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

Leaving behind a trail of destruction and bloodshed, Koh-i-Noor, the Mountain of Light, ‘retains a fame and celebrity unmatched by any of its larger or more perfect rivals’ even though there are eighty – nine diamonds larger than it. What makes the Koh-i-Noor so infamous and alluring that all the other gems that once rivaled it have been forgotten? William Dalrymple and Anita Anand in their latest work, Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond chronicles the history of this infamous diamond, spanning centuries and empires, from its obscure discovery – to its journey to the Mughal Empire to Nadir Shah’s Persia to Ahmed Shah’s Afghanistan to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Punjab to England where it rests today in a lockdown in the Tower of London.

Delving into great detail, the book examines various myths and anecdotes associated with the Koh-i-Noor and debunk some of them in the process. From the diamond’s unverifiable association with the Syamantaka jewel mentioned in the Bhagavada Purana to the equally interesting and un-provable reference that the Koh-i-Noor was once possessed by the Vijayanagara Empire; the book takes the reader on an exciting journey.

In the hands of a seasoned author like William Dalrymple, the history reads like a tale full of gossip, tittle-tattle and a bazaar talk.  

Once in the possession of Babur, Koh-i-Noor passes onto Humayun who leaves ‘all his gems by a riverbank when he went to do his ablutions’ and is only regained when the boy returns it back to him. Full of such anecdotes, the book lends itself for a livelier read. While it disappears in the Deccan for hundred years after Humayun, Koh-i-Noor re-enters the Mughal Empire at some point in time and finds itself embedded in the ‘most spectacular jewelled object ever made: The Peacock Throne’.

With the disintegration of the Mughal Empire, the diamond once again changes ownership and passes on to Nader Shah, Persian warlord. Leaving unprecedented violence and bloodshed in its wake, the diamond finds its new home in Persia where it was worn as an armband by Nader Shah along with Timur Ruby. Interestingly, the book debunks yet another myth surrounding the diamond that the diamond was won by Nader Shah by swapping of turbans with Muhammad Shah ‘as a lasting memento of their friendship.’

As Nadir Shah is assassinated, the diamond once again finds itself a new home, Afghanistan, where it remains for the next seventy years. From there the diamond finds its way to the treasury of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, however, not before being used as a paperweight by an ignorant mullah. Here, in the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ‘the Koh-i-Noor first began to achieve real fame and gained the singular status it has retained ever since…’ With the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Dalrymple narrative ends and the authorial baton smoothly passes on to Anita Anand who deals with the history of the diamond from the mid-nineteenth century.

Fissures in the Sikh Empire led the continuous succession wars, and eventually left the Boy King, Duleep Singh as the crown king with Rani Jindan as the regent. Like Ranjit Singh, the British coveted the diamond hungrily and set the stage for its conquest under the guise of the Second Anglo-Sikh War. With the signing of the Treaty of Lahore, the diamond was permanently lost to India. However, Koh-i-Noor did not hold the same magnificence for everyone. Before its final passage to England, the diamond was left in the care of John Lawrence for a brief period who, according to his biographer, ‘solemnly removed it from its casket, placed in in his waistcoat pocket, took it home and promptly forgot all about it.

The book is replete with the details of fascinating characters from the pages of history, from Muhammad Shah Rangila to Nadir Shah to the lesser known boy king, Duleep Singh who ‘died penniless and alone in a shabby Parisian hotel.

As much as the history of the diamond, Kohinoor is equally a history of the realms that it crossed along with the statement of changing fashion and preferences.  

While for the Mughals who prefers rubies over diamonds, it is one of the many gems in their repository, it becomes the most precious gem in the hands of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the British. It is only after reaching England that the diamond achieves the great fame and celebrity status. ‘The gem represented not just the exoticism of the British Empire in the East, it was also a prime trophy of British military prowess as the empire set about expanding its territories in India.

With Koh-i-Noor once again becoming a subject of dissension and diplomatic impasse, the authors closes the book with the question that haunts many, ‘what is the proper response to imperial looting? Do we simply shrug it off as part of the rough-and-tumble of history or should we attempt to right the wrongs of the past?

In Kohinoor, Dalrymple and Anand compose the most detailed, well-researched and compelling history of the diamond till date. Informative and fascinating, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in the bloody history of the diamond.   

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond

  1. Nice review. Mr. Dalrymple shared your review via his twitter account and it was there that I came to know of your blog. Thank you for the follow. The odd thing is, when I click on your account name in the notification, it opens to a page which says “the account has been deleted.”
    God bless. 🙂


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