Diamonds and dust: Excerpt from a new book on the Koh-i-noor
This excerpt from a book by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand recreates the last time Duleep Singh, who was compelled to give up the diamond as a 10-year-old, held the Koh-i-noor in his handbooks Updated: Dec 10, 2016 08:36 IST
From the moment he set foot in her court, Duleep became Victoria’s favourite. Her praise for him was frequent and full:
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...
In the bustling life of the English court, the maharaja enjoyed the status of a senior aristocrat. Behind the closed doors of the palace, he soon became a member of Victoria’s family. Though Dalhousie and others counselled the queen against showing him too much favour, she ignored them, showering the maharaja with lavish presents of jewellery, cameos of herself and even a thoroughbred horse. The two spent hours sketching each other at Osborne House and Buckingham Palace, and Victoria was deeply touched by the kindness Duleep showed her children, particularly her youngest son, Prince Leopold.
Leopold was a haemophiliac and frequently suffered from fits and poor health. Though his own brothers gave little concession to his frailty, Duleep would invariably scoop up the child and put him on his shoulders, ensuring he never felt left out of their games. Prince Albert also grew fond of the maharaja and designed a coat of arms for him to use in England. It comprised a lion standing beneath a coronet surmounted by a five-pointed star. Albert even chose the motto: Prodesse quam Conspici, meaning, ‘to do good rather than be conspicuous’. As one of the only brown faces at court, however, Duleep would only ever be conspicuous, and as time went by he grew to crave the attention.
On 10 July 1854, Duleep Singh was standing on a specially constructed stage set up in the White Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace, trying very hard not to move. Queen Victoria had asked the celebrated court painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter to capture Duleep’s likeness for her on canvas. She intended to display it at Osborne House, her Isle of Wight sanctuary. In silk pyjamas, a heavy gold-embroidered shirt and fine jewellery, Duleep looked every inch a king. On his feet he wore embroidered slippers which curled at the toes, and on his head he sported a turban dripping with emeralds. At his throat hung an ivory miniature of Victoria, set in diamonds, and another was pinned by his heart, out of sight. As Queen Victoria recorded in her journal: ‘Winterhalter was in ecstasies at the beauty and nobility of the young Maharajah.’
There was, however, one item conspicuously missing from all Duleep Singh’s finery: the amulet which had been strapped to his bicep as a child. The loss of the Koh-i-Noor had always hurt him deeply. It was also preying on Queen Victoria’s mind. While Winterhalter tinkered at his easel, Queen Victoria beckoned Lady Login to follow her into a corner of the drawing room; she wished to talk in private. Lena Login recorded the conversation in her diaries:
She had not yet worn it [the Koh-i-Noor] in public, and, as she herself remarked, had a delicacy about doing so in the Maharajah’s presence. ‘Tell me, Lady Login, does the Maharajah ever mention the Koh-i-Noor? Does he seem to regret it, and would he like to see it again?’
Victoria ordered Lady Login to find out before the next sitting, though Lena already knew how he felt:
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.
Despite her fears, Lady Login dutifully brought up the subject while out riding with Duleep in Richmond Park a few days later. How would he feel if he saw the Koh-i-Noor again?
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.
The next day, while Duleep posed for the German artist at the palace once more, a pantomime of sorts was enacted. Lena Login watched as an emissary from the Tower of London, escorted by yeoman warders, entered the drawing room. He carried a small casket in his hands, which the queen opened delicately. She showed the open box to Albert and together they walked over to where Duleep stood on the dais. Looking up at him, she called: ‘Maharajah, I have something to show you!’ Duleep Singh stepped down and moved towards her, not knowing what to expect. She took the jewel from its box and dropped it into his outstretched hand, asking him ‘if he thought it improved, and if he would have recognised it again?’
The maharaja walked towards the window and held the diamond to the sunlight. It was so much smaller than he remembered. It was the wrong shape. It felt so much lighter in his hand. However, it was still the Koh-i-Noor, and the very touch of it transported him: ‘For all his air of polite interest and curiosity,’ wrote Lena Login, ‘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.’
Time seemed to slow as the awkwardness in the room grew. ‘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,’ recalled Lena Login, ‘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.’ Th e maharaja had gifted the queen with something that no longer belonged to him. Neither Duleep nor any of his family would ever come so close to the diamond again.