KOH-I-NOOR – THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT
“Take a strong man. Have him throw a stone northward, another eastward, the third southward, the forth westward, and the fifth upward, into the air. Fill all the space thus outlined with gold and precious stones but you will still not have achieved the value of the Mountain of Light” Wafa Begum wife of Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk relating to Fakir Nur-ud-din, ; the valuation put by her ancestors on the Koh-i-Noor.
Two centuries ago Maharaja Ranjit Singh was responsible for retrieving one of the most unique diamonds the world has ever seen – the Koh-i-Noor. The year 2013 is significant one for Sikhs too, for apart from having the distinction of being the only people to move the Afghans out of Punjab and India, they also manage to extricate from them a highly prized treasure. The kudos for this feat rests solely with the Lion of Punjab - Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Having heard many tales about beauty of the Koh-i-Noor and being a lover of all things beautiful, be it women, horses, gardens, shawls or jewels, the Maharaja coveted this priceless stone and was determined to own it one day. Fortune favoured him and then, quite unexpectedly, an opportunity to do just this, came his way. It required cunning, strategy and an army to acquire this invaluable gem but finally, the ruler of Punjab, achieved his goal and eagerly took possession of it on 1st June 1813. The account of how he acquired it is as interesting as the history of the Koh-i-Noor itself.
The Koh-i-Noor takes its place in the annals of history as one of the most precious and sought after of gemstones. At one time called The Babur Diamond it was recorded by its then owner, the Mughal Emperor Babur found the jewel ‘so valuable that a judge of diamonds valued it as half the daily expenses the whole world’. This priceless oval shaped gem weighed 186 carats, measured 31.9 millimetres in length and 36 millimetres in width and was found in the famed but now defunct diamond mines of Kollur, in Golconda, Andhra Pradesh. These mines near Hyderabad produced some of the most fabulous and largest stones the world has seen. The Great Mughal weighing 280 carats, the Orlov 189.62 carats, Regent 140.50 carats, Sancy 55.23, Pigot 48.63, Hope 45.52 carats, to name a few, each has a story behind it that rivals the Koh-i-Noor. All these magnificent stones were known for their purity of colour, clarity and distinctive cut. While cutting, great care was taken to keep the maximum volume of the stone and its shape intact. The main characteristics of Golconda diamonds were that its facets and cullet were specially cut to give the gem a soft glow so they enhanced the beauty of the wearer and not the other way round.
What makes the Koh-i-Noor so sought after was not only its size and beauty but the fact that its past is linked with so many historical figures and events. Tracing the background of the Koh-i-Noor is not easy; the interlinking of fact with fiction along with contradictions makes it difficult to verify the actual truth. The first reference made to it dates back to 3001 B.C., comes from the epic Mahabharata, which says that it was worn as a sacred talisman by the legendry warrior Karna, King of Anga. Another lore; with several versions, links it with Lord Krishna. At this time the name given to the diamond was Syamantaka Mani meaning prince and leader amongst diamonds. Nothing was heard about the Koh-i-Noor till 1306 when the Raja of Malwa was forced to give it up to the Kakatiya rulers. In 1326, after the Kakatiya Empire fell, it came into the possession of the Delhi Sultan, Muhammad bin Tughluq. There are also several references to Ala-ud-din Khilji being its owner. Some sources maintain that the diamond remained with the Delhi Sultanate till the First Battle of Panipat when Ibrahim Lodi was defeated by Babur in 1526. The Koh-i-Noor now found its way into the founder of the Mughal dynasty’s hands. However, the Babur Nama, or the memoirs of Babur records that in 1526, Raja Bikramjit of Gwalior was holding the city of Agra on behalf of Ibrahim Lodi against Mughal onslaught. Humayun entering the city took prisoners but would not let Agra be plundered. In return, Raja Bikramjit and the city’s grateful inhabitants ‘presented to him a peshkash (tribute) consisting of a quantity of jewels and precious stones, amongst which was one famous diamond which had been acquired by Sultan Ala-ud-din’. Humayun, in turn, presented this stone to his father as his tribute however, Babur was so happy with his victory that he gifted it back to his son. Whatever maybe the true story, the fact remains is that the diamond was passed on to the Mughal Empire and hence forth referred to as The Babur Diamond.
