Tucked away in an old Hindu text dating back to the year 1306 is the following description:
“He who owns this diamond will own the world,
but will also know all its misfortunes.
Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.”
Such was the curse of this legendary diamond, known in stories to possess a beauty and elegance so indescribable and incomparable that kingdoms were fought, cities were destroyed and lives were lost – all for the sake of the diamond. True to its legend, the fabled diamond brought each of its past male owners much fortune and a comparable amount of misfortune that none of them were spared violence, treachery or murder for as long as they lived.
Thus was the fame and notoriety of the renowned diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor (Persian: کوه نور). Literally meaning ‘Mountain of Light’ in the Persian language, it was once the world’s largest known diamond, originally weighing 793 carats, but has now been reduced to a mere weight of 105.6 carats.
Stories surrounding the obscure origins of this diamond vary considerably. Legend has it that the Koh-i-Noor, once known as the ‘Syamantaka Mani’ (‘Prince of Diamonds’), has been around in existence since 5000 years ago, and was once in the possession of Surya, the chief solar deity in Hindu mythology. The ‘Syamantaka Mani’ has been described in Hindu literature to be a perfect piece of jewel that protected lands from natural calamities and produced daily amounts of gold for its owner. Nonetheless, some refute this as mere speculation, as there has been no mention of the jewel in any other historical source throughout India’s early history. Others believe that the Koh-i-Noor originated from a mine in the modern-day south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh (Telugu: ఆంధ్ర ప్రదేశ్), together with its alleged double, the Darya-i-Noor (Persian: دریای نور ) (lit. ‘Sea of Light’).
Whatever its true origins may be, the first reliable mention of the Koh-i-Noor in history can be found in the Babur-Nama (Persian: بابر نامہ), the memoirs of Emperor Babur (1483 – 1530) (Persian: بابر) who founded the Moghul Dynasty of India. The earliest existence of the jewel as mentioned in the Babur-Nama was when it was in the possession of an unknown Raja of Malwa until 1294, after which he was forced to surrender it to Sultan Alauddin Khilji (Persian: علاء الدین الخلجی) (died 1316) when the latter conquered Malwa. When the Khilji Sultanate collapsed in 1320, the jewel passed into the possessions of subsequent sultanates in Delhi, namely the Tughluq, Sayyid and Lodi, all of which were short-lived.
Artist's impression of the First Battle of Panipat
As the last sultan of the Lodi sultanate, Ibrahim Lodi (Pashto: ابراهیم لودي) (died 1526) was the last to possess ownership over the Koh-i-Noor before it fell into the hands of Emperor Babur. After the former’s fateful defeat and death in the Battle of Panipat in the hands of Emperor Babur on 21 April 1526, much of his possessions, including the prized diamond and many other precious gems, entered the emperor’s treasuries. At that time, the diamond possessed no name; it was simply known as ‘the Diamond of Babur.’ In the words of the emperor himself, the diamond’s value was estimated to be enough to feed the whole world for two days.
Emperor Babur (1483 - 1530) seated on a throne
As long as Emperor Babur lived, he saw his fair share of violence and threats from numerous neighbouring kingdoms and provinces. Upon his death, the diamond was inherited by his son, Emperor Humayun (1508 - 1556) (Persian: همایون), during whose reign significant portions of Moghul territories were lost and the emperor himself was forced into exile for some time before recovering his lost territories and re-establishing his empire. After his unfortunate death (hitting his temple on a stone edge after tripping from the stairs), his son, Emperor Akbar (1542 – 1605) (Persian: اکبر), succeeded him as emperor and consequently owner of the diamond.
Emperor Akbar’s reign saw a stable and prosperous era for the Moghul Empire. Interestingly, he was said to have never kept the diamond with him nor worn it, as it remained among the other gems in his treasury. Just like his father, Emperor Jahangir (1569 – 1627) (Urdu: جہانگیر) too kept the diamond locked away in his treasury and interestingly, his reign too has been widely recognized until today as one of the most illustrious eras of the Moghul Empire.
With the ascension of Emperor Shah Jahan (1592 – 1666) (Urdu: شاه جهان) to the throne, power over the Moghul Empire and ownership of ‘the Diamond of Babur’ naturally passed into his hands. It was during his reign when the diamond was taken out from the royal treasury and placed on his famous Peacock Throne (Urdu: تخت طاؤس, Takht-i Tavus), an ornate throne commissioned by the emperor himself. Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign was highly prosperous, considered by many to be the Golden Age of the Moghul Empire. However, he died a sad death, having been deposed by his son, Aurangzeb (1618 – 1707) (Urdu: اورنگزیب), and confined under house arrest until his death in 1666.
