Ahead of the British Coronation, an Indian Jewel Takes Center Stage (or Not)

The Kohinoor diamond’s absence from King Charles III's crowning ceremony has once again thrown light on its checkered history

Ahead of the British Coronation, an Indian Jewel Takes Center Stage (or Not)
The Kohinoor diamond rested atop the coffin of Charles III’s grandmother at her funeral in 2002. (Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

In 1851, the Great Exhibition, patronized by Prince Albert — consort of the British monarch Queen Victoria — intended to exemplify the finest arts, crafts and industrial innovations from British colonial territories to symbolize Britain as a powerful empire. Yet, amongst the myriad of ingenious Victorian inventions, “the great diamond of Runjeet Singh called ‘Koh-i-Noor,’” as described by the exhibit catalog, became the star attraction that was unveiled for the first time in London. Amid the hustle and bustle, every day hundreds queued up to catch a glimpse of the diamond, in the hope that the sunshine beaming through the Crystal Palace would reveal its fabled fire.

However, this emblem of imperial possession did not receive the expected awe and wonder. The spectators were dismayed by the diamond’s simple appearance, with The Times declaring hyperbolically that it “inflicted more disappointment than anything of its size ever did since the world was created.” One spectator remarked that “it appeared the size of a pigeon’s egg.” Despite several attempts to sparkle the diamond, its lackluster was still disappointing. It was said that even the pale English sun looked brighter than the “light” emitted from the diamond, and the satirical magazine Punch referred to the stone as the “mountain of darkness,” playing on the English translation of the Kohinoor, which means “mountain of lights” in Persian.

Displayed under a golden cage, it was supposed to be the perfect symbol of British dominance. It now sits in Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s crown and has been on display at the Tower of London since 2002. A reminder of British colonialism in South Asia, the notorious gem remains possibly the most infamous and divisive stone in history.

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II last year, rumors abounded that Camilla, the queen consort, would don the gem for King Charles III’s upcoming coronation. However, Buckingham Palace announced that she would instead be wearing Queen Mary’s crown, which will have diamonds – Cullinan III, IV and V – from the late monarch Queen Elizabeth II’s collection as a “tribute.” Still, the absence of Kohinoor from the ceremony has once again made it a talking point.

With its rich history and complex ownership, the Kohinoor continues to be hotly debated. Its symbolic significance, both as a cultural artifact and a sign of wealth and power, has made it a topic of intense discussion during significant events, such as after the deaths of Queen Elizabeth II last year and her mother in 2002. It was also highlighted when Rishi Sunak, the first U.K. prime minister of Indian background, assumed his office last October. Its relevance in modern-day politics is a testament to the enduring legacy of an era in South Asian history that was defined by exploitation, colonialism and the desire for domination. Tracing its origin is akin to unraveling an intricate web of mystery, given the number of times it has exchanged hands. Historians have tried to piece together the chronology using various sources.

Before the unearthing of diamond mines in Brazil during the 18th century, all of the world’s dazzling diamonds came from the Indian subcontinent. The truly primordial stones — like the Kohinoor — were sedimentary, unceremoniously expelled from the earth throughout the soft, shifting silt of riverbeds. Some scholars have traced the stone’s origin to the Kollur Mine, a series of gravel-clay pits on the bank of the Krishna River near Guntur, in present-day India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, during the rule of the Kakatiya dynasty in the 13th century. Another account averred that it was unearthed in the meandering Godavari River in central India.

In “Khazain-Ul-Futuh” (“The Treasures of Victory”), wherein the poet and scholar Amir Khusrau records the conquests of the Delhi Sultanate ruler Alauddin Khalji in southern India, he mentions a famous diamond being a part of the booty acquired by Khalji from the Kakatiyas. In “Baburnama,” the diary of the Mughal Emperor Babur, he recounts acquiring a “famous diamond” from Bikramjit, the Raja of Gwalior (in central India), who was in the city of Agra with his family when the Mughal defeated Delhi Sultanate’s Ibrahim Lodi in 1518. “Its reputation is that every appraiser has estimated its value at two and a half days’ food for the whole world,” said Babur, assuming that it is the same stone acquired by Khalji. These are often thought to be the initial historical references of the Kohinoor by historians.

