajah Ranjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.
The Governor-General in charge of the ratification of this treaty was the Marquess of Dalhousie. The manner of his aiding in the transfer of the diamond was criticized even by some of his contemporaries in Britain. Although some thought it should have been presented as a gift to Queen Victoria by the East India Company, it is clear that Dalhousie strongly believed the stone was a spoil of war, and treated it accordingly, ensuring that it was officially surrendered to her by Maharaja Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Ranjit Singh.
Writing to his friend Sir George Cooper in August 1849, he stated:
The Court [of the East India Company] you say, are ruffled up by my having caused the Maharajah to cede to the Queen the Koh-i-noor; while the Daily News and my Lord Ellenborough (Governor-General of India, 1841–44) are indignant because I did not confiscate everything to Her Majesty. The motive was simply this: that it was more for the honour of the Queen that the Koh-i-noor should be surrendered directly from the hand of the conquered prince into the hands of the sovereign who was his conqueror, than it should be presented to her as a gift—which is always a favour—by any joint-stock company among her subjects.
The presentation of the Koh-i-Noor and the Timur ruby by the East India Company to the queen was the latest in a long history of transfers of the stones as coveted spoils of war. Duleep Singh had been placed in the guardianship of Dr John Login (later Sir John Spencer Login), a surgeon in the British Army serving in the Presidency of Bengal, in India. Dr Login and his wife Lena both would later accompany Duleep Singh on his journey to England in 1854.
In due course, the Governor-General received the Koh-i-Noor from Dr. Login, who had been appointed Governor of the Citadel, with the Royal Treasury, which Dr Login valued at almost £1,000,000 (£95.2 million in 2016’s money), excluding the Koh-i-Noor, on 6 April 1848, under a receipt dated 7 December 1849, in the presence of the members of the Board of Administration for the affairs of the Punjab: Sir Henry Lawrence (President), C. G. Mansel, John Lawrence and Sir Henry Elliot (Secretary to the Government of India).
Legend in the Lawrence family has it that before the voyage, John Lawrence left the jewel in his waistcoat pocket when it was sent to be laundered, and was most grateful when it was returned promptly by the valet who found it.
On 1 February 1850, the jewel was sealed in a small iron safe inside a red dispatch box, both sealed with red tape and a wax seal and kept in a chest at Bombay Treasury awaiting a steamer ship from China. It was then sent to England for presentation to Queen Victoria in the care of Captain J. Ramsay and Brevet Lt. Col F. Mackeson under tight security arrangements, one of which was the placement of the dispatch box in a larger iron safe. They departed from Bombay on 6 April on board HMS Medea, captained by Captain Lockyer.
The ship had a difficult voyage: an outbreak of cholera on board when the ship was in Mauritius had the locals demanding its departure, and they asked their governor to open fire on the vessel and destroy it if there was no response. Shortly afterwards, the vessel was hit by a severe gale that blew for some 12 hours.
On arrival in Britain on 29 June, the passengers and mail were unloaded in Plymouth, but the Koh-i-Noor stayed on board until the ship reached Spithead, near Portsmouth, on 1 July. The next morning, Ramsay and Mackeson, in the company of Mr Onslow, the private secretary to the Chairman of the Court of Directors of the British East India Company, proceeded by train to East India House in the City of London and passed the diamond into the care of the chairman and deputy chairman of the East India Company. The Koh-i-Noor was formally presented to Queen Victoria on 3 July at Buckingham Palace by the deputy chairman of the East India Company. The date was chosen to coincide with the company’s 250th anniversary.
The Great Exhibition
Members of the public were given a chance to see the Koh-i-Noor when The Great Exhibition was staged at Hyde Park, London, in 1851. It was displayed in the Works in Precious Metals, Jewellery, etc. part of the South Central Gallery, The Times reported:
The Koh-i-Noor is at present decidedly the lion of the Exhibition. A mysterious interest appears to be attached to it, and now that so many precautions have been resorted to, and so much difficulty attends its inspection, the crowd is enormously enhanced, and the policemen at either end of the covered entrance have much trouble in restraining the struggling and impatient multitude. For some hours yesterday, there were never less than a couple of hundred persons waiting their turn of admission, and yet, after all, the diamond does not satisfy. Either from the imperfect cutting or the difficulty of placing the lights advantageously, or the immovability of the stone itself, which should be made to revolve on its axis, few catch any of the brilliant rays it reflects when viewed at a particular angle.
A French writer gave a vivid description of the exhibit:
On Friday and Saturday it puts on its best dress; it is arrayed in a tent of red cloth, and the interior is supplied with a dozen little jets of gas, which throw their light on the god of the temple. Unhappily, the Koh-i-Noor does not sparkle even then. Thus, the most curious thing is not the divinity, but the worshippers. One places oneself in the file to go in at one side of the niche, looks at the golden calf, and goes out the other side. If the organs should chance to play at the same moment, the illusion is complete. The Koh-i-Noor is well secured; it is placed on a machine which causes it, on the slightest touch, to enter an iron box. It is thus put to bed every evening, and does not get up till towards noon. The procession of the faithful then commences, and only finishes at seven o’clock.
