Anita Anand has been a radio and TV journalist in Britain for over 20 years, presenting major programmes on BBC. Her new mini-blockbuster, The Jewel in the Crown, recounts the Koh-i-Noor’s turbulent journey from the death of Ranjit Singh to the tragic fate of his son Duleep Singh after the British seized Punjab and its most precious jewel. Juggernaut editor Nandini Mehta spoke to her about the legacy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and about Rani Jindan Devi, one of the most fascinating characters in the history of the Koh-i-noor:
Why did Ranjit Singh place such huge value on the Kohinoor?
Ranjit Singh was a Maharajah who famously eschewed the trappings of Kingship. He dressed simply in white robes, rarely sat in his throne in the Durbar (leaving it, some say, for the invisible presence of Guru Nanak) and insisted that coins during his reign should have the face of Nanak stamped on them rather than his own. However, he had a weakness for jewels, and a consuming passion for the Koh-i-noor. He wore it at all his public engagements, first on his turban, and then strapped to his arm, fastened in place by a pearl-tasselled amulet. Two huge diamonds, themselves worth a fortune, sat on either side of the Kohinoor. It was an embellishment that was designed to be noticed. Since Ranjit Singh had come to the throne, he had won back almost all the Indian lands once taken by the Afghan Durrani dynasty. Seizure of the Koh-i-Noor, their dynastic diamond from the Durranis, sealed his victory over the old enemy in a very visible and obvious way. It was a symbol, if you like, for his dominance in the region.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Who claimed the Kohinoor after Ranjit Singh’s death?
As Ranjit Singh gasped his last breath, an unseemly battle broke out over the fate of the Koh-i-Noor. As he had lain dying, crippled by a series of strokes which had also robbed him of his speech, Ranjit Singh was said to have nodded his permission for the stone to be bequeathed to the Jagannath temple in Orissa. Many devout Hindus believed that the Koh-i-Noor was in fact the Syamantaka gem, closely associated with Lord Krishna in the legends of the Bhagavad Purana. Returning it to a Hindu deity, argued the pundits, restored a balance to the universe. However, the master of the Toshakhanna, Misr Beli Ram, had other ideas. Despite the fact that he had been loyal to the Maharajah throughout his life, he refused to honour his dying wish, insisting that the Koh-i-Noor was not Ranjit Singh’s to give. It belonged to the Crown, not the King, and so Beli Ram hid the diamond away, until such time as the Crown Prince Kharak Singh was in a position to ascend the golden gaddi. Kharak Singh was deemed less than worthy by many in his court, and described by one who served him as, “a blockhead”, who “twice a day he deprived himself of his senses and passed his whole-time in a state of stupefaction.” The drunken King would not hold on to the gem for long.
A lithograph showing one of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s favourite horses and his collection of jewels including the Kohinoor diamond
Describe the trail of murder and torture after Ranjit Singh’s death–why were there so many rival claimants to the kingdom of Punjab?
Kharak Singh was not well liked in his kingdom and a plot was quickly hatched to do away with the “blockhead” king. Sapheeda kaskaree (white lead) and rus camphor (a compound of mercury) made their way into the maharaja’s daily food and wine. At first, the poison simply mimicked his frequent drunkenness and Kharak Singh’s speech became a little more slurred than usual, and his coordination clumsier for longer periods of time. Then the maharaja started to go blind as some kind of mysterious and merciless itch took over his body. Within weeks, Kharak Singh’s joints burned with pain and bleeding skin lesions opened up all over his body. Six months after the poisoning began, his organs began to shut down. When death came, it was a mercy.
His son and successor, Nau Nihal Singh, was far more popular in the realm, but the smoke from his father’s cremation fire had barely cleared when he too met with a violent end. While returning to the palace, after Kharak Singh’s funeral, a massive block of stone fell mysteriously from an archway. The masonry struck Nau Nihal and two of his companions, killing one of them on the spot. Nau Nihal, thankfully, was not badly hurt, according to eyewitnesses, and walked away from the scene. When, a short while later, the royal physician was called to attend to him, what was presented to him was not a patient capable of walking away from anything. Unconscious on his bed, Nau Nihal’s skull appeared to have been brutally crushed, and he died a short while later. Turmoil followed.
