The legendary Koh-i-Noor – the world’s most famous diamond

Posted in Geology, Historical articles, History, Legend, Royalty on Friday, 6 January 2012

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about the Crown Jewels originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 896 published on 24 March 1979.

Nadir Shah and Mohammed Shah, picture, image, illustration

The Shah of Persia proposes swapping turbans knowing that the ex-Emperor has the Koh-i-Noor hidden in his head-dress, by C L Doughty

Of all the gems of the Crown Jewels, at the Tower of London, it is a single huge diamond that dazzles the tourists most. And that is the Koh-i-Noor.

Without question, this is one of the most famous diamonds in the world, even though it is neither the largest nor the most beautiful. There are stones five times its weight, and many which are much finer specimens of the gem-cutter’s art.

Nevertheless, the diamond mounted in the crown of the queen consort, which was last worn by the Queen Mother, has a magic that no other can equal. Centuries old, the Koh-i-Noor’s history reads like a tale from the Arabian Knights, steeped as it is in double-dealing, cruelty and death.

Amazingly, the first Englishman to be entrusted with the priceless gem gave it so little thought that he lost it.

Nobody knows the full history of the Koh-i-Noor, or Mountain of Light as it is also called, but according to legend it was first found more than 800 years ago in a river in Southern India. There is a great jewel mentioned in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, and it is possible that this was the Koh-i-Noor.

In 1304, the stone was reported as having belonged to the rulers of Malwa, from whom it then passed into the hands of Ala-ud-din, Emperor of Delhi. Then little was heard of it until 1526, when there was a battle at Panipat. After the battle, the widow of a slain nobleman offered the gem – in exchange for his protection – to Humayun, son of the Mogul Emperor Babar.

Humayun immediately presented the Mountain of Light to his father, probably as a dutiful gesture, but much to his son’s astonishment Babar handed it back. The great stone became part of the Mogul treasure and eventually was mounted to become the “eye” of the famous jewel-studded Peacock Throne.

As time went on, it was widely believed in India that whoever held the Koh-i-Noor held the country as well. It was more than a jewel: it was a talisman of power, and certainly for the two centuries that they held it, the Moguls were to remain the undisputed rulers of India.

In the seventeenth century the French traveller and jeweller, Tavernier, inspected the jewels of the Peacock Throne. In his opinion, unskilled cutting in the past had rendered the Koh-i-Noor to a mere quarter of its original size, which may well have been as much as 800 carats. Probably the 191-carat stone looked more like a lump of cut glass than a finely chiselled diamond, but even in its diminished form it was enormous – and the most prized of all the Mogul possessions.

In 1739, Delhi fell to Nadir Shah, the ruler of Iran, who ransacked the city in a desperate attempt to locate the Koh-i-Noor. (It had mysteriously disappeared from the throne.) Remorselessly, the shah searched the palace, but even under torture no member of the Mogul court would say where it was.

Eventually, a slave girl whispered that the defeated emperor, Mohammed Shah, kept the diamond with him, stitched into an inner fold of his turban.

Too astute to take the stone by force (for he had hoped to ally himself with the defeated Mogul), the Iranian ruler proposed that he and the ex-emperor should exchange turbans. This being a traditional Indian gesture of friendship, it was not something the emperor could refuse. Accordingly he handed over his headdress, together with the priceless diamond.

At this point the Koh-i-Noor lost its magical ability to bestow power. Shortly after securing it, Nadir Shah was murdered and the fabled stone fell into the ownership of one of his generals, who, when he died, passed it on to Shah Shuja of Afghanistan.

The diamond brought its latest owner no better fortune than it had the Nadir Shah. Forced to flee to the Punjab in India and then held fugitive there, Shah Shuja threw himself at the mercy of his captor.

The Shah could have sanctuary, the ruler Ranjit Singh told him – but at a price. And, of course, that price was the Koh-i-Noor.

The hapless refugee had no alternative but to surrender it to the “Lion of the Punjab”. From that moment on, the one-eyed Sikh ruler wore the diamond on his sleeve as a sign that, even if he did not rule all of India, he could at least boast of owning its most treasured gem.

Then in 1839 death overtook the tough little warrior and the stone moved into the care of the armies that survived him. They in turn were defeated by the troops of the East India Company and the Koh-i-Noor changed hands yet again. Upon the British annexation of the Punjab, it was relinquished to its new ruler, the great administrator, John Lawrence.

Efficient he might have been, but not when it came to looking after the diamond. When it was first handed to him, he casually slipped it into his waistcoat pocket and carried on talking. His mind was obviously on other things. Being a man of encyclopaedic knowledge, the last thing that struck him as important was a gem, no matter how valuable. To him the Koh-i-Noor must have seemed a mere trinket.

But when word came from Queen Victoria that she wanted it sent to England, it gained a sudden importance. A long time had passed since the day he had put it into his pocket, and certainly it was no longer there. He summoned his Indian servant, and together they launched a room-to-room search. After days of fruitless effort they had to admit defeat.

There was no diamond to be found anywhere, Lawrence’s servant told his master dejectedly, but he had seen something that puzzled him: a strangely cut lump of glass in a matchbox. Did the Sahib want him to throw it away?

Certainly not! With a gasp of relief Lawrence pocketed the stone and passed it to the Governor-General, who carried it, safely sewn up in a money belt, to a waiting ship. The Koh-i-Noor left India for England on 6th April, 1850, in time for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The stone should have been safe from harm in England, but unfortunately Queen Victoria altered it. As far as she was concerned it did not sparkle enough; so she gave orders for it to be recut. Not only did the jeweller’s operation reduce its weight (down to 108 carats); it totally changed its unusual appearance.

Even so, the Koh-i-Noor remains a diamond of unique historical interest, the most legendary and most fought-over jewel in history.

Comments are closed.