Emperor Shah Jahan of Moghul India seated on the Peacock Throne
Under Emperor Aurangzeb’s possession, the ‘Diamond of Babur’ was cut by Hortenso Borgia, a Venetian lapidary whose clumsiness reduced the weight of the diamond from 793 carats to a mere 186 carats. The diamond was then brought to the majestic Badshahi Mosque (Urdu: بادشاہی مسجد) in Lahore (Urdu: لاہور), commissioned by Emperor Aurangzeb in 1671. Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign, although prosperous and stable during its initial years, later saw a gradual decline in the strength of his empire, in part due to the numerous violent rebellions from various quarters and rulers who were dissatisfied with his perceived weak policies and increasingly Islamic administration.
The diamond remained within the confines of the Badshahi Mosque until 1739, when the Shah of Persia, Nadir Shah (1688 – 1747) (Persian: نادر شاه), launched an invasion on the disintegrating Moghul Empire. Having defeated the Moghul army under Emperor Muhammad Shah (1702 – 1748) (Urdu: محمد شاه), Nadir Shah confiscated the Peacock Throne and the keys to the empire’s royal treasury, shipping away much of the empire’s riches back to Persia. Among these were the ‘Diamond of Babur’ and its alleged double, later named ‘Darya-i-Noor.’ It was Nadir Shah who exclaimed “Koh-i-Noor” (lit. “Mountain of Light” in Persian) in wonder when he saw the magnificent brilliance of the diamond, thus bestowing it with its name that remains till today.
The immense value of the Koh-i-Noor was well-recognized and well-known within the shah’s court. One of Nadir Shah’s consorts purportedly said, “If a strong man should take five stones, and throw one north, one south, one east, and one west, and the last straight up into the air, and the space between filled with gold and gems, that would equal the value of the Koh-i-Noor.” The diamond remained in the hands of Nadir Shah until his assassination in the hands of his own guards in 1747, which consequently resulted in the rapid disintegration of his empire.
Nadir Shah of Persia seated on the Peacock Throne
After the assassination of the shah, the Koh-i-Noor came into the hands of his subsequent successors, all of whose reigns were short-lived. One after another, his successors ascended the throne, became involved in bloody power struggles, were deposed and finally blinded. Among these successors was Shahrukh (1730 – 1796) (Persian: شاهرخ), who was loyally supported by Nadir Shah’s general, Ahmad Shah Durrani (1722 – 1772) (Persian: احمد شاه دراني). As a gift for his unwavering loyalty, Shahrukh presented Ahmad Shah with the diamond, which he subsequently brought with him as he established his own Durrani Empire in modern-day Afghanistan.
Ahmad Shah Durrani depicted with the Koh-i-noor on his crown
Following the death of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the diamond remained in the possession of his descendants and successors for several generations, each of whom experienced their fair share of battles, political turmoil and power struggles during their reigns. From ruler to ruler, the diamond changed ownership until the rule of Shah Shuja (1785 – 1842) (Pashto: شاه شجاع). When Shah Shuja was deposed from the Durrani (Afghan) throne in 1809, he fled to India with the diamond, after which he was captured and taken to Kashmir. Not long after, he found an opportunity to escape when Kashmir was invaded by Durrani (Afghan) and Sikh forces. Shah Shuja chose to follow the Sikh forces under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (Punjabi: ਰਣਜੀਤ ਸਿੰਘ) (1730 – 1839) to Lahore, where he stayed for about a year from 1813 to 1814. In return for his freedom, he was forced to surrender the precious diamond to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, thus marking the return of the diamond back into Indian hands.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the great maharaja of the glorious Sikh Empire
The diamond, however, did not remain long in Indian hands after the death of the Sikh maharaja in 1839. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s mighty and glorious Sikh Empire started to crumble under his heirs, who were involved in a series of bloody power struggles and assassinations. During the great maharaja’s lifetime, the British held him in high regard and they were in turn respected by the maharaja, so much so that they did little to interfere in his government. Nonetheless, the maharaja’s death and the political infighting that ensued gave the British an opportunity to interfere and exert their influence in matters pertaining to the empire’s governance. With the Sikh Empire’s defeat in the Anglo-Sikh Wars, the British formally annexed the empire into British India in 1849.
