A large diamond with a long history, the Koh-i-Noor is famously associated with conquests and the shifting balance of power among rival empires between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. Said to have been named Koh-i-noor — meaning ‘mountain of light’ in Persian — by Iranian conqueror Nader Shah, the diamond has changed hands many times, usually as a spoil of war. Its owners include the Kakatiya dynasty of South India, the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, the Afsharids of present-day Iran, the Durranis of present-day Afghanistan, and maharajas of the Sikh empire, before the British East India Company acquired it. Housed in Britain since 1849 as Crown property, today it is the subject of criticism, international tensions and debates surrounding the colonial appropriation of goods.
Weighing about 190 carats through its early history, the oval diamond in its present form weighs 105.6 carats, and is 3.6 centimetres long, 3.2 centimetres wide and 1.3 centimetres deep.
The diamond’s origin and its history before the seventeenth century are uncertain. According to most modern scholarship, it is thought to have been discovered in the thirteenth century, sifted from alluvial deposits in the Krishna–Godavari river delta in present-day Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in India — the site of the later-established Kollur mines, famous for the Golconda diamonds. This put the stone in the possession of the ruling Kakatiya dynasty until it was, by most accounts, paid as tribute to the Delhi Sultanate when Alauddin Khilji’s forces subjugated the Kakatiyas c.1310. The diamond shifted hands among the various dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate for the next two centuries, including the Khiljis, the Tughlaqs, the Sayyids and the Lodis. When Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi in the Battle of Panipat in 1526, the diamond passed to him, receiving the epithet ‘Diamond of Babur’, and remained with the emperors of the Mughal dynasty for the next two hundred years. Babur’s account in his memoir Baburnama suggests an alternative provenance for the diamond, stating that it had previously been in possession of the king of Gwalior. According to other accounts, it may have been housed in the kingdom of Malwa before it was taken by the Delhi Sultanate. Weighing roughly 190 carats, the Koh-i-noor was at the time one of the largest diamonds in the world.
In Hindu mythology and popular imagination, the Koh-i-Noor is considered to have a history dating back millennia. The precious stone Syamantaka described in the Bhagavata and Vishnu Puranas as endowing magical powers on its owners — which included the mythical Surya, Satrajita, Krishna and Jambavan — is sometimes interpreted as the Koh-i-Noor. However, these literary narratives are understood in scholarship to conflate several distinct historical gems.
The first verifiable record of the Koh-i-Noor appears in Muhammad Kazim Marvi’s biography of Nader Shah, in which it is described as being embedded in Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne. In 1628, Shah Jahan commissioned an exceptionally opulent throne as a symbol of his power, featuring the forms of two peacocks. Covered in gold and silver and studded with numerous precious stones including the Koh-i-Noor (then known as the Diamond of Babur), the Akbar Shah Diamond and the Timur Ruby, it served as a symbol of the extravagance, luxury and power that the Mughal empire epitomised at the time. Based on seventeenth-century French jeweller Jean Baptiste Tavernier’s account, it is sometimes theorised that the Koh-i-Noor was cut from the Great Mughal Diamond under Aurangzeb’s rule. However, this theory has generally been discredited in light of recent research.
When Afsharid Persian conqueror Nader Shah invaded Delhi in 1739 he brought the Peacock Throne, among many other Mughal treasures, back to Iran — removing, however, the Koh-i-Noor and the Timur Ruby from the throne to wear on an armband. While the throne was later dismantled for the value of its component materials and gems, the armband with the Koh-i-Noor came into the possession of Ahmad Shah Durrani, who succeeded Nader Shah after the latter’s death in 1747, soon establishing and ruling what is present-day Afghanistan. In 1809, one of his successors, Shah Shujah, fled with the diamond after being overthrown, and was captured by the founder of the Sikh empire Ranjit Singh in Lahore, present-day Pakistan. Having refused to part with the diamond initially, he used it to negotiate his release in 1814.
In Ranjit Singh’s possession, the Koh-i-Noor’s reputation grew further as a coveted marker of prestige and dominance. He displayed it on the front of his turban or wore it on his arm at important state events or festivals, as a symbol of the territorial power he had reclaimed from the Iranian and Afghan rulers since their siege of Delhi. At all other times, it was kept fiercely guarded. At Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, his head priest alleged that the king had willed the stone to the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha. However, his treasurer secured it for the successors to the throne, maintaining that it was state property. While the British imperialists also wished to acquire the diamond, it remained with Ranjit Singh’s successors through a tumultuous period in the Sikh empire. In 1843, his youngest son Duleep Singh ascended to the throne at the age of five. In 1849, the British annexed the princely state of Punjab, forcing the ten-year-old Duleep Singh to sign the Last Treaty of Lahore, which required him to surrender his position and hand over the Koh-i-Noor to Britain’s Queen Victoria.
In 1851, the diamond was displayed at the Great Exhibition in London, where it failed to make a positive impression on the public owing to its dull appearance, which was exacerbated by a poor display case. This led the Queen’s consort Prince Edward to have it re-cut to improve its refraction, by Levie Benjamin Voorzanger and his team from the Dutch polishing house Royal Coster. The cutting, which took over a month, was undertaken in 1852 at the premises of the Garrard jewellery house in London, and used a steam-powered mill specially built for the purpose. The previously rose-cut diamond with 169 facets, which had a flat base and high dome, typical in the stones favoured by the Mughals, was shaped in the oval-brilliant cut, with sixty-six facets. Several of its imperfections were identified and removed, reducing its weight by nearly half but vastly improving its refractive ability and brilliance.
As her personal possession, Queen Victoria wore the re-cut diamond in a brooch. After her death, the Koh-i-Noor became property of the British monarchy and was fitted into the crowns of successive queens. Considered unlucky for men by British monarchs in light of its history, the diamond has only adorned the crowns of the highest ranking female members of the British royal family. It was embedded into the crowns of Queen Alexandra in 1901 and Queen Mary in 1911, before being installed into its present position in the coronation crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1937. The Koh-i-Noor was publicly exhibited in 2002 during her funeral, when the crown was placed on her coffin. It has remained in this crown since, and not been returned to the crown of Queen Mary, which was worn by Queen Camilla during the coronation of King Charles III in May 2023. The Queen Mother’s crown with the Koh-i-Noor is now displayed among other crown jewels in the Jewel House at the Tower of London, along with replicas of the diamond in the armband received from Duleep Singh and another exhibit showing its form before the 1852 recutting.
Given the diamond’s fraught provenance, it has been the subject of diplomatic disputes for decades. The Indian government has been requesting its return since the country’s independence in 1947. Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan too have claimed that the Koh-i-Noor is the legitimate property of their respective countries, and repeatedly demanded its repatriation. However, the British government has consistently declined all demands for its return, citing the stone’s complex history, the multiple claims on it and the Last Treaty of Lahore. In contemporary discourse the Koh-i-Noor continues to be associated with colonial imperialism and plunder, while raising open questions on the repatriation of such goods. The controversy surrounding the diamond has dissuaded the British royal family from using it in any ceremonies or events in the last two decades.
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Anand, Anita, and William Dalrymple. Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.
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