The infamous Koh-I-Noor diamond currently sits in the Tower of London among the crown jewels of the British monarchy, but its bloody, eon-spanning journey began in the riverbeds of ancient India. Cut, coveted, and stolen multiple times over, this is the story of the world’s most controversial gem. Told through a series of five chapters, we will look at some of the diamond’s most consequential owners, and how it shaped (or destroyed) their lives.
The infamous Koh-I-Noor diamond currently sits in the Tower of London among the crown jewels of the British monarchy, but its bloody, eon-spanning journey began in the riverbeds of ancient India. Cut, coveted, and stolen multiple times over, this is the story of the world’s most controversial gem. Told through a series of five chapters, we will look at some of the diamond’s most consequential owners, and how it shaped (or destroyed) their lives.
Dalrymple, William; Anand, Anita. Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond. 2016.
Tharoor, Shashi. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. 2017.
Axworthy, Michael. Sword of Persia: Nader Shah. 2006.
Singh, Patwand; M. Rai, Jyoti. Empire of the Sikhs: The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. 2008.
Atwal, Priya. Royals and Rebels: The Rise & Fall of the Sikh Empire. 2020.
Eraly, Abraham. The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India’s Great Emperors. 2004.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network, and as always, I’m your host Zach Cornwell.
[Just a quick housekeeping item before we jump into today’s topic. At long last, after months and months of me doing this, the show finally has a Patreon. To be totally honest, I’ve been putting it off for a while, mostly because I’m just inherently uncomfortable with asking people for stuff. But lots of you have reached out asking how to support the show, so I figured it was time. So, if you’d like to support what I’m doing on Conflicted with a couple bucks a month, I would be absolutely honored. Seriously, the fact that so many of you tune in every month to hear me ramble is reward enough, but a little extra change will help me make more content, refine the show even further, and just create a better podcast for you in general. If you think these episodes are worth a few bucks a month, head over to patreon.com/conflictedhistorypodcast. Once again, that’s patreon.com/conflictedhistorypodcast ]
I am very excited about today’s episode, because it’s taking us to a part of the world we haven’t really explored on Conflicted yet. It’s a place that is so old, so multi-faceted, and so saturated in complex history that you could spend an entire lifetime studying it and still just barely scratch the surface.
Today we are going to India. The vast subcontinent that hundreds of languages, dozens of religions, and thousands of years of incredible history call home.
But this episode is different for another important reason. On this show, we usually talk about people. What moves them, what motivates them, what spurs them to do the complicated things they do. Well, the main subject of today’s episode is not a person, or an event, it’s an object.
More specifically, a diamond.
Ah, but not just any diamond. Today we’re going to try and untangle the story of one of the most controversial and contested diamonds on planet earth. The one and only Koh-I-Noor diamond.
That’s K-O-H-I-N-O-O-R. Koh-I-Noor. It’s a Persian name, which means “Mountain of Light”. And guys, the Mountain of Light definitely lives up to its name. This diamond is massive. Right around 100 metric carats, to be exact, making it one of the largest cut diamonds in the world. To put that in perspective, if you were to hold this diamond in your hand, it’d be about the size of an egg.
And how much is a diamond like that worth, you might ask? Well, according to one 19th century Afghani queen: ‘If a strong man were to throw four stones, one to each of the cardinal points, North, South, East and West, and a fifth stone vertically, and if the space between were to be filled with gold and precious stones, they would not equal in value the Koh-i- Noor.’
The “mountain of light”, the Kohinoor, originally came from India; but today you’ll find it in the Tower of London, neatly nestled within the Crown Jewels of the British Monarchy. If you’ve got 30 bucks and some time to kill, you can actually go see it in all its sparkly glory, right now, today.
But that tidy little display case in a British museum can give the diamond on aura of serenity that’s a bit deceptive. Because the Koh-I-Noor has a history that is drenched with blood and misery and death. People have been fighting and dying over this hunk of concentrated carbon for almost 1,000 years. It has changed hands so many times, that no one can even agree on who it really belongs to anymore.
For example, to this day, the Koh-I-Noor is claimed by no less than five national governments, including Great Britain, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, even the Taliban in Afghanistan say they have a legitimate claim to it. To paraphrase historians Anita Anand and William Darlymple, the Kohinoor is less a gem and more of a “live diplomatic grenade”.
But this story has a spooky side too. The Kohinoor has had hundreds of owners, possibly thousands, but very, very bad things seem to happen to anyone who owns, or even wears this diamond. As historians Anand and Darlymple write:
“Its owners have variously been blinded, slow-poisoned, tortured to death, burned in oil, threatened with drowning, crowned in molten lead, assassinated by their own family and bodyguards, lost their kingdoms and died in penury.”
Tragedy and bad luck stalk the owners of the Kohinoor with such reliable frequency, that more superstitious minds have insisted the diamond is literally cursed.
Well today, you and I are going to be treasure hunters. We’re going to put on our Indiana Jones hats and try to piece together the long, bloody story of the world’s most controversial diamond.
Now that all sounds well and good, but how do you tell the story of an object this old? How can you possibly trace its journey from one hand to the next without it feeling like a boring laundry list of forgettable names, dates and places?
Well, as I was wracking my brain trying to answer that question, I kept coming back to a particular movie that I have loved for years and years. Some of you may have heard of it before – it’s called The Red Violin.
If you’re not familiar, The Red Violin tells the story of – what else – a violin, that survives for centuries and goes on a long, continent-hopping journey, from Renaissance Italy to communist China, as it changes owners multiple times over. The movie is divided into four or five little vignettes, self-contained stories where we get to meet some of the of the violin’s most interesting and consequential owners.
So, when I was trying to figure out how to tell the story of the Kohinoor, that Red Violin-style structure leapt to mind as a perfect way to approach this topic.
So what we’re going to do, is spend time with five of the Kohinoor’s most important owners. We’ll see how they came to possess the diamond, what it meant to them, and how it ultimately destroyed their lives. For our purposes, the story of the Kohinoor, is actually the story of three very different men, one little boy, and an absolutely incredible woman, all separated by centuries, hundreds of miles, and a chasm of cultural differences.
It's an amazing story, and honestly, an ambitious and challenging one to tell, but I think you’re gonna dig it. So, with that introduction out of the way, let’s dive right in.
Welcome to Episode 23: Curse of the Kohinoor Diamond.
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Chapter One: The Peacock Throne
In late December of 1849, a 21-year-old man named Theo Metcalfe opened one of the most important letters of his life.
Theo was a junior assistant magistrate of the British East India Company, stationed in the bustling metropolis of Delhi.
At this time, the East India Company held sway over vast tracts of the Indian subcontinent, the result of a long, ugly process in which the Company had bullied, bribed, or brutalized the many kaleidoscopic kingdoms of India into complete submission. For all intents and purposes, the British owned India now. There was no one left to say otherwise.
Well, grand plans of world domination were the last thing on young Theo’s mind. He liked his job, more or less, but at the end of the day, it was just a job. When not opening letters and doing mountains of mind-numbing paperwork, Theo spent his time gambling, betting on horses, and getting into what his father called “scrapes”.
Needless to say, Theo was not the finest the British East India company had to offer. Which made the letter he received in December of 1849 all the more puzzling. It was from the Governor-General, the Company’s highest-ranking official in India. Theo knew he was well-liked around the office, but this was like someone in the mail room getting a personal note from the CEO of the organization.
As it turned out, the Governor-General had very special, very important assignment for young Theo. The letter explained that the British East India company had recently come into possession of a very large, very rare diamond. A huge, glittering stone from the Northern kingdom of Punjab. What the locals called the “Koh-I-Noor”.
The Governor-General was planning to send it home to the Queen of England as a gift. But there was one little problem. No one really knew anything about this diamond. Where it came from, how it came to Punjab originally, nothing.
There was no official history of the stone. Its past was murky, mysterious, cloaked in a mix of rumor and myth. Hard facts were just…hard to come by. Theo’s job, the letter explained, was to write that history. To create an authoritative record of the gem’s significance. To “collect and to record as much accurate and interesting information regarding the Koh-i-Noor”.
So, Theo set out into the marketplaces and bazaars of Delhi to find some answers.
You can almost picture it in your head, this 21-year-old kid bumping his way through Delhi, asking questions in broken Hindi or Farsi about a semi-mythical piece of treasure. And the answers he got ranged from the factual to the fantastical.
Some people said the jewel had been mined from deep within the earth 5,000 years ago. Others said the diamond had literally fallen from heaven, only to be plucked from a riverbed by some lucky passerby. It was rumored that fragments of the Gods themselves were trapped within the Kohinoor, remnants of a great battle against demons and demigods.
Not only were its origins magical, the chatty interviewees assured Theo, the Kohinoor, like all diamonds, possessed magical properties. It could cure any disease, bring its owner long life, not mention a radiant complexion. The mere sight of such a beautiful gem would send the fierce tigers and bloodthirsty predators running for their lives. It had domestic applications, too. It was said that a woman could test her husband’s fidelity by placing the diamond under her pillow at night. If she cuddled up to him in her sleep, he was faithful, if she did not, he was unfaithful.
Theo listened to this stuff for days and days, but after a while, bright kernels of the truth began to emerge from the sludge of fiction. The diamond, it seemed, had been stolen from India more than a century prior, whisked away to Afghanistan, then Persia, and beyond. Then in some tragic twist of irony, the Kohinoor had come home to India in the early 1800s, only to then fall once again into the hands of foreign invaders. Into British hands.
Theo’s conclusions, which he put into a report for the Governor-General were, by his own admission, “so very meagre and imperfect,” but there was one thing most of the sources agreed upon. The first concrete historical record of the Kohinoor’s existence dated back to the famous Mughal Dynasty, a mighty empire that had once ruled over India’s totality with an iron, jeweled fist, until it all came crashing down.
As Theo dug for the truth about the Kohinoor, he would certainly have heard the stories about the opulence of the great Mughal Emperors, their marble palaces, heavenly harems, and their prized possession, the Peacock Throne.
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In the year 1635, the richest man in the world lived in northern India.
And his name was Shah Jahan.
Shah Jahan was the fifth Mughal Emperor, and he ruled over a domain that stretched across most of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, parts of Nepal and Afghanistan.
His father’s father’s father’s father had founded the Empire back in the mid 1500s, roaring down into northern India was a massive, mighty army and carving out an Islamic dynasty that would endure for another 300 years.
If the history of the Mughal Empire was a line graph, it would look like a big, upside down “V”. A very fast, very sharp rise, followed by a plummeting descent. The Mughals weren’t here for a long time, they were here for a good time. And right at the tip of that “V”, at the pinnacle of its wealth and power, sat Shah Jahan.
Now, the name “Shah Jahan” is not actually a name. It’s a title, an honorific. It means “King of the World” in Persian. And any visitors to Shah Jahan’s court would have immediately seen why it was an appropriate title.
In terms of money and land and military power, the Mughal Empire of the 1600s was the absolute center of the universe. More-so than Europe or the Holy Land or Africa or even China. As Willian Dalrymple colorfully puts it:
For their grubby contemporaries in the West, stumbling around in their codpieces, the silk-clad Mughals, dripping in jewels, were the living embodiment of wealth and power – a meaning that has remained impregnated in the word ‘mogul’ ever since.