While much was written about the treasuries of the Mughal Empire, there were no references to Babur’s diamond for the next few generations. However, a large diamond is said to have entered the Mughal treasury during emperor Shah Jahan’s rule in the early 17th century. Victorian commentators identified this as Babur’s diamond, or the Kohinoor, but there are no historical references that confirm the same from that era, wrote the historians William Dalrymple and Anita Anand in their book “Kohinoor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond.” It is also believed that Shah Jahan’s opulent Peacock Throne was adorned with precious gems including the Kohinoor and the Timur Ruby.

In 1739, the Mughal Empire’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when the Persian ruler Nadir Shah invaded Delhi and took away the Peacock Throne but reinstated Emperor Mohammad Shah Rangila as a “brother ruler.” It is also believed that Nadir Shah, awestruck, had named it the Kohinoor. He had stripped the throne of the jewel, along with the Timur Ruby and Daria-i-Noor (Ocean of Light), a 186-carat pink diamond, and used to wear them as armlets.

After returning to Persia laden with riches, Nadir Shah began assassinating all those he considered to be traitors and asked Ahmad Khan Abdali, the chief of a group of Afghan bodyguards, to look after his protection. This irked his courtiers, who killed him. According to “Siraj al-Tawarikh,” a chronicle of Afghan history during the 18th and 19th centuries, the “first lady of Nadir Shah’s harem” later gifted Abdali the Kohinoor for fighting the renegades looting the royal coffers.

While the pink diamond continued to remain in Persia, the Kohinoor and Timur Ruby found their way to Kandahar, in present-day Afghanistan, where Abdali established his rule, taking the name Ahmad Shah Durrani. He too wore both the jewels as armlets, and they remained with the Durrani Empire for 70 years. The stone was transferred from Abdali to his son Timur and grandson Shah Zaman, under whom the empire disintegrated, and it was briefly lost. It was later found in the possession of a local resident by his younger brother Shah Shuja.

As the Durranis faced local competition, they were forced to seek exile with Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore, the capital of the Sikh Empire, in present-day Pakistan. Shah Shuja’s consort Wafa Begum and the Kohinoor stayed in Lahore while he traveled looking for allies. When he was captured in Kashmir, he was rescued by Ranjit Singh and was forced to offer him the Kohinoor in return for friendship. This is how the Kohinoor and Timur Ruby became a part of the Sikh Empire.

“It was not just that Ranjit Singh liked diamonds and respected the stone’s vast monetary value; the gem seems to have held a far greater symbolism for him,” write Anand and Dalrymple in their book. “He had won back from the Afghan Durrani dynasty almost all the Indian lands [several territories, including the cities of Lahore, Multan, Peshawar and Kashmir] they had seized since the time of Ahmad Shah [who had also plundered Delhi in 1761].” This symbolized the rise of the Sikh Empire and the possession of the Kohinoor diamond further cemented its power and prestige.

It was with Ranjit Singh that the Kohinoor started finding more fame. Before that, the Kohinoor was always paired with other jewels, but now it was being worn alone, wrote Dalrymple and Anand. During his efforts to ascertain the value of the diamond, it was Wafa Begum who had commented: “If a strong man were to throw four stones — one north, one south, one east, one west — and a fifth stone up into the air, and if the space between them were to be filled with gold, it would not equal the value of the Kohinoor.”

Later, a Brahmin scholar in Ranjit Singh’s court, Bhai Gobind Ram, suggested the king donate the Kohinoor to the famous Jagannath Temple in Puri, on the eastern coast of present-day India. However, the chief treasurer, Misr Beli Ram, insisted that the gem did not belong to the king but to the Sikh state, so it should be kept for the heirs. And, once again, the whereabouts of the Kohinoor were unknown for a while and rumors were afloat. Some said that Lord Jagannath’s idol would soon be wearing the Kohinoor. It was then that many Hindus started linking it to the “Syamantaka” gem mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, an important Hindu mythological text. However, the descriptions of this gem and the Kohinoor did not match, and the Kohinoor continued to be in the custody of the Sikh Empire.

After the demise of Ranjit Singh in 1839, his frail successors could not sustain the rule and perished soon, leaving his opulent kingdom to his youngest son, the 5-year-old Duleep Singh in 1843. The following six years were fraught with further instability. The tumultuous Anglo-Sikh wars ensued, culminating in the annexation of the Sikh Empire by the East India Company in 1849. The civil authorities separated Duleep Singh from his mother, Maharani Jind Kaur, and he was brought to England. Meanwhile, the Lahore treasury was confiscated by the East India Company as partial payment of the debt owed by the Lahore Government and the expenses of the war.

