January 27 2017
Authors revisit one of the bloodiest and still brightly burning controversies of Empire and throw new light on figures such as ‘Rani Jindan’ who almost stopped the Raj in its earliest tracks…
IT IS probably the most famous diamond in the world and India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and even the Taliban lay claim to it.
The history of the Kohinoor’s origins, its possession and plunder reads like a particularly gory episode of the global hit TV series, “Game of Thrones”.
Currently on display as part of a crown at the Tower of London, the jewel belongs to The Queen and was just one of the many extravagant spoils of Empire.
A new book by journalist and author Anita Anand and well known writer and popular historian William Dalrymple explores its tumultuous history and poses the question, who does the Kohinoor really belong to?
Anand’s and Dalrymple’s book, “Kohinoor” was released in December in India and it was the subject of one of the talks that attracted huge crowds at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF January 19-23).
Anand, who is based in the UK and a prominent broadcaster for BBC Radio 4, spoke to www.asianculturevulture.com at JLF about why she believed the Kohinoor still mattered and what prompted her to write this book with Dalrymple.
“Kohinoor” will only be available in Britain from June from Bloomsbury.
“All the countries that want it (and the one that has it too) are emotionally tied to it,” explained Anand last week after her talk at JLF.
“It is a massive open wound in the Indian psyche, but we are also taking the book to Lahore and it is an open taunting wound there as well.
“Many have asked for it back – many Sikhs would like to see it put in The Golden Temple (the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar). The Kohinoor is an incredibly controversial subject.”
The diamond is Indian in origin and first emerges officially in accounts of Shah Jahan (1592-1666), one of the first Mughal rulers, as part of his sumptuous Peacock Throne.
Each time, however, a marauding army defeated the Mughals and sacked its treasures, the Kohinoor was moved to the seat of the victor and therefore passed through Iran, Afghanistan and landed up in 19th century Lahore as the possession of Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), who founded the Sikh Empire.
His defeat and the the East India Company’s machinations around his sole surviving heir, Prince Duleep Singh – who was just seven when he assumed the crown – saw the diamond being ‘gifted’ to Queen Victoria and removed from India completely.
The Kohinoor most recently hit the headlines in April in India, when the country’s solicitor-general (Ranjit Kumar) issued a statement to an Indian court looking into the issue, saying the country no longer had an interest in the Kohinoor and that it was gifted by Indians to Queen Victoria and her representatives in India.
Anand scoffed: “There was uproar when he said that India wasn’t going to pursue its return – he had to retract the statement.”
“It was no gift. He said it was a gift from Ranjit Singh – that made me slightly apoplectic – was the solicitor general communicating with the ghost of Ranjit Singh?”
Her previous book, “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary” had seen her examine the life of Ranjit Singh’s granddaughter and Duleep Singh’s daughter.
Now her attention focused on Sophia’s father and his early life and allowed her to find out more about his mother, who was popularly known as Rani Jindan and more formally as Maharani Jind Kaur.
“I love her,” declared Anand. “She was a Pukka Punjabi Sherni (lioness) or in the words of today – a badass.”
Despite being of ‘low birth’ – she was the daughter of the King’s kennel keeper – she proved a match for the scheming officers of the East India Company.
“She came out of Purdah (confinement) and said my son is no one’s puppet and he will sit on my lap and I will look after his interests.”
However, the British, whose victory in the Anglo-Sikh Wars, had seen them establish themselves in the Punjab, were terrified that Duleep would become a figurehead of resistance and packed him off to Britain.
His mother was imprisoned and escaped – and was later (13 years) to be reunited with her son in London, and continued to urge him to fight but by that time, the British were firmly in control of India and the Kohinoor’s own fate had been sealed.
The East India Company had already sent the Kohinoor to be displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and boy and diamond were also briefly reunited. By now, however, the diamond had been recut and was worn as an armlet.
“There was a whole pantomime when Prince Duleep was having his portrait painted at Buckingham Palace and he gave it to Queen Victoria and gave her permission to wear it.
“She was not comfortable about how it had been taken and did not like the way a prince had been deposed.”
At the JLF talk, both authors joked about competing to outdo each other on the scale of gore in recounting what happened to the diamond’ captors. Some claim it is cursed and that men wear it at their peril. Both Anand and Dalrymple say the diamond was a symbol of power and sparked rivalries more familiar to us now in “Game of Thrones“.
Anand and Dalrymple had first come across the idea of a book when they had done a talk about the Kohinoor at JLF on the Southbank, London in May last year.
Joined by Maharajah Ranjit Singh expert and writer, Navtej Sarna, who later become India’s High Commissioner to the UK and now is India’s Ambassador in Washington, Anand and Dalrymple felt there was more to it than just a talk.
“We realised in the Green Room afterwards that none of us knew the other person’s bits,” she laughed. “It was like a brilliant light bulb had gone off between us – why don’t we put these bits together into a book?
“William knew the Persian sources because of his previous research and I had been looking at Duleep Singh for my previous book for five years.”
So, who does she think the Kohinoor really belongs to?
You might have to read the book…
Main picture: Anita Anand, Indian journalist and moderator Swapan Dasgupta and William Dalrymple at the Kohinoor talk at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2017
We will carry the UK link when the book is published in the UK (June 2017)
In India (click here for Amazon)
Previously from JLF 2015 (‘Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary’)