The Mughals ruled over anywhere between 100-200 million people, depending on the periodic inhalation and exhalations of the empire’s borders. For comparison, all of England at this time comprised of just 4 million people. The Ottoman Empire in the Middle East only ruled over 20 million people. At this time, India accounted for almost 27 percent, more than a fourth, of the entire world economy. As a Jesuit missionary named Antonio Monserrate swooned:
‘They are second to none either in Asia or in Europe, with regards either to size, population, or wealth. Their cities are crowded with merchants, who gather there from all over Asia. There is no art or craft which is not practiced there.’
And at the center of it all, was Shah Jahan. The King of the World. If you were lucky enough to be allowed into the Emperor’s presence, you would’ve seen a man literally twinkling, covered with gems and rubies and emeralds. His white silk shirts and ornamental turban were interwoven with pearls and gold thread. He was practically clothed in jewels.
To put it plainly, Shah Jahan would’ve made today’s most bedazzled and blinged-out rappers blush with embarrassment. If it had ever occurred to the Mughals to wear gold, diamond-studded grills on their teeth, you can bet they absolutely would have done it.
Now - it's also worth pointing out that although Shah Jahan and his Mughal predecessors were devout Muslims, they were a far cry from their austere, ascetic forbears in Arabia - the original followers of the Prophet Muhammed who went on to forge the first Caliphate one thousand years earlier. The Mughals were orthodox Sunni Muslims, but they were absolutely not shy about indulging in the pleasures of life. To the Mughals, wealth and finery were a way of giving glory to Allah. Why would you not want to cover yourself in these precious stones, these beautiful things that God himself had created?
All the Mughal Emperors had a love of finery, but Shah Jahan took it to another level. He was obsessed with gemstones, in particular. And it was much more than a hobby. “Connoisseur”, is a term you will often hear used to describe him. According to an Englishman named Edward Terry who visited the Mughal court, Shah Jahan was:
“The greatest and richest master of precious stones that inhabits the whole earth.”
Shah Jahan knew every stone in his treasury like it was his own child. He could remember the size and shape and clarity of a jewel or pearl he’d seen years before, and then describe it with it such detail that it could be brought to him immediately. He was a living encyclopedia of knowledge on all things shiny.
Shah Jahan’s obsession ran so deep, that when he was inspecting a stone, nothing could tear his attention from it. There’s a great anecdote from a Portuguese Friar named Manrique, who was visiting Shah Jahan’s court in the mid-1600s. He tells a story about how one night, during a big banquet or feast, dancing girls were brought before Shah Jahan as entertainment. They were wearing practically nothing, which of course scandalized the uptight Father Manrique. But even though they were decked out in
“lascivious and suggestive dress, immodest behavior and posturing”. Shah Jahan barely looked up. His attention was fixed on the facets of a jewel someone had given him earlier that night.
In short, Shah Jahan loved bling in all its forms. As he got older, he noticed his eyesight was getting bad. So, he commissioned a jeweler to make a pair of spectacles that had large, wafer-thin diamonds as lenses. Another pair had emeralds. The guy had emerald sunglasses. All of this so he could look at his gems, through a pair of gems.
But where is the Koh-I-Noor diamond in all of this? You might be asking.
Well, to understand that, we need to talk a little bit about Mughal gem culture. At this time, the Koh-I-Noor was roughly double the size that it is now. Almost 200 carats. And the reason it was so big, was because it hadn’t been cut yet. Unlike their European contemporaries, the Mughals did not like to cut their gems into symmetrical shapes with hard lines and edges. They preferred to appreciate the natural shape of the stone, bulges, blemishes, and all. How it had formed naturally in Allah’s good earth.
Another important way that Mughal tastes differed from that of their Western contemporaries, is that diamonds were not really considered top-tier gemstones. Diamonds were the B-Team in terms of precious stones. The Mughals loved bright colors and rich, flashy hues, so their favorite gems were rubies and sapphires and emeralds. Deep greens and blood reds and ocean blues. The clear, off-white diamonds were indeed beautiful, but the Mughals much preferred the colorful stuff.
Truth be told, the Koh-I-Noor diamond was far from the most precious, or even the biggest stone in Shah Jahan’s obscene treasury.
Well, early in Shah Jahan’s reign, he decides he wants to do something with all these precious stones. He wants to collect them all in one place and forge them into a dazzling monument that fully communicated the splendor of his Empire. Something that would leave visitors to the court speechless. As a court chronicler named Ahmad Shah Lahori wrote, the gem collection: “ought therefore, to be put to such a use, that beholders might share in and benefit by their splendor, and that his Majesty might shine with increased brilliancy.”
So, Shah Jahan commissions a very special object, something that would serve as a showpiece for his gem collection. It took seven years, 2500 pounds of gold, and 500 pounds of precious gems to make. Crafted by dozens of the most talented jewelers and goldsmiths that planet earth had ever seen. And what came out on the other side, has become known to history as the Peacock Throne.
According to a French jeweler named Jean Baptiste Tavernier, who saw it in person: “It is the richest and most superb throne which has ever been seen in the world.”
Honestly, it wasn’t so much a throne as it was a platform. This thing was huge. Six feet tall. Four feet wide. It could blind you if it caught the sunlight just right. As the court chronicler continues:
“The outside of the canopy was to be of enamel work studded with gems, the inside was to be thickly set with rubies, garnets, and other jewels, and it was to be supported by twelve emerald columns. On the top of each pillar there were to be two peacocks thick set with gems, and between each of the two peacocks a tree set with rubies and diamonds, emeralds and pearls.”
And on top of this magnificent throne, set in the head of one of these jeweled peacocks, was the Koh-I-Noor diamond. At this early stage, the Koh-I-Noor had not acquired its sinister and bloody reputation yet. It was just one big beautiful rock in a sea of big beautiful rocks. But like many of the Koh-I-Noor’s later owners, Shah Jahan was about to be acquainted with a long string of personal tragedies.
Contrary to what we’ve seen so far, Shah Jahan was more than just a shallow, material-minded guy. Much more. Because there was one thing that Shah Jahan loved more than all his rubies, emeralds, and diamonds combined. And that was his wife, a notoriously gorgeous woman named Mumtaz Mahal. They had been betrothed when they were just teenagers, and by most accounts they were madly in love.
Now - like any good decadent Emperor, Shah Jahan had several wives, but those were purely ceremonial matches. If the sources are to be believed, he only had eyes for Mumtaz Mahal. In fact, she was the only one who he would allow to bear his children. As a contemporary historian named Inayat Khan writes: “He did not feel towards the others one-thousandth of the affection that he did for her. “
According to historian Abraham Eraly, Mumtaz Mahal was not just a trophy wife or a harem accessory to Shah Jahan, she was: “the anchor on which he moored himself.” A companion, a confidant, and a best friend. Mumtaz Mahal gave Shah Jahan 13 children, and for a time they were very happy together. But the strain of the fourteenth pregnancy proved too much for her body. And when she was just 38 years old, she died after thirty hours of agonizing labor. The child survived, but Shah Jahan’s anchor was gone, and he found himself adrift in grief.
After his wife’s death, Shah Jahan wept so much and for so long, that he actually damaged his tear ducts and eyesight. When he wasn’t sobbing, someone once overheard him say: “Empire has no sweetness. Life itself has no relish left for me. Nobody’s face can delight me now.”
Ironically, the intensity of Shah Jahan’s grief gave birth to arguably the most iconic piece of architecture standing in India today. The Taj Mahal, that symmetrically perfect marvel of Mughal architecture that has become a visual shorthand for all of India, was built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife’s body. But it was also a perfect expression of the man himself. As Abraham Eraly writes:
Only Shah Jahan could have built the Taj. The qualities of the Taj – opulent and startlingly beautiful, and yet also austere, perfect in symmetry and balance, meticulous and painstaking in craftsmanship – are all qualities which Shah Jahan cherished in his own life.”
Sadly, Shah Jahan’s misfortune did not end with the death of his wife.
A few years later, his favorite daughter, a woman named Jahanara, experienced a freak accident. Women of the court would often cover their clothes in fragrant oils, basically perfume, and one night, Jahanara brushed past a torch by accident, igniting the oils and engulfing her body in flames. The servants rushed in a panic to grab buckets of water, but by the time they managed to put the fire out, the damage had been done. Jahanara was covered in horrible burns on her back and arms, and it took eleven months for her to fully recover. She was left with horrible scars that she would carry for the rest of her life.
As Shah Jahan gently dabbed ointment on his daughter’s burns and slowly nursed her back to health, he might’ve started to feel like a cursed man. First his wife, now this.
With the Koh-I-Noor twinkling just a few feet above his head on the Peacock Throne, Shah Jahan ruled over the Mughal Empire for another 20 years… but his streak of bad luck wasn’t over yet. And this time, it would bring an end to his power.
In April of 1657, Shah Jahan got really, really sick. Historians seem to be a little split on what exactly it was. Explanations range from a stroke, to a particularly nasty urinary tract infection. But whatever it was, it took him out of commission for weeks and weeks. According to a contemporary named Muhammed Salih Kambu: “Physicians tried all the remedies of their art, but in vain, for the disorder increased. His legs swelled up, fever rose. He was in great pain. For a week he took no food, and as he grew weak, his life was despaired for.”
Shah Jahan eventually recovered, but in the cutthroat world of Mughal court intrigue, that was enough of a window for a rival to step in and usurp power. And the threat didn’t come from an outside invader, but from within. One of Shah Jahan’s sons, a cruel young prince named Aurangzeb, staged a bloody coup and took control of the Empire. The prince killed all of his brothers, and locked the elderly Shah Jahan away in a tower, with no allies, no options, and no power.
All Shah Jahan could do was wait do die. He was like a bird in a very expensive cage, locked away and forgotten. He managed to cling to life for another nine years, and if he looked out the window of his posh prison tower, he could see the ivory spires of the Taj Mahal, as Abraham Eraly writes, the “symbol of his long-departed glory and happiness.”
And what about the Koh-I-Noor diamond? Well, that stayed embedded in the Peacock Throne, waiting like an unlucky talisman for its next owner. The Peacock Throne would outlive Shah Jahan by as much as a century. But the Mughal Empire was clearly past its glory days, and envious eyes on the fringes of their empire were already beginning to covet the immense wealth they had amassed.
The Koh-I-Noor diamond was about to get another, much more violent owner.
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Chapter Two: Blind Ambition
In late February of the year 1739, rumors were spreading like wildfire all over the Mughal capital of Delhi.
Whispers that something terrible was approaching the city. Getting closer day by day. People were saying that an invading army had crossed thousands of miles from Persia, through Afghanistan, and into Northern India, with its eye fixed on the immense wealth of the Mughal Empire.
It had been almost a century since the death of Shah Jahan, and in those long decades, the Empire had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Civil wars, corrupt officials, and a bickering bureaucracy had withered the long-dead Shah Jahan’s dynasty into a feeble state that was ripe for plundering.
