This month, we are marking the Bicentenary of the Birth of Queen Victoria by featuring her Top 20 Jewels, one for each decade since the Birth of 2nd-longest reigning British Monarch, in the 20 days leading up to the Anniversary itself, and today’s feature is the famous Koh-i-Noor Diamond-
One of the largest cut diamonds in the world, the Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light) weighs 105.6 carats, down from its original weight of 186 carats. Mined at the famous Kollur Mine in Golcanda, also the site of many famous diamonds, there is speculation that it might be the Syamantaka diamond mentioned in 5000-year old Sanskrit scriptures. However, the earliest recorded owner is famous 13th-century Sultan Alauddin Khalji of the Delhi Sultanate, probably captured during his invasion of Kingdoms in Southern India, around which time a curse was placed on the diamond: “He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.” After passing through the Delhi Sultanate, the Koh-i-Noor was given Emperor Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, after his conquest of Delhi and Agra during the Battle of Panipat in 1526, which marked the beginning of the Mughal Empire.
The Koh-i-Noor Diamond was passed from Emperor to Emperor, and was placed by Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, into his famous Peacock Throne, studded with quite a few famous jewels. After he was deposed and imprisoned by his son, Emperor Shah Jahan reportedly used the angle of the diamonds to view the Taj Mahal, which was the tomb of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, from his apartments in the Agra Fort.
The Diamond remained in the Peacock Throne until 1739, after the Mughal defeat at the Battle of Karnal led to the Sack of Delhi, when 30,000 people were killed and the then Mughal Emperor was forced to open his treasury for Emperor Nader Shah of Persia, who carried off the Throne and many famous stones, some still in the Treasury in the Central Bank of Iran, transporting his loot on 700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses, which marked the beginning of the decline of the Mughal Empire. His grandson gave the Koh-i-Noor Diamond to Ahmad Shah Durrani, former treasurer of Nader Shah, and the first King of Afghanistan, whose descendent, Shah Shujah Durrani, was recorded wearing it in a bracelet in Peshawar in 1808.
A few years later, Shah Shujah Durrani was deposed and fled to Lahore, where he was hosted by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire, who demanded the Koh-i-Noor Diamond in return for his hospitality in 1813. After his death in 1839, the Diamond was willed to the Hindu Jagannath Temple in Puri but was never carried out and after much upheaval, the Kingdom of Punjab was formally annexed by the East India Company in 1849, and Article III of the Treaty of Lahore reads:
The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-moolk by Maharajah Ranjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England”
The Koh-i-Noor had a fraught journey from the Punjab to England before being formally presented to Queen Victoria on the 3rd of July, 1850 by the deputy chairman of the East India Company, coinciding with the Company’s 250th anniversary. It was exhibited at the Great Exhibition the following year, but the asymmetrical diamond failed to please the crowds and led to its recutting to 105.6 carats under the supervision of Prince Albert and the Duke of Wellington. The Koh-i-Noor Diamond was worn by Queen Victoria as a Brooch, and even shown to Maharaja Duleep Singh, the previous owner, who had become a ward of the Queen. The Brooch was worn for a variety of official events and portraits, including those taken to mark her Golden Jubilee, but Queen Victoria felt differently about it, writing later:
No one feels more strongly than I do about India or how much I opposed our taking those countries and I think no more will be taken, for it is very wrong and no advantage to us. You know also how I dislike wearing the Koh-i-Noor”
After her death, Queen Victoria willed the Koh-i-Noor Diamond to the Crown Jewels with a stipulation that it should only be worn by a females, after reflecting on the misfortunes that had befallen the men and the Empires that had possessed the stone after the original curse. The Diamond was set into the Crown of Queen Alexandra, famously worn at her Coronation in 1902, and then the Crown of Queen Mary ahead of her Coronation in 1911, after which the larger stones were replaced with crystal replicas, though Queen Mary continued to wear her Crown without its arches for Portraits and the Coronation of King George VI in 1937.
The Koh-i-Noor Diamond was set into the new Crown commissioned for Queen Elizabeth in 1937, which she wore at her Coronation and later, without the arches, in Paris in 1938, at her daughter’s Coronation in 1953, and for a French State Visit in 1960, which was the last time it was publicly worn.
The Koh-i-Noor Diamond and Queen Elizabeth’s Crown were last publicly seen atop her coffin at her funeral in 2002, and it remains to be seen if Queen Camilla or Queen will use the same Crown at their Coronations. The Diamond has been a source of controversy, as the people and governments of India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan have all made claims for its return, which have been denied by the British government, who view the Treaty of Lahore as legally binding. Currently, the Koh-i-Noor Diamond is on public display, with the rest of the Crown Jewels, in the Jewel House at the Tower of London, and is seen by millions of visitors annually.