Nau Nihal’s mother, the Dowager Queen, attempted to lay claim to the throne in the name of her unborn grandson, as did Nau Nihal’s uncle, Sher Singh. The baby was stillborn, and so Sher Singh laid siege to the kingdom until it surrendered to his claim. After a matter of months, he was shot dead in the palace by his own kinsmen, and the woman who had tried to thwart his claim, like her son, was bludgeoned to death. They were not the only ones to die in the violent battle to succeed Ranjit Singh. In the four years that followed the Lion’s death, Punjab lost three maharajas, one maharani and numerous aristocrats. By December 1843, the last man standing was no man at all, but a tiny doe-eyed child by the name of Duleep Singh.
Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1852
Why were the British so determined to grab Punjab?
By the 1840s, the British were the undisputed geopolitical masters of much of India. Through a combination of trade and conquest, their territories expanded rapidly from Madras in the south-east of India all the way up to the Sutlej River, the natural boundary of the Sikh kingdom in the north. While he lived, Ranjit Singh’s strong army had prevented any further British territorial gain but his death and the years of turbulence which followed greatly weakened Fortress Punjab. The land offered much that the British desired. The ground was fertile and the crops were plentiful. The Treasury of Lahore was bursting with riches, and strategically, the north of India was a much sought after prize, bordering with Afghanistan, and the interests and influence of the Russian Tsar.
After Ranjit Singh’s death and the chaos that ensued, his army lacked leadership, and pivotal members of the court were successfully courted by British spies. They were promised great tracts of land, and titles if they agreed to betray the new Maharajah when the time was right. These men, pivotal in the defence of the realm, duly betrayed their King and their kinsmen during the bitterly fought Anglo-Sikh Wars. They allowed the British to take control of the North.
One heroic figure that emerges from your account is Rani Jindan, mother of Maharaja Duleep Singh. Can you tell us more about her?
Maharani Jindan is one of my favourite characters in this entire period. Brave, fearless and bloody difficult by nature, she broke every mould, and defied every expectation. Jindan was never born to be a queen. Her father had been Ranjit Singh’s kennel keeper, who had thrust his pretty young daughter at the Maharajah almost from the time of her puberty. Though he resisted for some time, in 1835, when he was 55 years of age and she was barely 18, Ranjit Singh married her.
Beautiful and beguiling, Jindan was said to move with the grace of a dancer. Her innate sensuality unnerved many of those who met her, and she attracted admirers and detractors in equal measure. When Jindan gave birth to her son, Duleep, the court gossips attempted to murder his reputation in the crib. How could the gnarled maharaja Ranjit Singh have fathered a child at his age and with his infirmities? Jindan must have slept with one of her servants, they whispered. Such rumours might have crushed a lesser woman, but Jindan was made of sterner stuff and weathered the storm.
Maharani Jindan at 45
In an unusual move, Maharaja Ranjit Singh took the step of officially and publicly declaring Duleep Singh as his legitimate child and heir, silencing rumours of Jindan’s impropriety. By doing so, he quashed any notion that he was gullible enough to be cuckolded, and simultaneously confirmed his own virility. Grudgingly, the court made room for Jindan and her baby, never thinking for a moment that he might one day be their king, and she might sit on the throne of Punjab.
After the bloodbath which followed Ranjit Singh’s death, and the ascendancy of Duleep Singh to the throne, the nobles of the court might have thought they had found a puppet King, a child who they could mould in their own image, to do their own bidding. Jindan, however, had other ideas. Ill-educated, with no aristocratic family behind her, 26-year-old Jindan decided to leave the purdah of the women’s quarters and rule as regent with her infant son on her knee. The decision scandalized the court on many levels. She was a mere woman, and a low-born woman at that.
The dissent caused by her decision was fully exploited by the British. When they marched into Lahore, apparently with the intention of staying only until Maharajah Duleep Singh reached his 16th birthday and the Kingdom was secure once again, Jindan was one of the only voices raised against them. She railed at her generals, throwing her bangles in their face and accusing them of letting the British take her son’s Kingdom by stealth. She was dangerous, and the British recognized her as a possible rallying point for dissent. They had her dragged away from her child and locked up in a tower in the Lahore fortress, slowly but steadily moving her further and further away from her only child. Though she begged them to show mercy and reunite her with her son, she would be kept from him until he was a grown man.
But when she was back in his life, Rani Jindan demonstrated she had lost none of her power or fire. It was she who made her son feel the pain of losing the Koh-i-Noor again. It was she who set him on a collision course with the British and Queen Victoria herself.
Kohinoor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, which chronicles the story of the infamous stone, is out next month. Until then, read an excerpt in the mini-blockbuster The Jewel in the Crown on Juggernaut here.