The Koh-I-Noor still twinkled in its place in the Peacock Throne, but upon a closer inspection of that golden edifice, and you would’ve noticed little rubies or sapphires missing here and there. The corruption at court had gotten so bad, officials were known to sneakily pry precious gems off the throne and sell them to cover their debts.
As fear and panic spread through Delhi, a call came up from the palace. It told all able-bodied soldiers and men, from the highest prince to the lowest peasant, to begin assembling a few miles west of the capitol. Invaders were indeed coming to attack the city, and Delhi needed an army had to defend it.
The people answered. More than half a million soldiers gathered a few miles outside Delhi, and began making their way north to confront the invaders. It’s difficult for the modern mind to even visualize what this amount of people looks like. But a European observer said that the Mughal army was “two miles wide, by 15 miles long. If this army were trained in the European model, it could conquer the whole world.”
But this army was not trained in the European model, or any model, for that matter. The Mughals had neglected their military for years. And it showed. Behind the dozens of armored war elephants and preening princes in their shiny chainmail…was, as William Darlymple writes: “an undisciplined rabble”. Literal farmers with literal pitchforks.
This fifteen-mile-long river of humanity snaked northward, and on February 24th, it arrived at its destination. And in that moment, the Mughals took the measure of these “invaders” that dared to make an incursion into their territory.
It was a tiny army, Barely 160,000 strong. A fraction of the size the Mughals had brought to bear. The Mughal commanders laughed and gloated. This would be easy, they thought. The rumors about some terrible conqueror were just bits of hayseed gossip after all. They’d be all dining and drinking back in Delhi by sundown.
Several hundred yards across the field, the commander of this tiny force sat on his horse. His beard was dyed jet black, which contrasted sharply with his snow-white hair. He was dressed all in red, the traditional color of capital punishment and death sentences. This man was called Nadir Shah, and he had come to India to loot the Mughal Empire for everything it was worth.
Now, you might be thinking, “ahhh another guy with “Shah” in his name, huh? Yes – there are a lot of Shahs in this story. But remember, it’s just a title, meaning “king” or “emperor”. And Nadir was most certainly a king.
In 1739, he was 41 years old and at the height of his power. Nadir was the ruler of a different empire, a Persian empire that stretched across the Middle East. He had heard stories about the obscene treasure holds of the Mughals and had marched his small, but exceptionally trained army for 1750 long miles, across deserts and mountains and grasslands, all to “pluck some golden feathers”, as he put it.
Nadir was as scary as Shah Jahan had been rich. According to William Darlymple, Nadir was “illiterate, brutal, complex, yet commanding.” The long years of killing and conquest had turned his hair white, but he hid that weathered featured under a bright red hat and dyed his beard black to appear as youthful and frightening as possible.
Well, the Mughal army was not frightened at all. For six generations they had ruled over India, and some would-be Alexander the Great was attempting to kick their door down with a tiny little invasion force. The Mughal princes, confident in their numerical superiority, ordered their own army, all two miles wide of it, to charge.
As they thundered towards the Persian army, the Mughal princes and their obedient cannon fodder realized too late that they were running headfirst into a trap. Nadir Shah’s front line opened to reveal a bristling array of state-of-the-art matchlock muskets, artillery, and horse-mounted swivel guns.
In less than three hours, the massive Mughal army had evaporated with the clouds of black powder smoke from Nadir’s guns. All those farmers and peasants knew better than to run back into the teeth of the Persian firepower. As for the arrogant Mughal princes and nobility, their shiny helmets and silk banners were left to rust and rot under the hot Indian sun. As Darlymple puts it: “the flower of Mughal chivalry lay dead on the ground.”
Before that same sun had dipped below the horizon, Nadir was satisfied that he had eliminated the only obstacle between him and the treasure hoard lying unguarded in Delhi. Three weeks later, he was marching into the city, welcomed as the personal guest of the Mughal Emperor, a man named Muhammed. Not *the* Muhammed, obviously. Just *a* Muhammed. To quote Superbad…
Emperor Muhammed of course, didn’t have a choice. His army was scattered and humiliated, all he could do was play along, and hope this terrifying Persian warrior didn’t cut his head off and stick it on top of the Peacock Throne next to the Koh-I-Noor diamond.
But Nadir had no intention of decorating any surfaces with any severed heads. In fact, after the battle, he was determined that there would be no more killing whatsoever. Now typically, when an invading army enters a captured city, it tends to go very badly for the people inside. There’s rape, looting, murder, all kinds of horrifying stuff. Well, Nadir decided to restrain his troops. He wanted the two million citizens of Delhi to understand that he came with intentions of peace and friendship. He was a killer, but not a butcher.
To enforce discipline among his troops, he was willing to go to draconian extremes. According to historian Michael Axworthy, Nadir instructed his military police that: “anyone injuring any of the citizens should have their nose or ears cut off, or be beaten to death.”
When Nadir swaggered into the halls of the Mughal Emperor’s palace, he must’ve felt a weird mix of awe and revulsion. Nadir was a man of action; he was used to sleeping on the ground, in tents, or in a saddle. And these plush palaces dripping with gold and jewels seemed like such a waste. A cocoon of decadence that made men weak and complacent. To a man like Nadir, wealth was not for wearing, it was for buying stuff. For paying soldiers, raising armies, and conquering new lands.
Nadir looked at the wealth of India and saw one giant credit card. One that he could swipe to buy more soldiers for his future campaigns. He would never prance around with pearls on his wrist like these Mughal clowns. He would use their wealth to expand his empire, something of actual value that he could leave to his descendants. Nadir was a hard-hearted man, but he wasn’t heartless. He had a son back in Persia, a young man named Reza, who Nadir envisioned taking over his empire someday. In a way, all of this was for him.
But Nadir turned his thoughts away from home and family, and focused on the here and now. He had a deal to make with a sweating and squirming Mughal Emperor. So Nadir sat himself down across from Emperor Muhammed. This, thought the Persian King, was a soft man who deserved a hard bargain. As Michael Axworthy writes:
Nader confirmed that Mohammad Shah would continue to reign in India, with the friendship and support of the Persian monarch, because both came of the same Turcoman stock. The Emperor bowed low in gratitude, as well he might – he had been fortunate to keep his life, but now he was to keep his crown as well. In return, Mohammad Shah offered Nader all the imperial treasures – the gold, the heaps of uncut gemstones, and of course the peacock throne itself – all the enormous wealth accumulated over two centuries of Moghul rule in India. Nader demurred. Mohammad Shah insisted. Nader refused. Mohammad Shah offered again. Eventually, Nader accepted. The conquered Emperor was forced in a mocking theatre to persuade his enemy to accept his most priceless possessions.”
And with that, the Persians began melting down anything that shined in the capital city of Delhi. They took it all. Gold. Silver. Gems. Rubies. Weapons. Furniture. Clothing. Textiles. The historians have very helpfully crunched the numbers for us, and it’s been estimated that Nadir’s men confiscated the modern equivalent of 90 billion dollars from the Imperial treasury and the citizens of Delhi.
To add insult to injury, Nadir informed the Emperor that he would be taking the Peacock Throne itself. The dynastic heirloom that had been commissioned 100 years earlier by Shah Jahan. And as Nadir surveyed his new possession, one gem in particular caught his eye. A massive diamond, set in one of the jeweled peacocks. A “mountain of light”. The Koh-I-Noor. Almost 200 carats of jaw-dropping beauty. Even a humorless pragmatist like Nadir had to admire it. This, he thought, was one thing he could not sell. It would be a family gem. Something to bequeath to his long line of descendants, starting with his favorite son Reza, back in Persia.
But not all the Indians in Delhi were as calm as their Emperor about this massive transfer of wealth to an occupying force. Before long, angry whispers and resentful glares in the alleys and marketplaces of the capital soon metastasized into outright violence.
Gangs of angry young Indian men began roaming the streets, looking for small pairs of Persian soldiers to ambush and hack apart. Riots began to flare up, and soon the entire city was on the brink of chaos. In the middle of the night, Nadir’s aides shook him awake and told him what was happening.
At first, he didn’t really believe it. Surely, the citizens of Delhi knew better than to antagonize an occupying army within the walls of their city. Nadir figured this was his own troops stirring up trouble to rationalize acts of random looting. As he said: ‘some villain from my camp has falsely accused the men of Hindostan of this crime, so that they can kill them and plunder their property.’
Nadir sent a servant from the court to go investigate, and the second this guy steps out of the palace, he’s torn apart by an angry mob of Delhi citizens. So, Nadir sends another one out, and he too is killed by the mob. Eventually Nadir says, okay I gotta see this for myself, and he rides out on a horse to see the rioters. Sure enough, the city was on the verge of spiraling into full-blown revolt. The final straw for Nadir came when someone from the crowd fired a musket in his direction. As the musket ball zipped past his head, so did any and all notions of taking it easy on the citizens of Delhi.
With that close call, his patience finally snapped. The Persian conqueror assembled three thousand of his best killers and told them that starting at 9am the next morning, they were to systematically murder every man, woman and child in the district of Delhi where the riots had originated. Kill anything that moves, he said.
And they did exactly that. For six hours, Nadir’s soldiers burned, beheaded, and butchered anything and everything with a pulse in that area of the city. Peasants, noblemen, merchants, everyone. There was no buying or bribing their way out of this punishment. Although Nadir supervised the massacre himself, he didn’t take any joy in it; This was, after all, the last thing he’d wanted. According to one witness, the Persian ruler was in a “deep and silent gloom that none dared to disturb’.
At three o’clock in the afternoon, Nadir gave the order to stop. And his three thousand veterans sheathed their swords without so much as a moment’s pause. In the end, 30,000 people were murdered in a handful of hours.
The mechanical efficiency of it all deeply unnerved a Dutchman named Mattheus van Leypsigh, who was in the city at the time; writing later: ‘The [Persians] have behaved like animals. It seemed as if it were raining blood, for the drains were streaming with it. As many as 10,000 women and children were taken as slaves.’
With the pretense of civility demolished between the conquered and the conquerors, Nadir sacked Delhi completely. Every stitch of silk, every ounce of gold, anything and everything of value was looted and loaded for transport back to Persia. But there was one other piece of loot that caught Nadir’s eye as well.
A beautiful woman named Nur Bai, was a famous dancer and singer at the Mughal court. Well, one night during the Persian occupation, she performed for Nadir and his men. Whatever she did, it made an impression. The next day, he sent a message to Nur Bai, offering her a huge payment of jewels and gold if she would come with him back to Persia. Or she could take a slightly smaller sum and just stay with him for the night.
Nur Bai was equal parts angry and terrified. No way in hell was she going to leave with this cold-blooded killer, much less sleep with him. So she does what we all do when we want to get out of an obligation…she calls in sick. She pretends to have caught some terrible, infectious illness. Luckily for Nur Bai, Nadir’s infatuation with her turned out to be a passing fancy, he just shrugged off her excuse and moved on to other distractions.