While this treasury was formulated as war booty, the governor-general of India, James Andrew Broun Ramsay (later and popularly known as Lord Dalhousie), had singled out the Kohinoor, intending to give it to Queen Victoria with the hope that the diamond would be added to the crown jewels. One of the particular provisions of the Treaty of Lahore, a peace pact marking the end of the First Anglo-Sikh War, was that “the gem called the Koh-i-Noor which was taken from Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk by Maharajah Ranjit Singh shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.” After facilitating the deal and acquiring the Kohinoor, Lord Dalhousie had said, “I had now caught my hare.”

In his diary, Dalhousie wrote: “The Koh-i-Noor has ever been the symbol of conquest. The Emperor of Delhi had it in his Peacock Throne. … [W]hile Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk was king, Ranjit Singh extorted the diamond by gross violence and cruelty. And now when, as the result of unprovoked war, the British Government has conquered the kingdom of Punjab, and has resolved to add it to the territories of the British Empire in India, I have a right to compel the Maharaja of Lahore, in token of his submission, to surrender the jewel to the Queen, that it may find its final and fitting resting place in the crown in Britain. For there is not one of those who have held it since its original possessor, who can boast so just a title to its possession as the Queen of England can claim after two bloody and unprovoked wars.”

Danielle Kinsey, an academic based in Canada whose work focuses on the history of the 19th-century empire and has examined the meaning of diamonds in Britain for over two decades, told New Lines that Lord Dalhousie’s decision to treat it differently from the other treasures looted from Lahore was based on the diamond’s history and association with powerful rulers in South Asia. For the British, the diplomatic spectacle resting on the shoulders of Duleep Singh to “surrender” the diamond to Queen Victoria was a fitting way to commemorate and embody Indian submission to British rule, added Kinsey. Its arrival in London was impeccably timed, as the British monarchy did not have a prominent diamond in its treasury and needed one.

“When Sir David Brewster did his assessment of the diamond before it was recut in 1852, he said that it had very little ornamental value (to the British) as it was in its Mughal cut form and that it only had historical value. So the stone’s association with South Asia and — because the British were the ones writing the so-called ‘end’ of the diamond’s biography — British power in South Asia was the major reason why it was venerated in Britain and kept by the royal family. It wasn’t like they were merely collecting a piece of art; they were accepting imperial war booty as a tribute and understood it as such,” says Kinsey.

Queen Victoria was acutely aware of the advantage taken of Duleep Singh and therefore avoided wearing the diamond until she received tacit permission from him. She was keen to know whether Singh harbored any regrets or desired to see the gem again, although it had undergone significant alterations and was much smaller in size. While Duleep Singh granted the queen “permission” in 1854, he was disappointed at what had become of it, but handed it back to her as a “gift.”

Free of her “guilt,” it was then that Queen Victoria started to wear the diamond as a brooch. It became a part of the crown jewels after her death, and was then set in the crown of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII. It was then transferred to Queen Mary’s crown in 1911 and finally to the crown of Queen Elizabeth, consort to George VI, in 1937. When Elizabeth died in 2002, the crown was placed on top of her coffin for the lying-in-state and funeral. Since then, it has been on display at the Tower of London.

Now, as Britain prepares for the coronation of King Charles III, the queen consort will be wearing a modified version of the crown made for Queen Mary. In its announcement, the palace cast the selection of crowns for Camilla in economic rather than cultural terms. “The choice of Queen Mary’s crown by her majesty is the first time in recent history that an existing crown will be used for the coronation of a consort instead of a new commission being made, in the interests of sustainability and efficiency,” the palace said. The absence of the Kohinoor has again put the spotlight on it.

“It is yet another attempt to divert attention from the contagious issue of colonial exploitation on the day of the coronation,” Vikram Visana, a U.K.-based academic and historian of political thought, told New Lines. “Alas, the move is going to be a disaster, for whether the palace likes it or not, the absence of the diamond will continue to be the talk of the town on the day of the event … [and] might ignite a much-needed debate about whether it is finally time to return the Kohinoor or not.”

After the death of Queen Elizabeth II last year, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India told the Telegraph that the use of the Kohinoor during the coronation could “bring back painful memories of the colonial past.” Since 1947, when India won its independence from the British, there have been several requests for its repatriation by the Indian government.