After these complaints, the diamond was put in a new shaded case to let the sunlight catch it better.
Disappointment in the appearance of the stone was not uncommon. After consulting various mineralogists, including Sir David Brewster, it was decided by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, with the consent of the government, to polish the Koh-i-Noor. One of the largest and most famous Dutch diamond merchants, Mozes Coster, was employed for the task. He sent to London one of his most experienced artisans, Levie Benjamin Voorzanger, and his assistants.
The 1852 re-cutting
On 17 July 1852, the cutting began at the factory of Garrard & Co. in Haymarket, using a steam-powered mill built specially for the job by Maudslay, Sons and Field.Under the supervision of Prince Albert and the Duke of Wellington, and the technical direction of the queen’s mineralogist, James Tennant, the cutting took 38 days. Albert had spent a total of £8,000 on the operation, which reduced the weight of the diamond by around 42 percent, from 186 carats (37.2 g) to its current 105.6 carats (21.12 g).
The great loss of weight is to some extent accounted for by the fact that Voorzanger discovered several flaws, one especially big, that he found it necessary to cut away. Although Prince Albert was dissatisfied with such a huge reduction, most experts agreed that Voorzanger had made the right decision and carried out his job with impeccable skill. When Queen Victoria showed the re-cut diamond to the young Maharaja Duleep Singh, the Koh-i-Noor’s last non-British owner, he was apparently unable to speak for several minutes afterwards.
The much lighter but more dazzling stone was mounted in a brooch worn by the queen. At this time, it belonged to her personally, and was not yet part of the Crown Jewels. Although Victoria wore it often, she became uneasy about the way in which the diamond had been acquired. In a letter to her eldest daughter, Victoria, Princess Royal, she wrote in the 1870s: “No one feels more strongly than I do about India or how much I opposed our taking those countries and I think no more will be taken, for it is very wrong and no advantage to us. You know also how I dislike wearing the Koh-i-Noor”.
The Crown Jewels
After Queen Victoria’s death, the Koh-i-Noor was set in the Crown of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII, that was used to crown her at their coronation in 1902. The diamond was transferred to Queen Mary’s Crown in 1911, and finally to The Queen Mother’s Crown in 1937. When the Queen Mother died in 2002, it was placed on top of her coffin for the lying-in-state and funeral.
All these crowns are on display in the Jewel House at the Tower of London with crystal replicas of the diamond set in the older crowns. The original bracelet given to Queen Victoria can also be seen there. A glass model of the Koh-i-Noor shows visitors how it looked when it was brought to the United Kingdom. Replicas of the diamond in this and its re-cut forms can also be seen in the ‘Vault’ exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London.
During the Second World War, the Crown Jewels were moved from their home at the Tower of London to Windsor Castle. In 1990, The Sunday Telegraph, citing a biography of the French army general, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, by his widow, Simonne, reported that George VI hid the Koh-i-Noor at the bottom of a pond or lake near Windsor Castle, about 32 km (20 miles) outside London, where it remained until after the war. The only people who knew of the hiding place were the king and his librarian, Sir Owen Morshead, who apparently revealed the secret to the general and his wife on their visit to England in 1949.
The Government of India, believing the gem was rightfully theirs, first demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor as soon as independence was granted in 1947. A second request followed in 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Each time, the British government rejected the claims, saying that ownership was non-negotiable.
In 1976, Pakistan asserted its ownership of the diamond, saying its return would be “a convincing demonstration of the spirit that moved Britain voluntarily to shed its imperial encumbrances and lead the process of decolonisation“. In a letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, James Callaghan, wrote, “I need not remind you of the various hands through which the stone has passed over the past two centuries, nor that explicit provision for its transfer to the British crown was made in the peace treaty with the Maharajah of Lahore in 1849. I could not advise Her Majesty that it should be surrendered”.
In 2000, several members of the Indian Parliament signed a letter calling for the diamond to be given back to India, claiming it was taken illegally. British officials said that a variety of claims meant it was impossible to establish the gem’s original owner. Later that year, the Taliban‘s foreign affairs spokesman, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, said the Koh-i-Noor was the legitimate property of Afghanistan, and demanded for it to be handed over to the regime as soon as possible. “The history of the diamond shows it was taken from us (Afghanistan) to India, and from there to Britain. We have a much better claim than the Indians”, he said.
In July 2010, while visiting India, David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said of returning the diamond, “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I am afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put“. On a subsequent visit in February 2013, he said, “They’re not having that back”.
In April 2016, the Indian Culture Ministry stated it would make “all possible efforts” to arrange the return of the Koh-i-Noor to India. It was despite the Indian Government earlier conceding that the diamond was a gift. The Solicitor General of India had made the announcement before the Supreme Court of India due to public interest litigation by a campaign group. He said “It was given voluntarily by Ranjit Singh to the British as compensation for help in the Sikh wars. The Koh-i-Noor is not a stolen object”.