Afterwards, someone asked Nur Bai, why she had turned down a small fortune. After all, all she had to do was sleep with the guy. Her answer is pretty great, but just a quick language warning before I tell you. Maybe have the kids cover their ears or something. Anyway. Nur Bai responded that if she had slept with a butcher like Nadir, ‘I should feel as if the flower of my cunt had been complicit with his massacres.’
When Nadir and his army finally left Delhi after 57 days of occupation, he didn’t take Nur Bai with him back to Persia, but he did take all the wealth of Mughal India. To carry this mindboggling amount of treasure, the Persians had to use 700 elephants, 4,000 camels, and 12,000 horses. That’s what 90 billion dollars of gold and jewels looks like.
If Delhi was a flower, Nadir had plucked every petal. And in just a few short months, had transformed the once-great capitol of Mughal India into the world’s biggest refugee camp. The Mughal dynasty would cling to a sense of peripheral relevance for another century or so, but its glory days were well and truly over.
The Koh-I-Noor diamond had a new master now. Nadir pried the mountain of light off the Peacock Throne and had it set in an armband that he wore around his bicep for everyone to see. For Nadir, it was a vivid reminder of his achievements, both to himself and those around him. For the first time in its existence, (although not the last) the Koh-I-Noor was leaving India.
The sack of Delhi and the violent humbling of the Mughal Empire had been Nadir’s magnum opus, the pinnacle of his military career, but as tends to happen to most owners of the Koh-I-Noor, his life began to unravel very quickly afterwards.
Like Shah Jahan one hundred years prior, Nadir begins to get very sick. He was a really physical guy, six foot tall, a real bruiser, but all of a sudden, his joints start to swell and ache and fill with fluid. His stomach turns into a cauldron of cramps and pangs. It hurt to do the things he loved to do, to ride, to fight, to lay under the stars. And that sudden infirmity made him very erratic, impulsive, and prone to lashing out. Nadir Shah, somehow, became even scarier than usual.
But he had bigger problems than swollen limbs and an upset stomach. When he arrived back home in Persia, Nadir began to sense a growing discontent within his court. Now that he was on top of the world, at the height of his power, he became convinced that someone would try and take it from him. He saw spies and traitors around every corner.
Nadir’s suspicions were confirmed on May 15th, 1741.
The King was riding his horse through a narrow thicket, on the march with his army. Suddenly, he sees movement in the brush; so he looks a little closer, and he locks eyes with a thin-bearded man aiming a musket directly at his chest. The sniper fires his rifle, but the ball misses, only taking a chunk out of Nadir’s thumb and embedding itself into the neck of his horse. The animal falls to the ground, thrashing, and the assassin vanishes back into the trees.
As it turned out, Nadir’s paranoia wasn’t paranoia at all. Someone really was trying to kill him.
He describes the man to painters in his court, and they draw up an 18th century version of a police sketch. These paintings were shown in every town and village in his empire. He had to find this man, and squeeze the identity of his employer out of him.
Eventually, after months of searching, they find the guy. The assassin is hauled before Nadir, trembling and terrified. According to Michael Axworthy, Nadir stroked his jet-black beard as he told the man that “he would allow him to live if he told the truth; but if he heard one dishonest word, [he] would die immediately.” The man takes a deep breath, and tells Nadir the truth. He had, in fact, been hired to kill the King. Nadir asks, okay great- now who hired you?
The identity of the traitor hit Nadir like a ton of bricks.
The man said that Nadir’s own son, his favorite son, a man named Reza, had paid for the assassination. After the gut punch of that revelation, Nadir began to think. And the more he thought, the more his son’s betrayal made sense. He had left Reza in charge of Persia during his campaign into India. And with daddy hundreds of miles away, the son must’ve gotten very comfortable with being the top dog in charge. And now, according to this hired gun, he’d decided to bump his old man off once and for all.
But something about it still didn’t click. It didn’t feel right. Nadir needed to hear it for himself. He needed to hear his son Reza confess his crimes to his face.
So he has Reza, his son and heir, brought before him. The guards disarm the prince, and throw him down in front of his father. Nadir had pinned so many hopes on this young man. He was going to be the inheritor of the massive empire Nadir had built, of the wealth of all the known world, why could he just not have waited for nature to take its course? Why did he have to be greedy?
Nadir asks his son if what the assassin said was true. Prince Reza was a proud man, and he refused to grovel. He curtly said that he absolutely had not ordered his own father’s assassination. If he really wanted to take over, why would he not have done that when Nadir was off in India? No - the assassin was lying.
Nadir asks again, please, son, just tell me the truth. I want to forgive you, I want to let this slide. Whatever it is, we can put it behind us. We can move on from this. You just need to say the right words. As Michael Axworthy writes: “Between anger and tenderness, Nader tried to persuade him to ask pardon and swear obedience, without success.”
The two men, father and son, get angrier and angrier. Until they’re essentially shouting at each other. To violent men, when their blood is up, there are only violent solutions. Finally Nadir shrieks at his son that if he doesn’t admit what he did, he would order the prince’s eyes torn out from their sockets.
Reza scoffed. He was the future of his father’s empire. To blind him was to unmake him as a man. No father would do that to his own son. Because no army would follow a man who could not see. Nadir had to be bluffing. So Reza thew back a little profanity at his old man, and again, earmuffs for the kids: “‘[go ahead] Cut them out, and put them in your wife’s cunt.”
Nadir had heard enough. He told his guards to take the prince outside, cut his eyes out, and bring them back to him on a plate.
Maybe in the heat of the moment, Nadir did not fully grasp the impact of what he was doing, but when the guards returned with two bloody eyeballs on a metal dish, he understood what he had done. Nadir, the king of Persia and conqueror of Delhi, burst into tears.
For three days, he could not bear to go see the son that he had maimed. But eventually, he worked up the courage and went to see his disfigured heir. As Axworthy writes:
“He put the prince’s head on his chest, kissed him and broke down into tears. Many of the courtiers present wept too. At first Reza Qoli refused to speak, but finally he said, ‘You should know - that by taking my eyes out, you have blinded yourself and destroyed your own life.”
The guilt over what he had done mentally shattered Nadir. Michael Axworthy elaborates on that in another great passage from his book on Nadir, The Sword of Persia:
“The blinding of his son shook the certainties of Nader’s psyche, the certainties that had underpinned his previous self-confidence and his successes. It shook them right down to their deepest root; and he was never the same man again. Instead he went down a tortured path of bitterness, nihilism and anger, ending in something near madness. Why did the blinding of Reza Qoli shake Nader so deeply? One might simply say that he loved his son. Or that his aim from the beginning had been to exalt his family and found a dynasty, and that he had now himself crippled that purpose.”
Nadir never did find out for sure if his son had actually plotted to kill him. But modern historians believe with a high degree of certainty, that Reza did not try to have his father killed. Which explained his stubborn refusal to ask forgiveness. The plot had actually been hatched by an inner circle of advisors in the Persian bureaucracy.
Nadir had blinded his son for nothing.
With the “why” of his life gone, Nadir gave no thought to the “how”, and he took his pain and guilt out on the world around him.
Nadir spent his few remaining years behaving as the irredeemable monster he now saw himself as, perpetrating one atrocity after another. He had entire towns massacred over nothing. He taxed his own people into poverty. He had men burned alive. He had the wives of his rivals gang raped. Nadir had truly gone insane.
It got so bad, so fast, that his closest advisors soon put together a plot to kill him. One that didn’t hinge on a lucky shot from a lone sniper. Seventy men made a pact to kill the king of Persia, and on June 20th, 1747 they succeeded.
That night, fifteen conspirators burst into Nadir’s sleeping quarters, shoved aside his naked, screaming concubines, and hacked off the his head. In the orgy of looting and violence that broke out after the King’s death, the famous Peacock Throne was also dismembered and disassembled. We don’t know if Nadir was wearing the Koh-I-Noor diamond when he died, but we do know that it left the camp that very same night. Stolen and whisked away by an Afghan soldier, the stone vanished back into the fog of history.
Like Shah Jahan before him, Nadir had paid a terrible price to be the richest man in the world. Another century would pass before the Koh-I-Noor diamond emerged once again, to glitter on the arm its next ill-fated owner.
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Chapter Three: The Lion of Punjab
Ladies and gentlemen, at this point in our story, we’re going to narrow the aperture a bit. For the remainder of this episode, we’re going to be focused on a single family. A mother, a father, and a son. Their continent-spanning story, and their intimate relationship to the Koh-I-Noor diamond, is going to be the subject of our last few vignettes.
This family is the connective tissue that bridges the Koh-I-Noor’s bloody past to its tourist-friendly present. In the space of a single generation the Kohinoor would become one of the most famous diamonds in the world. Transformed from a mere piece of jewelry into a potent symbol of colonial theft, lost innocence and cross-cultural resentment. But we’re also going to spend a lot of time with it, because it is one of the most poignant, heart-wrenching and sweeping stories I’ve stumbled upon in my research thus far, so I hope you find it as interesting and effecting as I have.
In all this discussion of armies on the march and empires on the rise, it’s very easy to accidentally omit the role of women in the history of the Koh-I-Noor. On this show, we’ve talked about a lot of fascinating women from the pages history, but this next one we’re about to meet really takes the cake. She is absolutely central to the story of Koh-I-Noor diamond, shaping events as much as any man in the time period.
The British East India Company, never one to heap praise or respect on its Indian adversaries, once called her: ‘the only effective enemy of British policy in the whole of India’. This woman’s name was Jindan Kaur. That’s J-I-N-D-A-N, K-A-U-R. And on September 6th, 1838, at the age of 21, she became a mother.
Jindan lived in Northwestern India, in what we call the Punjab region. India’s political status quo had always been incredibly fluid; dynasties rose and fell with the regularity of ocean tides, and the early 19th century was no exception.
It had been 200 years since the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan had constructed the Peacock Throne. It had been 100 years since the fearsome Persian king Nadir had sacked Delhi. But now there was a new power rising in Northern India, the Empire of the Sikhs.
The Sikhs are, of course, a religious minority in India, and in the early 19th century they catapulted themselves out of relative obscurity to carve out a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic empire. One that would cling onto its independence long after many other Indian kingdoms had fallen into the enterprising clutches of the British East India Company.
But for the time being, 21-year-old Jindan Kaur couldn’t have cared less about the larger political destiny of India, she was only thinking about the beautiful baby boy she had just given birth to. A boy she named Duleep. And little Duleep was not just any kid. He was a prince. His father was none other than the ruler of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The “Great King” Ranjit Singh.
Now to understand what’s going to happen with Jindan Kaur, her son Duleep, and the Koh-I-Noor Diamond, we have to understand this man - Maharaja Ranjit Singh. We’ve talked about a lot of kings and emperors on this episode, but Ranjit Singh is arguably the most interesting and colorful of them all.
Ranjit Singh made the Sikh Empire. Under his leadership, the Sikhs were transformed from a loosely organized coalition of guerilla fighters to one of the most formidable states in South Asia. His fierce personality and successful campaigns had earned him the title “The Lion of Punjab”. But his military exploits aren’t really what make him interesting, at least to me. Because he was much more of a lover than a fighter.