In the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1846, the Treaty of Lahore was signed between the British East India Company and representatives of the Sikh Empire. One of the terms of the treaty, ratified by the then to-be British Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie (1812 – 1860), read:
“…the gem called the Koh-i-noor which was taken from Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk by Maharaja Ranjit Singh shall be surrendered by the Maharaja of Lahore to the Queen of England.”
Thus, the diamond was transferred permanently into the ownership of the English monarch. Indeed, Lord Dalhousie was a man who felt strongly that India’s best interest could only be served by British rule, and that Indian assets would primarily serve British interests better than it would the interests of their native land. He showed deep interest in the diamond, and upon the ratification of the treaty, perceived it as a spoil of war befitting for the Queen’s honour. Lord Dalhousie’s attempt at forcefully acquiring the diamond via the treaty drew much criticism even from some of his British contemporaries.
It was arranged by Lord Dalhousie that the Koh-i-noor be presented to Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) herself by Maharaja Duleep Singh (Punjabi: ਦਲੀਪ ਸਿੰਘ) (1838 – 1893), the youngest son and successor of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The young maharaja, then only 12 years old, was sent to England in 1850, destined to spend the rest of his life away from his homeland and empire. With the reception of the famed diamond into the treasuries of the Queen, it was placed on exhibition in the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in Hyde Park, London for the general viewing of the British public. A report in The Times regarding the diamond stated:
“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.”
Queen Victoria officially opening the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London
Artist's impression of the Koh-i-noor on display drawing large crowds
In efforts to increase the brilliance of the diamond, Prince Albert (1819 – 1861), consort of Queen Victoria, ordered the cutting of the diamond the following year. A steam-powered mill was built especially for the job, and some of the most experienced jewelers from a large Dutch diamond merchant were entrusted with the task. It took a total of 38 days of 12 hours each, a cost exceeding £8,000 and numerous consultations from experts for the entire task to be completed, which resulted in a reduction of the diamond’s weight from 186 carats to 105 carats. Even so, the final result did not satisfy the Prince Consort, and it was decided that the Koh-i-noor should be mounted in a brooch frequently worn by Queen Victoria.
After the Queen’s demise, the Koh-i-noor was mounted into a new diamond crown worn by Queen Alexandra (1844 – 1925) during the coronation of her husband, King Edward VII (1841 – 1910). The renowned diamond was also worn as part of the crown jewels of Queens Mary and Elizabeth during the coronations of King George V and VI respectively. Today, the diamond remains in the crown of Queen Elizabeth, Consort of King George VI, and is on display at the Tower of London.
Queen Alexandra wearing her coronation crown mounted with the Koh-i-noor during the coronation of King Edward VII
Although the Koh-i-noor remains in the hands of the British until this day, much has been said and debated about its legitimate ownership. Since gaining independence in 1947, the Government of India has been lobbying for its return, claiming that the British had confiscated it from Indian hands by force. The Government of Pakistan has also laid claims on the diamond, and so did some official quarters in Iran. There have also been calls for its return to the estate of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Despite all these calls for its return, the British Government under Prime Minister David Cameron had made it clear during a state visit to India in 2013 that returning the diamond would not be an option.
So, is the Koh-i-noor really a cursed diamond as popular beliefs claim it to be? Judging from history, it may seem so. The early Delhi sultanates were mostly short-lived, and the last sultan of them, Ibrahim Lodi, suffered a major defeat and death in the hands of Emperor Babur. Violence, sudden deaths, power struggles or dethronements followed the lives of most of the diamond’s Moghul owners who kept it with them constantly. Nadir Shah died a sudden death in the hands of his own guards, while his successors’ reigns were short-lived and filled with bloody power struggles. Ahmad Shah Durrani seemed to be safe from the diamond’s ‘curse,’ but his empire under his successors certainly was not, and so were his successors themselves who were entangled in wars and political upheavals. Shah Shuja found himself deposed from his throne and it was a long time before he could regain it. Maharaja Ranjit Singh enjoyed much prosperity during his reign and lifetime, but his death marked a rapid demise of his glorious empire. And the British, although being aware of the ‘curse’ and thus only allowing a queen or queen consort to be adorned with the diamond, found their worldwide empire crumbling gradually as one by one their territories seceded to become independent jurisdictions.
So, is anyone still convinced of the ‘curse’ of the Koh-i-noor? I leave the answer to you.
The coronation crown of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Consort of King George VI, seen with the Koh-i-noor