Each Mughal Emperor valued the Koh-i-Noor above all other gems in their jewel filled toshakhana (treasure house). The diamond is written about in Emperor Akbar’s memoirs, the Akbar Nama in superlatives and as being above valuation. For a while it was set in the famous bejewelled Peacock throne by the Emperor Shah Jahan. Inherited by each Mughal ruler in turn, it remained in their possession until the reign of Muhammad Shah Rangila (the Colourful). Delhi, the weakened capital of the Mughal Empire was captured in 1739 and ransacked by Nadir Shah from Persia. Legend has it that Nadir Shah seized the vast collection of jewels from the treasury including the Peacock Throne but could not locate the Koh-i-Noor. Muhammad Shah, hoping to save the legendry diamond that had been in is family for centuries, cleverly concealed it on his person, in fact in his turban. This ploy worked for a while but eventually, a woman from the Mughal harem hoping to seek favour with the new conqueror secretly disclosed the location of the hidden jewel. After devising ways of abstracting the diamond from his prisoner, Nadir Shah with a great show of diplomacy and camaraderie invited Muhammad Shah to a magnificent banquet. After the feasting had reached its peak, the victor suggested they cement their new friendship and brotherhood by an exchange of turbans. The helpless Mughal Emperor could not do anything but unhappily comply. Nadir Shah dazzled by the brilliance of this large sparkling diamond and is said to have exclaimed “Koh-i-Noor!” meaning Mountain of Light. Appropriately named, it is till today known by this name.
The Koh-i-Noor now left its native soil for the first time and after transiting through tumultuous times and various Persian owners, passed into the hands of Ahmed Shah Abdali of Afghanistan. The history of the Durrani descendants is a bloody one, causing one to recall the curse of the Koh-i-Noor which dates back to 1306. A Hindu text of that time declared ‘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’. The curse certainly proved true, looking back at its chequered career the diamond is accompanied by greed, war, blood and treachery, bringing out all the basest of traits possible in the human psyche. Ahmed Shah was succeeded by his son Taimur Shah and then his grandson Zaman Shah. The latter was unable hold onto the throne and was defeated and deposed by his brother Muhammad Shah at Ghazni. Fleeing to Khaibar with a few valuables including the Koh-i-Noor, the blinded Zaman Shah hid the diamond in walls of the fort at Ashik. The youngest brother Shah Shuja managed to raise a body of troops and established himself on the Afghan throne. It was to him that Zaman Shah revealed the hiding place of the diamond; it was then dug out and handed over to him. Unable to sustain his hold on the throne, Shah Shuja fled to northern India in 1811, carrying the Koh-i-Noor with him.
Shah Shuja-ul- Mulk arrived at Attock as a guest of the Afghan Governor Jahan Dad Khan. However, on finding Shah in touch with his old enemy Wazir Fateh Khan (Muhammad Shah’s minister), the Governor had him manacled and sent to Kashmir. His brother Ata Mohammad Khan was the Governor of Kashmir and he made Shah Shuja his prisoner and kept under close guard. In the meantime, Shah Shuja’s wife Wafa Begum reached Lahore; hiding the famous diamond on her person. Fearing for her husband’s life, she begged Maharaja Ranjit Singh for his help, promising him the Koh-i-Noor in exchange for her spouse’s safe return. The Maharaja reassured her and had her suitably lodged and entertained while he planned his strategy. Things began falling in place for him when Wazir Fateh Khan who had become powerful in Afghanistan, approached him. He asked for his assistance in overthrowing Ata Mohammad Khan and capturing Kashmir. Seizing this opportunity, Maharaja Ranjit Singh with his own plans for Kashmir in mind, sent a force there with strict instructions to bring back Shah Shuja at all cost. The Kashmir expedition was led by the competent Diwan Mohkam Chand, assisted by the Governor of Jammu Desa Singh Majithia, Nihal Singh Attariwalla and Jodh Singh Kalsia, while the Maharaja himself camped at Rohtas with other generals in readiness. The joint Sikh and Afghan forces captured Shergarh Fort and while the Wazirs men looted the treasury, Mohkam Chand searched for Shah Shuja. Finding him fettered and in a pitiful state, he wasted no time in releasing him and setting forth to Lahore.
Escorted by Kanwar Kharak Singh, Shah Shuja entered Lahore amidst great pomp and show. He became a pensioner of the Lahore Durbar but was treated with great respect and housed at Mubarak Haveli along with his wife and retinue. Shortly thereafter the Maharaja sent some of his trusted nobles to the deposed Afghan ruler to retrieve the promised Koh-i-Noor but it was not forth coming. Numerable excuses were made; Shah Shuja sent a deputation to the Maharaja declaring that the diamond was mortgaged for six crore rupees at Kabul. He also declared that if he were to be given three lac rupees and an annual income of fifty thousand rupees he would give up the diamond within fifty days. Diwan Moti Ram, Fakir Azizuddin and others were then sent to get the diamond but the Shah ‘sent by their hands a large pookraj (topaz) of a yellow colour which the Shah stated to be the Koh-i-noor’. The Maharaja sent for his jewellers and had the stone examined; obviously it was declared not to be the ‘Mountain of Light’. The Maharaja kept the large topaz, but by now quite angry with the excuses and deception, ordered that the Shah and family be put under restraint. He also instructed that the Shah and his family were not allowed food or drink till the promised stone was given up. This situation lasted about eight hours, after which a very hunble message was sent to the Maharaja to come and take the Koh-i-Noor.
