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The Bloodstained History of the Koh-i-Noor

Updated on June 15, 2017

Once the largest diamond in the world (before the Cullinan was found), Koh-i-Noor (Kohinoor) is perhaps the diamond with the longest history - and a bloody one at that. The origin of the diamond is obscured in the mist of history, but it is generally believed that it was found in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern India. Since its discovery, the diamond passed from one Indian royal dynasty to another - often seized as a spoil of war - until it was seized by the then India's British rulers in 1850.

Koh-i-Noor means "Mountain of Light" in Persian. It was originally 793 carats in its uncut state, but it was cut several times and is now a 105.6 metric carat diamond with a weight of 21.5 grams. The diamond is currently set in the crown of Queen Elizabeth II and is on display at the Tower of London.

According to Indian folklore, the Koh-i-Noor was discovered in a diamond mine in near a town called Kollur in Andhra Pradesh, southern India about a thousand years ago. Nobody knows how it was taken to north India, but the first time it was mentioned was in 1294, when Ala-ud-din Khilji, the ruler of the Khilji dynasty (a north Indian dynasty of Turkic origin), seized it from an unnamed Afghan emperor. In the following centuries, it was seized by the Tughlaq dynasty (a north Indian Muslim dynasty of Turkic origin) and then by Lodi dynasty (a north Indian Muslim dynasty of Afghan origin).

In 1526, the Koh-i-Noor (Kohinoor) was seized by Babur (b. 1483, d. 1530), a descendant of Genghis Khan, who conquered north India from his base in Afghanistan and established the Mugal (Mongol) dynasty, the most powerful and the longest ruling dynasty in India's bloodstained royal history. He defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the last ruler of the Lodi dynasty, in the famous Battle of Panipat, in which the Lodi emperor perished along with his 20,000 men in a single day.

Babur, the First Mughal Emperor

After capturing the diamond (along with Lodi's vast empire), Babur renamed it after himself, "The Diamond of Babur". Until that time, the diamond had been called by several other names. Babur's son Humayun (b. 1508, d. 1556) lost his throne at a young age and had to live a nomadic life for several years until he reconquered it with Persian aid. Humayun's son Akbar (b. 1542, d. 1605), perhaps the greatest emperor India has ever known, never touched the diamond, possibly because his father was beset by so much bad luck in his young age.

Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal

Akbar's son Shah Jahan (b. 1592, d. 1666), the emperor who is famous for building the Taj Mahal, took the Koh-i-Noor out from the imperial treasury, where it has been lying unused for many years, and placed it on his ornate Peacock Throne. Shah Jahan was later overthrown and imprisoned by his own son, Aurangzeb (b. 1618, d. 1707) who added much of south India to the Mugal empire. The emperor ordered a Venetian lapidary named Hortenso Borgia, to reshape it. Borgia did such a such a clumsy job that he reduced the stone to 186 carats.

The Peacock Throne

Aurangazeb later transferred the diamond along with the Peacock Throne to his new capital, Lahore, and placed it in his personal imperial mosque. It remained there until 1739, when Nadir Shah (b. 1688, d. 1747), the Shah of Iran invaded India and seized it from Muhammad Shah, the last Mogul emperor to have effective control over his empire. Nadir Shah took the looted diamond, along with the Peacock Throne, back to Iran. It was he who is credited with giving the diamond its present name by exclaiming "Koh-i-Noor!" (the Mountain of Light) when he first saw it.

Nadir Shah, Emperor of Iran

After Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1747 and his Persian empire fell apart, the diamond passed into the hand of his Afghan general Ahmed Shah Durrani (b. 1722, d. 1772), who took it to Afghanistan. Durrani later founded the Durrani Empire and is regarded as the founder of modern Afghanistan. When one of Ahmed's grandsons, Shujah Shah Durrani, was deposed in an internecine power struggle by one of his brothers in 1830, he fled with the diamond to Lahore, where he surrendered it to Maharajah Ranjit Singh (b. 1780, d. 1839), the ruler of Panjab and the founder of the Sikh Empire.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh of Punjab

In return for the diamond, Ranjit Singh won back the Afghan throne for Shah Shujah. After Ranjit Singh's death, his empire began to fall apart under the inept leadership of his sons. After the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845, the British East India Company brought the weakened Sikh empire under its control. In 1849, after the Second Anglo-Sikh War, it was formally annexed by British India. One of the terms of surrender was that the diamond be surrendered to the Queen of England.

Maharajah Duleep Singh who presented the diamond to Queen Victoria

The Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie, arranged Dulip Singh, the young successor of Ranjit Singh, to present the Koh-i-Noor (Kohinoor) personally to Queen Victoria. In 1850, Dulip Singh, then 13, travelled to England and presented it to Queen Victoria on 3 July 1850. The Koh-in-Noor has remained in possession of the British Crown since then. But there is little doubt that in the centuries to come, when new empires rise and old empires fall, the diamond will change hands many more times.


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