No other gem has captured imaginations as the Koh-i-noor, the ‘mountain of light’, and it continues to make news even now, with the Supreme Court of India asking the government what its plans were, after a plea was entered to bring back the diamond from the UK, where it currently is.
As with many other historical objects, the Koh-i-noor also has entered the realm of legends, with many myths sprouting around it [such as it being the same diamond as the mythical gem Syamantaka]. Here, we asked Anita Anand, co-author of the upcoming Juggernaut book Kohinoor along with historian William Dalrymple, to weed out some of the facts from the myths. Anita Anand has previously authored Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, a biography of the daughter of Maharaj Duleep Singh, in whose reign the Kohinoor was taken away by the British.
Duleep Singh, the tragic boy-King of Punjab, was forced to hand over his Kingdom and his Kohinoor to the British in 1849. Though losing his lands and wealth wounded the Sikh Maharajah deeply, the loss of the fabled diamond hurt him most of all. As a result, and though he was in Queen Victoria’s thrall in many ways, Duleep referred to her privately as “Mrs Fagin” – a reference to the receiver of stolen goods in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
The curse of the Koh-i-noor was said to have struck the British crew who first brought it to England in 1850. The HMS Medea was first stricken with cholera, then almost blown out of the water by hostile cannon, and finally battered by typhoon. By the time the ship reached Portsmouth with its precious cargo, the crew were glad to see the back of it.
The Koh-i-noor was first exhibited in England in a gilded cage at the Royal Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London. Tens of thousands flocked to see it from the moment the exhibition opened, but were disappointed at its lack of lustre. One described it as “nothing more than an egg-shaped lump of glass.” The press were just as unkind. When it was finally withdrawn from view, the London Evening Standard wrote:”The great Indian diamond, the Koh-i-noor has finally been withdrawn from its iron prison, after having exited the wonder and sneers of so many hundred thousands of visitors, and the great relief of the policeman who has been on duty beside the cage…” It was after receiving such adverse reaction that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decided to have the gem cut, drastically reducing its size, but increasing its ability to catch the light.
Watch out for Anita Anand and William Dalrymple’s upcoming history of the Kohinoor, soon to be released from Juggernaut.