Ranjit Singh was not what you would call traditionally handsome. A brush with smallpox at the age of six had scarred his face and left him blind in one eye. He was a little guy, small and wiry; one British observer said that he looked like “a mouse”. But he made up for it with a long, flowing beard, a set of pearly white teeth, and a huge, confident personality.
Although Ranjit was famously self-conscious about his looks, he loved beauty in all its forms. Physical beauty. Material beauty. Artistic beauty. Environmental beauty. As Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, he took it upon himself to fill his life with beautiful things.
First of all, he loved women. Loved women. Like, it’s hard to overstate how much this man loved women. The phrase that sticks out from my research is when one historian said that he had a “limitless capacity for love”.
Ranjit had dozens of wives. Hundreds of concubines; in fact, “hundreds” is probably a conservative estimate. This was partly a political strategy; the marriages were a way of consolidating control over the various political factions in the Punjab, but Ranjit Singh lived, dreamed and breathed sex. You can read accounts of British visitors to the court violently clutching their pearls when confronted with Ranjit’s frequent and raunchy displays of PDA.
But the Maharaja appreciated beautiful people in general, filling his court with only the most handsome and good-looking courtiers. He once paid a man an annual stipend just because he thought the guy’s beard was so awesome, and he wanted to sponsor the day-to-day upkeep.
The Maharajah also loved natural beauty. He planted lavish gardens and greenery all over his capital city of Lahore, as well as in the surrounding countryside. According to historian Jyoti Raj, the Maharajah was “an environmentalist far ahead of his time, who realized that wood and forests had to be preserved for the ultimate survival of humankind and not cut down indiscriminately.”
Ranjit Singh loved beautiful animals as well. He kept a stable of 1200 of the finest horses and 700 elephants that he rode regularly. On one occasion, he saw a horse that he called “the most perfect animal I have ever seen”. He asked the owner, a governor to let him have it, but the man refused. So, the Maharajah dispatched an army to fight a battle against the guy, just to capture the horse, which they promptly did. Clearly, when Ranjit Singh saw something beautiful, he had to have it. And he would go to any length to acquire it.
Which brings us back to the real star of this show: the Koh-I-Noor diamond.
By the time the Maharajah set his sights on the stone, about seventy years had passed since it had vanished from the Persian King Nadir’s camp on the night he was assassinated.
But word on the street was that it was in Afghanistan, changing hands between this or that warlord; and when Ranjit Singh heard about it, he decided he needed to have it. As one contemporary chronicler wrote: “Ranjit Singh coveted the Koh-i-Noor diamond beyond anything else in this world, and broke all the laws of hospitality in order to get possession of it.”
He tracked down the man who had it, an exiled Afghani warlord, and brought him to the Sikh capital at Lahore. The Maharajah knew this guy had the diamond, but he didn’t know where he had it. The warlord had hidden it away…somewhere. It could’ve been anywhere, under a rock by a river, or buried in a cave in the Afghan mountains, it was impossible to tell. But reliable intelligence said that this guy was the owner of the massive diamond that had once decorated Shah Jahan’s famous Peacock Throne. It was a collector’s item, a symbol of power that the Ranjit Singh craved with utmost intensity.
So what he does, essentially, is intimidate, starve, and torture the truth out of this warlord. It goes on for weeks and weeks on end, and yet still this guy will not crack; he will not reveal where the diamond is hidden. But And just when the Maharajah is about to give up, the warlord finally says, “look man, I’ll make you a deal. I will tell you where it is, if you pay me for the information, and you help me reconquer the territory that was stolen from me. The impatient Maharajah says, ‘Sure, fine, whatever, let’s do it.”
To seal the deal, they had to observe certain rituals and rites of friendship. As one chronicler wrote:
Turbans were exchanged as a sign of perfect amity, and Ranjit Singh exclaimed: ‘Now we have performed all the ceremonies of undying friendship, can I please have the diamond?’
On June 1st, 1813, when he was 33, Maharajah Ranjit Singh took possession of the Koh-I-Noor diamond.
Many people had owned this gem, killed for it even, but no one loved the Koh-I-Noor more than Ranjit Singh. He took it with him everywhere, He wore it on his arm, he wore it on his turban, he took it out to show it off and impress his guests. As one British intelligence officer remembered: ‘Nothing, can be imagined more superb than this stone. It is of the finest water.”
To the Maharaja, it was a symbol of all he had achieved in his life. He was one of the few people in the diamond’s long history who appreciated it for what it was. The Koh-I-Noor was more than just an expensive rock. It was a miracle of nature. Formed deep within the earth, compressed over millions of years, belched out of ancient volcanoes and cooled in primordial riverbeds.
Just as time had fashioned the Koh-I-Noor into something beautiful through brute force, Ranjit Singh believed he had created something equally lovely and enduring with the Sikh Empire. A multi-faceted, multi-ethnic coalition of Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, all united in carbon clarity of purpose to create a better world. One that could withstand the predations of people like Nader Shah or Afghani raiders.
And for a time, it seemed like the Maharaja had pulled it off. Ranjit’s Singh’s rule was long and prosperous, and with the Koh-I-Noor shimmering on his arm he expanded his empire, partied hard, wedded and bedded many beautiful women well into his old age.
Which brings us to the last and arguably most consequential of Ranjit Singh’s marriages. At least to our story.
Jindan Kaur did not come from royal stock. She wasn’t a princess, or a famous dancer, or a wealthy courtesan. Growing up in the Sikh capital of Lahore, Jindan’s family was essentially the help. Her dad was the royal kennel keeper, which meant he looked after the Maharajah’s hunting dogs. The daughter of a kennel keeper, whether they lived in 19th century London or Lahore, didn’t have much hope of ever becoming queen of a powerful empire.
But Jindan’s dad was an aspiring social climber. He wanted to raise his family’s status, and the best way to do that, was to marry into the aristocracy. More specifically, to marry into the royal family. As the Maharaja’s kennel keeper, he had much more access and facetime with Ranjit Singh than the average person, and he made sure that his beautiful young daughter Jindan caught the Great King’s eye.
Even as a teenager, Jindan was gorgeous. According to William Darylmple, she had a:
“oval face, aquiline nose and large, intense, almond-shaped eyes, was said to move with the grace of a dancer. Her innate sensuality unnerved many who met her, and she attracted admirers and detractors in equal measure.”
By this time though, Ranjit was an old man. He’d suffered multiple strokes after years of hard partying, and the Lion of Punjab was a little long in the tooth. He wasn’t exactly the spark plug in the bedroom that he’d been back in the day. Well, maybe he wanted to keep up appearances, maybe he thought a new young wife would reignite the dead coals of his libido, but for whatever reason, the Maharaja agreed to marry the kennel keeper’s daughter.
In 1835, Jindan Kaur married Ranjit Singh and became the seventeenth Queen of the Sikh Empire. A couple years later, Jindan gave birth to her first and only child, Duleep Singh. Jindan may have been the Maharaja’s baby mama, but she had no illusions about her relatively low status at court. She was one of many wives, and her son Duleep was one of many children. If the right to rule the Sikh Empire was a line, the infant Duleep Singh was dead last at the end of it.
Because of her low-born status and the late age at which the Maharaja had married her, Jindan was the target of constant gossip and high-school mockery from the other members of the court. Some even whispered that Duleep was not the son of the Maharaja at all, but a bastard child fathered by a particularly handsome water-bearer.
Jindan, still barely 20 years old, was as smart as she was beautiful, and she knew better than to tangle with the nest of vipers in the Maharajah’s cutthroat court. As the years crawled by, the Lion of Punjab’s health took a nose dive, and it became clear that the vultures were circling, not only from without, but from within.
By 1839, three strokes had left Ranjit Singh in a state of near-complete paralysis, unable to speak; By all accounts he could barely twitch his fingers to communicate. And on June 27th, at five in the afternoon, the Maharajah died. The magnetic personality that had created the Sikh Empire and held it together for 30 years was finally gone; and without that center of gravity, it was only a matter of time before the dead Lion’s court became a hyena’s den.
The Maharaja’s death triggered what is best described as a royal bloodbath. And the only person who seems to have seen it coming and taken precautions to protect herself, was the dead king’s youngest wife, Jindan Kaur, the much-mocked kennel keeper’s daughter. Jindan didn’t even attend her dead husband’s funeral; seeing the power struggle brewing on the horizon, she took her ten-month-old son Duleep and absconded to a distant corner of the empire, where she could hopefully wait out the succession crisis in relative safety.
As the Maharaja’s funeral pyre burned down to ash, it was initially very clear who would rule in his place. Control of the Sikh Empire – and the Koh-I-Noor diamond which Ranjit had loved so much - passed to his eldest son, a 38-year-old man named Kharak Singh.
Jindan Kaur had correctly anticipated that this was a very bad time to be an heir to the throne of Ranjit Singh, and very bad things began to happen to the Maharaja’s would-be successors.
About four months into the brand new Maharaja’s reign, Kharak Singh started to seem….different. He was a known alcoholic and opiate-abuser, but he seemed drunker than usual. He couldn’t control his speech, he slurred his words, he forgot things all the time. As the months went on, the body of this reasonably healthy 38-year-old man started to completely break down. His eyesight decays to the point where he goes blind. His joints begin to feel like they’re on fire. Bloody lesions start sprouting all over his body. Eventually he was confined to his bed, unable to talk, unable see, and unable to understand why this was happening to him. Less than a year after he’d taken over his father’s throne, Kharak Singh died in agony.
It was later discovered, that a small group of nobles and military advisors had been slipping mercury and white lead into his food and drink. The new Maharaja had been slowly poisoned to death.
After that baffling and tragic death, the throne went to the next guy in line. Ranjit Singh’s favorite grandson. But he too, was not long for this world. On the day of the former Maharaja’s funeral, the new one suffered a freak accident. As he was riding beneath an archway, a piece of masonry inexplicably dislodged, plummeted down towards the king and crushed his skull on the fifth day of his reign.
A year later, the next guy in line, a prince named Sher Singh, also suffered an unfortunate accident. He was inspecting a new hunting rifle, when it suddenly went off and blew a six-inch hole in his chest.
It was beginning to seem like anyone who so much as thought about becoming Maharaja of the Sikh Empire would wind up dead within a matter of days. As William Darlymple writes: “In the four years that followed Ranjit Singh’s death, Punjab lost three maharajas.” Death had stalked the royal family, ticking off almost every viable name on the list of succession, until there was only one left.
A five-year-old boy named Duleep. Son of the kennel-keeper’s daughter, Jindan Kaur.
When Jindan had married the old Lion of Punjab, she could never have guessed in her wildest dreams that she or her son would have any real political relevancy in Sikh Kingdom. They were, at best, window dressing for an aging, impotent king. At the very end of a very long, crowded line of succession.
But a series of freak accidents, assassination plots, and good old-fashioned bad luck had suddenly leap-frogged her son to the very front of the cue. And on September 18, 1843, little Duleep Singh was proclaimed Maharaja.
But how was a five-year-old boy supposed to rule an Empire?
