A bloody deep cut

Lead review

A bloody deep cut

This is a biography of what the authors William Dalrymple and Anita Anand call “the world’s most infamous diamond.”

The nature of the fame, whether it is good or bad, is subjective, but as a many-faced stone which has launched armies and even burnt towers in an ancient city like Delhi, its fame is not so fine and benign. It is perhaps the world’s most well-known diamond and one which has the most number of stories about it.

Most stories have misrepresented it and much fiction and many fables have accreted over it through centuries. What the authors have done is to retrieve it from myth and fanciful history and to show it as a hard stone at the heart of many human situations. Many would think that the diamond did not, and still does not, deserve its popularity. This account does not fully answer the question why it is what it is, but tries to explain how it is so.

The Kohinoor as such is not a remarkable stone. It is only the 90th biggest diamond in the world, and there may be others which would command a better price if at all such stones could be correctly evaluated. But no other stone has been coveted so much and mixed up in histories for so long as Kohinoor has. It has gone through the hands of many kings and conquerors and through dynasties, and moved across geographies. It has been worn on the arm and displayed on streets and hidden away under the floor in a prison, and it has adorned the crowns of emperors.

The origin and early history of the diamond are unclear. There are some who even think it is the Syamantaka jewel of the puranas. It was probably derived from the Golconda mines at an uncertain date. Its first public appearance was during the Mughal times on the Peacock Throne made by Shah Jahan. The first Mughal, Babur, probably had it. It went out of India for some years but came back to the Mughals. The journey of the diamond after the Mughal period is traceable. It travelled a lot after the Persian conqueror Nader Shah defeated the Mughal Muhammad Shah Rangila and laid Delhi to waste.

The diamond, embedded in the Peacock Throne along with another fabled stone, the Timur ruby, was part of the loot that Nader Shah took home from Delhi. Since then it was in the possession of many empire-builders and warlords including Ahmad Shah Durrani, Shah Shuja and Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The British took it away from Ranjit Singh’s 10-year-old son and successor Duleep Singh.

The British claim it was a gift, but it was actually part of the spoils of war. It has been seen on the British crown since then and is now in safe custody in the Tower of London. But it has gained a reputation for bad luck. Every one who possessed it suffered in some way. Nader Shah was assassinated; Abdali had a painful infection, which killed him; some of Ranjit Singh’s successors died violent deaths; the ship which took it to London almost sank in a storm and many members of the crew died of cholera.

No monarch has worn it after Queen Victoria. The Kohinoor has a bloody trail. Kings went mad over it and many were killed and maimed. Lives were ruined and cities were devastated. Terrible violence and cruelties were inflicted for its sake: Shah Rukh, Nader Shah’s grandson, had molten lead poured over his head, and Shah Zaman, Durrani’s grandson, was blinded with hot needles. Shah Shuja, his brother, was deposed and his son tortured in front of him. Its story is one of power, greed, ambition and betrayals. The most basic human emotions played out on big stages and the effect was multiplied many times because many actors were big men, and the story was interlinked with the stories of kingdoms and empires.

Dalrymple is known for his popular histories of India. Anita Anand is a journalist who has written on a part of Sikh history. A lot of research has gone into unravelling the story of the diamond. The authors have used previously untranslated Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian sources for their study and relied on information gained from experts and gemmologists. The history of the diamond also becomes a history of the times and places where it travelled. The story had acquired many more details after the flawed account given by Theo Metcalfe, an Englishman who was told by Lord Dalhousie to write the history of the diamond. Dalrymple and Anand’s account is the most comprehensive and the most reliable.

The book is eminently readable as the story of a diamond and as history. It is a human account also, though it is the most terrible human emotions that get reflected from its faces. Three countries — India, Pakistan and Afghanistan — still want it. There may be other claimants too. After reading its history, no one would like it to have a similar history in future.

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