But the Kohinoor is not only claimed by India. It remains at the center of a tug-of-war among several nations. While India asserts its ownership based on the diamond’s origin, Iran lays a competing claim, citing the diamond’s name as evidence of its Persian heritage. Afghanistan points to the violence and coercion that accompanied the diamond’s transfer during the Durrani dynasty as grounds for its own claim. Pakistan, for its part, argues on territorial grounds, emphasizing the diamond’s last known location within its borders. When the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan, he was a vocal advocate for the diamond’s repatriation. In 1976, he boldly proclaimed that the return of the Kohinoor would serve as a potent symbol of a new era of global equity. Against these competing claims, Britain steadfastly maintains its legal possession of the diamond.

“Many former colonies feel Britain owes them reparations for centuries of rapacity in their lands. Returning priceless artifacts purloined at the height of imperial rule might be a good place to start,” says Shashi Tharoor, a member of the Indian Parliament. At various international forums, Tharoor has extensively highlighted how the British “looted” India of its former grandeur, quite apart from the massacres, mass arrests and repression of civil rights that took place during their rule. In an interview with New Lines, Tharoor said he understands that the enormous burden of colonialism cannot fully be compensated for, and describes reparations as a tool for atonement rather than empowerment. “The existence of contending claims comes as a major relief to Britain, as it seeks to fend off a blizzard of demands to undo the manifold injustices of two centuries or more of colonial exploitation of far-flung lands,” Tharoor says.

Navtej Sarna, a former Indian ambassador to the U.S., U.K. and Israel, argues, “These are all false premises and conscious efforts to muddy the waters on the issue of the return of the Kohinoor. And that continues to be a grim reminder of the colonial excesses and injustice.” In recent years, various Indian leaders and politicians across ideological lines have demanded the United Kingdom acknowledge that the Kohinoor is an Indian artifact. Popular understanding is that the Kohinoor defined the essence of India and was forcefully taken away from Duleep Singh. “Historically, it was taken from [undivided] India — and hence, it essentially has to come back to India,” Sarna tells New Lines.

Even within their country, Indians are divided over who has claims to the diamond. One demand has come from the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Lawyers representing the temple quote a letter preserved in the National Archives of India, written by a British political agent to Ranjit Singh’s court highlighting his “donation to the temple.” The Amsterdam-based Beant Singh Sandhanwalia — the last recognized heir of Duleep Singh — has also claimed ownership. Another claimant is the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the organization that manages Sikh temples in India, which says the diamond “belongs to the Sikhs.”

Under international law, there are legal challenges that prevent the repatriation of Kohinoor. Even though the current discourse places emphasis on the protection and preservation of historical artifacts, the legal paradigm is still rudimentary in its understanding of belonging or ownership. One of the primary challenges is that the diamond was taken from India during the colonial period, which makes it difficult to determine who the rightful owner is. Furthermore, there is a lack of a clear international legal framework governing cultural heritage and restitution, which further complicates the matter. Most international law principles date to the immediate post-World War II era. “Returning looted goods only goes back to the 20th century, so while it was mandatory for the Nazis to return stolen Jewish art, under international law it is not mandatory for the British to return the Kohinoor,” Dalrymple said. “There’s no question that it came out of southern Indian soil … but, there are at least four very strong claims.” Therefore, because of the static and frozen nature of the statute of limitations, many questions regarding repatriation and restitution of the Kohinoor remain unanswered.

While the Kohinoor will not make an appearance during the coronation, the crown that will be worn by Camilla is still linked to Britain’s colonial past. It will be adorned with the Cullinan III, IV and V diamonds. Known as “Lesser Stars of Africa,” they were part of Queen Elizabeth II’s personal jewelry collection as brooches. Originally mined from South Africa in 1905, they were gifted to the royal family in 1907 by the South African government. “The Kohinoor and the Cullinan are just well-known examples that actively tie the British Crown to different aspects of colonial exploitation and diamond mining interests,” says Kinsey.

“Until it [Kohinoor] is returned – at least as a symbolic gesture of expiation – it will remain as the reminder of the theft and pillage perpetrated by the former imperial power,” Tharoor says. “Perhaps that is the best argument for leaving the Kohinoor where it emphatically does not belong – in British hands.”

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