Jindan decided right then and there that she would keep her son safe from the snakes and sycophants who would try and use her son as a prop or a puppet. A rubber stamp for their own aspirations and political designs. She had never expected this or wanted it, but it was her responsibility to protect her son, as well as the kingdom he had inexplicably inherited, to the best of her ability.
And Jindan Kaur, daughter of the kennel keeper, new Queen Regent of the Sikh Empire, had her work cut out for her. Not only would she have to deal with the predators in her own backyard, but the larger, hungrier enemies lying in wait on Punjab’s doorstep.
Because the covetous eyes of the one, the only, British East India Company had set their sights on the wealth and resources of the now-weakened Sikh Empire. And they were interested in particular in a very large, very rare diamond, now strapped around the arm of a five-year-old child. The Koh-I-Noor.
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Chapter Four: The Maharaja’s Mother
In the early 1900s, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (of Pygmalion fame) said the following:
“There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles.’
It was on principle that the British East India Company decided it needed to possess the Koh-I-Noor diamond, along with the kingdom it represented, the Sikh state of Punjab. As George Bernard Shaw went on to elaborate, when an Englishman wants something, it manifests as “a burning conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who possess the thing he wants’.
By the time little five-year-old Duleep Singh became the Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, the British East India Company had been on the Indian subcontinent for more than 200 years. What began as a handful of humble trading posts turned into what can best be described as a Fortune 500 company with a private army. The slow, inexorable subjugation of India was not initially directed from the British throne, it was planned and financed by a private, transnational corporation in a smoke-filled London boardroom.
In a way, the British East India Company has been a part of our story from the very beginning. Through every step, every vignette, they’ve been hiding in the background, waiting, watching, and planning.
As the Peacock Throne was being constructed by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the Company was slowly whittling at the corners of the Indian subcontinent, getting stronger, getting wealthier, getting bigger. When Nader Shah sacked Delhi and took the Koh-I-Noor to Persia with him, the British were able to take advantage of the weakened Mughal Empire to conquer and absorb even more territory.
In the same way that necrotic flesh slowly takes over healthy tissue around it, the British East India company drained India of its wealth and vitality. As American historian Will Durant summarized with no small touch of horror in 1930:
“The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading company [the British East India Company] utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and ‘legal’ plunder which has now gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years.”
By the early 1800s, the British were knocking at the doors of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Empire far in the north, in Punjab. The old Lion had been extremely adept at keeping the foreign interlopers at bay, striking a near-perfect balance between projecting strength and extending hospitality. For years, the British had sent visitors and political envoys into Ranjit Singh’s court, ostensibly to create warm and fuzzy diplomatic relations between the Maharaja’s empire and their own.
But the cold reality, was that many of those men and women were spies. And they reported back to their masters in London that this was an Empire worth conquering. Of particular interest to the Company was Ranjit Singh’s massive diamond, the Koh-I-Noor.
By this time, the stone was famous all over the world. In 1839, a British newspaper called it: The richest, the most costly gem in the known world.” And now it was on the arm of a five-year-old boy who wasn’t even a shadow of a shadow of his formidable father. To the British East India company, this would be a simple matter of taking candy from a baby.
But there was one person they did not count on: The boy’s striking, fiercely independent mother, Jindan Kaur. The Queen Regent.
Before Jindan Kaur, there was virtually no tradition of women steering the political and diplomatic destiny of the Sikh Empire. This was a patriarchal society, through and through. As one member of the Maharajah’s court said dismissively: “The enforcement of the affairs of kingdom and kingship … is quite impossible for ladies to cope with and carry on.”
Well, Jindan Kaur was not afraid at all to assert her authority as mother of the new Maharaja. She realized that she and her small son were incredibly vulnerable, and she needed to project strength on his behalf, so that he wouldn’t end up crushed, poisoned or shot like his unfortunate predecessors.
At the Sikh court, women were typically hidden behind a curtain or a veil, to protect their “chastity”. Traditionally that was just a mechanism of control, a way of muzzling female presence in political discussions. Well, Jindan flipped that custom on its head. She used the curtain as a theatrical device, so when she came out from behind it, you knew she meant business. As one witness remembered:
‘On one occasion, when the Durbar was terrified by a crowd of drunken and disorderly soldiers, she came out from behind her curtain, threw aside her veil, and addressed the people. The men were delighted, for she was young and handsome.’
Jindan was very adept at weaponizing courtly etiquette to her and her son’s advantage, as well as balancing and neutralizing the competing interests that threatened to topple her delicate grasp on the Empire. And for a while, she managed to keep all these wobbly plates spinning, but in the fall of 1845, something happened. Something that would trigger the implosion of the Sikh Empire, while traumatizing the pre-pubescent Maharaja in the process.
After Duleep’s ascension to the throne, one of the biggest thorns in Queen Jindan’s side was the Sikh Army. Her son’s authority rested entirely on whether the Army backed his claim, which they did – for now. In return, they expected lavish payments and privileges, influence at court, you name it. Long story short, these guys start to put out some very strong Praetorian Guard vibes. And Jindan did her best to push back on their increasingly outlandish demands.
Well eventually, the Army gets tired of this uppity kennel-keeper’s daughter. They decide to send Jindan Kaur a message she would never forget.
On September 21st, 1845, the 7-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh was riding through the city on an elephant. His uncle, Queen Jindan’s brother, was accompanying the little boy. Suddenly members of the Army surround the elephant, and pull both the Maharajah and his uncle off the animal. Then with little Duleep watching, they proceed to murder his Uncle in front of him, slashing and stabbing him to death in broad daylight.
As Anita Anand writes:
Duleep, held out of danger by his own men, stood splattered with his uncle’s blood. He saw every brutal blow, and the experience would haunt him all the days of his life. The screams of his mother, forced by durbar courtiers to watch, mingled with his own. After they were done, the killers bowed before the sobbing child, assured him that he had never been the target of their anger and pledged loyalty to him to the end of their days.
By forcing Jindan and Duleep to watch the murder of a member of their family, the Army was sending a very clear message. We run this show. End of story. Stay behind your curtain where you belong, or maybe next time it’ll be you we’re cutting apart in the street.
To the young Queen Jindan Kaur, it must have felt like she was under siege from all angles. The army despised her, and had murdered her brother to prove it. Her son Duleep wasn’t old enough to project any authority of his own. And to top it all off, the British East India company was becoming increasingly hostile and aggressive along their southern border. It was only a matter of time before it came to war.
For the British, the timing could not have been more perfect. The old Lion was dead. His cub Duleep only did what the adults told him to. And the Queen Regent was despised by her own advisors. Now was the time to make a move for Punjab, and the Koh-I-Noor diamond.
In December of 1845, war erupts between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company. And it does not last long. The Sikh Army was well-armed, well-trained, and well-organized; but what no one could have known, was that their commanders were already bought and paid for. The British spies had done their jobs very well, greasing the palms of high-ranking Sikh generals with promises of wealth and patronage. All they had to do was lose. To throw the fight. The East India Company paid the Sikh commanders to betray their men, their country, and their Maharajah.
The treachery worked. And by February of 1846, red British uniforms were marching single file into the Sikh capital of Lahore. A month later, the boy-king Duleep Singh was forced to sign a punitive treaty with the East India Company that made him a prisoner in his own capital. His generals had sold him out, and neither he nor the Queen Jindan could do anything about it.
The British annexed and sold off two-thirds of the Maharaja’s land as “reparations” for the war. They garrisoned troops in his cities. And they dismantled the Sikh army to a token force that could barely throw a parade much less fight a battle. It was a hostile takeover wrapped in the illusion of diplomatic formality.
But the cruelest thing the East India Company did was yet to come.
The British had declawed the Lion cub, but there was one last fly in the ointment. The Queen Regent, Jindan Kaur. She saw the Company for what it was. Many in the Sikh court hoped that the British would leave them their autonomy, that they would simply protect Punjab as a client kingdom, but Jindan knew better. The Europeans had come for the whole thing. Her son’s hold over the kingdom would get weaker and weaker until he woke up Maharaja of nothing at all.
The British, in turn, realized that this defiant young Queen was a serious problem. As long as she was allowed to remain close to her son, they would never attain full control over the Maharaja or his kingdom.
So they decide to separate Jindan from her son. Permanently.
First they had to undercut her credibility. So the British spread rumors that Jindan was a sex addict, a negligent mother who couldn’t be bothered to take care of her son. They said that she beat her son every day and physically abused him. None of that was true, but all the lies painted a convenient picture of a cruel, neglectful, scandal-ridden Ex-Queen. Jindan was a bad mom, they said, and for little Duleep’s best interests, her bad influence could not be allowed to continue.
In December 1847, Jindan Kaur was dragged out of the palace and imprisoned in a fortress outside of the city. She was not allowed to say goodbye to her son, or even explain where she was going. For the nine-year-old Duleep, his mom just suddenly disappeared from his life without a trace. He had no family left, no friends, just a crowd of strange adults in strange clothes, who professed to have his best interests at heart.
From her cell in the fortress, Jindan begged the East India Company to reunite her with her son:
My son is very young. He is incapable of doing anything. I have left the kingdom. I have no need of kingdom… I raise no objections. I will accept what you say. There is no one with my son. He has no sister, no brother. He has no uncle, senior or junior. His father he has lost. To whose care has he been entrusted?
Why do you take possession of my kingdom by underhand means? Why do you not do it openly?... You have been very cruel to me!... You have snatched my son from me. For ten months I kept him in my womb... In the name of the God you worship and in the name of the King whose salt you eat, restore my son to me. I cannot bear the pain of this separation. Instead you should put me to death...
The East India Company brushed Jindan’s pleas aside. This was a woman who would say anything to get back in power. As one official sniffed:
‘We must expect these letters in various shapes,’ which a woman of her strong mind and passions will assume as best suited either to gratify her vengeance or obtain her ends’.
The scattered flames of resistance against the British would crackle in Punjab for a few more years, but in 1849, the pre-pubescent Maharaja was forced to sign another punitive treaty. And this time, it brought an end to the Sikh Empire for good. The articles of which read:
I. His Highness the Maharajah Duleep Singh shall resign for himself, his heirs, and successors all right, title, and claim to the sovereignty of the Punjab, or to any sovereign power whatever.
III. The gem called the Koh-i-noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-mulk by Maharajah Ranjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.
After half a decade, two wars, thousands of dead soldiers, and a mother taken away from her child, the East India Company finally had its hands on the world’s most famous diamond. As the Governor-General gloated to a friend:
“I have now caught my hare. […] It is not every day that an officer of their Government adds four million subjects to the British Empire, and places the historical jewel of the Mogul Emperors in the Crown of his own Sovereign. This I have done. Do not think I unduly exult.”
As for the boy-king they had stolen it from, the Governor-General had nothing but words of contempt. Duleep was:
‘A child notoriously surreptitious, a brat begotten of a bhishti [water carrier], and no more the son of old Ranjeet than Queen Victoria is’.
