Inside India #8: The curse of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

Today, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, once the world’s most valuable jewel, sits in the Tower of London, embedded in the crown made for Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), enshrined in myth and legend, gawped at, each year, by hordes of tourists, and occasionally brought out for ceremonial purposes. 

Attribution: aiva CC 2.0

The notorious diamond was originally discovered on the subcontinent, possibly in the famed mines of Golconda, probably unearthed from a dry river bed. India, for centuries, was the only source of diamonds in the world, until the early 1700s when diamonds were discovered in Brazil. So popular were they that they soon became notable for their presence at court, a favourite of maharajas and emperors alike, used as currency, status symbol and occasional beard ornament. 

During the Mughal empire, diamonds reached a zenith of appreciation. The Mughals ruled northern India for three centuries from the early 1500s. It is during this period that the Koh-i-Noor first appears in the written record, when, in 1628, Emperor Shah Jahan – the visionary behind the Taj Mahal – commissioned the gemstone-encrusted Peacock Throne. (The Koh-i-Noor was set into the head of a peacock design on the throne.)

In 1739, Persian ruler Nader Shah invaded Delhi, sacking the city and making off with the throne, from which the Koh-i-Noor was later dug out. 

The great diamond then spent almost a century changing hands between various rulers, many of whom came to sticky ends, cementing the reputation of the Koh-i-Noor as a ‘cursed gem’ – a curse allegedly discovered in ancient Sanskrit documents, a dire warning that ill-fortune would befall any man that held on to the diamond.

The Koh-i-Noor eventually returned to India in 1813 where it came into the possession of Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. By this time, the power dynamics on the subcontinent had changed. The British East India Company had expanded its influence across the Indian interior, plundering booty along the way. Following Ranjit Singh’s death, the East India Company forced the 10-year-old regent Duleep Singh to sign a legal document (as part of the British annexation of the Punjab) requiring him to give away not only all claim to sovereignty but also the Koh-i-Noor. 

The great gem now became, officially, a possession of the British Empire, and the property of the Empress of India, Queen Victoria.It was displayed at the 1851 Great Exposition in London, and later recut and polished, reducing its size to its current weight of 105 carats, but giving it a greater brilliance. 

Since arriving in Britain, and possibly because of the legendary curse and the litany of woes that befell its previous owners, it has only been worn by female members of the royal family.

The diamond’s continued presence on British shores incites debate and questions around how the modern world deals with colonial looting. With the governments of India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan all claiming rightful ownership, the Koh-i-Noor remains hotly contested. For its part, the British government has rejected all such claims, insisting the diamond was obtained legally under the terms of the Last Treaty of Lahore. 

The Koh-i-Noor diamond features in the second book in the Baby Ganesh Agency series, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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