Noted historian and writer William Dalrymple says it was the “British bragging” and the way the Kohinoor was projected by them, that made the gem world’s most famous diamond.
Dalrymple, in his new book titled, ‘Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond’, argues that colonial Britain “consciously” made it into a “unique icon” and the “gem of gems”, something that has now turned against them, with most Indians associating it with a symbol of “colonial loot”.
“Kohinoor becoming ‘the gem of gems’ was British creation.
Bigging up their conquest, they consciously put it on show at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and made it into a symbol of what they had taken from India. That has now turned against the British themselves,” he said in an interview.
The Scottish writer notes that there were diamonds like the Dari-a-Nur or the Orlov, which were bigger in size than the Kohinoor, but have never been called for return.
“There were other bigger Mughal diamonds – the Dari-a-Nur which was taken by Nadir Shah to Iran and the Orlov, now in Kremlin, also taken by Nadir Shah and later passed on to Russia. Why is no one calling their return? The answer is that the Great Exhibition made the Kohinoor the most famous diamond in the world,” he said.
Published by Juggernaut Books, the book which Dalrymple has co-authored with noted UK-based Indian journalist Anita Anand, tells the story of how Kohinoor came to be regarded as the “supreme gem”.
It unearths “new” information about the diamond as it moves from the Mughal courts to Persia to Afghanistan; from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s durbar in Punjab to the Queen of England’s Crown.
“It is a very interesting history. We try to trace in the book how it became an icon, when it was never the most famous diamond. When it wasn’t the biggest diamond. When the Mughals didn’t refer to it anywhere in their writings. Nor did any of the Sultanates,” he said.
He points out that the Kohinoor was certainly an item of colonial loot but dismissed the popular lores doing the rounds on the Internet about its plunder and transfers as, “simply fantasy”.
He said the commonly believed narrative that the Khilijis looted it before passing it on to the Lodhis, who passed it on to the Tughlaks, who in turn passed it on to the Mughals until Muhammad Shah Rangila hid it in his turban and ended up swapping turbans with Nadir Shah, was devoid of any “proof”.
“There is not a single, clear, definitive and unambiguous reference to the Kohinoor before 1750, when it appears in Muhammad Marwi’s account of Nadir Shah’s campaign. He says, in a Persian passage we translated in this book, that it was attached to one of the peacocks on the Peacock Throne. There is no other reference,” he said.
While being in agreement with politician and writer Shashi Tharoor that the British owed an apology to India for its “past crimes”, Dalrymple said it was not for him to “predict or dictate future”.
“I think the British owe a lot of apologies. The job in this thing is not to dictate or pontificate or prescribe, but to try and calmly separate truth from fiction because the Kohinoor has raised so many heckles and is claimed concurrently not only by India but also Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the Taliban,” he said.
He also trashed the statement submitted in the Supreme Court earlier this year by Solicitor General of India Ranjit Kumar, according to which the Kohinoor was a “gift” by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the East India Company.
“It was given in the ‘Treaty of Lahore’ in 1849, when Ranjit Singh would have been dead ten years. So he couldn’t have given it. It was the spoils of the conquest.
“‘Treaty of Lahore’ did two things: it gave Kohinoor to Queen Victoria and it gave Punjab and Kashmir to the East India Company,” he asserted.
Talking about whether India should reclaim the coveted gem, Dalrymple said he did not know the answer as going back into the history to ascertain the rightful owner would be “problematic”.
“India too, under the Cholas, invaded Sri Lanka. They broke all the idols in Anuradhapura, they took all the gems back to Tamil Nadu. Should Sri Lanka start suing India? When you start going endlessly into the distant history, it’s problematic.
“Everyone has a view. The Indians think it should be theirs. So do the Pakistanis and the British. We (authors) are doing a neutral job. Putting facts as neutrally as we can,” he said.