That’s not to say that all British were hard-hearted monsters in the colonial era. The deceitful methods by which the diamond had been obtained and Punjab annexed, didn’t exactly sit well with some people back home. As one London publication cynically observed:
Though the [Governor General] has substantially made her Majesty a present of the gem, in point of form, the boy Dhuleep Singh ceded it to the Queen. But such a cession is a mockery; the lad did exactly what he was bid, and would have made it over with equal facility to the chief of the Cherokee Indians, had Lord Dalhousie directed him. He signed the paper placed before him quite regardless of its contents; and the responsibility of its terms rest entirely with the Governor General...”
Despite it’s less than honorable acquisition, the Koh-I-Noor was once again changing hands. Spirited out of Punjab in utmost secrecy and loaded onto a ship bound for the Western hemisphere. After a long history mired in bloodshed and bad luck, the diamond was leaving the shores of India for good. To travel three thousand miles across the sea to a rainy little island in the northern Atlantic.
But the Koh-I-Noor wasn’t the only Sikh souvenir the British took from the Punjab. With no family, no kingdom, and no army, the British were free to shape the young Duleep Singh into whatever sort of young man they wished. A few short years after he signed away his kingdom, Duleep had converted to Christianity, cut his long Sikh hair, and was asking to visit England. His handlers happily obliged; At the age of 14, the deposed boy king followed his diamond as a living, breathing colonial accessory in the court of Queen Victoria.
But what about Jindan Kaur? The fiery, forgotten Queen who the British had violently torn away from her son and locked away to rot in a drafty fortress? Well one day, not long after the British had annexed Punjab, the guards at Jindan’s prison were making the rounds. They went to check on her, and instead, the found an empty cell and a note that read:
“You put me in a cage and locked me up. For all your locks and your sentries, I got out by magic... I had told you plainly not to push me too hard – but don’t think I ran away. Understand well, that I escape by myself unaided... don’t imagine I got out like a thief.”
The last Queen of the Sikh empire, the last flicker of resistance against the British East India Company in Punjab, had escaped.
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Chapter Five: Across the Sea
On May 1st, 1851, the streets of London were packed to the brim with hundreds of thousands of people.
No matter which way you looked, you would’ve seen an ocean of human beings. From all walks of life. Aristocrats and merchants, drunks and dishwashers. Imagine the biggest music festival you’ve ever been to, cranked up to eleven. As one newspaper wrote at the time:
Never before was so vast a multitude gathered together within the memory of man. The struggles of great nations in battle, the levies of whole races, never called forth such an army as thronged the streets of London on the 1st of May…
All of these people were converging on Hyde Park as fast as the person in front of them could walk. Adults and children alike were practically giddy with excitement, because today, they were going to see the greatest show on earth. May 1st, 1851 was the very first day of the most anticipated event of Queen Victoria’s entire reign, “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.”
As Anita Anand writes:
“The venue for the exhibition was the Crystal Palace, an immense edifice of glass and metal, specially constructed for the occasion. The complex, situated in one of London’s largest areas of greenery, Hyde Park, was vast. Some 600 metres long and 138 metres wide, it covered around nineteen acres of land. The structure was big enough to incorporate a number of trees. Around 13,000 objects and curiosities had been shipped over from around the world and placed in tastefully curated galleries under the Crystal Palace’s immense glass roof. Cutting through the structure, a large central boulevard dotted with trees, fountains and statues formed the backbone of the exhibition, giving the space an altogether Parisian elegance.”
There were many strange, exotic, and beautiful curios to marvel at in this massive exhibition. But most people were there to clap eyes on one object in particular.
The world-famous Koh-I-Noor diamond, recently arrived from India, would be making its public debut. It was the centerpiece of the Exhibition, one of the most hyped and talked about attractions.
The Koh-I-Noor diamond had arrived on England’s shores less than a year earlier, and ever since, rumors had swirled about the massive stone. Was it really as big as they said it was? Was it beautiful enough to do justice to its name, “the mountain of light”? But most important of all, was it really cursed? The Koh-I-Noor was said to bring death, doom and ruin to any man who possessed it. And now it was here, in the treasure hold of their own monarch, Queen Victoria, who was, thankfully, a woman. And presumably immune to the terrible curse.
Needless to say, the hype about the Koh-I-Noor was off the charts. And its pulpy mythology made the diamond an absolute “must-see” for any visitor to the Great Exhibition. What the promoters of the event did not mention, was how it had been obtained. If the crowd had known it had been stolen from a 10-year-old boy who’d just been separated from his mother and taken from the only home he’d ever known – maybe they might’ve felt differently.
On May 1st, 1851, the Koh-I-Noor was displayed at Hyde Park in an iron cage, laid out on a sheet of red velvet. Thousands of people made a beeline for the exhibit, to see the world’s most coveted stone. And the emotion most people felt when they finally saw it was…disappointment.
The Koh-I-Noor was large, sure. But it was no Mountain of Light. It didn’t glitter, it didn’t sparkle. It just sat there like a bulbous lump of glass. The Illustrated London News put it a bit more delicately:
“The Koh-i-noor is not cut in the best form for exhibiting its purity and lustre, and will therefore disappoint many, if not all, of those who so anxiously press forward to see it.”
The great unveiling of the Koh-I-Noor was a dud.
If you go into a jewelry store today, and look at all the diamonds and gemstones in the display cabinets, they sparkle. They shine. They twinkle in the light. And the reason they do that is, because they are specifically cut to catch, reflect, refract the light back at you. By the 1850s, the science of gem-cutting had progressed to an art form in Europe, and people were accustomed to smaller but much brighter diamonds.
The gem cutters would shave and polish and grind these gems down to symmetrical, mathematical perfection so that they gleamed and glowed in even the dimmest light source. Well, if you’ll recall, Indian monarchs, from Shah Jahan to Ranjit Singh, didn’t really like to cut their gemstones. They appreciated the imperfect shapes and natural luster of the stones. The gems were occasionally reshaped slightly to make them a little prettier or to fit their settings properly, but Indian rulers preferred to keep the original shapes as intact as possible.
Well, to the people of London, who expected something that glittered with the brilliance of a small supernova, the Koh-I-Noor, all 200 carats of it, just seemed like a fancy lump of dirty glass.
Naturally, the organizers of the Great Exhibition freaked out in response to this lackluster reception. This was supposed to be their biggest attraction, the headlining object. If word got out that it was disappointing in person, they feared that attendance would drastically drop, and Queen Victoria’s big event would be deemed a failure.
So, the promoters try everything they can think of to make the Koh-I-Noor shine a little brighter. They try lamps, they try mirrors, they try gas jets and blackout curtains. Anything to make the diamond live up to the hype. The organizers managed to make it look a little more dazzling with all the artificial lighting, but people were still disappointed.
Then the Royal Family steps in. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in particular.
The Great Exhibition had been Prince Albert’s brainchild. He’d seen it from conception to execution and now, the newspapers were saying its biggest attraction was a huge let down. So, Albert decides he’s got to do something about this. If the Mountain of Light wouldn’t sparkle, they would make it sparkle.
Albert calls together a team of the finest jewelers, geologists, and scientists in England. And he says “okay guys, what can we do to this thing to make it really shine?”
The diamond geeks take a look at the Koh-I-Noor. They analyze it. They study it. They photograph it. And they deliver their opinion to Prince Albert. The prognosis was not good.
The Koh-I-Noor, they said, would never be as brilliant as the Prince demanded it be. The problem, they explained, was a flaw at the very center of the gem. As Anita Anand writes: “Yellow flecks ran through a plane at its centre, one of which was large and marred its ability to refract light. It had to be cut if it was to glitter but the risk of destroying it in the process was high. At the very least, the diamond would lose a great deal of its mass if the flaws were to be dealt with.”
However, Prince Albert was not discouraged. He decided to get a second opinion. Eventually, he’s put in contact with a team of jewellers and diamond cutters from Amsterdam. And the Amsterdam guys say, “Oh yes, your majesty, we can most certainly cut the gem to make it glitter. Not only that, we can do it so that it loses barely any mass at all! You’ve come to the right place. We’ll perform miracles on the Mountain of Light.”
“Wonderful!” Says Albert. And the Dutch diamond-cutters get to work.
In September of 1852, Prince Albert got to see the fruits of their labor. After its facelift, historian Anita Anand writes that the Mountain of Light was: “unrecognizable. The cut had more than halved the Koh-I-Noor’s mass from 190.3 metric carats to 93 metric
carats. It now sparkled brilliantly, but could lie meekly in the palm of a hand.”
To make it fit British cultural standards, the Koh-I-Noor had to go under the grinder. The result was something that had arguably more superficial beauty, but had also been fundamentally, irrevocably diminished.
And what about the stone’s former owner, little Duleep Singh? As it turned out, the former Maharajah of Punjab had undergone a similar metamorphosis under the watchful eye of his British hosts.
After Duleep was separated from his mother without so much as a goodbye or a letter, the 10-year-old Maharaja was spirited out of Punjab to live in exile in Eastern India. There’s perhaps a temptation to assume that he was mistreated or handled cruelly, forced to live in some cupboard under the stairs like Harry Potter, but the one lucky break Duleep caught in the whole sad affair that had been his life so far, was that his guardians, a family called the Logans, were actually very kind to him. Before long, he thought of them as parents.
To Duleep, the first ten years of his life must have felt like some kind of distant dream. The palaces and feasts. The reverent talk of a legendary father he’d never met. A strong, imperious mother, who’d shielded and sheltered him. The haunting memory of an uncle, cut apart by swords in broad daylight. And the pale strangers who’d taken him far away from it all. Duleep always wondered what had happened to his mother. Maybe she’d been killed, maybe she ran away, but whatever happened to her, he came to terms with the fact that she was gone forever. He had a new family now. A new people. A new Queen.
Despite all the bad things that had happened to him, Duleep grew to become, as his guardians put it: “A very fine-tempered boy, intelligent, and handsome”. Sometimes he seemed quiet, or angry, or sad. But he was a kind, gentle-hearted kid. And when he was 14 years old, he asked, of his own volition supposedly, to convert to Christianity. His guardians were naturally thrilled, and when Duleep cut his long hair, his transformation from devout Sikh to loyal subject was complete. A year later, he was on a ship bound for England, to meet Queen Victoria herself.
Duleep quickly became a beloved addition to Queen Victoria’s court. As the monarch herself wrote:
He is extremely handsome and speaks English perfectly, and has a pretty, graceful and dignified manner. He was beautifully dressed and covered with diamonds… I always feel so much for these poor deposed Indian Princes….”
Duleep grew very close to Victoria’s family, particularly her children. Before long, the teenage Maharaja in exile was a lovable staple of court life. He lived his life as a blossoming English aristocrat. But as much genuine affection as Queen Victoria seemed to have for Duleep Singh, there was an unspoken rift between them. An elephant in the room.
She was the new owner of the Koh-I-Noor. The same diamond that had been wrapped around Duleep’s arm when he was a child, now hung around Victoria’s neck. It was a terrible, beautiful reminder of the life that had been stolen from him. It had belonged to his father, his family, his people. And now it was just one more piece of colonial loot in the British treasury.
