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Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose By Jaya Bhattacharji Rose Published on January 6, 2017
This article was updated on February 8, 2017
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Nadir Shah, who collected the Koh-i-Noor during the sack of Delhi.

Kohinoor, co-authored by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, is about one of the most famous gems in history. Koh-i-noor or "Mountain of Light" is the ninetieth biggest diamond in the world, but its fame far surpasses any other technically superior and bigger diamond. This could be attributed to the rapidly growing price of diamonds worldwide in the early and mid-19th century. Some centuries ago, the Koh-i-noor was mined from the Guntur diamond mines, Andhra Pradesh, India. 

According to the writers, 

“in the seventeenth century European jewellers had established a slight technological edge over their Mughal rivals. There are frequent references to emperors and other Indian rulers sending gems via the Jesuits to be cut in Goa, or even in the European merchant colony in Aleppo…. [But] there is simply no certain reference to the Koh-i-Noor in any Sultanate or Mughal source, despite a huge number of textual references to outsized and hugely valuable diamonds appearing throughout Indian history, particularly towards the climax of Mughal rule. Some of these may well refer to the Koh-i-Noor, but lacking sufficiently detailed descriptions, it is impossible to be certain.” 

As the legend was slowly established, battles were fought and horrendous atrocities were committed in the search for the gem, which was rumoured to be exquisite, but which was in fact was a dull beauty. This became apparent when Prince Albert displayed the jewel at the Great Exhibition (1851) only to discover it lacked lustre. Unfortunately as the Illustrated London News wrote:

A diamond is generally colourless, and the finest are quite free from any speck or flaw of any kind, resembling a drop of the purest water. The Koh-i-Noor is not cut in the best form for exhibiting its purity and lustre, and will therefore disappoint many, if not all, of those who so anxiously press forward to see it.

So Prince Albert tried a few tricks to make this magnificent jewel glitter as a diamond should while representing the exotic British Empire in the East, and as a prime trophy of the British military prowess expanding its territories in India. He enclosed the gem in a wooden cabin, shutting out all natural light that streamed through the glass roof and windows of the Crystal Palace. It enabled the gas lamps and mirrors placed to do their work far more efficiently and with the gem placed on an extraordinary velvet cloth, it glittered and shone. The Koh-i-Noor was given state-of-the-art security for there was quite a crush of people who came to see it on display.

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In the fascinatingly detailed history recounted in Kohinoor, the exquisite diamond had been embedded in Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s legendary Peacock Throne, a war trophy collected by Nadir Shah during his sack of Delhi. It was later worn as an amulet by Maharajah Ranjit Singh, until it was finally handed over by his ten-year-old son, Maharajah Duleep Singh, to Queen Victoria under the Treaty of Lahore. 

It was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace in a special space created by Prince Albert, influencing Victorian writers to include Indian diamonds in their plots (as in Wilkie Collins' Moonstone and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s Lothair). Queen Victoria wore it as a brooch. It was cut further from 190.3 metric carats to 93 metric carats for it to be installed in the British Crown. It was worn by Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, at her coronation in 1902. Since then, it has acquired the myth that it is cursed and can never be worn by a reigning monarch or a man. The last time the gem was seen in public was in 2002 at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when her crown, with the Koh-i-Noor as its centrepiece, was placed on her coffin.

Kohinoor has been structured with the first half recounting centuries of the gem’s turbulent history written by William Dalrymple. It is packed with the historical details, facts and figures, and magnificent descriptions that are to be expected in Dalrymple’s storytelling, including an account of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s funeral, where his wives committed sati

Afterward, the narrative is picked up by journalist Anita Anand (who also wrote the magnificent biography of Duleep Singh’s daughter, Sophia). In the second half of Kohinoor, Anita Anand maintains the brisk pace of narration set by Dalrymple, but adds a sensitive, gendered dimension, best shown in the nuanced portrait of the 26 year-old widow of Ranjit Singh, Rani Jindan, mother and regent of Duleep Singh. Both writers are clear they want to be as factually accurate as possible and demystify some of the myth surrounding the Koh-i-Noor, especially the fabulous story Tom Metcalfe created for the diamond in the mid-19th century.

In fact, the Koh-i-Noor’s foggy history reared its head again recently,

“on 16 April 2016, the Indian Solicitor General, Ranjit Kumar, told the Indian Supreme Court that the Koh-i-Noor was given freely to the British in the mid 19th century by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and had been ‘neither stolen nor forcibly taken by British rulers.’ This was by any standards a strikingly unhistorical statement, all the odder given that the facts of its surrender to Lord Dalhousie in 1849 are about the one aspect of the diamond’s history not in dispute. In the recent past, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and even the Taliban have also laid claim to the gem, and asked for its return.”

Kohinoor is an immensely readable account of a famous gem.

An international publishing consultant and book evangelist. I am passionate about the world of books and anything to do with words. My blog since its launch recently has acquired nearly 4.5 ... Show More