Rushing in to the Crossword bookstore straight from the Jaipur Literature Festival, William Dalrymple and Anita Anand waste no time in starting to talk about glittery things and their dark histories.
In their book, Koh-i-noor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, the authors tackle a subject that Dalrymple says “everyone thought they knew”, revealing that we’ve known almost nothing of its troubled history.
You may have read about how it was discovered in a Golconda mine, was part of a temple, was gouged out and passed on from Khilji to Lodi, Tughlaq and Babur. That’s just so much urban legend, Dalrymple suggested on Tuesday.
Most Deccan diamonds weren’t even mined; they were found on riverbeds; and much of what we’ve considered history is what Dalrymple referred to as “bazaar gossip” and speculation.
The truth is more colourful and more bloody than a season of Game of Thrones.
“It’s a hard substance to analyse or date,” Dalrymple admits. But the earliest mention of the Kohinoor is in a Persian source from 1750, describing Mughal emperor Shah Jehan’s Peacock Throne.
The unnatural octahedral wasn’t among the world’s 10 biggest diamonds even then. Our fascination with “the rockstar of diamonds” comes largely from the fact that it ultimately went to Queen Victoria.
The authors have drawn on previously untranslated texts in Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu to map the history of the stone.
“It’s brought violence to dynasty after dynasty,” says Anand.
Kings were poisoned. Princes had their heads bashed in. Exiled queens were betrayed. Some had molten lead poured over their heads. Wars broke out.
On the Peacock Throne, it fascinated foreigners. As kings rose and fell, the gem ended up as capital for Ahmed Shah Abdali to create what is now Afghanistan. It went eventually to Lahore’s Ranjit Singh, whose grandson Duleep became a favourite of Queen Victoria. She became the last monarch to ever wear it, albeit cut down to half, and reshaped to glitter like the European gems.
“It was fascinating to hear about the original blood diamond,” says Pallavi Chandra, a travel entrepreneur and history buff who attended the launch.
Dalrymple reckons the Kohinoor now ranks 90 among the world’s top gems. But India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are all vying to claim it.
“Of course, it’s India’s,” argues Praveen Choksey, a jeweller who attended the talk. “It didn’t even occur to me that the crown jewel is not in our uncut style. But it represents India and the looting of the whole nation. And it should be returned.”
The authors preferred not to take a stand on its ownership, preferring to focus on what happened then, instead of what happens next.