For those who enjoy tales set in the Mughal and Raj era, this is the book for you; for others, it is merely more of the same.
William Dalrymple and Anita Anand. Kohinoor: Story Of The World’s Most Infamous Policy. Juggernaut. 2016.
The reputation of the Kohinoor diamond makes it one of the most written-about gemstones in the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that there has been a fresh attempt to milk the ‘tale of greed conquest, murder, torture, colonialism and appropriation’ that comprises the history of this particular metastable allotrope of carbon.
Written by the bestselling author of all things ‘Raj’ and ‘Mughal’, William Dalrymple, and co-author, Anita Anand, British radio and TV journalist, the book aims to tell the story of the Kohinoor from its hoary beginnings to the present.
The book has two parts; Dalrymple has written the first one, ‘The Jewel in the Throne’. The second part, ‘The Jewel in the Crown’’ has been written by Anand, a clichéd title if there ever was one.
Written in Dalrymple’s trademark easy to read and racy style, the first part of the book aims to trace the history of the Kohinoor from its ‘Indian’ pre-history to its progress across history’s pages till the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It opens, slightly inexplicably, with an introduction describing the last act in the play of the Kohinoor’s journey; the defeat of the Sikhs and signing of the Treaty of Lahore with the handing over of the diamond to the British. It then moves on to consider the past in five chapters.
The violence, killing, greed and avarice accompanying the ownership of the stone are described in some detail and with relish: less so the pre-medieval history of the stone.
Having read an enticing description on the cover page that previously un-translated Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu sources would be encountered in the pages of the book one waited eagerly for these to appear. In vain, alas, as far as the Sanskrit translations are concerned, the references are few and all of them are old established translations. That part of Chapter One which is on the ancient history of gemstones, jewellery and diamonds in general in India and the Kohinoor in particular, is desultory and sparse. Its title as ‘Indian’ pre-history seems puzzling since much of the medieval history is also Indian.
This part gathers pace only when the narrative reaches the medieval period. This could be because of the availability of evidence. It could also be for the reason that in the popular imagination of English-speakers in India, Indian history begins with the Muslim invasion and gathers real traction only when the Mughals reach the subcontinent and then yield place to the colonial masters, the British.
Dalrymple traces the story up to the death of Ranjit Singh. It starts from a possible mention of the Kohinoor being part of the riches of the Vijayanagara kingdom or of Alauddin Khilji’s jewels and later Babur, Humayun and Shahjahan’s treasury. The Peacock Throne and Kohinoor as the prized possession of the Mughals come in for a detailed mention and after that the loss of the diamond to the ‘Afshar Turkman’ warlord who overran Afghanistan and ransacked Delhi, Nader Shah. It remained in Afghanistan for a few decades and found its way back to India due to the exploits of the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh.
Then, for the history of the Kohinoor as it changed hands from Duleep Singh, the last Sikh sovereign, to Queen Victoria, the narrative is taken over by Anand. This part encapsulates the history of the Kohinoor from the 19th century to the present.
Duleep Singh’s story has been the subject of many pens, such has been the fascination with the appropriation of the diamond by the British Empire. Anand handles the matter competently enough.
There is a description of the background of public opinion as it existed in Britain at the time, supported however, by some rather tedious excerpts from letters to newspapers of the period. One wishes that the editorial red pen had been wielded a little more vigorously to cut down the extensive quotes many of which seem like excuses to rant against the ‘credulity and superstition’ of the ‘Hindoo’ population and its ‘profane, idolatrous and mercenary priesthood’. Throwaway and erroneous references to the Mauryans and to the concept of ‘Chakravartin’ shed no positive light on Anand’s actual knowledge of ancient India and would have been better avoided.
The Great Exhibition and the diamond’s public spectacle at it, Prince Albert’s disastrous re-cutting of the Kohinoor wherein it lost almost a 100 metric carats of volume (from 190.3 to 93) are also described.
Duleep Singh’s story, his forced separation from his mother Jindan Kaur, his life in England, his conversion to Christianity and relationship to Queen Victoria as a loyal subject are dealt with in depth. As are his subsequent revolt and attempts to get back the Kohinoor; even threats to go to war to recover his lost kingdom.
Parallely the sovereigns of Britain of the period and their use of the diamond for adornment are also considered in much detail along with references to the story of the curse associated with the diamond.
The book ends with the Kohinoor securely in the Tower of London. The question of return of the diamond to India is taken up and Pakistan, Afghanistan and rather egregiously, the Taliban, lumped together as claimants to the stone.
The Kohinoor occupies a special place in the Indian imagination. Much of it today seems to be a reaction against the indignities of invasion, colonization and loot, fed by past hysteria and triumphalism in Britain.
The issue of the return of looted cultural artefacts is a burning one but it is not through feeding the Kohinoor passion that any meaningful headway can be made. This is merely a diamond, there are far more precious artefacts proudly exhibited in British and other European museums whose correct place is back in their temples or palaces. The Sivapuram Bronzes, perhaps, or other priceless artefacts looted by the international art smuggler Subhash Kapoor ? That reparation may be the only way the symbolism of the Kohinoor can be of any purpose beyond the slavering desire for stories of blood, gore and torture.
This book seems to feed the ever healthy appetite for Raj/Mughal period nostalgia which has a strange grip on the English-reading class in India. They are never disappointed; more books have been written on these two phases of Indian history than all others combined. The colonial tastes inherited in the matter of English books remain predominant.
For those who enjoy tales set in the background of the loot, plunder and devastation of India, this is the book for you, for others it remains a repetition of a story already overdone in the past.