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India's Tragic Gem
By ZELIE McLEOD
India recently asked Britain to return the famous Koh-i-noor diamond to her.
Official request for the gem seems an odd one from a country on the verge of independence and preoccupied with internal strife. Perhaps it's not so odd though: Tradition says that whoever possesses Koh-i-noor will rule the world; but the possessor, if not a woman, will rule in insecurity and come ultimately to ruin.
Since Koh-i-noor came into British hands, when Queen Victoria's soldiers annexed the Punjab in 1849, it has adorned the crown of England's queens.
Koh-i-noor is the Methuselah of all known diamonds. Experts believe that it was picked up on the banks of Codavari River. Its re- corded history goes back to 1304, but Indian folklore claims that it was a royal treasure at least 50 centuries before that.
Koh-i-noor, which means Mountain of Light, is more famous for its great age and evil history than for its color or size. The following list shows that in weight it doesn't rank among the world's largest diamonds (it weights 106 1-16 carats), compared with the Cullinan diamund which weighs 3106 carats), and its color is slightly greyish.
Carats Cullinan. 3106
Vagas. 726 Jubilee. 650.8 Victoria. 469
Regent. 410 Star of the South .. 254.5
Orloff. 199.6 English Dresden .. .. 119.5
Nevertheless, in Koh-i-noor's early history rulers risked sudden death for the privilege of owning it; at least one man had his eyes put out rather than give it up to his enemies, and many others risked extreme tortures.
EDWIN STREETER, in his Great Diamonds of the
World, claims that the first auth- entic reference to the Koh-i-noor is made in the memoirs of Sultan Baber, founder of the Mogul Em- pire, who conquered India in the 16th century.
Sultan Baber's son, Humaiunt, found the diamond in the treasure house of Bikermajit, defeated Hindu Rajah of Gwalior.
Baber tells how the stone was once the property of Sultan Ala- ed-din, who ruled part of Hindus- tan from A.D. 1288 to 1321.
The stone came into Ala-ed- din's treasury in 1304, after he conquered the Rajah of Malwa, in whose family the gem had been an heirloom from "time out 'of mind."
Sultan Baber, delighted at get- ting his hands on the fabulous jewel, had it valued by the most famous judge of diamonds in In- dia who declared it to be so valu-
able that it was worth "half the daily expenditure of the whole world."
From then on the stone changed hands many times, but never for gold. In 1739, by a trick, it fell into the clutches of the Persian warlord Nadir Shah, who invaded India and defeated Mohammed Shah.
Nadir seized all the treasure in the Royal Palace at Delhi, but the great diamond he coveted was missing. In vain the Persian Prince hunted up and down the country
for the missing gem. The con- quered Mohammed Shah refused to disclose its hiding place.
One night a woman from Mo- hammed Shah's harem crept to Nadir's tent and told him that the diamond was hidden in the folds of Mohammed Shah's turban. Na- dir was jubilant.
He immediately organised a great durbar, to which he invited Mohammed Shah.
Then he skilfully made use of an ancient Indian custom rarely omit-
ted between princes of equal rank on State occasions-he asked Mo- hammed Shah to "exchange tur- bans" with him as a sign of friend ship and respect.
Mohammed, taken completely by surprise, had no alternative but to exchange his immaculate turban for the Persian's greasy sheepskin headdress.
When the British annexed the Punjab, they took over the
Treasury (including the dia- mond) in payment of a debt.
Immediately Nadir had the tur- ban in his hands, he ordered the festivities to cease, and rushed to his tent, where he ripped the tur- ban to pieces. The harem woman was right; the gem he coveted rolled out of the cloth on to the beaten earth floor of the tent.
When he saw the stone glinting
* A powerful prince, wanting to get hold of the gem, went
to war against the holder.
in the dim light, Nadir was so overcome that he fell on his knees, crying out "Koh-i-noor!" From then on the stone was known far and wide by that name.
However, the Koh-i-noor didn't bring Nadir any better luck than his predecessors had had. He was murdered.
The next owner of Koh-i-noor was Nadir's feeble-minded son, Shah Rokh, who inherited it on his father's death, along with the rest of the Royal treasure.
Immediately disaster overtook him. A powerful prince, Mir Allim Khan, who wanted to get his hands on the diamond, went to war against him. After a terrible battle Rokh was defeated.
But, although he had his eyes gouged out and boiling oil poured over his shaven head, and though he was beaten and starved almost to death, he refused to disclose where the gem was hidden.
With incredible courage and cun- ning Rakh kept the jewel in his possession until he died in 1751, when he bequeathed it to Ahmed Shah, founder of the Durani Af- ghan Empire.
The diamond again changed hands several times in quick suc- cession. Everyone who owned it found it brought violence and bloodshed with it.
In 1813 Ranjit-Singh, Lion of the Punjab, had the stone set in a magnificent bracelet, which he wore on all public occasions. He was a tyrannical, brutal ruler, and when he was dying his councillors advised him to appease the gods by presenting the diamond to the famous shrine of Jaganath (Jug- gernaut).
The dying king is said to have agreed to this by nodding his head. His councillors rushed-off to the Royal Treasury to get the stone from its vault, but the Crown jeweller, suspecting some skulldug- gery, refused to give the jewel up without a written order from the King.
But by the time the councillors got back to the King's apartment he was dead. History doesn't say what happened to the unfortunate jeweller.
* * *
"FROM then on the jewel re-
mained in the treasure chamber of the Royal Palace at Lahore until the British annexed the Punjab in 1849.
They took over the Lahore Trea- sury, the contents of which went to the East India Company in payment of a debt owed to it by the Lahore Government.
Almost immediately the Koh-i- noor was sent to England under heavy guard, and in 1850 it was presented to Queen Victoria. Prince Albert took a great interest in the stone, and personally super- vised its recutting by a Mr. Voor- sauger, employe of the famous Amsterdam firm of Costers.
Voorsauger came specially to London to cut the stone. On July 6. 1852, the Prince Consort put the
These diamonds, worth nearly £100,000, are tiny compared with
the world's biggest gems.
gem on the mill specially built for the job, and the Duke of Welling- ton started the machinery.
Before the stone was recut it weighed 185 1-16 carats and was valued at £140,000.
The cutting took 38 days of 12 working hours each, and cost £8000. In the process the gem lost 80 carats in weight.
When the job was finished Prince Albert publicly announced his dissatisfaction with the result. He claimed that the brilliant de- sign chosen by the Queen's ad- visers had caused a heavy loss in the stone's weight without achiev- ing any good results.
Ever since the Koh-i-noor came to Britain it has been owned and worn by women--never by men-- perhaps merely by coincidence, perhaps partly in deference to the old legend that only a woman can wear it with safety.
Now the Indian Government wants this stone of baleful history returned. Its members may not believe the old world-rule legend, but they may consider the Koh-i- noor a good moral tonic for Ihe Indian masses.