‘On the 29th Jamadi-ul-awal, (1st June A.D. 1813,) the Maharaja on hearing this, cheerfully mounted his horse, and accompanied by troops on right and left, and taking with him a sum of 1,000 rupees in cash, went to Shah Shuja’s haweli. The Shah received him with great respect and bended the knee to him. The Maharaja sat down…….. The Shah produced the diamond and gave it to the Maharaja, who signed an agreement to secure the Shah from further molestation.’ Presents were then exchanged and Maharaja Ranjit Singh returned to Lahore fort with the incomparable Koh-i-Noor.
The Koh-i-Noor was the first jewel Maharaja Ranjit Singh coveted and had to have at any cost, the only jewel he enjoyed wearing on ceremonial occasions, it was his prized possession. When the Maharaja received the diamond it was set in an armlet, after wearing it in this fashion for about three years, he turned it into a sirpesh or turban ornament with a diamond drop weighing about a tolah (eleven grams). Later, the Koh-i-Noor was reset in a bazuband or armlet once again, only this time it was set with two large diamonds on either side. The stones once belonging to Shah Shuja were bought at Amritsar and cost the Maharaja 100,000 and 130,000 rupees respectively. All three diamonds were enclosed in a beautiful gold casing intricately decorated with white, red and green enamel. The main casing itself was shaped like an open lotus flower, with the side ones being leaf shaped. Though at first glance it looked as if the diamonds were bezel set, actually delicate prongs secured the stones. To complete this stunning ornament, rich burgundy cords were attached to the armlet from which hung tassels of lustrous natural pearls and rubies. The Maharaja enjoyed showing this breath taking piece of jewellery to special guests who visited the Lahore court. He was thrilled watching them gaze in amazement at this wondrous stone, noting its beauty and fire. Truly a one of a kind piece, it was kept in a crimson lined velvet box at the Moti Masjid toshakhana or treasury.
The end came too soon for the Lion of Punjab; while he was lying sick in bed just before he passed away in June 1839 he told his assembled ministers that he would like to gift the Koh-i-Noor to the Jagannathpuri temple in Orissa. There is some mention that he wanted to give the diamond to the Harmandir Sahib at Amritsar. However he did ask for it to be brought to him so he could throw holy water on it, signifying that he had made the behest. Pretending to send for the Kohinoor, his ministers lied to him by saying it was not at Lahore but in the royal treasury at Amritsar. They felt it should be kept at Lahore and passed on to Kanwar Kharak Singh who was the Maharaja’s eldest son and heir.
The Koh-i-Noor remained at the Lahore Durbar treasury and was worn Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s successors; Kharak Singh, Sher Singh and Dalip Singh, in turn. The legend goes that whosoever owns the diamond rules the kingdom; this still holds true, even today, as we can see. After the annexation of the Punjab, this prized stone came under tremendous scrutiny; the major objective being to transport it to England as soon as possible and present it to the Queen. Quite a feather in the cap for the East India Company! Lengthy discussions took place on how exactly it should be presented and by whom. Finally it was decided that the young Dalip Singh as the successor to Maharaja Ranjit Singh would do the honours. In 1851, the 13 year old ex-Maharaja of Punjab was taken from his native land to England and made to hand over this prized heirloom that had been in his family for decades. The Koh-i-Noor was put on display that very same year at the Great Exhibition in London, where it was the highlight of the exposition. Apparently, Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert was disappointed with the appearance of the stone and in 1852 ordered it to be recut. For centuries the unusual cut of the Golconda’s distinguished it from other diamonds. Appearing like any other large commercial diamond, now this unique 186 carat jewel retained none its natural characteristics nor shape, as it was drastically reduced to a mere 105 carats; losing 42 per cent of its weight. It was first worn by the Queen as a brooch but later set as the centre piece of the royal crown.
The story of the Kohinoor would have taken a dramatic turn if Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s dying wish were carried out. The diamond would not have been a part of the Lahore treasury but kept safely at the Jagannathpuri temple. Any power, foreign or otherwise would have found it impossible to remove it from there. We can however celebrate the fact that over two hundred years ago, a young, diminutive, one eyed, uneducated man, carved out an Empire for the Sikhs. Also, on the 1st June of this present year 2013, Maharaja Ranjit Singh accomplished the inconceivable; to get back to this country one of its most prized treasures - The Koh-i-Noor.