Queen Victorian began to wonder, did Duleep himself feel like loot? Did he feel like a piece of treasure, plucked from his home and forced to play the part of a pet in her court? It seems that Queen Victoria felt a subconscious need to reconcile her affection for Duleep with what her Empire had done to his country. Anita Anand even goes so far as to say she was “wracked with guilt”. Whatever the depth of her misgivings about the stolen gem, she needed to know how he felt about it.
The truth was, as Duleep Singh got older, he thought about the Koh-I-Noor quite a bit. As his guardian described:
“There was no other subject that so filled the thoughts and conversation of the Maharajah, his relatives and dependents as the forsaken diamond. For the confiscation of the jewel which to the Oriental is the symbol of sovereignty in India, rankled in his mind even more than the loss of his kingdom, and I dreaded what sentiments he might give vent to were the subject once re-opened.”
When Duleep was asked whether he would like to see the stone again, he paused, and said:
“I would give a good deal to hold it again in my own hand. I was but a child, an infant, when forced to surrender it by treaty... now that I am a man, I should like to have it in my power to place it myself in Her Majesty’s hand.”
In a lot of the stories that we talk about on this show, events often come to a head with a big showstopper, like a battle, or a killing, or a coup. But I think it’s fitting and poignant in a way, that the story of the Koh-I-Noor has a more quiet climax. The Koh-I-Noor’s ultimate fate wasn’t sealed on a battlefield or in an uprising, it was decided in a quiet drawing room in Queen Victoria’s palace on July 10th, 1854.
Duleep was having his portrait painted. It was a special occasion, for posterity. He was decked out in finery and jewels, turban and shawl. He looked every inch the Maharaja that he was not. A pale. mocking reflection of the life he might have had. Shortly after the session had finished, Queen Victoria came to the room holding a small box.
She called to Duleep: “Maharajah, I have something to show you.” Ex-Maharaja, he might have mumbled, but he dutifully walked over to Victoria and she opened the box to reveal its luminous contents. The Koh-I-Noor. It was much smaller than he remembered, but more beautiful. It glittered in the lamplight.
With one motion, she handed him the diamond, and asked: “Do you recognize it?”
Duleep Singh looked at the Koh-I-Noor. As Anita Anand writes, “the very touch of it transported him”. A witness to the moment described Duleep as he held the diamond:
‘For all his air of polite interest and curiosity, there was a passion of repressed emotion in his face... evident, I think, to Her Majesty, who watched him with sympathy not unmixed with anxiety. At last, as if summoning up his resolution after a profound strength he raised his eyes from the jewel. I was prepared for almost anything,’ even to seeing him, in a sudden fit of madness fling the precious talisman out of the open window by which he stood. My own and the other spectators’ nerves were equally on edge – as he moved deliberately to where her Majesty was standing.’
Bowing before her, Duleep gently put the gem into Queen Victoria’s hand. ‘It is to me, Ma’am, the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject, of myself tendering to my Sovereign – the Koh-i-Noor.’
With that simple act, Duleep not only eased the British Queen’s guilty conscience, he also ensured that the Koh-I-Noor would never see Punjab, or India, ever again.
Whatever attachments he had to the diamond, whatever embers of sentimentality it sparked in him, he had willingly gifted it to the Queen of England. From that moment on, the issue was closed. The diamond was the property of the British Crown.
But as historian Shashi Thraroor points out in his book, Inglorious Empire:
If you hold a gun to my head, I might ‘gift’ you my wallet—but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it back when your gun has been put away.
In the years that followed, Duleep came to regret that exchange. As he got older, he started thinking more and more about home. His real home. India. He grew resentful, and angry. How could he have done that, he self-interrogated? How could he have just meekly handed his family’s ancestral gem back to the woman whose armies had invaded and destroyed his homeland? What did she think he was, some kind of pet? A living breathing souvenir that she could flaunt around like the diamond her countrymen had stolen from his family?
As Duleep thought more and more of home, his thoughts turned to his mother. The mighty Maharani, Jindan Kaur.
About a decade earlier, shortly after Duleep had been deposed by the East India Company, his mother had escaped the squalid prison the British had thrown her in. Somehow, she had disguised herself as a servant woman, and slipped out into the night. For days and days, she walked alone through hostile territory, under constant threat of robbery, rape, or capture by the British.
But hate and anger sustained her, motivated her, kept her going until she made it all the way to the Nepalese border. Once she crossed that imaginary line, she would be safe from the British agents who wanted to cage her like an animal.
The journey destroyed her health. She was barely alive by the time she flung herself before the Nepalese King and begged for sanctuary. The King of Nepal agreed to take her in, on one condition, she could never leave. She could never go home to Punjab, where she might cause trouble and foment revolution against the British East India Company. Which in turn would cause trouble for Nepal.
Even in a sickly, withered, emaciated state, everyone knew Jindan Kaur was the most politically dangerous woman in India. But she was at the end of her rope, out of options, and she knew it. So, she accepted the deal to stay in Nepal for the rest of her life. And for the next decade, she and her son both lived in exile, on opposite sides of the world.
But then, in 1860, she received a letter. It was from her Duleep. Her beautiful boy. Not only was he alive and well, he was a young man now. An aristocrat living halfway across the world in England. In the very heart of enemy territory. And most shocking of all, he was coming to see her.
Duleep had begged the British Crown to let him reestablish contact with his mother. By this time, there was very little real danger of the two creating problems back in their Sikh homeland, so the Brits agreed to let Duleep go to India and bring his mother back to England to live out her days in comfort. It was the least they could do.
On January 16th, 1861, 23-year-old Duleep Singh stepped into a Calcutta hotel room and set eyes on his mother for the first time since he had been a 10-year-old boy. The years had not been kind to the former Queen. She was skin-and-bones, blind in both eyes, and looked much older than the 44-year-old woman she was supposed to be.
As Anita Anand writes:
According to Punjabi folklore, when the rani was brought in to see him, she said not a word but instead ran her hands all over her son’s face and body. The last time they had been together, he had been her glittering boy. Now blind, she relied on her fingertips to reveal who her son had become and as she reached up to touch his face, they told her Duleep was a man. It was only when Jindan stroked the hair on Duleep’s head that she let out the howl of grief and rage she had suppressed for so long. Jindan railed at her son. Though she had known they had taken away his kingdom and his Koh-i-Noor, never could she have dreamed he would let them take his religion too. When Jindan finally calmed herself, she declared to Duleep’s British escort that she would never again be parted from her son.
After their long-awaited reunion, Jindan Kaur only lived another two years. She passed away in her home in London at the age of 46, living in the very heart of the Empire that had done so much to take her own away.
As for Duleep Singh, son of the great Ranjit Singh, Lion of Punjab and Emperor of the Sikhs, he spent the next several decades vainly petitioning to wrangle back control of the Koh-I-Noor and his estates in the Punjab. But the effort destroyed his position at court, drained his finances and wrecked his health. The last Maharajah of Punjab died impoverished and alone in a Paris hotel room thirty years later, on October 21st, 1893.
And the diamond, the Koh-I-Noor, well that glittered above the foreheads of British royalty in a variety of crowns and tiaras well into the next century, until Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in June of 1953. The current Queen of England has thus far never worn the Koh-I-Noor Diamond. And it seems unlikely she ever will.
Today, the Koh-I-Noor sits in a pristine display case along with the other Crown Jewels, posing for tourists in a state of historical paralysis.
Over time, the diamond has evolved into a powerful, visceral reminder of the colonial rapacity perpetrated by the British in India. How in many ways, the British Empire was built on the relentless greed of the East India Company, who rather than reinvesting the wealth they stole back into the areas they conquered, just shipped it back to England. To fill the coffers of their own people.
And what happened to Ranjit Singh’s Empire followed a familiar pattern, a playbook that the East India Company used constantly throughout their two centuries in India. As one official named John Sullivan wrote, in each of these kingdoms, the same cycle occurred:
‘The little court disappears—trade languishes—the capital decays—the people are impoverished—the Englishman flourishes, and acts like a sponge, drawing up riches from the banks of the Ganges, and squeezing them down upon the banks of the Thames.
There’s no doubt that the way the British acquired the diamond was predatory and reprehensible, but the burning question remains…who does the diamond really belong to?
Over the course of this episode, we’ve charted its history over 400 years, from Shah Jahan to Queen Elizabeth; and the truth is, that history is still fresh in the minds of many people living in the nations the diamond once called home. And because the stone has changed hands so many times, often by violent means, it’s almost impossible for anyone to agree on who its rightful owner is. As Shashi Tharoor writes:
While Indians consider their claim self-evident—the diamond, after all, has spent most of its existence on or under Indian soil—others have also asserted their claims. The Iranians say Nadir Shah stole it fair and square; the Afghans that they held it until being forced to surrender it to the Sikhs. The latest entrant into the Kohinoor sweepstakes is Pakistan, on the somewhat flimsy grounds that the capital of the Sikh empire, the undisputed last pre-British owners, was in Lahore, now in Pakistan. (The fact that hardly any Sikhs are left in Pakistan after decades of ethnic cleansing of minorities there tends to be glossed over in asserting this claim.)
Complexity aside, Tharoor certainly has his own pointed opinion on the diamond:
Still, flaunting the Kohinoor on the Queen Mother’s crown in the Tower of London is a powerful reminder of the injustices perpetrated by the former imperial power. Until it is returned—at least as a symbolic gesture of expiation—it will remain evidence of the loot, plunder and misappropriation that colonialism was really all about. Perhaps that is the best argument for leaving the Kohinoor where it emphatically does not belong—in British hands.
To people who agree with Tharoor, it’s clear who shouldn’t have the diamond. But at this point who should be its caretaker? What do you do with an object loaded with that much historical baggage?
Many of the political entities that once had control of the diamond do not exist anymore. The Mughal Empire does not exist anymore. The Sikh Empire does not exist anymore. Hell, even the British East India Company does not exist anymore.
A few solutions have been proposed, although none of them seem particularly satisfying. Some have suggested creating a museum along a shared border between India and Pakistan, although the prickly relationship between those two nations makes that a non-starter. Others have suggested cutting the stone up King Solomon style and giving every nation with a reasonable claim a piece.
But odds are, the Koh-I-Noor is not leaving the Tower of London anytime soon. The truth is, the British are in possession of many treasures and antiquities stolen from foreign lands during the dark days of the British East India Company. Former Prime Minister David Cameron summed up the British government’s position in 2010 when he gave the evasive answer:
‘If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. ‘I am afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put.’
The Koh-I-Noor quandary is part of a larger discussion around returning treasures or artifacts to their pre-colonial owners. And recently nations like France and Germany have begun toying with the idea of returning stolen treasures to their former colonial possessions in Africa.
It’s a fascinating debate, one that likely has to be examined on a case-by-case basis. And as with all topics on this show, there are no easy answers.
That said, I’d love to know what you think about the fate of the Koh-I-Noor. Should it go home? Where even is its true home? Who does it belong to. If you’d like to weigh in follow the show of Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. I always love hearing from you guys, especially your thoughts on the complex subjects we tackle.
As always, this has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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